Rebecca F. Kuang (2023) Yellowface.
Posted by celticman on Tue, 06 Feb 2024
Yellowface wowed me and as a reader (and sometimes writer) I’m not easily wowed. It offers both an insider and outsider account of the publishing industry masquerading as satire. Everyone that had hoped to have something published by the big four publishing companies, get an agent, or somehow get something published online or in print, should read Yellowface.
The setup is simple. Imagine Jesus was hanging about Galilee. Judas comes visiting and notices a manuscript that looks very much like Aramaic notation in Jesus’s copperplate handwriting. He makes off with it, knowing they’ll crucify him for it when he brings it out as his own Biblical book and call it Apocryphal.
‘The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her deal with Netflix.’
That’s a first line to die for. But there’s still another 319 pages to fill. I was discussing book theft or plagiarism with another writing buddy on ABCtales. Mark’s latest book, I told him, sounded remarkably similar to mine. I claimed ownership on the basis I was here first. Since neither of us are likely to sell over ten books in our lifetime, there’s lots of room for saving grace. But we both agreed if the devil came up behind us and told us we’d be an international number 1, New York Times Best Seller and not need to worry about cash again—if we stole our fellow scribbler’s manuscript—we’d jump at the chance. Of course we would. The only question would be if we could use smartphones to sign our contracts with the devil or would we need to use the old-fashioned cloak and dagger and signed in blood with an agreement date of when to collect out soul?
June Hayward knows what it’s like. ‘Every writer I know feels this way about someone else. Writing is such a solitary activity. You have no assurance that what you’re creating has any value, and any indication that you’re behind in the rat race sends you spiraling into the pits of despair. Keep your eyes on your own paper, they say. But that’s hard to do when everyone else’s papers are flapping constantly in your face.’
Narrator, June Hayward (Song) is an unknown writer. Her Yaley friend Athena Liu is on a different stratosphere when they move to New York. ‘It’s so hard for white writers to catch a break these days,’
June’s worldview comes right out of the Trump’s handbook of cultural malapropisms and cultural appropriation of grievances. The Great Replacement theory, also known as the white genocide conspiracy theory, posits that there is a deliberate plot (or conspiracy) to replace white populations in predominantly white countries with non-white immigrants, leading to the extinction of white culture and identity. The theory has its roots in far-right ideologies and has been propagated by various white supremacist groups and individuals.
‘Reading lets us live in someone else’s shoes. Literature builds bridges; it makes our world larger, not smaller.’
No surprise that Trump claimed to not read books while claiming to have written one (The Art of the Deal).
This tongue-in-cheek references are more feelings than fact mapped by Rebecca F.Kuang’s narrator June and feed her belief that she—and not her literary work—is being discriminated again. She is not part of the quota system.
For this belief to be true, she has to suppress another belief, which she also knows to be true. White, middle-class writers have dominated the publishing industry. They have had and continue to have more opportunities to publish their work than writers of colour.
June Hayward changes her name to June Song (a middle name handed down by a then hippy mom). In ‘The Last Front’ she writes outside her cultural niche about an indentured Chinese Labour Battalion in the first world war she can straddle two belief systems. But the centre cannot hold being Song, but not truly Asian. Like Al Jolson blacking up and singing about ‘Alabammy’ and ‘Mammy’.
‘This industry is built on silencing us, stomping us into the ground, and hurling money at white people to produce racist stereotypes of us’ she is told by her Asian nemesis, Candice.
She’s on the wrong side, because she’s no longer able to write, which, as any writer knows, is a different circle of hell. ‘Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic’ is what her life had been about.
Her persona appropriated and aligned with the perspectives of snowflakes or Asian backlash (choose your silo).
A whydunnit combined with old-fashioned morality tales which crawl up inside the publishing industry and readily show its Janus face. A satirical expose of class and racism in the publishing industry and online literary spaces. Read on.