R. F. Kuang


Worthy of its standing and reputation.

Jun 26, 2023
Dimitris Passas

"But isn’t that what ghosts do? Howl, moan, make themselves into spectacles? That’s the whole point of a ghost, is it not? Anything to remind you that they’re still there. Anything to keep you from forgetting."

"Have you ever wondered at the mechanics of popularization? How does someone go from being a real person, someone you actually knew, to a set of marketing and publicity points, consumed and lauded by fans who think they know them, but don’t really, but understand this also, and celebrate them regardless?"

In one of the most hyped and discussed releases of this year, R. F. Kuang's Yellowface accomplishes several divergent objectives, with the most eminent being a thorough lambasting of the ills of today's publishing industry and its exploitation of cultural appropriation in literature. The term cultural appropriation refers to "the act of borrowing specific elements and symbols from other cultures and then incorporating them into a work of art." (Young, 2008) Furthermore, Kuang's fifth novel to date, after The Poppy War series and Babel, touches several additional themes, and it can be also read as a commentary on the rising cancel culture in social media, a story about the relationship between two frenemies as well as a thriller chronicling the consequences of a high profile literary theft. The novel begins as a Highsmithian in spirit, story about a con-artist who steals the work of a deceased individual and presents it as his own, a plot premise also reminiscent of Yann Gozlan's 2015 film A Perfect Man (original title: Un Homme Ideal) that leaves promises for a story that is filled with tension and twists until the end. However, Kuang doesn't seem to invest much in this aspect of her book, and she concentrates her focus on the subjects that I've already mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.

The main story concerns two young authors, Athena and June, who met while studying at Yale University and forged a friendship that was not devoid of substantial amounts of schadenfreude and bitterness, especially from June's side as Athena seemed to live the dream of any new author, seeing her books published by major players in the publishing industry and some of them even opted by Netflix for a television series. June, on the other hand, has published one novel that didn't get much attention either from critics or the readership, thus making her feel deficient in talent. Yellowface possesses a metafictional aspect too as it is tough not to discern the similarities between the fictional character of Athena Liu and the author herself as Athena "is a young, Ivy-League-educated, Chinese-American female author who got her first book deal in college, writes about the Asian diaspora through a historical lens, and raves about her books on Instagram — many qualities reflected in Kuang herself." as H. E. Gadway keenly observes in her review on The Harvard Crimson. This fact bolsters the validity and credibility of the plot events concerning the harsh realities of today's publishing industry, with June, the sole, first-person narrator of the story, having to navigate through the vicissitudes of a voracious, vulture-like business which possesses the power to make someone a star or throw him into oblivion. This capriciousness is extensively exposed and criticized by the author, who feeds her protagonist with memorable lines both in the dialogue and the inner monologue parts of the novel.

The opening chapter introduces the two "friends", Athena Liu and June Hayward, who meet for a girl's night out in Washington, DC to celebrate Athena's agreement with Netflix regarding the adaptation of one of her works into TV series. After drinking spirits in a bar, they return to Athena's flamboyant residence to have a last drink and chat a bit more. But things take a nasty turn: Athena dies after choking on a pancake, (!) and June is unable to help her, sitting by and watching the spark leaving her friend's eyes. After she calls 911, she wanders around the house and spots the drafts of Ahena's latest project, a World War 1 novel revolving around a forsaken, niche historical subject, the sufferings of Chinese laborers sent to the western countries to help with the war. June works on these first drafts, infusing the text with her own style, however being careful to retain the story's basics as Athena crafted them after a meticulous research on the subject. What ensues is June's introduction to the circles of the most discussed young authors, landing a six-figure contract with an independent publishing house and even discusses a potential movie adaptation of The Last Front (the book's title) with some eminent Hollywood producers. Nevertheless, soon the past catches up with her and one day she sees a torrent of posts in social media accusing her of stealing an original work by her dead, so-called friend.

While not exactly plot-driven, Yellowface features an intriguing and addictive main storyline while the author's writing style augments the novel's pacing, "Kuang’s prose mimics the constant streams of content that flood social media feeds. It also mirrors the rapidity of public opinion and outrage, both of which play significant roles in the novel’s plot". (The Harvard Crimson) We follow the story through June's eyes and early one we suspect that she may be an unreliable narrator as Kuang subtly hints through the employment of various tropes and techniques, forcing the reader to read more carefully to pinpoint the parts where June is not as honest and reliable as she presents herself. Moreover, Kuang devotes many pages to how the protagonist is affected by the quotidian posts in social platforms such as Twitter or Goodreads. At one point, June exclaims: "I can’t help it. I need to know what the world is saying about me. I need to sketch out the contours of my digitally perceived self because at least if I know the extent of the damage then I’ll know how much I should be worried." Kuang cauterizes the modes of victimization as manifested in contemporary online media and allows her character to succumb to the vicious habit of "doomscrolling" -the incessant up-and-down in Twitter's feed- and become a subject of controversy as her career reaches its pinnacle. In another part, we read: "I should have stopped looking once I’d glimpsed what I thought was the bottom of the pit of internet stupidity. But reading discourse about myself is like prodding at a sore tooth. I’m compelled to keep digging, just to see how far the rot goes."

What is more interesting, though, is June's attempts at justifying her treacherous act, with the arguments changing through the course of the novel. At the beginning, June says both to herself and the others: "I inherited a sketch, with colors added only in uneven patches, and finished it according to the style of the original." We see how essential it is for her to believe that she is not just a common con-artist or thief but a true writer who added to the texts elements from her own style, thus the final result feeling something like a collaboration of sorts between the deceased Athena and herself: "See, the closer we seem, the less mysterious that resemblances to her work will appear. Athena’s fingerprints are all over this project. I don’t wipe them off. I just provide an alternative explanation for why they’re there." The outbreak of the plagiarism scandal is addressed head-on by June, and she manages to put it under wraps, or so she thinks. Because the squabble in respect to the originality of her work is rekindled after the publication of her follow-up novella, which is also based on Athena's notes. I suppose that Kuang wants to pose a timeless question, if there is any work of art that is not -more or less- an indirect copy of another's work. Anthony Cummins writes in his review on The Guardian: "Everyone’s bluffing, Kuang seems to say, and in its deepest implications Yellowface ultimately posits any creative act as a pilfering of one sort or another."

The cultural appropriation motif permeates the whole novel, with June's fitness to write a novel that involves characters coming from foreign races and cultures, in this case the Chinese laborers, is brought into question early on and invokes a wave of anxiety and nerves to our narrator. We see, through the process of June's novel publication, that the industry considers the authors who come from an ethnic/racial minority, the most appropriate ones to write about their own people and overall culture. White authors, on the other hand, find this fact rather vexing and call for artistic freedom that often leads to racially insensitive texts that provoke public outrage: "Kuang clearly demonstrates sides of the book world that readers often choose to ignore, including how publishing houses see authors of color only through the lens of diversity, the ways in which the industry normalizes casual racism, and the various excuses that white authors make for insensitivity and ignorance." (The Harvard Crimson)June is not an Asian woman, as Athena was, and she is deemed not the more befitting author to write about such a specific, in historic terms, group of people living at a certain point in the past. Readers of Yellowface are bound to comprehend how significant the appropriation issue is for Kuang as an Asian woman and a young author.

The wittiness of Kuang's prose makes the words feel like singing on page and this is the foremost upside of the novel. The story develops at a rapid tempo, thus rendering the whole reading experience a rather delightful feat. I wasn't aware of R. F. Kuang's work, as I am not the most avid fan of fantasy fiction, but Yellowface lives up to its reputation and acclaim. An unmissable title by any means for all literary fiction aficionados around the world.


R. F. Kuang
William Morrow

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