Yellowface (by R.F. Kuang)


*Yellowface* by R.F. Kuang presents a provocative and satirical narrative that explores the complexities of racial diversity, cultural appropriation, and the ruthless nature of the publishing industry. The story follows June Hayward, a struggling white author who seizes the opportunity to steal and publish an unpublished manuscript by her more successful Asian-American friend, Athena Liu, after Athena’s untimely death.

Plot and Themes

The novel begins with June and Athena, former acquaintances from Yale, reuniting in Washington D.C. After a night of drinking, Athena chokes to death on a pancake, and June, in a moment of opportunistic desperation, takes Athena’s manuscript about Chinese laborers in World War I. June edits and publishes the manuscript under her own name, rebranding herself as Juniper Song to give the illusion of having Chinese heritage. The book becomes a hit, but June faces increasing scrutiny and allegations of cultural appropriation and plagiarism, particularly on social media platforms like Twitter.

Satire and Social Commentary

Kuang’s novel attempts a dark satire that critiques the publishing industry’s obsession with diversity as a marketable commodity. The narrative exposes how the industry often prioritizes “diverse” voices for their marketability rather than genuine representation, and how authors can be commodified and launched to bestseller status with the right marketing. June’s character embodies the unethical lengths to which individuals might go to achieve success, highlighting the moral ambiguities and systemic issues within the industry. However, the satire sometimes feels heavy-handed and lacks the subtlety needed to fully engage with these complex issues.

Characterization and Narrative Style

June Hayward, as an unreliable and morally ambiguous narrator, provides a lens through which readers can explore themes of cultural appropriation and privilege. Her justifications for stealing Athena’s work and her subsequent actions are laid bare, inviting readers to grapple with their own assumptions and discomforts. Kuang’s choice to tell the story from June’s perspective allows for a nuanced exploration of these themes without overt moralizing. However, June’s character often comes across as one-dimensional, and her motivations, while clear, lack the depth needed to make her truly compelling.

Critical Reception

The novel has received mixed reviews. Some critics praise its fast-paced and engaging narrative, as well as its incisive critique of the publishing industry. Others, however, feel that the novel’s satire sometimes falls short, with the plot and prose occasionally feeling preposterous or overly simplistic and I agree with these criticisms Despite this, *Yellowface* stands out for its bold and timely exploration of important social issues, making it a significant, if flawed, contribution to contemporary literature.

Wrapping it Up

*Yellowface* by R.F. Kuang challenges readers to confront uncomfortable truths about cultural appropriation, privilege, and the publishing industry. While the novel’s execution may falter at times, its ambitious themes and satirical edge make it a noteworthy read for those interested in the intersection of race, identity, and literature.

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