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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang: A Satirical Thriller that is Equal Parts Exhilarating and Uncomfortable

By Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie and Victoria Bromley

Yellowface marks the first steps beyond fantasy and into the realm of satire for R.F. Kuang. The paradoxical blend of humour and thriller makes for an energetic and encapsulating read that somehow walks the line between futuristic dystopia and folklore.

This story follows June Hayward, a white author in her late twenties, whose debut novel falls flat against her often-misguided aspirations of literary stardom. Meanwhile, her archival and closest friend Athena Liu, a talented Asian-American writer, receives a lucrative book deal at a major publishing house alongside a plethora of awards and nominations. Despite having bonded throughout their collegiate studies at Yale, June soon begins to question their long-standing friendship. When the two women are alone together June is overcome with the gruesome urge to inflict harm on the other woman; an occurrence that she seems to manifest after Athena dies in an abrupt manner. In the chaotic aftermath, June steals a manuscript from her dead friend and decides to publish it under her own name.

Still in its first draft, The Last Front is a work of historical fiction about the Chinese Labour Corps, who were recruited by the British Army during the First World War. June works to maintain her innocence throughout the publishing process and denies all charges of plagiarism – even to herself. Trampled under a slew of harsh editorial demands, she reworks huge sections of the novel to appease white readers. The introduction of a romance between a middle-class white woman and a Chinese labourer is perhaps the most offensive of these changes. Moreover, the potential that a white woman has been allowed to profit from the work of her Asian counterpart brings about additional accusations of racism.

The theme of cultural appropriation fuels the overall narrative and tackles different aspects of the publishing industry at once. The damaging effects of tokenism in the industry are especially clear throughout the novel, as Kuang challenges the notion that writers must create stories within the bounds of their race, gender or sexual orientation. For a white writer to reproduce and embellish generational trauma that is not her own is deemed inauthentic but not quite deplorable. Indeed, Kuang explores this debate by writing through a cultural lens that is not her own.

Further questions arise as to the use of social media to propel an author’s career. As criticism for The Last Front begins to mount, public scrutiny shifts beyond the book to June herself. She is soon met with near-constant online abuse, from take-down articles to in-person confrontations, launching her into a spiral of self-destruction. Kuang demonstrates a hyperawareness of the debilitating effects of online hate by leaning into this manic state in the second half of the book. Her prose is pointed and perceptive, to complement fast-paced, impatient chapters. Tensions overflow in scenes when the protagonist is alone on the internet, serving as a poignant depiction of cancel culture.

Photo Credit: John Packman

Kuang makes this tension feel realistic for her audience through frequent mentions of social media sites such as Twitter and Goodreads, both of which are heavily used by the online book community. By blurring the lines between fiction and reality, she makes the novel hauntingly metaphysical. Many readers are likely to be familiar with these online spaces and have perhaps used them to criticise literature and authors themselves. Political correctness is a key factor that influences masses of users in these spaces, and as we learn through June’s actions, anyone who dares go against the grain is at high risk of being “cancelled.” Whilst her plagiarism is a key cause for the online hate June receives, there is a sense of single-voicedness (a “politically correct” voice) amongst the torrent of hate tweets and bad reviews. Beneath the obvious issues of plagiarism and racism in June’s work, Yellowface asks how free can writers truly be with their literature at the risk of not appealing to mass online opinion?

Drawing upon her own experiences as a writer, the novel is heavy on conveying Kuang’s personal thoughts and opinions. Each character embodies a certain flaw or problematic aspect of the publishing industry, and this is more direct in some characters than others. In this way Kuang’s satire is elevated by the overall superficiality and selfishness of each character, making it difficult for her readers to root for any of them. The ugly truth is never hidden in this novel, it is only obscured by June’s unreliable narration. This leaves Kuang’s readers constantly questioning where their loyalties lie in the book.

Ultimately, Yellowface is a novel that forces its audience to think long and hard about the publishing industry. As the industry strives to become more diverse, the double perspective in the novel is an urgent wakeup call that aims to both shed light on unheard opinions and myth bust institutionalised prejudice. Exhilarating, uncomfortable, and unforgettable, it is a relevant and insightful story that sparks a necessary new discourse that challenges how the publishing world functions.



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