“I need to write the next best thing. And then another. Otherwise the sales will whittle down, and people will stop reading my work, and everyone will forget about me…And then when I die, I won’t have left any mark on teh world. It’ll be like I was never here at all,” (Kuang 259).
June Hayward had high hopes when her novel Over the Sycamore was published. She thought her debut, coming-of-age, magical realist slightly biographical novel would fill the hearts of her readers and shoot her into literary stardom, but she didn’t even get a paperback release. No, success was reserved for her friend (if you could call her that) Athena Liu who became a cross-genre literary darling after they both graduated Yale. June knows the world doesn’t want more stories by white women. But when June witnesses Athena die in a freak accident, she takes Athena’s just finished manuscript and later edits it, passing it off to her agent as her own. Suddenly June becomes Juniper Song, complete with ambiguously ethnic author photos and literary stardom at her feet. But some readers are suspicious of the book and threaten to take her (stolen) success away from her. What is June willing to do to stay on top?
In her acknowledgements, Kuang describes Yellowface as “a horror story about loneliness” (321). While this is true in a darkly comic way, Yellowface succeeds more as a satire than as a horror novel. Satire isn’t the easiest thing to write, but Kuang does it expertly using her book to critique the publishing industry, booktwitter, Cancel Culture, the privilege of white authors and tokenism of people of colour in a way that feels natural. Yellowface could easily just be a literary or contemporary novel, but as a satire it succeeds on a whole other level.
Yellowface is a complicated book filled with a lot of points for discussion. There’s the obvious one about which authors are allowed to write what types of stories, a la American Dirt. In Yellowface, readers follow June who is a white woman who literally steals Athena’s, an Asian woman’s, words through Athena’s novel about Chinese labourers in WWI as her own while the Yellowface itself is written by an Asian woman under a white woman’s perspective. But there’s also a metaness to the book. While I haven’t read any of Kuang’s books before Yellowface, Athena seems to share more than a few things with Kuang herself so it’s interesting that she seemingly kills this archetype of herself in this novel. What does it mean to kill yourself fictionally and have a fictional white author friend steal your words? Is it the death of the artist? A critique of some of her (white) criticizers? I don’t know enough about Kuang or her other novels to analyze this more, but it certainly adds another layer to the story.
My favourite thing Kuang explores is the debate about theft in publishing. June physically steals Athena’s finished manuscript The Last Front but severely edits it so that many of her own words and additions appear in the final published book. But Athena is also revealed to have stolen to come up with stories, but it’s a trickier type of thievery. When June recounts an experience of sexual assault to Athena, it’s later put into a short story that’s published in a renowned literary magazine. Athena’s ex-boyfriend later reveals a similar thing that happened to him, that when the couple argued he could see her planning scenes for her next work. This echoes Kristen Roupenian’s viral hit “Cat Person” which was later revealed to use details from a real person’s experience, and it isn’t the first time to happen. The town of Orillia, Ontario was apparently furious when author Stephen Leacock used many of the townspeople’s likenesses and lives into his book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, until the book became a hit and the townspeople were proud to out themselves in Leacock’s book. Alice Munro was met with similar disdain when she used a real child’s death as inspiration for her short story “The Time of Death.” In a Tweet I read long ago and am having trouble finding (bad research, sorry, MAKE IT EASIER TO FIND TWEETS INTERNET), an author once admitted that no one around them is safe because they collect what is said and done around them for stories.
So what is stealing when it comes to writing? June’s is obvious, textbook plagiarism. While she may have edited and added to Athena’s novel, it wasn’t hers to begin with, Athena’s words are literally still present in the final draft. The Last Front still belongs to Athena Lui and partially to Jun. But Athena’s theft isn’t so obvious. It isn’t something that could be brought to court, isn’t something she could even be “cancelled” over and is more of a moral and ethical issue than downright stealing. But theft is there. Athena stole June’s story of abuse and gave it her own words and published it for the masses to read, not claiming the experience as her own but capitalized on someone else’s trauma that was told to them in privacy.
Obviously there were many things I liked about Yellowface, from it’s excellent use of satire to raising complicated issues about storytelling without it feeling preachy. June is an unlikable protagonist that can’t help but get under readers skins and Kuang did an excellent job making her sound earnest, ignorant, and grating. I hate June, but like a car accident I had to see the oncoming implosion. It’s wonderfully meta, but sometimes it’s metaness is what makes it weak. In the last third of the book June talks about how she’s going to write a book about why she did what she did and come clean (basically, the book we’re reading) and then later talks about her struggles to come up with a way to end it, and it truly did feel like that, but that isn’t a good thing. The last few chapters were a drag to get through and the ending, while unsurprising, felt weak. I’m conflicted about how to rate this book. I enjoyed reading it, but after all the accolades I’ve heard about Kuang and especially Babel, I expected a little more sparkle. The book is exactly as advertised, though more nuanced than I think some reviewers are giving it credit it for.
Yellowface is an excellent example of satire and offers a great discussion and critique on a variety of topics. I’m excited to read more of Kuang’s books because she’s an incredibly talented and clever writer. I just don’t know how to rate this.
Publication: May 16 2023
Publisher: The Borough Press
Pages: 350 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction, Satire, Contemporary
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤.5/⛤ (can’t decide)
Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.
So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.
So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song–complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.
But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.