Helen Keller’s memoir is unforgettable for many reasons, but is surprising for her admission of having retold a fable (Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby) as en eleven-year-old when submitting a short story (The Frost King) for her school magazine. Though, more surprising than this acceptance was Mark Twain’s letter to Keller, where he stood against the “Plagiarism Court” and simply accused “solemn donkeys” of “breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism”, concluding that “substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources”.
For years, plagiarism has been a fuel for literary scandals: whether it’s an abusive ex-boyfriend accusing Emma Cline of having stolen The Girls or a Harvard undergrad Kaavya Viswanathan’s highly hyped chick-lit showing similarities to many works, from Sophie Kinsella to Meg Cabot. And these scandals are wildly enticing and weirdly addictive. It’s no surprise I was pulled in when a contemporary promising a premise of plagiarism was announced, especially when it’s the literary fiction debut of The Poppy War and Babel author.
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June Hayward is a struggling author whose debut novel flopped —the first print reduced by half, book tour stops cancelled, and a second printing out of question. On days when she’s not frustrated with her agent for showing little support, her editor for being disinterested, and her publisher for not having faith in her, she navigates her acquaintance with Athena Liu: a successful Asian-American bestselling author. Acquaintance because their friendship is more incidental, merely convenient. Both were in Yale; both are in DC. Plus, June isn’t shy of thinking the worst for her friend (”and I’m drinking to dull the bitch in me that wishes she was dead”) and suspects Athena likes her company precisely because she isn’t a competition.
Regardless, Athena does invite June to her apartment one night to celebrate a movie deal for one of her novels. It’s easy to be jealous; after all, Athena is everything June isn’t —and everything, according to her, publishing loves: attractive, cool, and ‘diverse’. June repeatedly reminds herself to “be happy for her” despite feeling that universal envy, and even clarifies it specifically for writers “People always describe jealousy as this sharp, green, venomous thing. Unfounded, vinegary, mean-spirited. But I’ve found that jealousy, to writers, feels more like fear.”
The celebration included drinking and making pancakes. Right there, accidentally, Athena dies. And the drama begins: June steals an unpublished manuscript from her desk, works on it, and sends it to her agent. It doesn’t take long for the stolen manuscript, a historical novel of the Chinese Labour Corps —the Chinese workers recruited by the British Army to serve in World War II— to impress the agent, and the ball starts rolling. A pseudonym (Juniper Song), an ambiguous author photo, a bidding war, an indie publisher with a six-figure deal, and an impressed editor who suggests taking out many things to make this book feel less like a ‘tragedy porn’. What was Athena’s text —an “embarrassingly biased” story where the “French and British soldiers are cartoonishly racist”— is now a final version (with an added love story between a white woman and a Chinese soldier) that is no longer just an unfiltered recounting of a painful period but a “universally relatable story”.
As the journey proceeds, objections from a Korean American editorial assistant infuriates June; and as the book reaches shelves, June continues to play on the grief of Athena’s death, making her the ‘dead muse’. And when an accusation from an anonymous on social media builds up the fear, her desperation builds up too. It’s easy to not like June Hayward; as she admits herself: “I know what you’re thinking. Thief. Plagiariser. And perhaps, because all bad things must be racially motivated -racist.” But Kuang makes sure to boil her cannibalistic jealousy and immense insecurity in a pot of personal experiences and broken dreams —giving her more (even if just a little) than her many flaws and repeated offences.
Kuang does the same for Athena Liu. The token Asian American author picked as a winner by publishing wasn’t so perfect. June unravels her too —even if that’s done mostly to justify her own attitude. From Athena being irritated by admiring Asian American writers who clustered around her (Highlander Syndrome) to being Korean but having written Chinese characters; from playing on intergenerational grief of others in and outside the community to displaying the struggles of her immigrant mother (who June notices can speak pretty fluent English).
Yellowface is all about the gray. It exposes the hypocrisy of many but does it through a flawed white author’s lens. It conveys the tokenisation of people of color in publishing but does it through a frustrated white author’s lens. It exhibits the jaws of social media but does it through a preyed white author’s lens. The lens forces you to often shift your eyes, but there’s a strong transparency that doesn’t let you close them.
The drama plays against the backdrop of the industry and social media —one as a necessary evil and the other as an unforgiving jurist— “reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online.” The hungry hands behind the scenes and the angry avatars on the screens are repeatedly revealed. Sometimes through June’s crash course on virtue signalling disguised as Internet etiquette: anti-PRC but proChina, gaining followers with #BLM and #FreePalestine in their bios, I Stand with Hong Kong, etc. Sometimes through the backlash she receives (sensitivity readers, cultural appropriation, and problematic) and sometimes through the pressure she feels to bring a second book in time.
For many readers who are familiar with Book Twitter, this is a strong dark satire. For some, the joke’s on you. Yellowface doesn’t hesitate. Not when the industry is shown to reduce Athena to a “set of marketing and publicity points, consumed and lauded by fans who think they know them”. Not when she’s manifested as a ‘champagne socialist’ —clearly commenting on many people of color who have weaponized social justice language for convenience. Not when some excitedly tear down individuals. Not when the vitriol suffocates June; not when she loses all sense of security; not when she’s quick to point out that most authors who do successfully jump out of a scandal are white and male —a subtle self-victimisation as a white woman.
I’m not personally a fan of finding an author’s similarities with their characters because I think it inevitably leads to negative association too, but there is no doubt that Kuang’s experiences reflect in this story. The impact of a career that depends on impressing the industry and satisfying the readers, and staying relevant and distant while you write another piece waiting to be judged by them again, is definitely as breathless as Yellowface. Basically, Kuang is right when she says in an interview with The Bookseller: “I could not have written [this] as a debut writer.”
She is also right when she says, “I will never do the same thing twice”, because honestly, a single book of such concentrated negativity is enough. Especially when it’s held together by bitter truths. I read Yellowface in a single sitting and highly recommend it. It’s meta, it’s mighty, and it’s merciless. This dark satire is a mirror of publishing, plagiarism, and pessimism polished with desperation & dreams—driven by social media and sad realism.
Yellowface, R.F. Kuang
The Borough Press, May 2023
Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.
2 replies on “Yellowface: R.F. Kuang Writes a Meta, Mighty, and Merciless Dark Satire”
FANNA THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST EVER REVIEW OF ALL TIME?? I LOVE IT SO MUCH OKAY. but hjgfdhjfgh HOW DARE YOU get me even more desperate for the book while knowing all too well THAT I STILL HAVE TO WAIT A MONTH AND MAYBE MORE??