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Book Review: ‘Yellowface’ is a darkly humorous polemic against exploitation

On the cover of the novel Yellowface is an explanation of the eponymous term: 

The practice of wearing makeup to imitate an East Asian person. The practice is generally regarded as offensive.

Those words give a not so subtle hint that this story by American writer Rebecca F. Kuang is about cultural appropriation and exploitation. And it is, quite an intriguing, funny, and quite cynical look into the worlds of publishing and social media.

The central character is a white woman called June Hayward, a young writer who has published a book but whose career is languishing. She is an acquaintance/friend of Athena Liu, a vastly more successful author whose career is taking off. 

When Athena dies in a quite unexpected fashion, June steals her latest manuscript, re-writes it, and passes it off as her own. Suddenly she is a sensation and the book is a best seller. But, people begin to question its authenticity and things begin to go haywire in June’s life. 

Kuang has cleverly written this book in the first person, so the entire story is told from June’s perspective. We get to share in her fears, emotions, and justifications as to why she feels she is doing the right thing. It is perhaps easy then to fall into a trap of feeling empathy for someone who is actually a delusional narcissist and thief. That empathy doesn’t last forever though, as June’s tortured mind reveals a darker and selfish side to her personality full of jealousy and self-righteous privilege. 

This is a very engagingly written book with no unnecessary literary devices or cumbersome descriptive metaphors to slow its progress. It is witty and at times savage in its takedowns of many vested interested interests.

The publishing industry does not come off very well in this. Excoriated for its fawning over ‘celebrity’ authors, and for limiting the opportunities of minority voices. It also takes aim at the viscous and ill-informed trolling that goes on in social media on all sides of an issue, and from every sector of society. Even people who see themselves as fighting for ‘just’ causes can be prone to deceptive and dodgy practices. It is in many respects an anarchistic place full of bullying and misinformation. But, it does make for very funny reading!

What is clear is that publishing is an industry, and like any other form of commerce, despite a supposed view of literature as a public good and high art, it is none the less a commodity and it is traded as such.

While Yellowface does quite clearly act as a darkly humorous polemic against the exploitation of minority cultures by mainstream white culture, no one in this story comes off as a truly decent human being, except perhaps Athena’s mother who it seems does have a moral conscience. 

The ending of the book is somewhat open-ended and the denouement itself where June is exposed feels a little too easy and contrived, but the entire story itself is wonderfully written, a good laugh, and at times, quite intense. 

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