Rebecca Kuang’s satirical psychological thriller cleverly captures the frustrations that many BIPOC have when white people occupy and appropriate nonwhite spaces
Moments into Rebecca Kuang’s satirical psychological thriller, Juniper ‘June’ Hayward describes watching her ultrachic, super- successful author friend Athena Ling En Liu choke to death on a pandan pancake. June is racked with guilt over not knowing the Heimlich manoeuvre better, but the regret doesn’t last long: as Athena’s lifeless body lies in the kitchen, June shoves her friend’s raw manuscript (a story about Chinese labourers during the First World War) into her purse. A mediocre author herself, June begins work on Athena’s text, improving – read, whitewashing – it to eventually publish The Last Front. Her publisher and PR team rebrand her from boring white June Hayward into Juniper Song, knowing that Song ‘might be mistaken for a Chinese name’ (it’s her middle name, ok?). She takes author photos that make her look ‘racially ambiguous’ and cultivates a Twitter persona who retweets ‘hot takes about bubble tea, BTS, and some martial arts drama called The Untamed’.
As sales of The Last Front soar and the book reaches the New York Times’s bestseller list, June thinks to herself, ‘I’ve fucking made it. I’m living Athena’s life… I have everything I ever wanted.’ She’s invited to speak on panels, teach workshops and even mentor aspiring authors in programmes catering to Asian Americans. But to no one’s surprise except her own, her audiences hate her. According to June’s very unreliable narrative, they are the villains of the piece (undermining her success by calling her out on her whiteness and cultural appropriation); when her Asian mentee asks, ‘Are you white?’, June internally whines, ‘What is she insinuating? That I can’t be a good mentor to her unless I’m Asian?’ Well, the book makes clear that navigating publishing as a BIPOC is a specific experience to which June, despite her ‘yellowfacing’, can’t speak. Her ivory tower starts to crumble when an anonymous account, @AthenaLiusGhost, tweets, ‘Juniper Song, aka June Hayward, did not write The Last Front. I did’, and the reader observes – with perverse glee – her spiral into unhinged delirium.
Yellowface cleverly captures the frustrations that many BIPOC have when white people occupy and appropriate nonwhite spaces for personal advantage. June’s first book, about two sisters ‘having the worst summer of their lives’, was lacklustre, but a story about Chinese labourers? ‘Diversity is what’s selling right now,’ June exclaims. Yellowface illustrates the potential for marginalised histories to be exploited, either by narrator or editorially, in their repackaging for a distinctly white audience; for example, Athena’s manuscript includes a moment inspired by historical events when Chinese labourers take their own lives following mistreatment by the British, but June and her editor cut it on the basis that it ‘feels like tragedy porn’. Once the editorial process is over, June reflects that Athena’s text has been transformed into something ‘better, more accessible… The original draft made you feel dumb, alienated at times, and frustrated with the self righteousness of it all.’ June’s irritations are those of some white people who, so used to their centrality, complain: what about me?!
As an Asian reader, I delighted in the recognisable absurdity of June’s attempts to navigate and narrate cultures to which she has no ties. I laughed aloud with each new outrageous ‘observation’: ‘It’s true what they say – Asian women don’t age’, says June upon meeting Athena’s mother; ‘I wonder briefly if these accents are put on to convey authenticity to white customers’, June comments after staking out a Chinatown restaurant for ideas; or even, ‘Apparently it’s not appropriate to call stories about Chinese people “romantic,” “exotic,” or “fascinating”’, is her incredulous response to criticism levelled at The Last Front. Yellowface brilliantly and savagely forces the reader to confront the ludicrous though familiar exploitation of diversity and identity politics within creative industries. I found myself nodding along to an anonymous critic within the book who tweets, ‘Will white people ever stop whiting?’
Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang. Harper Collins, £16.99 (hardcover)