Photo by L Ancheles

Words can never hurt?

A new satire skewers the publishing industry

Artillery Row Books

In RF Kuang’s thriller Yellowface, notions of cultural theft are taken quite bluntly. In this cruelly funny if melodramatic tale of literary enmity, Junie Hayward is a basic white girl author living in the shadow of her friend and rival, Athena Liu. Athena (a parody of Kuang herself) is a writer with “everything”: stupidly, ridiculously successful; diverse, young, attractive. When Athena chokes to death following an impromptu pancake eating contest, Junie takes the opportunity to steal Athena’s novel The Last Front, about unsung Chinese labourers during World War I, and pass it off as her own. She finishes the story, rebrands herself as the ethnically ambiguous sounding “Juniper Song” and publishes to wild acclaim.

Yellowface, RF Kuang (The Borough Press, £12.99)

The results are spectacular. Following some tweaks to the unfinished draft of Athena’s novel, which really mean swapping out authentic elements to make it more readable for an “American” audience, Junie is propelled to literary superstardom.

She fits the bill. She’s everything the industry wants. Her hubris is extraordinary, but it is made plausible by a slippery slope into full blown self-vindication and a desperate sense of entitlement. Whilst Junie soars to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, film producers circle and blather on about Roland Barthes but are really trying to whitewash the source material. Not that any of this matters to Junie, who’s too caught up in the buzz to let go. Doesn’t the story deserve to be told, whoever the teller? What right did Athena have to tell the story anyway?

Junie delights in her success before Twitter begins to rumble. Suddenly, the novel that was praised for its politics is torn apart as a “white saviour story”. The racist attitudes of characters within the novel are attributed to the author. Athena’s descriptions of “almond eyes” are used as citations to prove Junie’s exoticisation. Allegations of plagiarism abound. Junie becomes “the literary definition of yellowface”. Like any good virtue spiral, the mob doesn’t stop with the perpetrator. Other indiscretions are routed out for impurity. Even poor old (dead) Athena is dragged for being a “maybe-racist”, “Han Supremacist” and “race-traitor”. The hoopla requires Junie to exploit criminal levels of deviousness to keep the hoax going, leading to a sequence of ever more ludicrous events as the story spirals into a kind of ghostly horror thriller.

Kuang’s sympathies are firmly with the authors. Athena is doomed to play her role whilst Junie has suffered the neglect many first-time authors endure in a cutthroat industry. Efforts are made to make Junie sympathetic when we find out Athena once “stole” from Junie’s life for personal gain. Rather than offer her characters complexity in terms of motivation and values, it’s more that every character is irredeemable. Athena is vain, overpraised and exploitative. Her ex-boyfriend, Geoff, is a gaslighting leech. Like many of the cast, he is thinly characterised, described using shorthand as “a love interest from some dark and steamy YA novel come to life”. Whilst at times wickedly amusing and wryly observed, Kuang’s depiction of the world of publishing is so Hobbesian, it reduces questions of authenticity and exploitation to ones of basic self-interest alone.

Drolly, Junie rehearses arguments to anticipated pushback in a spirit of defensive “white fragility”. She magpies any and every possible justification available to her from inversion (can a Black writer not write a novel about a white protagonist?) to epistemic certainty (I did the work), to reversals (it’s not true to say Chinese people couldn’t be racist, too), to artistic freedom (it’s dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write) — to name a few. These arguments are accessories to the criminal mind of Junie and come off purely as the self-justifications of white privilege, but perhaps there are more sincerely held reasons why authors might want to write beyond their identity — something Kuang succeeds in doing herself.

It reveals the cannibalising and self-cannibalising nature of writing

Whilst cultural theft is what drives the plot of Yellowface, it’s the structures of privilege rather than cultural appropriation that are the target of Kuang’s scorn. That said, for all the morsels of culture war red meat, Kuang takes a more nuanced approach. Questions are raised as to Athena’s right to explore the suffering of her parents and grandparents. Isn’t she exploiting them for fame and money, too? For all it’s right on signalling, Yellowface is actually a more sophisticated and side-eyed view of the culture wars than it first might appear. Purple-haired Social Justice Warriors are as fair game as self-important, bloviating authors. White supremacy gets a kicking, but so does the censorious and intellectually reductive hellscape of performative liberals on social media. “This book is so racist that it’s obvious only a white person could have written it,” one blogger posts amusingly, unaware of who the actual author is. Kuang follows in a great tradition of equal opportunity satirists.

The real target of Yellowface is the way that identities and racial pain are exploited for commercial gain by a cynical and self-serving industry. In an age where oppression is often seen as interchangeable with authenticity, there have been real-life instances of “yellowface” with white authors adopting more Asian-sounding names to write about subjects deemed “off-limits” to them. Junie suffers from paranoia, jealousy and entitlement, but she too has been hurt by the industry and coarsened by its indifference. Similarly, the way Athena is marked out as the “token, exotic Asian girl” and expected to write on brand narratives of racial trauma for a pitying white audience raises questions of her own motives. The question here is not just who has the right to tell somebody’s story, but who gets platformed and why.

In the “bad art friend” debacle, a white author, Dawn Dorland, accused Asian American author Sonya Larson of “stealing” from her life to publish a story about a needy, overbearing white saviour who donated her kidney for likes. Larson enjoyed quite a lot of success, even lifting quotes from Dorland’s Facebook posts, but the resulting story was one of her worst. The scandal is said to be one of the real-life inspirations for Yellowface. It poses similar questions of plagiarism and artistic freedom but perhaps more than anything, it reveals the cannibalising and self-cannibalising nature of writing. As Amy Hempel wrote: “Aren’t we all, I thought, somebody’s harvest?”

These more sensitive agonisms bubble away beneath the surface, but they are ultimately steamrollered by schlockier, thriller elements — which, whilst fun, are decidedly un-thrilling. The novel really delights in the very knowing shade Kuang throws at an industry that feeds off her. Not since Martin Amis’s The Information has the venality, self-regard and absurdity of the writing life been so gloriously skewered.

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