“Back in the day editors wanted their writers to stay home and write their next book, while the publicists sold their last book. You didn’t have to do any promotion if you didn’t want to. Now it’s a requirement, which means that writers who don’t have that self-promoting trait don’t have much of a chance.” —Lisa Alther
It is indeed a horror story, as well as a psychological thriller, and more. June Hayward, Kuang’s protagonist, is an aspiring writer plagued with menacing trolls lurking online rather than under bridges. She has, like everyone else she knows, relinquished her personal privacy for the serotonin boosts she gets each time she receives a positive comment or like on her social media posts.
But when the authorship of Hayward’s best-selling novel comes into question, and she is accused of stealing her more successful friend Athena Liu’s unfinished manuscript after Liu’s tragic death, her life becomes a nightmare filled with dread as she doomscrolls daily through hundreds of online threats against her, adversely affecting her sanity and her fledgling writing career.
At this point in Yellowface, Kuang’s narrative shifts to expose the pitfalls of today’s publishing world by showing how Hayward’s publisher, the fictional firm of Eden, motivated by profits, aids in the deceit, going so far as to promote Hayward by using the name her hippie mother gave her, Juniper Song, which suggests an Asian heritage she doesn’t possess.
What’s more, by writing as a white woman, Kuang confronts the recent uproar about cultural appropriation—what she refers to in a recent NPR interview as “…writing outside of your own lane.” Echoing Kuang’s belief that writers should be free to write without boundaries, Hayward reflects: “Meanwhile, I think writing is fundamentally an exercise in empathy. Reading lets us live in someone else’s shoes. Literature builds bridges; it makes our world larger, not smaller.”
Throughout the novel, Kuang deftly manages to elicit her readers’ sympathy rather than their disdain for Hayward’s dilemma by portraying her as a victim, whose only crime is her desperation to follow her passion for writing despite the incredible odds against success that have less to do with her skill as a writer and more to do with the biases and profiteering of the publishing industry.
As the story unfolds, Hayward’s compelling fall from grace reads like the best page-turning mystery, complete with brilliant plot twists, a malevolent ghost bent on revenge, and a final, dramatic showdown that reveals everything, setting the stage for Hayward’s future career.
Yellowface reveals that R.F. Kuang is a masterful storyteller willing to take literary risks to encourage empathy in a world that is increasingly in short supply.
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel: An Arcane History. Yellowface is her most recent novel.