Athena Liu is a beloved bestselling author, and June Hayward is a nobody hanging on the sidelines. When Athena dies in a freak accident shortly after finishing the draft of her next novel, June takes the manuscript home with her. No one else knows it exists, typed out on a typewriter, it’s the only copy. June starts works on it, editing it, adding her own touch. It’s good, but it could be better. And then June hands in the manuscript as her own. If she told the truth she would only be a side note on Athena’s posthumous novel. No, she worked hard on it, and Athena’s dead. What harm can it do?
Yellowface is every publishing Twitter drama distilled into a single novel. I was cautious picking it up that it might be a bit too negative, especially with the main character being the “bad guy”, but it’s more scathing of the publishing industry than the actions of individual writers. It gives room to feel sympathy for June, she clearly does things that are wrong, but she doesn’t deserve the vitriol aimed at her.
Think of all the hot topics plaguing publishing in the past few years and you’ll likely find them acknowledged within the pages. A few parts reminded me of the whole American Dirt debacle a few years ago, especially finding the spurious links to a culture after you’ve been called out for cultural appropriation. I can just imagine the publishers driving that narrative like it happens with June being given a more Asian sounding name.
It also covers plagiarism, racism, cancel culture and how we respond to controversies. Certainly not in a level headed, compassionate manner. It explores who gets to write what stories, and who gets paid for those stories, and how hard it can be navigating the world of publishing as a person of colour.
If Twitter drama leaves you cold, you might not really enjoy this book but it was fast paced and I kept on reading to find out if she would do the right thing. I didn’t want her life to be ruined, but she needed to stop lying. I wanted her at least be truthful with Athena’s mother.
It’s ironic that since this was written, Twitter has become a shadow of its former self, and that kind of viral, tribalism seems less likely to spread quite so far now. Maybe we should be a little bit grateful to Elon for creating a fissure in social media. We’re all over the place now, and all too keen to find safe and friendly places to lurk rather than jumping on the latest pile-on.
I guess this is satire? But it comes very close to realism in my eyes.
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