Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is a provocative examination of race relations and career ambitions in the publishing industry that lead to ruthless competition, lying and cheating. More outrageous than humorous, the book garners extra attention by focusing on the publishing industry.
Athena is a successful author and her former classmate and longtime acquaintance June Hayward is not. Athena is Asian American; June is not. A few years after graduation, the two have a rare get-together when Athena suddenly chokes to death and June does little to save her. June pockets the sole draft of Athena’s latest novel, does extensive revisions and sells it as her own, adopting her mother’s maiden name. “This is what I love most about writing – it offers us endless opportunities to reinvent ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves.” Juniper Song becomes the “good friend” who was with Athena during her final moments. “The best way to hide a lie is in plain sight…. I’ve never made a secret of my relationship to Athena… I play up our connections. I mention her name in every interview. My grief over her death becomes a cornerstone of my origin story.”
A white woman writing about an obscure part of Chinese history prompts the editing team to worry “cultural authenticity” and getting “ahead of any potential blowups.” June is abrasive about questions and suggestions for a sensitivity review: “Are you saying we’ll get in trouble because I wrote this story and I’m white?” The editor responds, “Of course, anyone should be able to tell any kind of story. We’re just thinking about how to position you so that readers trust the work.”
The book is wildly successful and June insists she never lied. “I never pretended to be Chinese or make up life experiences that I didn’t have. It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn’t that say far more about them than me?” June trusts no one, recalling a philosophy student whom she once dated arguing that the living owe nothing to the dead. “Especially when the dead are thieves and liars, too.”
The author cleverly critiques the publishing industry by speaking through a manipulative protagonist: “author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get the enjoy the perks along the way.” Still, June finds herself missing writing before meeting Athena and making it her career: “suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers.” Personality takes priority over content: “You, not your writing, become the product – your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one the real work [cares] about.”
The industry and readers force writers into narrow genres and roles, “And once you’re writing for the market, it doesn’t matter what stories are burning inside you. It matters what audiences want to see, and no one cares about the inner musings of a plain, straight white girl from Philly. They want new and exotic, the diverse, and if I want to stay afloat, that’s what I have to give them.”
Huang also relies on June to criticize ethnic authors who transmit stories that belong to ancestors. Athena once pointed out once that she was ethically troubled by telling stories lived through by her parents and grandparents, worried about “exploiting their pain for my profit” – but not enough to find her own stories: “I remain aware that I can only do this because I am the privileged, lucky generation. I have the indulgence to look back, to be a storyteller.”
Early on while in school, June relished her friendship with Athena. “For it was so nice to know someone who understood this exact dream, who knew how mere words can become sentences can become a completed masterpiece, how that masterpiece can rocket you into a wholly unrecognizable world where you have everything – a world you wrote for yourself.” But the friendship deteriorates. While freshmen at Yale, Athena turns a confidential conversation about a sexual encounter into a short story. Years later, June observes Athena chat up an American POW from the Korean War at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – and is blunt with her assessment. “There’s no need to dress it up. We are all vultures and some of us – and I mean Athena, here – are simply better at finding the juiciest morsels of a story, at tripping through bone and gristle to the tender bleeding heart and putting all the gore on display.” Even Athena’s former boyfriend notes, “as time went on all I could think was that she was mining me, using me as fodder.”
Writers are so hell-bent on keeping up with publishers’ demands that many forget to live life. June frets that she lacks an original voice, capable of only presenting others’ tales. Readers turn pages in horror, waiting for her to get caught – but she is slippery and manages to reinvent herself time and time again, desperate to avoid the mundane lives of her mother and accountant sister: “Living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next.” She later admits, “I want my words to last forever, I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here and she told us what was on her mind.”
The goal is petty, echoing the publishing industry’s embrace of social media and expectations for authors to endlessly build a presence, nurturing popularity and connections with readers. As June points out, “your time in the spotlight never lasts. I’ve seen people who were massive bestsellers not even six years ago, sitting alone and forgotten at neglected signing tables while lines stretched around the corner for their younger, hotter peers…. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.”
Unfortunately, social media’s ability to lift or ruin reputations, the pathetic neediness of users, has become a tired literary trope, making these chapters drag.
In the end, June sets out to write a memoir. “I will craft, and sell, a story about how the pressures of publishing have made it impossible for white and nonwhite authors alike to succeed. About how Athena’s success was entirely manufactured, how she was only ever a token. About how my hoax – because let’s frame it as a hoax, not a theft – was really a way to expose the rotten foundations of the entire industry. About how I am the hero, in the end.” And she hopes that some reviewer might ask, What if we got it all wrong? and, What if Juniper Song is right?
Juniper Song is a product of the publishing industry, and both have squandered all trust.
In 2014, I wrote more about the publishing industry and readers imposing rigid "purity tests" on storytelling that explores other cultures.