‘Yellowface’ by R.F Kuang: An exploration of tokenization, white violence, and the publishing industry

In my Yellowface book review, I highlight how R.F. Kuang’s new satire shows what the violence of mediocre white women looks like.

I am a twenty-something who doesn’t trust the government, so of course I love satire. I’ve read all of R.F. Kuang’s previous work, which among my friends we call being a Kunag Completist, and have been continually in awe of her writing prowess. I was thrilled when I heard the premise of Yellowface. Previously, her novels have been a massive undertaking; fantasy that presents alternate universes of historical events that highlights just how cruel they really were. Yellowface is different. It is not horrifying because we watch children at war or young adults be stripped of their personhood as they’re mined for their cultural knowledge, but instead we see the violent underbelly of current-day America: white women. Now, before anyone gets too angry, I myself occupy the position of a white woman in society, so I am uniquely able to say that we have been the arbitrators of evil for centuries, but we don’t have to continue. White women have aided white supremacy for all of the colonized West’s history, and we have perpetuated bigotry in the hopes we would gain power. It doesn’t work. And in Yellowface, we watch a white woman, deep in delusion about racial politics, claw desperately for power as she exploits the people she should be offering her excess privilege to. It’s a fun read!

The book follows the unraveling of June Hayward, a painfully average, painfully millennial white woman who understands the internet enough for it to hurt her feelings. June is desperate for success, and is sure that she would have it if she was just Asian, like her sometimes friend Athena Liu. Athena has everything, from publishing deals and literary awards to big screen adaptations, and June has decided that this is because Athena checks a diversity box. One night, Athena dies in a devastatingly mundane way, and June is there. In between the heimlich and the EMTs arriving, while Athena’s body is on her own living room floor, June slips her friend’s just-finished manuscript into her bag. Then she publishes it.

I want to start my Yellowface book review off by pointing to the brilliance of the narrative structure of this novel. It is told in close first person, so we see everything through June’s skewed point of view. The message is, genuinely, embedded in the narrative. June states openly that Athena has everything they both desire because of who she is: pretty, well-off (although they both went to the same Ivy League with minimal debt), and Chinese. But June cannot admit that talent has anything to do with it, because it would be admitting her own inferiority. Yet, as soon as she published Athena’s writing, she gets everything she has always wanted and never achieved. Both of their dreams come true because of Athena Liu’s unadulterated talent. The way that the plot of the story is in direct opposition to what the narrator tells us is happening shows us exactly how delusional June is. It perfectly highlights the absurdity of mediocre white people believing that they are now getting the short end of the stick.

June is the amalgamation of every white woman who fundamentally misunderstands the progress much of society is trying to make. June knows what not to say, but she still thinks it. She views current politics as an overcorrection. June believes that she is suffering because she happens to be born in an era where we are “making up” for racism, and so white women cannot be allowed to succeed. Externally, from minimal conversation, you could believe June was a good person, but as readers, we get her inner monologue. We know the truth is quite the opposite. She used terms like reparations wildly incorrectly, showing that she has been around for anti-racism dialogue permeating popular culture, but has absorbed none of it. This positions her as someone who witnessed racial reckoning, but did not participate. June only learned enough to avoid being called ‘Karen’ in a Starbucks line.

We all know racists are delusional, and we see this throughout June’s point of view. She simultaneously resents that she is the most basic form of a millennial white woman and so is uninteresting, while hating the other white women who are equally as uninteresting as her. This is primarily seen through her familial relationships, as she has no friends. She isn’t close to her mother or sister, but takes tremendous comfort in that she’s not quite so unoriginal in her life choices as they are. This is the peak of irony, to simultaneously proselytize that the pursuit of the ‘exotic’ (see: non-white) is ruining society and feel as though every white woman that you know, besides yourself, doesn’t deserve to be heard.

yellowface book review

This book is interesting as an addition to the growing genre of unlikable women protagonists. We’ve watched films like Not Okay or read books like My Year of Rest and Relaxation. White women love to create media about other white women to see how horrible they can become and still garner some level of sympathy. These movies and books are useful in that they show us how society is corrupting someone at such a unique juncture of privilege and oppression, and what that should mean for us. These stories challenge the ideas that only good women deserve to be heard and sympathized with. And yet, in my Yellowface book review, I want to point out that they seem so trivial in the shadow of Yellowface because we should be telling Athena Liu’s story.

Truthfully, we have every version of white women already existing in media: good, bad, and complicated portrayals litter our screens. It’s enough. Yellowface balances the truth that we have to see this through June’s eyes to understand how sinister it is, with the knowledge that she is not the most important character involved. This book is still about Athena Liu, and how publishing reacts to someone they want to tokenize.

Athena dies very early in the novel—in fact, it was part of the book blurb. As readers, we spend a good deal of the novel forming our own righteous mob on her behalf, filling our heads with this picture of her as a perfect, talented goddess who June is stealing from and lying to herself about. But this is not the whole truth. June doesn’t like Athena, but she’s jealous of her, so initially we don’t trust anything she says about poor, perfect Athena Liu. And then R.F. Kuang shatters that illusion, too. We come to learn that Athena has poor politics, she’s uncomfortably accustomed to including trauma from people she knows in her work, and she was not particularly interested in helping other women of color. Athena is even a thief herself. Resisting the urge to make Athena Liu the perfect victim is what sets Kuang apart as a writer, because it allows us to see the undercurrent of evil affecting everyone in this world, and our own: publishing.

It would be easy to write a story where one person is evil, and the other is good. What is much more difficult, relevant, and interesting is to write a novel that exposes the industry of publishing and its commodification of people, pain, and experiences. June Hayward is an abomination because she cannot accept her mediocrity and dismissal within publishing, and becomes violent. But June is not just one individual; she is representative of the lengths people will go to in the world of publishing for the acclaim they crave. However, Athena Liu is not the perfect literary hero who succeeds on talent alone; she similarly abuses others and their pain in an effort to be one of the greats. Ultimately, Yellowface asks the question, “Can we trust anyone who has succeeded in publishing if we are aware of what they’ve been complicit in?” Kuang points to systemic evils instead of personal transgressions as the ultimate villain in Yellowface.

‘Yellowface’ published on May 16, 2023

Buy Yellowface by R.F. Kuang from HarperCollins, Bookshop.org, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

If you enjoyed this Yellowface book review, look for more recommendations on our books page.

Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank Erica Ito as a sensitivity reader for this Yellowface book review.