By Rebecca F. Kuang
Spoilers!! (sorry, this has to be discussed)
This has to be one of my favourite books of the year. Junie Hayward, or Juniper Song, as she now likes to be known, lends her voice as the book’s narrator. I found it interesting that the author chose to give Junie the microphone and the platform to tell her story, given that she is terribly unlikeable and of course, unforgivable.
So who is Juniper Song? Well, she is a struggling writer who hasn’t reached the height she had wanted to with her debut novel. She is jealous of Athena Liu, an old university friend, who is now a successful author. Athena has everything that Junie craves; bestselling novels, fame, money, and everything that comes from being successful. And like Junie, Athena isn’t likeable either.
So when Athena choke and dies, Junie suddenly sees an opportunity to steal Athena’s unfinished manuscript about Chinese labourers in WW1. While previously she had debuted her novel under June Hayward, she decides to go by Juniper Song, which are in fact her real first and middle names. It is clear that the intention behind this is to come across as racially ambiguous to the readers. Even when she is getting her photos done professionally, she notes how the sunlight in the photos makes her look racially ambiguous.
The book employs a satirical style of writing while dealing with a serious matter of a Caucasian writer stealing the work of an Asian writer. I thought it was clever of the author to trick us into secretly rooting for the main character when she becomes a bestselling author and watching her social media followers increase in numbers. I never thought I would be worrying about her getting caught, and yet at the same time wanting for her to get caught.
It was nice to show how the publishing process works, and how the editorial and marketing departments work together to promote Junie’s book. It really does take a village to create a bestselling novel. For those not familiar with book publishing processes, this would make for a lovely induction into the world of publishing.
I thought the author tackled the cancel culture well. She showed us the ugly and dangerous side to being a hate figure online and offline. We go through that with Junie. In her lowest moments, you feel sorry for her and finding that cancel culture can go too far. When Junie defends herself and claims that Athena had used Junie’s personal trauma to write a story, it opens up a discussion on where we should draw the line when it comes to storytelling.
The book clearly starts a discussion on who has the right to write about the suffering of other marginalised group and whether research practices alone can allow someone to tell another person’s story. It doesn’t tell you the answer as the ending tells us that the discussion is ongoing.
Yellowface sheds light on publishing houses and editors who are equally part of the problem in helping whitewash stories belonging to other communities. Writers like Junie exist and thrive on platforms given to them. They possess the same thinking as Junie possesses and don’t care for the ethical or moral implications of stepping into someone else’s space.
I feel this book would be a perfect companion to a book club as it would open useful discussion panel in which everyone can share their thoughts and take something away from it.