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The Log

Review: Yellowface: Theft of Racial Voices

Cover of Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface reveals the unique struggle of Asian Americans in the US and addresses issues of voice, identity, and racial tensions in a genuine and nuanced way.

The death of Athena Liu, a “dazzling” Chinese American writer, unveils the story Yellowface by R. F. Kuang, a Chinese American novelist. The narrative begins as June Hayward seizes Athena’s unpublished manuscript The Last Front, a tale of Chinese laborers during World War I, amidst the chaos. Reluctant to bury a masterpiece, June refines the draft and publishes it under a new pseudonym, Juniper Song, building a network of lies that eventually explodes. 

In Yellowface, Kuang employs a first-person narrative, opening readers to Juniper’s biased perspective. Jealousy festers in Juniper’s heart as she watches her former classmate, Athena, reach acclaim as an “ambiguously queer woman of color,” while she feels submerged in mediocrity as a typical white writer. The story intertwines superficiality and authenticity through this distorted, jealous lens. Juniper respects Chinese culture, investing hours in researching Chinese laborers, yet her behavior portrays selfishness and racist views toward minorities. She begrudges Athena’s success, thinking it unfair, with thoughts like, “You people — I mean, diverse people — are all they want.” Juniper displays ignorance and indifference when she attends Athena’s funeral in a Korean church, remarking, “I thought Athena was Chinese, but whatever.” 

Athena, another main character, is not the perfect muse. Juniper ironically calls Athena a “thief” who “stole my words right out of my mouth” and manipulated an old man’s narrative of the Korean War to her advantage. Yet, Athena is also a puppet of white supremacy, being forced to sell herself as “a Chinese tragedy” to satisfy an industry that buys on racist stereotypes. Despite her success and talent, Athena is troubled and helpless. 

Yellowface intricately weaves controversies of authorship in racial trauma with themes of interracial competition. The story goes beyond a simple narrative of revenge, paralleling issues like Affirmative Action in college admissions in June 2023. It highlights the exaggerated opportunities afforded to marginalized voices, pointing out how being “diverse” offers some chances but also traps these minorities in a box: Students of color face limited enrollment opportunities, and publishers “can’t put out two minorities in the same season.” 

Juniper and Athena both seize the narratives of others. Their yellowface, an impersonation of a different race, spurs discussions about “racism” and “reverse racism.”

May is Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, a time to celebrate Asian cultures and amplify Asian voices: Reading Yellowface would provoke robust discussions by boldly addressing the controversies the novel presents, prompting reflections on ethical dilemmas and appealing for a balance between racism and so-called reverse racism.

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