Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang

Well this was a great book that I really enjoyed and read over the course of one day.

Friendships take many forms with the friendship revealed in this book between June and Athena as one of jealousy and rivalry. Both are writers who met in college but one of them has hit the big time. Athena had her first book published whilst she was still studying, made a lot of money and continued to write successfully. June wrote a fictional book about the relationship she had with her sister, probably a little too autobiographical, and went no where, failing to get a big publishing house to take it and going downhill from there.

What really sets the tone of this book is the accident where Athena dies choking on home made pancakes that she and June were eating late one night. Eventually, she gets home after all the emergency services, including the police, have spoken to her and falls into her bed but she comes home with a little more than she went out with.

Meanwhile, in my bag, tossed at the floor of my bed, Athena’s manuscript sits like a sack of hot coals.


There are several of these cliff hangers at the ends of chapters.

So June edits the manuscript quite considerably and sends it off to publishers. One bites and then they all do, going to auction and ending up with a medium-sized indie publisher who just luurrve the book. They make a few more changes, taking out some of the harder hitting material and replacing it with softer, whiter material for this is a book about the treatment of the Chinese ‘volunteers’ in WWI. Now June is not of Chinese descent but changes her last name to her middle name ‘Song’ telling the story of why she is doing this but making it appear as if she is Chinese in some way. And here we have the first dilemma as far as social media is concerned. Can White people write about any other people who are not white? Then stories start to emerge online about this not being June’s story but Athena’s and the haters and trolls attack. However, in there are one or two people who seem to know more.

The story then twists and turns and is a wonderful window into the publishing world, the role of social media in making and breaking those in the arts and where ideas come from and so who owns them. First June takes the whole book and edits it, then she starts off her next book with a paragraph written by Athena but the rest all her own work. Athena is accused of ‘stealing’ dialogue, stories and events from friends and those she meets to use in her books. So the third dilemma is do all writers use things they have heard, seen or watched in their own writing? In schools we call this borrowing or magpie-ing and use it as a legitimate strategy to teach children how to write. We manipulate paragraphs written by others – in fact June does this with a writers’ workshop where the homework is to take all the adjectives out of a paragraph written by Dickens. I suppose money isn’t being made out of this type of activity where as big bucks are made out of publishing sensations.

Also running through the book is the involvement of writers of colour in the publishing world and how they are treated. There are editors who say that they need a ‘spicier’ story or who think that because they have one Asian author they don’t need any other. It’s racist although working hard to try not to appear so.

The biggest role in the story after June, is social media, how negative press can be taken up and promoted by anyone and everyone regardless of the truth involved and whilst it does die down, some people make it their life’s mission to continue. You have to wonder if this has happened to Kuang.

Reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online.


As I was reading this book, I also glanced at an article in the newsletter from Lithub where an article about a successful author who believes his latest book has not been taken up and published because he is White and writing about a Black teenager who killed a white deputy Sheriff in Georgia. The article points out the ridiculousness of only being able to write about our own lives. American Dirt was cited as a book that got into difficulties because of the type of marketing used around it, saying that it ‘defined the migrant experience’. Quite bold and had it been marketed differently would never have attracted the negative attention it did. As the article goes on to say, most readers had never heard about the controversy: I hadn’t when I read the book.

A fascinating peek into the publishing world and a wonderful publishing heist thriller.

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