Rebecca F Kuang is better known as fantasy author RF Kuang, responsible for the Asian-inspired Poppy Wars series and the alternate history Babel. Her latest novel, Yellowface is something else entirely – a takedown of the modern publishing industry and a scathing critique of social media as a mode of criticism review and attack. It comes in a tradition about books about writing and authorship which recently has also included Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot and Julia Bartz’s slightly more pulpy The Writing Retreat.
June Hawyard has always been in the shadow of her sometime friend Athena Liu. Both writers and friends since college, Athena has gone on to be a bestselling author while June’s first novel barely made a ripple. So when Athena dies suddenly, leaving a manuscript that no one else has seen behind, June sees an opportunity and takes it. She steals the manuscript, about indentured Chinese labourers during World War I, edits it and claims it as her own. Along the way she changes her name to the more racially ambiguous Juniper Song and soon finds herself on the bestseller lists. Only very quickly both her story and her persona start to unravel and June has to work hard to keep the truth from crashing down on her.
Around the main plot, Kuang raises issues and explores a lot of questions for which there are no easy answers. For example, the question of who is allowed to tell what stories. The question of who owns a story that an author has used either directly or for inspiration. The role of social media in building people up and tearing people down (the social media “pile on”). The role of “diversity” in publishing and how it is used cynically (as in: we already have one Asian writer). The way in which publishers and the media shape what is fashionable or hot.
And she manages to do all of this through the first person narrative lens of a thoroughly unlikeable, self-centred, self unaware, self justifying narrator. June may wall have some talent by it seems, like Athena, she needs a catalyst to bring it out. She is also, despite her pretentions, more than a little racist herself. Kuang excels at making June feel like a real person but also letting her damn herself.
While Yellowface is fiction, the observations feel like at least some of it comes from hard learned experience. With the American literary scene so focussed on the issue of who is allowed to tell what stories (American Dirt, for example, gets name checked in the text), and the internet constantly searching for its next victim, the landmines are everywhere. And there is plenty of “inside baseball” in Yellowface on just how the publishing machine works – the editing process, sensitivity readers, jacket blurbs, cover art, movie deals. While most readers will find this fascinating, drawn along by the protagonist’s enthusiasm for the process, others may baulk at this level of information. Particularly those who do not want to know how their literary sausages are made.
While Yellowface feels like a change of direction for Kuang, and in some respects it is, it is very much in keeping with the concerns she was exploring in Babel. This is just another area in which she can expose the impact of language and culture and the persistent effects of colonialism and imperialism on how we think and act. It gives readers of fiction not only a rollicking morality tale with an ethically challenged but engaging protagonist but plenty to think about the next time they go into a bookshop.