Rebecca F. Kuang
HarperCollins, $14.99, 2023
The success of Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang is well-documented and well-deserved. It is an entirely engaging story about the rivalry between two writers as they climb the publishing ladder and how their voices are stymied or amplified by the biases that they find within that ambiguous and nefarious world.
Initially, the first person protagonist, June Hayward is in jealous awe of her much more successful contemporary, Athena Liu, the feted, beautiful and prescient novelist who embodies the zeitgeist. Athena is also prodigiously talented, telling stories about the Asian diaspora that capture the attention of the world. She has a multi-book deal with a publishing house, her opinions are sought after, and, as the novel opens, she has just signed a deal with Netflix to make one of her novels into a television series. June, in comparison, has not enjoyed success. Her first novel failed to sell its print run and she has run out of original ideas. When June watches Athena die in a freak accident, with the completed draft of her new novel on the table, it is easy enough to steal it, rewrite it and pass it off as hers.
Part of this theft involves the psychic realignment of her identity. She renames herself Juniper Song, Song being her middle name, and is aware of the racial ambiguity that this presents. Juniper has several humiliating moments where she is mistaken for a person with Asian heritage and endures the umbrage of Asian writers who are outraged by her colonising of Athena’s legacy. The accusations of plagiarism follow quickly and hotly, and June is haunted by what she has done in reframing the novel as hers. She feels strongly that she has had an instrumental role in bringing Athena’s story to fruition and enjoys the lucrative benefits that success brings her. Part of her guilt is grappling with the ideas around who has the right to tell stories and who stories belong to, which Kuang explores and satirises.
Yellowface is a highly enjoyable and engaging novel about who owns stories and how some stories dominate while others just fade away.