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The Novel of the Summer: 'Yellowface' by R.F. Kuang

The reception of June Hayward's debut novel Under the Sycamore was underwhelming, to say the least. But her best friend, Athena Liu, is reaching levels of success that were thought to be impossible. That is until her untimely death — when June decides to steal Athena’s unpublished novel, marketing it as her own.

R. F. Kuang’s latest novel Yellowface depicts June’s descent into madness, following the death of her best friend. Her first foray into literary fiction, the novel is already credited as the novel of the summer, we can see why.

“I’m just brown-eyed, brown-haired June Hayward, from Philly — and no matter how hard I work, or how well I write, I’ll never be Athena Liu.”

This dark and satirical novel closely looks at how racism is rooted in the current publishing world. Whilst both June and Athena are offered book deals whilst studying at Yale, June feels outshone by Athena in every way, crediting her best friend’s success to her race. June doesn’t feel ‘diverse enough’ for the publishing industry, as opposed to Athena who is Chinese-American, and whose novels center around ‘Asian dysphoria.’

So, when June stumbles upon Athena’s unpublished manuscript, she doesn’t hesitate to take it. Within a year, the novel is published under June's new racially ambiguous name, Juniper Song.

Similar to her previous works, Athena’s manuscript tackles cultural appropriation, racism, xenophobia, and more. She highlights the contributions of the largely-forgotten Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War — however, these explorations of race make June, a white woman, uncomfortable, and decides to ‘tidy up’ the novel, cutting out entire sections.

Kuang’s writing is extremely clever, calling out this issue within the publishing industry, whilst tackling the nuanced characterisation of June.

She’s the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator; self-aware and knowing her actions rightfully qualify her to be a racist, she knows how to paint herself as the victim so successfully that by the end, we start to root for her, almost forgetting her horrible actions. Kuang inspects cancel culture, too, through June’s character. The novel calls out death threats, 'canceling' someone without evidence, and performative activism. The ending of the book especially reflects how publishing has enabled certain (mostly white) authors to get away with problematic behaviours.

Yellowface is expertly written. Kuang knows precisely where the punches need to be delivered, and gives the reader an insightful look into the publishing industry, whilst keeping the prose clever, thought-provoking, polarising, and darkly funny.

The constant pop culture references — like references to Lana Del Rey and The Office — gave the novel a deliberate feel. It accentuated the dark tone of the book, and intensified the realism of the story.

These attributes make the novel complex but incredibly readable — and worthy of all the praise it is getting right now.

Words by Aadya Paswan

Edited by Lucy Eaton


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