What I learned from… ‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F. Kuang

About the book

Athena Liu is a literary darling. June Hayward is literally nobody.

But when June just happens to witness Athena die in a freak accident, she realises now is her chance to find fame.

So what if that means stealing her friend’s work?
So what if that means creating a new, racially ambiguous identity?
So what if a social media scandal is about to blow her cover?

As her lies mount up and threaten her stolen success, how far will June go to keep what she thinks she deserves? This is one hell of a story. It’s just not hers to tell.

What I learned

An instant bestseller with a killer (almost literally) first line, I couldn’t wait to read this. It has a completely immersive first-person narrator in the form of author June Hayward, who is unsympathetic to say the least.

I don’t usually write in first person, so I’m always fascinated by how the author tackles the withholding of information and building the world of the book. Any concerns about that were quickly wiped away by the razor-sharp writing. Kuang makes the reader constantly question the truth of what the characters say and do – especially Hayward. Here, she describes how she takes her dead friend Lui’s manuscript and edits it ready for submission:

But then I just kept going. I couldn’t stop. They say that editing a bad draft is far easier than composing on a blank page, and that’s true I feel so confident in my writing just then. I keep finding turns of phrases that suit the text far better than Athena’s throwaway descriptions. I spot where the pacing sags, and I mercilessly cut out the meandering filler. I draw out the plot’s through line like a clear, powerful note. I tidy up; I trim and decorate; I make the text sing.

You never know whether Hayward is lying to us, to herself, or whether she’s telling the truth as she sees it. In that, Kuang does a great job of bringing us in very close to her motivations and the increasingly desperate steps she takes to get what she feels she deserves. Obviously, as it’s set in the world of publishing, there was an added interest for me. Against my better instincts (yes, I have a few), I found myself rooting for Hayward, and questioning what I’d do in the same situation, so I booked a series of meals with other authors to find out when they (hopefully) died mid-pancake (joking, obviously. Or am I).

Kuang piles fraud upon fraud in such a dark, deliciously entertaining way that you temporarily forget the central issue of cultural appropriation and theft. The more Hayward lies and schemes, the more complicated her life becomes, which leaves her (and the reader) questioning the point of her goal. And by doing this, Kuang gives a very compelling picture of a character descending into darkness and the struggles she has in trying to emerge unscathed with any reputation and principles left intact.

More about this book

Published in 2023 by The Borough Press

Yellowface at HarperCollins


Rebecca F. Kuang on X

About ‘What I learned…’

I read anything and everything and think there’s writing inspiration to take from from books of every genre.

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