The cover art for Yellowface.

R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface is a brilliantly unhinged modern satire

By Sahej Grover

Yellowface sharply reimagines archaic racial politics under the professional sheen of the publishing industry

Yellowface. A word that has near-centuries of stories attached to it. A caricature once attached to the 20th-century Hollywood industry, where white actors would portray East Asian characters through harmful stereotypes (famously, Anna May Wong was a victim of this). In R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface, this horrendous fraud is shown in a modern, professional light: in the world of the publishing industry.

Yellowface – written entirely from the first-person perspective of Juniper “June” Hayward, publishing as Juniper Song to become ethnically ambiguous – is an unhinged novel about thieving an unfinished manuscript from her recently dead Asian author friend, Athena Liu. She finishes the manuscript, publishes it, and then makes sure that everyone who can listen to her knows she is the only one who wrote it. Throughout the entire book, she faces accusations of theft and plagiarism with the accusations that she is profiting off of a dead Asian woman. Kuang develops a satirical commentary on the exploitation of minority voices, and the mental complex white authors develop in return. June throughout the book resents Athena for her success, and only remains friends with her to use her for her money, thinking she is owed at least that much.

What really stands out is the fact that June feels absolutely no guilt for stealing. She, in fact, justifies her thievery by stating she made the book better than Athena could have: “I keep finding turns of phrases that suit the text far better than Athena’s throwaway descriptions.” Kuang is brilliant in showing the lack of nuance June holds, as she describes critical points in the book Athena wrote as “inaccessible”. She goes on to say: “The original draft made you feel dumb, alienated at times, and frustrated with the self-righteousness of it all.” The line is supposed to irk the reader, for it shows that June really does not care about the work that Athena had researched, which in this case was the history of Chinese Labourers in France during the First World War. Frankly, June stinks of white privilege; she shows no remorse for stealing the manuscript and even goes further to steal another idea by Athena later on in the book.

When, I would say fairly, June is asked by an audience about the optics of writing about Chinese history by a white author, she replies with this: “I think it’s dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write… I’d hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the colour of their skin. I mean, turn what you’re saying around and see how it sounds. Can a Black writer not write a novel with a white protagonist?’’ This satire presents a cutting portrait of whiteness, damaging in its rhetoric and blissfully unaware of its effects on an entire community.

Having only read Babel by Kuang, a historical fantasy, it is refreshing to see her foray into the contemporary literary world. She brilliantly captures what the publishing industry has become and the social media vitriol that comes attached. There are disturbing scenes when social media seems to turn against June and the only respite she has during this is that at least the right-wing media is supporting her. Kuang is brilliant for writing such a complex novel, concluded so satisfyingly. It’s definitely worth a read for those looking for something new.


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