With Yellowface, author R.F. Kuang turns a new page on genre.

The Poppy Wars, the first book in a trilogy she started writing when she was 19, is a historical military fantasy set in China. Her second project, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, delved into speculative fiction. Yellowface is Kuang’s first venture into literary fiction.

Big picture-wise, Yellowface is a satirical look at the publishing industry and how it deals with race, diversity, and representation. It is about two professional writers living in Washington, D.C. — a white woman named June Hayward and a Chinese American woman named Athena Liu, who are friends mostly through convenience and loneliness. They met during their first year in college, both aspiring to be fiction writers, but Athena’s career skyrockets soon after college while June’s fails to make a blip in the publishing stratosphere.

On the night the two celebrate Athena’s first Netflix deal, Athena invites June over to her luxurious apartment where June stumbles upon a finished manuscript of Athena’s latest work: a massive historical fiction novel about the Chinese Labour Corp recruited by the British government during World War I. Though she is tipsy, June can tell after a quick skim that it is an epic manuscript and will be Athena’s greatest work by far. Athena informs her she is the first person to lay eyes on the finished work; her editor and agent have not even glimpsed an outline.

During some drunken tomfoolery, Athena ends up choking on a pandan pancake, and though June frantically tries to save her, Athena dies. During the crazy aftermath, June has enough clarity to swipe Athena’s manuscript before leaving the apartment once all formalities are done with the police. Getting massive attention through social media as the last person and friend to see Athena alive (and loving it), June rides on that wave of attention and decides to “polish” Athena’s manuscript and submit it as her own. What follows is June’s first foray into phenomenal success as well as her downfall and eventual psychological spiral. 

Though June is an unreliable protagonist, Athena also had questionable writing practices: she freely borrowed the life stories or experiences of others and used it to benefit her writing. One of the reasons she lacked close relationships is because she manipulated interactions to see what the outcome would be so she could use it in her writing. She also enjoyed the unspoken publishing arm designation as the token Asian writer and saw other promising Asian American writers as a threat to her position.

Kuang calls Yellowface her “pandemic novel.” According to an interview she had with Miwa Messer, the creator, executive producer, and host of Barnes and Noble’s podcast Poured Over, one of the key ways of discerning a pandemic book is that “there is this unhinged demonic quality about it that really tells you the author was alone and frustrated in a really bad place when they wrote that book, and that was me for Yellowface.”

Though the book takes place in the publishing world, the heart of the story is about the crippling effects of loneliness and the psychological dangers of having all social interactions relegated through social media. In the acknowledgment she writes, “Yellowface is, in large part, a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry.”

Thought-provoking, entertaining, and at times downright hilarious from the absurdity (which isn’t far from the truth, according to Kuang), Yellowface will have readers pondering who are the real villains: Is it Athena, who stole other people’s life experiences? Is it June, who literally stole a story? Or is it the publishing industry, which decides what stories get star treatment?

This is a great choice for book club members to debate over or among friends. Kuang’s general observations aren’t just limited to the publishing industry but can also be applied to other corporate institutions or large organizations. It will quite possibly give readers second thoughts about the books they read henceforth.

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