Yellowface: Book Review

Athena Liu is a literary darling and June Hayward is literally nobody.

White lies
When Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her unpublished manuscript and publishes it as her own under the ambiguous name Juniper Song.

Dark humour
But as evidence threatens June’s stolen success, she will discover exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

Deadly consequences…
What happens next is entirely everyone else’s fault.

Star Rating: 5/5

Right off the bat, I’d like to admit that this is the first book by RF Kuang that I read. I ordered Babel in February but it has not arrived yet. So I started with this one with some apprehensions. The books I read recently failed to impress me. Reading becomes a chore when you’re not enjoying it. It makes me question whether I’ve outgrown YA fantasy novels or were they just repetitive.

Anyways, coming to the story, it was addictive and riveting. I couldn’t put it down. It was a breezy read which you can read in one sitting. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this. When I began the first chapter, I was totally engrossed from page one. RF Kuang begins her tale so naturally that you get immersed in her story. Every word and every sentence is so perfect and coherent that it feels like reading the perfect prose. No unnecessary words or sentences and no ramblings that feel out of context. I never once felt like skimming to the end of the paragraph. I’m in love with her writing. Truly. She has made it as one of my favourite authors with just one novel. I’m putting her in my auto-buy authors list.

Yellowface refers to the practice of using makeup to imitate the appearance of an East Asian person. This practice is offensive. That’s what the book is about. June Hayward, a white woman, steals the work of her friend, Athena Liu, a Chinese immigrant, after she dies in a choking accident. It is reflective of the fragility of life. A successful author who had it all dies suddenly in a freak accident like this. It is almost comical in a cruel way.

The book strives to expose the harsh reality of the publishing world but it does so more than that. It explores the topics of racism, plagiarism, cultural appropriation, cyber bullying, the loneliness associated with being a writer and the struggles that come with success.

Books become bestsellers even before they’re released. A bestseller is chosen not found. We see this happening all the time. June’s first book flopped because no one wants to hear the story of a basic white girl. According to June, it is easy to become a bestselling author when you’re a minority author and you’re pretty because readers want a diverse voice. This is why June has been jealous of Athena. She is a good writer but June feels she’s successful because of her ethnicity. While it may be the partial truth, there’s a darker reality behind it. The publishing industry makes a profit from putting minority authors in the spotlight. It is just a business.

June feels she is justified in taking Athena’s book and publishing it as her own. The story deserves to be shared since it tells of a history that has never been told before. An unfinished manuscript will do no good. She rewrites the novel, makes some revisions and gives it an ending. Of course it is predestined to be a bestseller. The topic of plagiarism is questioned. Is there any plagiarism that is ethical? This is brought forward by Athena taking people’s experiences and dialogues and writing it down in her books. Everyone steals in some way or the other.

June is rebranded as Juniper Song and her photo is tanned to make her culturally ambiguous. Song is the middle name her mother gave her when she was born. It is suggested by her publishing house because people don’t want to read a story about Chinese history written by a white woman.

June tries very hard to convey that she is not a racist. But her thoughts, actions and words prove otherwise. The fact that she hates the smell of Chinese food, her descriptions of the physicality of Asian people, her surprise at them speaking good English and dismissing Chinese and Korean as the same proves her racism. She tries too hard by promoting Asian American writer but it comes off as a farce. At one point she proves she cannot differentiate between Asian faces and it’s disturbing because she it’s her own friend. Not only her, but all the characters are racist in their own ways trying to fake their knowledge and wokeness. Everything is a sham because you have to be ‘woke’ to stay relevant.

Her book is a blockbuster. After that, everything goes south. There are trolls who call her out for being a white woman. This poses a question of cultural appropriation. Can a white woman write about a history that doesn’t belong to her? June changes a few scenes from Athena’s book and in some instances shows the kindness of the colonisers, the helpfulness of the missionaries, and these choices are questioned. After all, not all white people are bad right? Some of the converts by the missionaries were true converts, she says.

June at one points thinks that Athena has no more right to tell the story than she has. After all, Athena has lived in the States, led a wealthy, privileged life and never had to face the same struggles as her ancestors did. She meets an old Chinese man whose grandfather fought in the First World War and he thanks her for sharing that history with the world. June is moved to tears and tells him she wasn’t the right person to tell the story. It wasn’t her story, her passion. I fully believe that people are free to write whatever they want. However, it raises a question if they can write it genuinely. One can learn the history from books, find discourses from interviews, but can they really connect with the experiences and traumas if they have no shared history?

June is bullied, trolled and threatened on social media. I wasn’t particularly fond of her character but nevertheless scared for her even though she was in the wrong. She loses all sense of reality, and finds herself in the trapped in the world of Twitter. Her fear of being exposed and her guilt effects her mentally.

After being put in the spotlight, she often finds herself in Athena’s shoes and realises that Athena wasn’t always the snooty and over dramatic person she thought she was. Writing is a solitary endeavour but it is often a lonely one. June has no one to share her success and worries with. Only person would’ve understood it all and now she’s dead.

June forgets about writing her second book while she’s basking in the success of her first book. When the glory fizzles out, she realised she’s stuck in Athena’s shadow. She makes some really stupid choices and a hilarious climax ensues. After everything breaks down, she decides to write a semi-autographical novel about the whole incident. Of course public opinion can be swayed with her version of the story. After all, social media is fickle, and all publicity is good publicity.

This book may not be for everyone. For the fans of RF Kuang, it will be a very different story because she’s only written fantasy till now. It is a story of a literary heist that is a hilarious satire on the publishing industry. I adored this novel. Can’t wait to buy a hard copy of this when it releases in India!

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