Yellowface, Rebecca F Kuang


July 2023

An exceedingly clever literary romp that skewers the publishing industry, privilege, owned voices, authors’ ego and the desperation of debuts in one go.

June - Juniper - Song is a talented, hardworking and appropriately qualified young writer, but not one whose debut was picked out to polish up by the industry. Maybe she had the wrong agent, the wrong editor, publisher, publicist or distributor - Rebecca F Kuang (known for Babel, which sounds very serious and heavy in comparison) describes an industry in which it is rarely the book at fault, just that only a few can really succeed, and that comes down to who gets a juggernaut of support, and who gets none.

June’s frenemy Athena did get a shit tonne of support. What’s more, she is as beautiful as any A-lister and conveniently not white. The pair are having a nightcap at Athena’s apartment when the hit author chokes and dies. June steals her manuscript - just finished and not yet shown to anyone. It is about the Chinese Labour Corps, working class soldiers who supported the British in the First World War. An apparently untold story but one which Athena, as a Chinese American, was permitted to tell. Plain June Hayward, is white and mousy. But with her full first name, Juniper, and hippy middle name, Song, June becomes Asian to anyone who doesn’t know better. What follows is as much hilarious caper as shocking crime, as June drives deeper and deeper to defend what she has done, and other players cover themselves in shame along the way.

In an interview with The Guardian, Kuang says the following about the owned voices movement in fiction.

“We’re storytellers, and the point of storytelling is, among other things, to imagine outside of your lived experience and empathise with people who are not you, and to ideally write truthfully, and with compassion, a whole range of characters,” she continues. “Otherwise all we could ever publish are memoirs and autobiographies and nobody wants that.” For her, more interesting is how authors approach these stories: “Are they engaging critically with tropes and stereotypes that already exist in the genre? Or are they just replicating them? What is their relationship to the people who are being represented?” And, “most importantly, does the work do something interesting? Is it good?” While some concerns about the “permission to speak” come from desires to support underrepresented authors, Kuang thinks it “usually gets wielded as a double-edged sword against marginalised writers, to pigeonhole them into only writing about their marginalised experiences. And I hate this. It really functions as another form of gatekeeping.”

I agree, though I could not have explained my thoughts so well. And as a white person I’m not always sure I can say them - I don’t mean this is an indignant, unwilling to make mistakes or show my ignorance way, but in the straightforward sense that sometimes I don’t know ‘how’ to well explain my thoughts, which as Kuang points out is what matters - probably I should work on this instead of plea uncertainty.

Yellowface was sold as a thriller which put me off, as even the best page-turning thrillers tend to leave me cold. It was also sold at half price on Amazon, which led me and I’m guessing tens of thousands of others to stump for the hardback (£8.50). Like her character Athena, after the success of her previous books, Kuang was ‘chosen’ as one of the hit authors of the season. There’s no chance she hasn’t clocked the irony of all these good fortunes - the very same acts she satirises in her book - being conferred on her. But she is a brilliant writer, good for her! She is very young, 27, and beautiful. But this is not her first rodeo, it’s her fifth - her debut came out in 2018. Possibly the thing that niggles me is the pricing, which along with where a book is sold affects sales so heavily - whether supermarket or discount store, independent, or a lifestyle store like Arket or Oliver Bonas. The ‘where’ is one thing, but the half price hardbacks seems almost a step too far, turning an already uneven playing field into a cliff face with a sheer drop. But I know and understand little of marketing and sales and strategy, so feel free to ignore my tuppence-worth and spend your time reading Yellowface instead.

It is still £8.49 on Amazon!