REVIEW: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Reviewed by Francesca Jimenez

In Yellowface, R.F. Kuang delivers a bingeable, page-turner about cultural appropriation and racial identity. The novel also explores self-victimizing, delusional, and conspiratorial effects of social media, fueled by exploitative, capitalistic values that permeate publishing and are embedded in every crevice of society.

Athena Liu and June Hayward followed identical writing paths throughout college, meeting at Yale and taking the same classes. But their career similarities end there. The novel begins at the height of Athena’s career, having achieved the dream: three best-selling books from a major publisher, stellar reviews, multiple awards, and praise across all media platforms – all within five years of graduating. June’s debut novel does not find even a fraction of Athena’s success. Athena not only has the publishing success that June desires, she has it all: a Netflix deal, the fancy Dupont Circle apartment, and striking looks.

Then Athena dies in a bizarre accident in her apartment, June the only witness. In the aftermath, June sees an opportunity to steal Athena’s most recently finished manuscript about Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I. June Hayward rebrands to Juniper Song, under the guise of making a fresh start. As the novel progresses, June’s jealousy, rooted in having been denied her deep desire for meteoric publishing success, drives misguided decisions to the point of self-victimization and delusion.

Kuang’s choice of first-person point of view is critical to the satire of Yellowface. June’s perspective not only represents prevailing ideologies in publishing, but at-large, oppressive cultural values built from the bedrock of racial capitalism. June is unable to decenter herself, which renders her unable to comprehend or observe another community’s experience. In handling and editing the stolen manuscript, June can’t help but assume herself as the expected reader. She inserts white-centered characters for Westernization and whitewashes the experience of the Chinese laborers. Her claim that this brings more positivity to the story is a reactionary platitude of neoliberalism—one that adds diverse perspectives piecemeal only when they are valuable for commercial relevance and do not dismantle power structures.

While on the surface, June is a cringeworthy and infuriating character, readers get a look into her familial and personal wounds, allowing for empathetic insight into her motivations and providing glimpses of possible redemption when she does experience guilt. Kuang writes sympathetically about June’s personal history, adding an emotional layer to the character. Still, June’s background does not excuse or justify her actions in stealing and claiming Athena’s manuscript, nor does it promise June’s accountability.

Much of the novel takes place via June’s consumption of social media discourse on Twitter and Goodreads. June is increasingly obsessed with being online as she experiences the double-edged sword of success. She isolates herself in these scenes and throughout much of the novel. Though she is experiencing the success she always desired and envied in Athena, maintaining it seems tied to an insatiable public perception. Through the portrayal of June’s consumption of social media, Kuang provides a look at how societal values are impacted by an attention economy. June’s chronic obsession with being online is a direct mirror of our own behaviors in the social media landscape.  She says, “I can’t sleep. I lie awake every night until the sun comes up, feverishly refreshing various threads and accounts to see who’s retweeted or responded to what.” Kuang depicts how the maintenance of a constant online presence begins to decimate in-person discourse and conversation. For many, a break or detox from social media feels impossible– especially when career strategy is tied to it.

From the onset, there may seem to be an obvious moral answer to who is right and who is wrong in June and Athena’s friendship, but Kuang uses their precarious friendship and the parasocial nature of online discourse to touch on aspects of intersectionality around class. Athena is from a wealthy family, a privilege she does not unpack. Kuang writes that Athena “grew up attending private schools in England paid for by her parents’ tech jobs, summered on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.” Similarly, June does not reckon with her white privilege. Instead, she victimizes herself, saying, “I have been victim to people… who think that… reverse racism is okay. That they can bully, harass, and humiliate people like me, just because I am white.” June’s perspective demonstrates the need for nuanced conversation and accountability, as well as a deep desire for true reformative and restorative change, but that is impossible if the person in question does not reckon with or decenter their privilege. Kuang understands how social media and online discourse can provide momentum via visibility and support for change, but direct action remains offline, in person.

June, meanwhile, hopes to use social media to make the digital discourse go away. She says, “I wish there were some magical apology I could make, or defense I could offer… There’s no way to reverse the exposure.” While the commentary on social media is effective, the novel also uses theto further demonstrate how online and in-person interactions influence one another. Kuang includes scenes of this blended dynamic—at a Virginia literary festival about writing East Asia-inspired stories, when June tries to eat at a Chinatown restaurant, and an impromptu visit to her mom. These in-person moments illustrate the consequences of June’s actions, not only on her psyche but on her social relationships, or lack thereof. It is clear that Kuang meant for these face-to-face scenes to mirror June’s worsening mental state and continued lies.

With publishing as its backdrop, Kuang’s Yellowface depicts how communities that wield power in societal structures, do not benefit from that power structure in the long-term. Both Athena and June operate from scarcity mindsets. Athena believes her success means there is no space for anyone else with the same identity, leading her to feel threatened by the success of other female Asian-American writers within her communities. June is unsatisfied with her success and continues to want more, stuck on a hedonic treadmill inspired by capitalism. “I could walk away from all of this and be perfectly fine,” she says. “But my God, I want to be back in the spotlight.” June is willing to do whatever it takes to stay at the peak of her newfound fame and success.

Yellowface is a timely story that asks modern society to reckon with how neoliberalism and corporate capitalism co-opts the social progress made by historically oppressed and exploited communities. She also asks us to reflect on how human desires and personal ambitions, when not reached or met with compassion and support, can seethe and eventually lead to values of racism and exploitative capitalism.

Francesca Jimenez is an essayist and fiction writer based in Los Angeles. She is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the low residency program of UC Riverside Riverside, Palm Desert. Her work explores belonging and rejection through a lens of collective and intergenerational stories. She is also a rock climber, hiker, and classically trained violist.