“I’d hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the color of their skin.” R.F. Kuang, the award-winning, bestselling author of Babel and the Poppy War series, fans the discourse on diversity, racism and the “right” to tell certain stories with her novel Yellowface, a thought-provoking first-person narrative of a plagiarist.
June Hayward is a struggling 27-year-old straight white author, and as the novel begins, she’s getting drinks with Athena Liu, her Asian American friend whom she’s known since college, to celebrate yet another of Athena’s huge literary successes. However, when the picture-perfect Athena ends up dead, envious June makes a decision that leads her to stardom—and damnation. June edits her dead friend’s manuscript, a cultural saga set in China, and presents it as her own work under a pseudonym that uses her middle name, Song, as her surname.
Despite a few readers’ protestations of possible cultural appropriation, the book is a huge success, and June Song embraces her soaring status in the publishing world. But the questions around June’s authenticity and ethnicity keep getting louder, as more and more anonymous social media accounts wonder if June has the right to pen a story about Chinese culture. June’s followers revolt, and her star plummets.
Kuang hooks readers from the first chapter with June’s preoccupation with Athena and the life-altering choice to steal her frenemy’s manuscript. June’s theft makes her an immediate antagonist, and her delusional entitlement makes her a compelling unreliable narrator. But exactly how unreliable is June? Kuang casts a light on this question with her adroit representation of June’s disloyal social media following, which lurches from commendation to castigation, and of a publishing world committed only to financial success.
“I know what you’re thinking. Thief. Plagiarizer. And perhaps, because all bad things must be racially motivated, Racist. Hear me out. It’s not so awful as it sounds,” June assures the reader. Poignant and provocative, Yellowface is an in-your-face satirical novel with layered commentary on discrimination, social media and creative freedom. Kuang allows for numerous sides of our society’s heated conversations about cultural (mis)appropriation and censorship, and examines how judgment is so often clouded by perception rather than shaped by truths. This is a riveting read for fans of Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, Year of the Tiger by Alice Wong and George Orwell’s 1984.