Today, I’d like to tell you about Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. I finished this one a few weeks ago, and I’ve found that the more I’ve marinated on it, my feelings about it have changed. Sometimes, writing about the book helps me understand my own feelings towards it, so let’s dive in.1
Let’s start with the book’s premise, which we can conveniently quote from the marketing copy. 😀
Athena Liu is a literary darling and June Hayward is literally nobody.
When Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her unpublished manuscript and publishes it as her own under the ambiguous name Juniper Song.
But as evidence threatens June’s stolen success, she will discover exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.
What happens next is entirely everyone else’s fault.
There’s a lot going on in this book. It tackles themes of cultural appropriation, tokenism, and privilege in world of book publishing, while at the same time critiquing notions that people can only write a story from their lived perspective. If you think those lines are complex to navigate and somewhat fluid, you’d be right, and Kuang herself seems to have trouble charting it over the course of the book.
It’s a very tense read and moves quickly. Written from June’s first-person perspective– who is certainly an unreliable narrator –it is often an uncomfortable read, which is as it should be when racism is a topic. But June’s detractors don’t come off particularly great either. The book seems less researched than her other works, but makes up for it in the intensity. As June’s lies begin to unravel, she must weather controversies that had me holding my breath. June’s panic becomes the reader’s, and even with such an unlikable protagonist I found myself invested. When I finished it, I felt like I could finally breathe again, and had you asked me right then for a rating I would have told you five stars.
However, over time my opinion has shifted slightly. It’s a good book, attempting to tackle real issues, but not Kuang’s best. There’s something that feels off, like an unexpected flat note in what is otherwise a tense piece of music. Maybe it’s the nature of the topic, but it feels like Kuang wasn’t sure which of her points she wanted to drive home, and so attempted to make all of them unevenly. Ultimately, few of the characters seem to learn anything from their experiences.
And as mentioned above, these topics are difficult, so maybe Kuang’s goal is simply to illustrate the mess as opposed to providing any answers. But given some of the early build-up, that comes off as disappointing, which is why I would rate it as four stars today.
It is still a good read, and worth your time to pick up, but given the quality and power of Kuang’s previous novel, Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence, I had expected more.