To be honest, I’ve been sitting on this review for a few days now just to figure out how to begin speaking about Yellowface. Kuang is one of my favorite authors of all time, so I had high expectations and this book is indescribable. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.
Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.
So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.
So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song–complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.
But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
Prepare for a mouthful because it’s incredibly difficult to summarize the reasons why Yellowface resonates all the way from my experiences in publishing to my identity as a Chinese American. To begin, Yellowface as a whole is captivating. It manages to deliver a story about friendship and rivalry while also addressing a satire of white privilege. Part of its beauty lies in the ways that Kuang uses first person to not only deeply locate us within June’s mind, i.e. her insecurities and personal feelings of envy, but also for us to peek into a lens of the white gaze.
June’s Main Character Energy
There’s a lot to say about June. It’s clear to see the ways in which Kuang litters June’s POV with not only her own tendency to see herself as both the main character and the victim, but also her ignorance about her own racist microaggresions. The ways in which June has felt cheated because of how she perceives Athena’s success without ever taking a moment to think of the cost or the struggles. To attribute Athena’s success not only to luck, but also to the value of her identity, a feature which June will later exploit. Because of her jealousy and relentless exhausting competition, June exemplifies a world – specifically of the United States – with whiteness at its center. And so to June, these fears of fading away, to be relegated to the periphery of experience and success, feel like a personal attack to her.
It is no surprise that the unreliability of June as a character is a focus of Yellowface. With first POV you can never truly trust a narrator. And that is the point. We are all stuck within seeing only our own lives, our own feelings, and unless we stop to ask others about their experiences, we remain within our own skin. June is not only universally a believer in her own position as the main character – and I mean a perspective of the world should be bending to accommodate her space – but also we are meant to question her intentions. The motivations behind her actions, her theft, her defenses, and her excuses.
As a Chinese American, I am only too accustomed to hearing the arguments of ‘reverse racism’, of the ‘token diversity’, of the idea that marginalized voices are eroding this sense of ‘American’ identity. Reading June’s perspective, felt like seeing reflections of headlines in the news, sound byte interviews, and even comments across dinner tables. It felt abrasive and raw and that’s entirely the intention. If you read Yellowface and don’t have a feeling of discomfort I think you’ve missed the point. June’s words and actions drip with careless word choices and vary in intensity from her own theft of spaces for marginalized voices to her opinions on Athena.
At the same time, as someone who has been deeply involved in the book world – whether that be through book blogging or even my employment at certain publishing houses – pieces of these conversations bring back vivid memories. Of conversations about texts needing to be more ‘accessible’ when what they mean is that we need to center English speaking audiences.
That we can have fantasy worlds with ten different kingdoms, entirely new languages and these words can exist without a moment’s hesitation, but as soon as you begin to integrate ‘foreign’ words all bets are off. That when we continually try to create works that are ‘universal’ we lose out on the singular authenticity. The ways that when we ‘smooth over’ we fail to recognize the inherent situations of exploitative dehumanization.
Or how cruel the industry is towards marginalized voices suffering burn out of screaming behind glass doors or even punished professionally when they speak up for diversity initiatives or when something is wrong.
Privilege and Downfall
I think ultimately what Yellowface proves is the importance of lived experiences. We can do research and have first hand accounts, but there’s something integral about lived experiences. About the fact that June can never truly remove herself from the white gaze. The goal is not to remove those curtains, those glasses, but to recognize their presence. And to figure out what we can do with our privilege to help others. But this isn’t a book that seeks to give you an ending which neatly ties up June’s actions or even her story.
June lets her own – and a universally human – fear of falling into obscurity, of wanting to make a mark on the world, to excuse her actions. That these ideas, these seeds, are not hers to grow. At the same time, June is not a one sided character. I think her passion for writing, her fear of fading away, and her impulses to always being competing make her, as a character, complex.
A Note on the Audiobook
I was also able to listen to some of this book via audiobook and that was truly a whole new level. The things June was saying were chilling. They felt even more real and so close to me, I got shivers. Helen Laser does justice to June’s own internal narration and feelings of entitlement. If audiobook reading is something you enjoy, this is a recommendation for me especially since Yellowface is first perspective.
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Yellowface is a razor sharp book. It delivers a psychological thriller of friendship on the surface, while also exploring questions of privilege and publishing. It is clever and captivating without mincing words. This literary fiction debut from Kuang screams truth and isn’t afraid of pointing out the racism bleeding from the pages in this satire. It is a perfect pairing with Disorientation and is another of those books I’ll be gifting to my friends and family.