top of page

RF Kuang's Yellowface Exposes Plagiarism, Tokenization, and Cancel Culture. A Book Review


Author: RF Kuang

Published by The Borough Press (An Imprint of HarperCollins)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Pages: 324

MRP: Rs. 699/-

This review is in association with @bookreviewersclub and @harpercollinsindia.

This is a well-written and thought-provoking novel that examines the whiteness of the Western publishing industry, the tokenization of marginalized writers, and the profiting of white people off the hard work of people of color(POC). Yellowface tells the story of Juniper Hayward, a white author whose debut novel fails to find success. Juniper secretly believes that her lack of success stems from being a "basic white girl," attributing the achievements of her POC counterparts to their marketable "diversity" in the publishing industry. She becomes intensely envious of Athena Liu, her Chinese author friend from Yale, who is not only globally renowned as a writing prodigy but also incredibly successful—a seemingly perfect figure. When Athena dies in a bizarre accident, Juniper seizes the opportunity to steal her unfinished manuscript and publish it under a pseudonym. The rest of the novel delves into the psychological and social fallout that June experiences as a result of her plagiarism. The novel then follows the psychological and social fallout from this plagiarism for June as a writer.

The prose in Yellowface is breathless and easy to read. The narrative voice of Juniper is also very effective, as it is easy to relate to her character. However, the book does have some flaws. The novel departs from the dense and intricate writing style found in Kuang's previous works like Babel, opting instead for a more straightforward internal monologue, which proves highly effective.

Yellowface is a crucial investigation of the Western publishing industry's whiteness, the tokenization of marginalised authors, and the use of people of colour by white people for their own personal advantage. It goes in-depth into the publishing process, how the media and conversation affect how we view authors and their best-sellers, and introduces Juniper, a malicious protagonist who readers will love to hate. The plot is linear and rooted in the present, abandoning the ambitious storytelling strategies used in Kuang's earlier works like The Poppy War or Babel. Juniper's character comes off as relatable and organic. Yellowface avoids the "too academic" tone of Babel and the "gruesome and heartbreaking" content of The Poppy War in favour of a caustic and contemporary quality that makes it extremely accessible to all audiences. The book effectively exposes the whitewashing of the publishing sector, the inherent obstacles experienced by POC authors, and the reach of white supremacy in the publishing world of the United States.

It is possible that Kuang is only projecting herself onto the narrative in this book. Without a doubt, RF Kuang's barely veiled self-insertion is Athena Liu, the outraged East Asian novelist whose work is appropriated by Juniper. Whether on purpose or not, Kuang's inability to discern between Athena's experiences, background, and personality makes the novel slightly unpleasant. Yellowface seems to be an exercise in self-victimization in an overtly political book where Juniper's choice to copy Athena's work is justified by real-life critiques that readers may have of Kuang and her works.

A morally terrible (and untalented) main character, whose demise we eagerly anticipate, speaks for the novel, which channels all the complaints that many readers have made about Kuang or her recent works. Simply said, Kuang protects herself from criticism by assigning these beliefs to a figure that readers will hate. What follows sound familiar to you? An Asian American author whose works include epic war stories and militaristic histories, who has received private education at prestigious institutions throughout her life, whose scenes closely resemble real historical accounts (like Golyn Niis), who has been criticised for overshadowing mainland Chinese voices, and who wrote her first novel right after finishing her undergraduate degree. This is how Athena Liu, the protagonist of Yellowface, is portrayed, and it also perfectly captures Kuang's actual life as we know it.

I believe that Athena, a self-insert character, is out of place in a work that seeks to be both a social critique and satirical political debate. The narrative is far too intimate to be well-crafted and entwined with Kuang's own experiences to be regarded as legitimate literary fiction. Nevertheless, self-insert characters are not inherently bad and are not a new idea. For example, this strategy was used by Oscar Wilde. However, considering the abundance of Twitter slang and pop culture references that may potentially age poorly over the next five years, this book does itself a disservice when its main themes are author plagiarism, cancel culture, and the impact of Twitter discourse on the publishing industry. When the book reads more like a personal vendetta against the publishing industry than a legitimate work of literature, I find it difficult to take it seriously.

Overall, Yellowface is an interesting and thought-provoking novel, but it is not without its flaws. The book is well-written and engaging, but it is also somewhat self-indulgent and predictable. If you are interested in the themes of race, plagiarism, and cancel culture, then you may enjoy Yellowface. However, if you are looking for a more serious work of literature, then you may be disappointed.

In conclusion, Yellowface is unquestionably a great book to read. However, some passages of the book can come off as petulant or bitter to readers who are familiar with Kuang's background. It is very loud, similar to scrolling Instagram reels aloud in the local train without headphones, and lacks the delicacy present in Babel. Yellowface is infused with Kuang's presence throughout, but I don't think that was a great decision this time.

Here are some additional thoughts on the book:

  • The book does a good job of highlighting the ways in which the publishing industry is biased against writers of colour.

  • The book also explores the complex issue of plagiarism, and how it can be difficult to know where the line between inspiration and theft lies.

  • The book is ultimately a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media and cancel culture.

  • I would recommend Yellowface to readers who are interested in these topics. However, I would caution them to be aware of the book's flaws, such as its predictability and its self-indulgent tone.

In case you wish to support us, consider purchasing the book from our link. We get a small commision at no addd cost to you:


bottom of page