HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang

Review: Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang

Is Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang a thriller? Check. It has a dead body in the first chapter. Is it a horror story? Check. It has a ghost. Is it a satire? Check. It abounds in dark humour.

140,000 Chinese labourers (as a part of the British Army, the Chinese Labour Corps) served for both British and French forces in World War 1. ‘The Last Front’, the novel within Yellowface, is about the ill-treatment of those labourers. (Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons)

Set mostly in Washington DC, this genre-bending book opens with the protagonist, June Hayward, having dinner at the home of her frenemy, Athena Liu. Both writers in their mid-twenties who went to Yale University, they are celebrating Athena’s Netflix deal.

They have had divergent career paths. June’s debut novel had dismal sales and she can’t come up with an idea for a second book, while Athena became a literary star straight out of college and went on to publish several commercially and critically successful books.

323pp, ₹699 (HarperCollins India)
323pp, ₹699 (HarperCollins India)

Their backgrounds are also different. Athena is a beautiful Chinese American who grew up all over the world, while June is an ordinary middle-class white American. June, in whose first-person voice the story unfolds, admits she harbours “a vicious jealousy” of Athena.

June acknowledges that Athena is “a fucking good writer”, but believes that her “… star power is so obviously not about the writing… Publishing picks a winner – someone attractive enough, someone cool and young, and oh,… let’s just say it, ‘diverse’ enough.”

Yellowface quickly gets to the plot’s inciting incident. After Athena chokes on her food and dies, June steals her manuscript. The manuscript, which Athena had just finished, narrates the harrowing experiences and ill-treatment of about 140,000 Chinese workers whom the British Army recruited during World War I. June admits that the story is a “masterpiece.”

Yet the manuscript needs a lot of work. It’s “not even a proper ‘draft’; it’s an amalgamation of startlingly beautiful sentences, bluntly stated themes, and the occasional ‘[and then they travel – complete later]’…” June says. With Athena’s spirit hovering over her, June’s writing flows like never before and she dramatically transforms the manuscript. Writing, June says, “is the closest thing we have to real magic.” But “no one will ever understand how much I put into this novel,” she says.

For the book’s premise to work, the author had to make June a virtual psychopath with barely any intimate relationships, and Athena a secretive writer who is also more or less friendless. How else can the literary theft take place without being immediately detected? Character development is subservient to the book’s plot and themes.

But that is precisely where the book’s power lies: the way the author weaves various themes around a riveting plot. Full of millennial/Gen Z slang, such as ‘beef’, ‘ghost’ and ‘shitpost’, its high-spirited prose slaps, to use the same lingo.

Like a sprinter who reaches the finishing line while juggling several balls, Kuang keeps the story moving at a dizzying pace while eviscerating modern publishing and the commodification of literature, exploring the complexities of cultural appropriation and literary collaboration, lampooning cancel culture and social media trials, and describing the peaks, troughs and plateaus of the writing life.

June sells the manuscript to a prestigious independent publisher for a huge advance. The editors suggest that June use the Asian-sounding pen name Juniper Song by combining her full first name and the middle name her mother gave her during her hippy phase. Her editors are worried that some readers might question a white woman’s locus standi to write about white Westerners’ treatment of Chinese workers.

The irony, of course, in a book teeming with ironies, is that it was a Chinese writer who wrote the book. Did the editors sense deep down that it was too authentic to have been written by anyone else? Yet, and here is another irony, the editors, with one eye on the market, request June to dilute some passages to make the white characters appear in a less harsh light.

Titled The Last Front, the book is a huge commercial success, giving June the kind of money, attention and adulation that Athena had taken for granted. That’s when things start going badly wrong. Athena’s Moleskine diaries with notes for the book turn up. As does Athena’s ex-boyfriend with secrets. Then Athena herself briefly surfaces at a book reading, terrifying June. Did Athena stage her death? Or is the apparition just June’s repressed conscience, like Banquo’s ghost was for Macbeth?

Author Rebecca F Kuang (Mike Styer)
Author Rebecca F Kuang (Mike Styer)

Several Asian American sceptics, including a book reviewer, attack The Last Front, either because they suspect plagiarism or feel a white woman has appropriated a Chinese story. Social media pours vitriol on June. “Trolls have me doubting my own understanding of myself,” she says.

In the meanwhile, under pressure to write another bestseller but with her well of ideas still dry, June steals again – from Athena, whether dead or alive. This time June justifies the fraud by saying that Athena was also a literary thief because she brazenly stole from people’s lives for her fiction. Just as it seems like June’s game’s up, she hatches her most audacious plan yet.

Kuang, who is just 27 but already has four acclaimed fantasy books behind her, might well have modelled Athena on herself, but this, and here’s yet another irony, also makes her different from that character. To top all ironies, the publishing firm has had no problem backing Kuang’s mordant satire of the industry to the hilt, because it probably suspected that the book would sell well. It was right.

Sumana Ramanan is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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