#SheReviews Yellowface By Rebecca F. Kuang

May 13, 2024

The eternally profound and classy playwright, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) wrote, in the ethereally noble and cautionary tale of “Hamlet”, cuttingly of ambition as a character trait. He tells us that “The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream”.

Certainly the concept of ambition, in it’s most pure iteration, is something we humans require to achieve goals and be fulfilled in life.

In it’s darkest form, however, where people are stepped over and morals are abandoned, ambition creates a murky stain on one’s life.

Such truths are shockingly and poignantly captured in powerhouse American (she was born in China, but moved to the United States as a four year old) author’s, Rebecca F. Kuang, latest sterling novel, Yellowface. This sublime literary encounter is, in Rebecca’s own words, “in large part, a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry (the publishing industry)”. The term ‘Yellowface’ is defined on the front cover of the novel as “The practice of wearing make-up to imitate an East Asian person. This practice is generally regarded as offensive”.

Friends Athena Liu (a Chinese American) and June Hayward are twenty-seven year old Yale graduates (they met in freshman year) living in the perpetually buzzing and happening city of Washington, DC in America, who are both daring to take on the literary world by storm. It transpires, however, that both friends’ ambitions are divergently realised.

Athena, a “literary darling” has achieved greatness in terms of her writing gravitas and career. As June, our chief protagonist and first person narrator, tells us on the first page of Yellowface, “…she (Athena) has everything: a multibook deal straight out of college at a major publishing house, an MFA from the one writing workshop everyone’s heard of, a resume of prestigious art residencies, and a history of awards nominations longer than my grocery list. At twenty-seven she’s published three novels, each one a successively bigger hit”. Additionally, Athena now can tick off Netflix deal on her resume.

To say that June is a little envious of Athena would be a gross understatement. June is lividly green with jealousy of Athena’s accomplishments, and the adoring fan base that Athena has garnered.

June is working part-time as a tutor “at the Veritas College Institute, coaching the SAT test and ghostwriting common app essays, which is the default landing job for every Ivy League graduate without better prospects”. June’s debut novel, Over the Sycamore, which sold only a few thousand copies, is June’s only tentative and shaky foray into the publishing industry.

Then things change dramatically. Athena and June are at Athena’s apartment one night, when Athena chokes and dies. June, in her eyes seeing an opportunity, takes Athena’s unpublished notebooks from her study and takes them home with her.

It is in these notebooks that Athena has written a meticulously researched and detailed manuscript for a novel about the input of Chinese workers in World War I. The “masterpiece” novel is entitled “The Last Front”, and June sees her chance to attain literary greatness.

After adding her own input to The Last Front, June submits it to her literary agent, Brett, to be published, under the name Juniper Song (so naturally she sounds like she is Asian when she is in fact white). Eden Press (“a midsize indie publisher that has a reputation for cranking out award winning prestige fiction, for more money than I’d dreamed I would make in a lifetime”) get the publishing deal with June. The book sales and reviews are phenomenal and constant. The book gets on the New York Times bestseller list (every author’s dream accomplishment).

June has “made it”, and thinks to herself, “I have everything I ever wanted – and it tastes just as delicious as I always imagined”……. Or has June actually made it? Will her literally triumph last, or will everything collapse around her?

June was definitely not Athena’s best friend. In fact Athena didn’t really have “close friends”. But June changes this narrative for the world, so that readers of The Last Front will believe that June and Athena were ‘besties’. As June realises, “There’s no one who can contradict my account of our relationship. The whole world seems ready to believe that I was Athena Liu’s closest friend. And who knows? Maybe I was”.

June’s ‘team’ at Eden Press are formidable and straight-talking. There is June’s editor, the fearsome Daniella Woodhouse, and the bright and energetic Emily (in publicity) and Jessica (digital marketing).

It isn’t long before social media is being deluged with people who have ‘theories’ that June ‘stole’ Athena’s work. It does have a lot of Athena in the writing doesn’t it? There are soon an avalanche of June’s detractors and those baying for her blood. This impacts strongly on June’s mental health. As does the ‘sightings’ June starts to have of Athena (on one occasion when June is giving a book talk she thinks she sees Athena in the audience).

Brett and Daniella are wanting June to write another bestselling book after The Last Front, but June feels ‘stuck’. Can June ever write another winning book, even a mediocre one? Will June go down in literary history as the ‘author’ who stole Athena Liu’s manuscript? Can anyone prove it?

Will June keep on telling the world that she wrote The Next Front? Did anyone else see Athena’s unpublished manuscript for The Next Front?

Will Athena’s suspicious ex-boyfriend, Geoff, throw a spanner in the works?

Why does June quit her job at a writing workshop before she is fired? (And why is she in danger of being fired?).

Will June’s mom keep pushing for June to go back to study, and perhaps be an accountant like her sister, Rory?

Will June be exonerated of stealing from Athena’s writings, or will she be found guilty of the literary fraud of the century?

Is someone out to get June, including the trolls on social media, or is June becoming mentally unwell?

What did Athena ‘steal’ from June while they were students at Yale?

As June laments to her mother, “I can’t rely on my old work….I need to write the next best thing. And then another. Otherwise the sales will whittle down, and people will stop reading my work, and everyone one will forget about me”. June most definitely wants to be ‘somebody’, and will be ruthless in achieving that end.

Rebecca has written a novel of supreme intelligence, insight and wisdom, with highly accurate and incisive observances of societal mores.

Themes of ambition, deception, the inner workings of the publishing industry and mental health are cleverly examined in Yellowface.

Bravo Rebecca! You have written an exemplary and so well constructed novel. I eagerly ate up every word.

Yellowface was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick, so one can be assured it has had a high readership. Thanks to my mother who was watching ABC News Breakfast on television one morning and saw the wonderful author, Sally Hepworth, recommend

Yellowface as a great read. That recommendation, passed onto me by my mother, was the reason I read Yellowface. (People do take notice of author recommendations for books to read. Thank you Sally!).

Thank you Rebecca for writing a tale for our times that had me turning the pages faster and faster the further I got into Yellowface. I loved Yellowface and can’t wait to read whatever Rebecca writes next!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.