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White Privilege Gone Rogue: a Review of R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface

Last December, I finally took the time to listen to the audiobook for R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface. By that time, enough reviews had been written to learn that most opinions about the book were similar to her past work including The Poppy Wars and Babel. However, when I completed my first listen, I agreed with some of the more negative reviews: hastily ended chapters, foreboding that never gets addressed, and weak metaphors. 

Given that The Poppy Wars and Babel are its predecessors, it makes sense that a satirical novel criticizing cultural appropriation in the publishing industry followed suit. It’s easy to criticize when an author branches off into a different genre. Especially when its an author critiqued for being “preachy” in the past and lacking faith in her readers. I should note that Yellowface is a satirical discussion of cultural appropriation. The fun part is: This Asian American writer takes on the narrative voice of June Hayward, a white woman and struggling writer, who steals the manuscript of her successful frenemy Athena Lieu.

The plot of this novel is simple: June Hayward is a struggling writer with a flopped book debut and a publisher who could care less about her work. In the meantime, her former creative writing classmate, Athena Lieu, is now a literary darling with three bestsellers, countless awards, and even a Netflix deal. Despite the difference in their careers, Athena keeps in contact with June, sending countless check-in texts and invitations to brunches. June’s insecurities and jealousy ring in her head: “Don’t we all need someone we can treat as a punching bag?” When Athena invites June to her apartment, she ends up choking to death during their pancake dinner. June uses the chance to take Athena’s new manuscript about the Chinese Labor Corps of World War I and passes it off as her own. Her editor urges June to publish it under the Asian-sounding name, Juniper Song, and take professional photos that further attempt at racial ambiguity. 

What ensues after the book becomes a bestseller is utter chaos. Athena’s supposed ghost taunts June online and Asian writers and activists speak out against June’s act of “yellowface.” June denies the accusations and spirals in her obsession with “making it.” Her defensiveness clouds her perception as she considers murdering the people questioning her work. “Maybe it was highlander syndrome–I’ve read about that before, the way members of marginalized groups feel threatened if someone else like them starts finding success.” June finally confesses, apologizing to Athena’s “ghost” who turns out to be a former publishing team member recorded the encounter and publishes her own account of working with June. The book ends with June planning a memoir to solicit a “what if we were wrong?” from protesters. “This will become, in time, my story once again.”

June’s frustration with her lack of success is relatable, as is her mentality of doing “whatever it takes.” However, June’s penchant for being unhinged is a prime example of cultural appropriation and white privilege gone rogue. June is the poster child for the “All Lives Matter” movement. She is the embodiment of the voices asking, “why can’t we celebrate everyone all the time instead of having these heritage months?” She says, “I think it’s dangerous to start censoring what authors should and shouldn’t write…I mean, turn what you’re saying around and see how it sounds. Can a Black writer not write a novel with a white protagonist?” In the meantime, others point out that Athena was only allowed to write the next great AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander) book instead of something new because “Asian was her brand.” She couldn’t discuss the nuances of being an Asian American but she was encouraged to focus on her experience with racial trauma. They note, “[The publishing industry] is built on silencing us, stomping us into the ground, and hurling money at white people to produce racist stereotypes of us.” Given that Kuang wrote Athena to be the same age as herself as well as being of Chinese descent, it makes readers wonder if Kuang went through the same struggles Athena did? Can an Asian author write a novel with a white–albeit unreliable–narrator?

Clearly, Yellowface is a conversation encased in novel form. Kuang pivots from argument to argument, each character begs to be heard. I argue that an Asian author can write a novel with a white narrator. The satire is only more poignant because of it, given context. Thanks to this satire, Kuang can critique the power dynamic at play in our world. She does this all while snatching that power back so long as people read her book. We celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month, not because of a belief that one heritage is better than another. But, because AANHPI stories have historically been overlooked. Celebrating heritage months is a way to unify our world and uplift our siblings in Christ, rather than putting down those who don’t share the same backgrounds as ourselves. This AANHPI month, I challenge you to listen, read, or watch a story that differs from yours. Ask yourself, what did you learn? Did anything change how you interact with the world? In any case, you will have walked in another person’s shoes and I hope it will lead to an interesting discussion and broadened worldview.

About the author

Brenna Taitano has a BA in English Language and Literature and minors in history, professional writing, and creative writing from Indiana University Kokomo where she works as a Technical Services Assistant at the library. She covers many topics on Instagram @bookish.brenna and her website, That One Christian Writer Girl.

More from Brenna Taitano.
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