Book Review: Yellow Face by R.F. Kuang

In R. F. Kuang's satirical metafiction "Yellowface," the author delves into the cutthroat world of the publishing industry in the age of social media, exploring themes of identity, authenticity, and cultural appropriation.

R.F. Kuang's 'Yellowface' offers a scathing critique of the literary world through the eyes of a writer who claims her late friend's work as her own. A mix of mystery and biting social critique from a minority perspective, this book is an unputdownable journey that leaves readers craving more.


Rich in detail and suspense, ‘Yellowface’ is more than just a novel; it's a mirror reflecting the sometimes murky ethics of creativity and the lengths to which individuals will go to claim a place in literary history. Perfect for those who love a story that provokes thought as much as it entertains, ‘Yellowface’ is an invitation to explore the shadows that lie between truth and fiction, and the spaces between the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell the world.

Why we loved it

With a sudden resurgence of reading through phenomena such as ‘BookTok’ and ‘BookTube’, the publishing industry has been at the forefront of introducing budding writers to satisfy the cravings of readers all over the world. But in a new age of social media and celebrity culture, writers are no longer just writers but influencers and personalities. Their existence and their works exist more than just the art of writing.

Rebecca F. Kuang’s 2023 satirical metafiction,Yellowface, seeks to unravel the inner workings and competitiveness of the industry while digressing from the juggling of fandom culture as a result of the proliferation of social media. 

Kuang’s ‘Yellowface’ cuts deep with the story of Juniper ‘June’ Hayward, an unsuccessful young author who witnessed firsthand the death of her former classmate and literary darling, Athena Liu. Realizing she has the manuscript of Athena’s final work in her hands, June decides to claim her deceased friend’s work as hers, rewrites and edits Athena’s story whilst justifying her ownership over Athena’s work.

Due to the novel revolving around Chinese laborers during World War I, she publishes ‘her’ book under the alias ‘Juniper Song’ to avoid controversy and tries to pass off as somewhat Asian. As the dome of lies built around her starts to crumble, June fights to keep her newfound fame alive, even if it goes too far. 

The title Yellowface refers to the term ‘yellowface’ where white actors change their appearance with make-up to play East-Asian characters. The act of ‘yellowface’ can be seen in Hollywood films such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Cloud Atlas (2012), and Scarlet Johansson’s controversial casting as Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 adaptation of Ghost In The Shell. Akin to ‘blackface’, this controversial act can be seen as ‘whitewashing’ or robbing opportunities of roles from Asian individuals. Instead, an outsider or non-Asian individual gets the chance to voice for them, silencing the Asian voice whilst potentially being harmfully misrepresented in the process. 

As an Asian writer, Kuang’s choice to use the ‘white author’ lens to engage in the discussion of modern publishing industry standards is interesting, to say the least. She uses the character of June to present the mind of a crazed writer, lost in her rhetoric and a bit too chronically online.

In the past, authors such as Shakespeare or Coleridge would take retreats to work on their next big manuscript. Writing is a private, intimate activity that the masses would not see until the very debut of the novel. However, nowadays, it is easy to track your favorite author’s life with just a click on Instagram stories, Snapchats, or stalk them on X (rip Twitter). Websites such as Goodreads and Buzzfeed are mentioned casually.

As you read through the novel, you will see the emergence of tweets, reviews, and comments reminiscent of real-life comments online. Perhaps Kuang’s young age makes her writing approach to the Internet a lot more relatable than most of her peers.

The novel also opens up a window to the behind-the-scenes of the publishing industry. The experience of publishing varies for each author. Some authors have the privilege and honor of having their works published under the Big Five (i,e: Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, etc.), while others either go the indie publishing route or self-publish. We can see June’s journey as a writer published from a small press to rocketing through stardom after being published by a Big Five publisher.

June barely makes any profit when she publishes under the smaller press. But with the power and backing of a larger corporate publisher, June achieves her dreams of being the next ‘Athena Liu’ – a title she doesn’t deserve. The process of publishing shown in the novel is almost akin to the star system of Hollywood, where the actors are attached to their works very closely. There are many instances where the conversation of public personas is almost placed on the same utmost importance as the book itself.

Kuang is not afraid to show the planned facade that authors may have created for their public images nowadays. The private and public spheres of every individual have been blurred due to easy access to information online. There are bound to be certain touch-ups to their own stories here and there, and that is what Kuang unfolds for her readers in the novel.

Despite being absent physically for most of the novel, Athena is one of the most prominent and interesting characters in the book. She is the only other author written in the novel. Her writing habits are revealed to be quirky yet unsettling at the same time, seemingly profiting off other people’s suffering through her stories. Kuang brings up the debate of who gets to speak in the Asian diaspora, both from the perspective of June (who is NOT the person for this job) and Athena, who herself is Asian-American like R. F. Kuang. Athena is said to use a typewriter to write her manuscripts, which is pretty cool from a writer’s standpoint. She would spend hours interviewing people, doing intensive research, and understanding the history before being inspired to write her next big hit, even if these stories were  not hers to claim.

Kuang uses June as a vessel to challenge all the ethics of writing and storytelling. These are hard questions to voice out. But when you have an insufferable, deluded, and unlikable character such as June, it makes speaking behind the ‘screen’ a lot easier. There is irony in how an Asian-American author using a white voice to speak of controversial topics is very much scattered around the novel, yet it raises essential concern that leaves readers pondering for more.

To read Yellowface is to be silly, crazed and wild about books. While there are many questions to unpack from the forefront of the novel’s concerns, Kuang somehow manages to write a fast-paced, attention-gripping novel that sails you through the complexities of her narrative. There is so much chaos, insanity, and hypocrisy that gets you screaming into the pillow, yet you want to continue watching June lose control over her life as her lies start to crack. It is rare to find a story that hones in a lot of publishing and writing. But there is not one boring moment and if you are looking for a wild journey to entertain your long car ride, Yellowface is your girl. And has been so for many others' such as Reese Witherspoon.

About the Author

R.F. Kuang, born in Guangzhou, China and raised in the United States, has a keen interest in literature and history that traces back to her early life. This interest paved the way for her storytelling, which often explores the intersection of Chinese history and speculative fiction. Kuang pursued higher education in the field, earning an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford. She is currently working towards a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

A bio photo of R. F. Kuang

Kuang made her mark in the literary world with the "The Poppy War" trilogy, earning accolades for her blending of historical events with fantasy elements. Her later works, including "Babel: An Arcane History" and "Yellowface," have maintained her reputation as a significant author in speculative fiction, achieving bestseller status. Through her novels, Kuang invites readers to reflect on historical complexities within engaging fictional narratives. Kuang is today an award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author.

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