Yellowface: the definition is on the front cover:
The practice of wearing makeup to imitate an East Asian person. This practice is generally considered offensive.
So, wearing ‘yellowface’ is akin to wearing blackface: the practice of white people darkening their skin to imitate people of colour, like the Black and White minstrels who imitated negroes in their vaudeville shows. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran in Britain for twenty years from 1958 to 1970. Obviously, it was popular, but it wouldn’t be aired now. Even during its popular run it received criticism for its racist undertones. Another example, Al Jolson: he appeared in the first Hollywood film to feature a substantial amount of sound, The Jazz Singer, wearing black face in 1927. The practice of yellowfacing is also common in Hollywood. Mickey Rooney played an Asian stereotype, Mr Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for comic purposes, while Asian characters are sometimes played by white actors, like Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg character (originally called Motoko Kusanagi) in The Ghost in the Shell or Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Dr Strange. The changing attitudes to blackface and yellowface represent the development of a more mature and thoughtful attitude towards race and respect for all cultures.
The ‘yellowface’ of Rebecca F. Kuang’s title is not quite so literal. It refers to the decision of June Hayward to pose as the author of her dead friend’s novel. At only twenty-seven years of age Athena Liu has had a stellar career as an author. On the night of her death she invites June back to her apartment to celebrate a Netflix deal she has signed for one of her books. Athena has had the kind of success June can only dream of. Her first novel sold for an astronomical figure, and since then she has enjoyed increasing financial and critical success. On the other hand, June’s first novel has been a dismal failure. Her agent seems disinterested and she anticipates being dropped by her publisher. When Athena chokes on a globule of half-cooked pancake mix in the middle of a drunken game, June is naturally distraught and tries to save her. She calls emergency services, but Athena is dead by the time they arrive. Yet when she returns home, soon to face the sympathetic outreaching from others on social media, she has Athena’s first draft manuscript for her latest novel in her bag. Athena had some peculiar writing practices. She wrote on an old manual typewriter. She had no electronic copies of her manuscript. No-one was allowed to read a word before she was finished. No-one, June understands, has read a word of Athena’s new novel. And no-one has any idea what it is about.
June’s decision to rewrite and polish Athena’s manuscript and present it as her own is motivated first by a sense of jealousy, which soon manifests as outraged righteousness. While Athena was a brilliant writer – far better than June could have hoped to be – June feels that her good looks, connections and ethnicity have favoured Athena while June’s career has been left to languish:
Publishing picks a winner – someone attractive enough, someone cool and young and, oh, we’re all thinking it, let’s just say it, “diverse” enough – and lavishes all its money and resources on them.
June’s moral barriers are further compromised by the memory of Athena’s own speculative musings:
I sometimes wonder [she remembers Athena saying] how my work would be received if I pretended to be a man, or a white woman. The text could be exactly the same, but one might be a critical bomb and the other a resounding success. Why is that?
It’s writing like this that tells us Rebecca F. Kuang will not be content to allow her drama play out along neatly defined moral paths. June, a white American, nominally from a privileged class, has stolen Athena’s manuscript. But we learn that Athena has also ‘stolen’ June’s story, a confidence June has entrusted to Athena which Athena has used for a narrative. She has also used the stories of Korean War veterans for her own fiction. The fact that she has been attending a Korean church (she is Chinese) suggests a level of manipulation, if not exploitation on her part. And if that is not enough, June is not the only character who feels overwhelmed by Athena’s success. It is hard to be told that your star cannot rise because you have been “told they already have an Asian writer”. So publishers are a part of the problem, too: like the economy is also the problem with the pressures it places on publishers to market their authors so as to make a buck. And the cultural context of publishing – the eruptive culture of the Twitterverse and the erosion of truth – is a part of the problem, too.
It’s a thought that recalls a real world controversy here in Australia. In 1995 Helen Demidenko won the Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Hand that Signed the Paper. The novel recounted the story of a Ukrainian family in World War II that collaborated with the Nazis. Most of the family were anti-Semites. The novel is written from the point of view of Fiona Kovalenko who is trying to understand her family’s history and how they became involved in Nazi massacres. The novel was controversial at the time because of its subject matter, as well as criticisms it received about the quality of its writing. Demidenko promoted her novel, as any author will, and engaged with the public and the literary community as a Ukrainian, often wearing peasant clothes to functions and encouraging people to participate in displays of Ukrainian culture. I recall an acquaintance of mine at the time who worked in the publishing industry, describing how Demidenko would encourage everyone to get up and dance traditional Ukrainian dances with her. The only problem, it turns out, was that Helen Demidenko was really Helen Darville: not a Ukrainian peasant, but the daughter of British immigrants. Darville had fooled everyone for two years. My publishing acquaintance was personally furious that she had been duped. Apart from Darville’s appropriation of a Ukrainian cultural identity, the controversy pricked at some thorny issues in the book industry, too. It allowed the integrity of the Award system to be questioned and raised the issue of the importance placed on an author’s identity for the purposes of promoting a book. In short, how were books promoted and valued? Was it for their quality, or were the politics of culture a critical factor? Would The Hand that Signed the Paper have succeeded without Darville’s faux-Ukrainian background?
A similar controversy emerged in America around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt a few years ago. Cummins didn’t pretend to be anyone else, but her book tells the story of Mexican immigrants and begins with the massacre of immigrants. Cummins, who is of Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, was criticised for her inaccurate portrayal of the Mexican immigrant experience and for indulging in “pity porn”. In short, this was not Cummins’ story to tell. This is what June’s theft represents: not only the theft of the manuscript, but cultural appropriation and exploitation. Potentially, it is a denial of the voice of others. Cummins, for instance was given a seven figure advance for American Dirt, while Latino authors received a pittance for their authentic stories (“I have published three books through indie presses and have not made more than $5,000 on them.” - Myriam Gurba)
As readers, Kuang makes us navigate a narrow divide between disgust and sympathy. June’s jealousy of Athena, her sense of being overlooked and a belief that she only needs to be given an equal chance, are common human feelings that will resonate with readers. Even when she acts poorly – when she attempts to cover her deception – June’s sense of desperation is real, allowing a kind of empathy for her position. Again, regret and the desire to be released from actions we would otherwise now eschew are common human experiences. Kuang’s manipulation of these feelings results in a skilled positioning of the reader, compelling us to feel involved with a character we might otherwise loathe. Even so, it is easy to see through June’s self-serving justifications and look past her assurances (to herself) that she is not racist. In fact, June understands her failures within the prism of race: “You people – I mean, diverse people – you’re all they want”. June’s attitudes have developed around a set of dichotomies, matching failure and success to being white or ‘diverse’. In essence, June’s experience and her floundering attempts to justify herself speak to a wider issue in America, the sense of White grievance exploited by Trump and the MAGA movement. When controversy around June’s book attracts the attention of right-wing commentators – “they’re turning this into a culture war issue” – her emotions elevate from despair to hope: sales will skyrocket once again, ironically boosted by white Trumpists now willing to buy a book about Chinese workers in World War I. “Obviously I’m not a Trumper,” June assures us, “I voted for Biden! But if these people are hurling money at me, is it wrong of me to accept?”
This is what this book has to say to me: Yellowface represents an insight into our modern world, not just the vilification of a specific act. I can imagine a reading group discussing this book with various opinions escalating into an argument. I’ve already laid out the various mitigating factors. What, after all, constitutes the stealing of a story? Surely stealing a manuscript is wrong. But is it okay to use the stories of others without their permission? Anyone is free to write what they want, by law, so is cultural appropriation acceptable? Is the industry, itself, complicit, because of the uncertainties faced by authors under the arcane machinations of promotion and rejection?
Behind all this is the Twitterverse and other social media, where people can pretend to be others, hide behind anonymous posts and engage in a gleeful pile-on without evidence or thought. June’s theft is wrong, but it represents an erosion of truth, with one lie followed by many lies to cover the initial deception. Those on social media act as sentinels of truth. But the wielding of social media as a weapon in this novel is endemic, and rather than acting in a high-minded fashion to protect ‘truth’, people inevitably act in self-interest. Truth is relativised: supported and abandoned, espoused and betrayed. In this kind of environment self-justification rather than learning and self-awareness is the norm.
Rebecca F. Kuang has produced a highly readable, tense and engaging story that raises moral questions around the publishing industry, but also reflects the problems of a post-truth America, as it has devolved since the Trump presidency.