Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is quite the interesting read. The story is about June Hayward, a struggling author, who witnesses her fellow author “friend” Athena Liu’s death. June ends up stealing Athena’s latest manuscript and gets it published as her own. We follow the highs and lows June experiences, in first person, following these events and the intricacies of the publishing industry.
First off, I have to say I ended up rage reading this. June Hayward is insufferable right out of the gate. She considers Athena her friend but is seething with envy and hate at her success. June feels that she deserves the success and accolades Athena has and continues to gain, and hates her for it. Like the sense of entitlement is astounding, and it never occurs to June that maybe Athena is a much more talented writer than she is.
Anyway, one night while they hung out in Athena’s apartment, there’s an accident that happens where Athena unfortunately dies – in front of June – but not before she shows June her finished manuscript. She learns that Athena’s writing process is something she keeps to herself until she finishes writing the first draft, meaning no one knows about the finished story. So when Athena ends up dying, June steals the manuscript, edits it and successfully passes it off as her own. No one else knew about it, so there’s no way she’d get caught, right?
Given Athena’s track record, the book ends up being a success and June finally gets a taste of the spotlight she’s always felt she deserved. The book itself, a story on Chinese laborers during World War 1, doesn’t lend itself to the kind of things June writes so at the suggestion of her editor and publishers, she publishes the book as Juniper Song; her full first and middle name. Obviously anyone with common sense would assume that a story like that written by someone with that name was Asian, and so they play this up. With all the accolades and success, June is beaming except the guilt of stealing her dead “friend’s” work, and worse, getting found out, grows steadily within her. It was giving a little bit of “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.
As the story progresses, June spirals riddled with guilt and tries to find a way to stop it. Reading this story, I felt zero empathy for June. She knew what she was doing. Once again, the sense of entitlement, audacity, delusion, and privilege was incredibly high for June. I got angrier the further I read, especially when her delusions were riddled with racism and microaggressions. At first, I was like there’s just no way there are people out in the world who think and function like this but then I realized that the way June acts isn’t all that unrealistic or highly exaggerated.
While the book is meant to be satire, something like this could happen; especially the parts about the publishing industry. June neglects to understand how Athena’s success is based off of the industry tokenizing her, where she’s the one Asian writer who is forced to specialize in telling Asian stories. Of course, June is too privileged to see this until its shoved in her face, and even then, she still tries to make herself the victim.
Overall, despite the rage reading, I did find Yellowface to be entertaining. I really wanted June to get her just desserts for being a liar and a thief. While she suffered with guilt as the book progressed, it wasn’t enough to actually bring her actions to justice – though she absolutely deserved it; fuck around and you will find out.
All in all, I give Yellowface four stars for being entertaining despite the insufferable and unrelatable main character.
Have you read Yellowface? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!