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R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface is a satire touching on the idiosyncrasies of publishing, and racism, diversity, and cultural appropriation in literature. Winner of the 2023 Goodreads Choice Award for fiction, it combines elements of dark humour, thriller, and horror. The impact of social media and cancel culture, and how platforms like Twitter (now X) and Goodreads can make or break a new author’s success, are also highlighted.

June Hayward and Athena Liu are both Yale-educated authors. While June claims to be a regular white girl, Athena is Chinese American. These two frenemies are at the opposite extremes of professional success. Athena is a literary darling and a bestselling author, who has just cracked a deal with Netflix. June’s first book did not sell well. She is currently struggling, with no big publisher to back her. 

During a drunken celebration at Athena’s flat, Athena chokes on a pancake and dies. June is shocked but seizes this opportunity to steal Athena’s draft manuscript, which not even her editor knows about. Her work is a historic fiction on Chinese labourers against the backdrop of the World War. June reworks it and sends it off to her agent, telling herself that she is only protecting her friend’s legacy. The manuscript is lapped up immediately.

Overnight, June gets a taste of success, clouding her judgement, and making her crave for more. Plagued with guilt, she becomes delusional, affirming that she is not a plagiarist.

While she may have inherited the sketch from Athena, it is she who filled it with colour and brought it to fruition. 

June comes across as a repulsive and entitled character. Her only redeeming quality is her passion for writing. These lines in particular make an impact:

Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you the power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much.

Despite June’s misdeeds, the reader begins to empathize with her, especially when she recounts her college days and reveals what Athena did to her. There are no positive or negative characters, just flawed, opportunistic beings. 

The book traces June’s growth from being a nobody to a hyped-up author doing book tours and attending book readings. All this while, she is on tenterhooks trying to cover up her secret. Despite her denial, Athena’s shadow hovers around her, unravelling her mind further, and pushing her into an abyss. June gets entangled in her web of lies and deceit. Will she escape unscathed, or will the ghosts of the past catch up with her? 

The book critiques the publishing industry, asking a tricky question, “Who gets to tell the story?” Athena is a privileged Chinese American girl writing about the suffering of her Chinese grandparents. But is it acceptable for someone from a different ethnicity, to tell this story, provided they do their research? In June’s case, she changes her name to a racially ambiguous ‘Juniper Song’ to justify writing this historic fiction. Conversely, at one point, Athena admits to her friend that she feels pigeonholed into telling a particular type of story.

Are diversity and artistic freedom conflicting goals?

Additionally, the author talks about what goes into the making of a bestseller. The writing is only a small part. The branding, the hype, the storyteller, the narrative; these are equally important contributors to the success of the book.

But now, I see that, author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen.

The role of social media comes alive in the pages. Accounts that spread misinformation, caustic reviews by critics, the rapid rate at which followers are gained and lost overnight, the impact on mental health, the incessant stalking of accounts by authors to ascertain opinion; all have been wonderfully captured.

Yellowface is a first-person narrative with many twists and turns. The prose in some places is absurd and bizarre with many pop culture references, lending it a very contemporary feel. The ending is a tad bit of a letdown because it is repetitive. While reviews of this book have been mixed, aspiring authors will relate to the challenges mentioned.

Yellowface is ruthless, menacing, and grey, but simply unputdownable. 


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