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Published on: 09/17/23 6:36 AM

Book review: Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang

The perils of purloining

This book quite lives up to the buzz it generated at release. It`s a brief,  acute meditation on the agony and the ecstasy of writers, the insecurity that goes with the act of turning author, the imperatives of the publishing industry. All of this shelters under a zinger of a story: June Hayward,  a less-than-successful writer resentfully lurking in the shadow of her wildly successful writer friend Athena Liu, grabs a chance to make off  with the latter`s unfinished manuscript in the most macabre of circumstances. What`s more, she has the temerity to pass it off as her own, get it published, and then bask in the huge backwash of approval it garners. As expected, given that Liu was a bestselling author, sales success, excellent reviews, promotion platforms galore, and a glittering halo are achieved literally overnight by June Hayward.

However, we the readers know that Nemesis can`t be far behind this plagiarizing author. And when the house of cards she builds frantically comes tumbling down almost equally frantically, it doesn’t really surprise us , though strangely it does dismay us.

June constantly reminds us  that she has rewritten large parts of Athena`s war novel, convincing herself in the process that it`s an almost-original manuscript she submitted to the publishers. Her conscience seems to be a wispy thing at best, and it is darkly funny when she says she has worked damn hard on Athena`s story, from dawn till past midnight,  for weeks. `It`s not like I took a painting and passed it off as my own,` she states. `I inherited a sketch and finished it according to the style of the original. `

An imposter tale

Told in the first person, June (Juniper) Song Hayward`s imposter tale actually is studded with moments when the reader draws in a sharp breath at the effrontery, the twisted tactics employed by June in her quest for fame…soon enough, she`s calling her act of literary theft a collab!

However, that is merely the pivot for a story that touches on the downsides of a writer`s life: the long and sometimes futile wait for recognition of one`s work, the many slights one faces from literary  agents/ publishers/editors, the relentless cycles of promotion required. Alongside this is the urgent requirement  of  a thick skin, in the days of internet trolling, since one is bound to rouse random people`s  ire and derision, which they will immediately dump on social media.

Add to this already toxic mix two vital factors: one, June`s secret, that it is not a story she wrote. And two, the fact that the story could well be seen as  an act of cultural appropriation; June Hayward is white and Athena Liu,  the deceased writer of the original  manuscript about Chinese chain gangs of labourers employed by the Allies in WW1, is Asian. Thereafter,  the brew becomes a murky one, which we are  sure will bring down all concerned: the purloiner, her literary agent, her publisher. Yet, there is such sleight of hand employed at the end that we cannot help but laugh helplessly.

Kuang has June Hayward saying that jealousy  in the writer`s world  is actually the sharp pang of fear that one can`t be as good as the person one is jealous of. That social media isn’t unimportant to writers because it is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists on. Yet and here`s the thing, Hayward knows how to ride out social media storms with patience, gritting her teeth at times, firefighting like mad at other times.

Told in a chatty  style full of excuses for her own behaviour, a tendency to whine, and many flashes of a victim complex, the author of this book totally owns the voice of the author of this tale. Steeped in cynicism, it is actually a morality tale for our times. A wicked tale,  both in the old-fashioned as well as the contemporary meaning of  the word.

Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang. HarperCollins UK. Rs 699. 323 pages.

This ran in the Sunday Express Magazine of 17 September 2023.


appropriationbook reviewHarperCollins Booksplagiarismpublisherspublishing industryRebecca F Kuangsocial mediatheft of a manuscriptYellowface

Sheila Kumar • September 17, 2023

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