Delicious! Yellowface is tasty beyond belief, full of the kind of mean-girl drama that feels like eating potato chips and candy for lunch. "Best" friends stabbing each other in the back for money and--more importantly--instagram likes, blackmail and inadvised self-defense via notes app apology, a profile picture strategically cropped and shaded to make the poster look more ethnically ambiguous--it's got it all.
Among all the super-saturated drama, Kuang has created a precise, cutting portrait of the utter dysfunction of the publishing industry. It's all true--the editors who exploit a writer's traumatic background to sell books, writers who springboard off of their backgrounds and connections to tragedy to make themselves look heroic on social media. Publishers who pick and choose among books to be published so that the 'issue' books are fresh but not too revolutionary, upsetting but not too disruptive. Kuang actually casually namedrops AMERICAN DIRT, and, if you've followed that social media explosion enough to remember the details, echoes of that book show in YELLOWFACE: the author who claims a connection to an ethnicity that 'justifies' the way she writes about race and class, the social media outrage machine, the death threats both real and imagined, the money, the publisher's wavering support in promoting the book, the savage reviews, the way the savage reviewers drove sales even higher.
The most interesting part of YELLOWFACE, for me, is the insight into the protagonist's mindset. It's hard to sympathize with a woman who steals her friend's work, doesn't offer credit where it's due, and then borderline pretends to be a race she isn't in order to better promote said stolen work. But if you finish the book without seeing things from Juniper's point of view, you aren't paying attention. Juniper doesn't have the 'right' to write about marginalized Chinese immigrants, fine--but does Athena? Why is her ethnicity the key that unlocks that door, when her upper middle class American upbringing is just about as distant from that experience as Juniper's?
What does it even mean to have a 'right' to write about something? As readers, we're looking for something, an authenticity, an insight into Real Truth, and maybe, you know--maybe it's all fake, all the way down. Maybe that's the human condition, in a way. Or maybe not.
In spite of the fact that the rules are bullshit, and in spite of the fact that there are instances where Juniper writes Real Literature that is authentic and true, Juniper's actions, vis a vis stealing Athena's manuscript and fobbing it off as her own, are also bullshit, and while there is complexity there's no redemption. Juniper never gets her comeuppance, but her success in the system just serves to indict the system further.
All that to say, this book is lovely and fun and sharp and brutal. And you should probably read it.