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R. F. Kuang is best known (and justifiably beloved) for her award-winning fantasies, including the Poppy War trilogy and BABEL. In many ways, her latest novel, YELLOWFACE, feels like a departure. But it also reads like a book that, for countless reasons, could not have been written earlier in her career. This vicious roman à clef offers a searing insiders’ indictment of the contemporary publishing environment, told through the eyes of a young writer who is willing to cross some pretty murky ethical lines for her “art.”

"YELLOWFACE is one of those novels that will make all readers think twice about the ways in which they engage with literary culture and how that culture is created and manipulated."

Kuang’s narrator, June Hayward, is a white, Yale-educated author whose debut novel basically bombed. Lately she’s been spending more time tutoring privileged kids for SAT prep than she has on her own writing. She’s friends (sort of) with Athena Liu, another Yale graduate living in Washington, DC. Athena has achieved seemingly effortless success. June both admires Athena and is deeply envious of her. So when Athena dies in a freak accident in her apartment, to which June is the only witness, is it any wonder that she happens to walk away with the only copy of Athena’s nearly finished manuscript? (Athena wrote exclusively on manual typewriters.)

The manuscript, entitled The Last Front, is a World War I epic about Chinese laborers on the front lines. June devours it and knows it has potential. And who better to polish it up and make it ready for publication than Athena’s old friend, June? She fleshes out the manuscript, makes some (most?) of the white characters more sympathetic, and tidies up some of the more problematic elements of Athena’s original work. By the time she’s done, it feels like a whole new book, which is why she feels more than entitled to submit the novel to her agent under her own name. Well, sort of; she decides to publish it under her full first and middle names, ostensibly to distance herself from that bomb of a debut novel. Her new nom de plume? Juniper Song.

Before June knows it, The Last Front is sold at auction to a prestigious literary publisher. A flurry of bestseller lists, award nominations and even a film option soon follow. But so does growing skepticism of June’s credentials, not only as a writer but also as a white woman writing this very painful chapter in Chinese migration history --- and perhaps doing so under false pretenses.

Readers will enjoy immersing themselves in June’s ethically dubious perspective, watching her justify her every move even as she commits act after act of cultural and literary appropriation. June is thoroughly unlikable but in a fascinating way. At times, readers (especially those in the publishing world) will find themselves sympathizing with her as she reads negative Goodreads reviews, despite her best intentions, or flips through the composition books of her youth, mourning the way she used to be able to write fiction without worrying what the world would think of it.

It's unclear if June is actually a gifted writer (I’m betting she’s not), but that’s hardly the point. Kuang offers a thoroughly cynical (but also utterly absorbing) critique of contemporary publishing --- where “diverse” authors like Athena are compelled to write specific narratives or are tokenized by their publishing houses or the review media, and white authors construct racist stereotypes or, like June, perpetuate literary hoaxes in order to feel relevant. YELLOWFACE is one of those novels that will make all readers think twice about the ways in which they engage with literary culture and how that culture is created and manipulated.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 19, 2023

by R. F. Kuang

  • Publication Date: May 16, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0063250837
  • ISBN-13: 9780063250833