Published by Harper Collins on June 7, 2023
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction
Amazon | Publisher | Angus & Robertson | Booktopia
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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.
With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang's novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.
It’s been a long time since a book has compelled me to read it as fast as possible, but Yellowface was one that I found absolutely bingeworthy.
Yellowface is set in a part of the bookish community that I was intimately a part of and witnessed firsthand – the author Twitter takedowns of 2018-2019. Seeing authors cancelled left right and centre, pushed out of the industry, reputations crushed and apologies issued – it was a time that was rife with drama, and caused a lot of stress and tension within the book and publishing community.
Who knew it would make such excellent reading material?
An author cancelled by the bookish community
Bold, defiant and inherently cocky, Yellowface tackles first-hand what it feels like to be an author cancelled by the book community. It’s tongue-in-cheek, self-deserving but also hits on the nose at certain points.
Told from the perspective of June Hayward, Kuang writes from the perspective of an author who just wants to be successful. Her debut was a flop, but Athena’s writing career has massively taken off. Fuelled by jealousy and desperation, June takes Athena’s completed manuscript and passes it off as her own, after her friend meets a freak accident. She also happens to be white, while Athena is a beautiful, successful and talented Chinese-American.
Spilling the beans on publishing
Yellowface tackles the insecurities of writers who just want to make it, but don’t have the knowhow in doing so. It explores the intricacies of the publishing industry, and how bookish drama is perceived from behind the scenes. From book sales, to how advances work, to how publishing only focuses their efforts on the “next big thing”, while alienating debut authors that they don’t have time for, Rebecca spills all about what publishing is like for those outside of the industry.
There’s also representation of how the social media and Twitterverse can seem like the whole world for authors, who can be quite isolated writing in their own worlds. I particularly enjoyed her commentary on how Twitter is only a small part of the readership, and the impact – or lack there-of, on book sales.
Diversity and gatekeeping
Some things hit on the nose, such as how the industry tends to treat and tokenise “diversity” or stories from different backgrounds. It explores how queries from diverse authors can be turned away after meeting diversity quotas or stories that don’t have “mass appeal”. The author also explores being pigeonholed into certain genres after your debut, which is probably why June Hayward’s book that she stole is a historical fiction on Chinese Labour Corps.
Yellowface also presents both sides of the argument on gatekeeping in the community, like whether white authors should stay in their lane and only write from their own perspective. The moral of the story, is that anyone can write what they want, as long as they put in the work (eg. via sensitivity readers if it’s from another perspective). After all, you have people writing fantasy stories, and it’s obviously not possible to put yourselves in the shoes of a fae lady. Whether it’s the Chinese Labour Corps or another marginalised community, these stories also need to be told whether you are intimately tied with it or not.
As an own voices writer whose debut was a Chinese historical war story, with some really painful moments, Kuang also covers the issues of being an own voices author. Not only are you exploring your own past and putting the pain of your generations on display, but you’re also being critiqued about it. She tackles this flawlessly, through June’s visits to her dead friend’s mother.
Moral arguments of marketing
There are also some moral arguments when June Hayward decides to change her author name to Juniper Song and takes an ethnically ambiguous photo for the book. Although she knows that she’s doing this for Sales, and never says outright that she’s trying to pass as Chinese, she’s forced to deal with this head-on. She donates to the Asian American Writing Association, and mentors young Chinese writers, but it’s clear she doesn’t really find it a big deal.
She thinks that she deserves every success that has come to her from passing off an Asian author’s work as her own, and doesn’t really see the impact of changing particular plot points in the story. At the very worst, the book has become a white saviour story, which is not what Athena originally set out to do.
It’s clear that a lot of feelings cropped up while reading Yellowface, having seen it all play out on book Twitter. Through two compelling characters, Kuang has provided a nuanced exploration into diversity in the book publishing industry, from her own perspective as a Chinese author published in the West. This is the book that the industry needed in 2019, and with some space to breathe and let lie – I’m glad that it has finally been published.
For the average reader however, who isn’t part of the BookTwit, Yellowface presents as juicy bookish drama and gossip. From a writer haunted by her own actions and the ghost of her successful friend, this would be a compelling read either way. Yellowface is a bold, tell-all book about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, with the discourse of morality, tokenism and diversity.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Yellowface is available from Australian bookstores for RRP $17.95. Grab it from Booktopia.
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