Warning: contains minor spoilers
Plagiarism is an ongoing topic in the literary world, from Emma Cline being accused of stealing her ex-boyfriend’s notes for what would become the blockbuster novel “The Girls,” to Ian McEwan having to defend himself for being inspired by another author in his writing of “Atonement.”
The act of stealing another person’s work is embedded into the depths of literature and academia. A famous quote attributed to T. S. Eliot, but repeated throughout the history of artistic creation is “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It’s safe to assume he didn’t have literal stealing in mind. With generations upon generations of literature at our disposal, there is bound to be a grain of influence upon newer creations. However, one question that comes from the inner workings of publishing, at least from conversations within the writing community is “who has the right to tell specific cultural stories?” That is a glimpse that the novel “Yellowface” dares to answer.
R. F. Kuang, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Poppy War” trilogy and “Babel”, is due to release her newest novel that poses as a satirical take on the publishing industry. Splattering on the canvas are the many prejudices writers of marginalized identities face: brushed by authors writing stories they have no cultural or relational ties to, and how the conversation for appropriation is one that appears sparse in publishing houses. What starts as a story of an envious, less successful writer, quickly becomes a lens for how the literary world talks about these topics, quickly induced into the feverish delirium our narrator begins to spiral into due to the connected pressures of social media.
For most of her literary career, June Hayward, our main character and point of view in the story, had always compared herself to the great Athena Liu. Both graduating from Yale University, both women find themselves taking paths into separate parts of the published author experience. June experiences a more negative viewpoint: half-assed publishing backed by careless editors, literary agents who take weeks to respond, and lower than expected sales from her first novel that goes by barely noticed. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why June is constantly comparing herself to her “friend” Athena Liu. Her counterpart already having published many successful novels and on the high of closing a Netflix deal for one of her books, Athena is everything that June is not.
After one fateful night when June and Athena are hanging out, tragedy strikes. Athena dies in a freak accident which leaves June in a weird state of faux-grieving, but forces her to make sense of her friendship to the recently deceased. One thing that June takes away from the death is something that Athena had planned to publish: her war story of a manuscript that covers the lives of Chinese laborers who faced inhumane circumstances during World War I.
While June tries to pick herself back up again, she decides to edit and polish Athena’s manuscript. Her reasoning: “It’s what Athena would’ve wanted.” As she gets to know the story more, researching the history behind the subject matter and fixing parts to make it more understandable – in June’s own perception, accessible and less boring – she decides to publish the novel as her own creation.
She’s quickly met with six figure deals, offers from publishing houses, and the highest of praise that grows the little self-esteem she had as an author. The life she had always dreamt of for herself, the one Athena had lived and had left June calloused, is finally hers.
Through the buildup of the stolen novel’s publishing, Kuang gives us an inner lens on how race is toyed with, depending on who is handling the content matter and what they think appeals to a broader audience rather than the one originally intended for. June’s editors insist they make the war story a love story, changing the names to make it understandable but non-stereotypical, going as far as changing June’s name to Juniper Song. The last name, being a nickname given to her by her mother, would help insinuate to readers the author is closely tied to the cultural content matter. If anyone asks, she deflects by saying, “who is the racist one?”
With the book being published and out into the world, June begins to face accusations that keep her nerves shot. What Kuang does for readers is offer an insight into how Twitter is a place for authors who use their platforms for good, but also for those who respond to the harshest accusations in the most irresponsible manner. Glimpses of trolling and vulgar insults are flinged towards June, posing as Athena’s ghost, accusing her of stealing the manuscript from the late author.
In the mass hysteria June faces, Kuang also introduces recollections back into the early years of both women’s time as newly published authors. Not only do we continue to see June buckle under the accusations, we also gain a newer impression of Athena that brings readers towards the topic of tokenism. When June recalls a specific moment she had with Athena, it allows us to understand the late author as a person. When Asian authors reached out to Athena at the height of her success, she would vocalize her annoyance, indicating that if she were to help someone who closely resembles her, she would no longer come off as this special prodigy.
Kuang explains this in Interview Magazine: “She has benefited immensely from acting as a cultural broker, depicting Chinese-American stories in a certain way to maximize the attention and interest she gets from it. Which means that she also is deeply suspicious of all other Asian creatives.” It is through June, as irresponsibly destructive as she may be, that we gain this portrayal of Athena as a writer who comes from a more marginalized background but carries susceptible prejudices of her own.
The novel is endearing, giving over to the social media obsession over literature; how Goodreads active reviewers and the power of outspoken online trolls is closely intertwined to the longevity of authors who are either hailed as heroes or scrutinized for their ignorance. They become the internet personalities we either love or hate.
R.F. Kuang not only invites readers into the realm of the publishing world, but also gives social commentary in a satirical fashion. Glimpses of tokenism here, cuts of casual racism lurking around the corner there, which come off as shocking, but normal in the profession and the fire we don’t dare take our eyes away from.
“Yellowface” comes out May 16, wherever books are sold. A copy of the novel was requested from the publisher for early review.