ellowface is a thriller that can deeply resonate with publishing professionals and authors alike, offering invaluable insights into the multifaceted world of creative publishing about two young novelists in Washington, DC. Authored by Rebecca F Kuang, a seasoned industry expert and an American fantasy and contemporary fiction writer, the book is a beacon of guidance for both novices and veterans in the publishing domain.
The narrative pegs on Athena Liu, acclaimed both among critics and in the commercial sphere. She has everything one could envy her for: a multi-book deal straight out of college at a major publishing house; an MFA from a school everyone’s heard of, a résumé of prestigious artist residencies; and a history of awards nominations. At twenty-seven, she’s published three novels, each a big hit.
She has recently sealed a contract with Netflix. This has not been a life-changing event for her, just another feather in her cap, one of side perks of the road to literary stardom she’s been hurtling down since graduation. Outshining competition at every turn, her Instagram photos feature no one else. She regularly tweets career updates and quirky jokes to her 70,000 followers but rarely tags others. She doesn’t name-drop, doesn’t blurb or recommend her colleagues’ books and doesn’t publicly rub shoulders in the flashy, almost desperate way some early-career writers do.
Then there is Juniper “June” Hayward, a jealous acquaintance whose initial work has faded into obscurity, with the paperback release cancelled due to lacklustre sales. Struggling authors like Juniper see cliques all over social media – writers gushing over excerpts of one another’s unpublished manuscripts, squealing over cover reveals and posting selfies of the group hangs at literary meet-ups across the globe.
The book begins with the duo raising their glasses in Athena’s lavish apartment following a night in George Town’s loud, overpriced rooftop bar. Juniper, our storyteller, struggles to conceal her bitterness as she witnesses Athena’s triumph. This is when Athena shares a hidden treasure – an expansive novel centred on Chinese labourers enlisted by the British army during World War I. She has composed this manuscript entirely on a typewriter, with no Word backups, Google Docs or Scrivener. The scene takes a tragic turn when Athena succumbs to a choking episode caused by a homemade pancake.
What follows is a whirlwind as events unfold: an urgent 911 call, an emotional Uber journey back home and Juniper seizing the secret manuscript. Since Athena never shared her rough drafts with anyone, there’s initially nothing to prevent Juniper from stealing The Last Front. Eventually, she publishes the work under her own name, re-titling it as June Song. This gives Juniper a breakthrough: her dreams of being a successful author turn into reality: a multimillion-dollar advance, accolades from critics and a coveted position on the esteemed New York Times bestseller roster.
While Juniper enjoys her achievements and success, a careful look from Twitter raises doubts and gets her tangled in a plagiarism controversy. Among lies and excuses, Kuang skillfully keeps us guessing whether Juniper’s admission is another false statement. The author cleverly hides the full extent of the wrongs. The story changes from a tale of friendly competition to an exciting revenge drama. In Yellowface, readers stay interested, even as they think about how the publishing industry includes people from all races.
This is a well-told thriller grounded in the world of books. Kuang appears hesitant to decide what aspects need greater elucidation. With instances that highlighted the woes of a literary agent, the strive to be recognised by one of the Big Five publishing houses, the multi-thousand-dollar advance, the happenings of the Publishers Marketplace announcement, the book launch spectacle, the print run being reduced for various reasons, the six-city book tour being reduced to three stops and the promised quotes from famous writers that fail to materialise – amidst the publishing squeeze that happens every time the economy dips – everything about the book is relevant and relatable.
There is wicked humour, dark satire and well-developed characters.
Author: Rebbeca F Kuang
Publisher: The Borough Press, 2023
Pages: 329, Hardcover
Price: Rs 2,111
The reviewer is a content lead at an agency. Email: sara.amjhotmail.co.uk