Everything about R.F. Kuang’s novel “Yellowface” feels engineered to make readers uncomfortable. There’s the title, which is awkward to say out loud, and the cover, which features a garish racial stereotype — cartoonish slanted eyes imposed on a block of yellow.
Then there’s the story itself. In the opening chapters, a white author steals a manuscript from the home of a Chinese American novelist who has died in a bizarre accident, and plots to pass it off as her own. What follows is a twisty thriller and a scorching indictment of the publishing industry’s pervasive whiteness and racial blind spots.
If people in the literary world bristle at Kuang’s withering depiction of the book business — or cringe in recognition — well, that’s exactly the point, she said.
“Reading about racism should not be a feel-good experience,” she said. “I do want people to be uncomfortable with the way that they’re trained to write about and market and sell books, and be uncomfortable with who’s in the room, and how they’re talking about who’s in the room.
“And it’s also functioning on a different level for writers of color,” she added, “to think about how we are moving through those spaces, and the traps that are set for us.”
Kuang, a best-selling fantasy writer and doctoral student in East Asian languages and literatures at Yale, said this while sitting in a sunny office at the headquarters of her publisher, HarperCollins. It was late April, and she had just signed 2,000 copies of “Yellowface” — which William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, will release on Tuesday — to ship to 250 independent bookstores. The location was oddly fitting for a conversation in which Kuang pondered how her novel might be received within the industry she brutally satirizes.
Judging from the largely ecstatic early responses to the novel, the literary world seems to enjoy being skewered. HarperCollins bought the book for a mid-six-figure sum, and is sending Kuang on a 10-city North American tour. Barnes & Noble is releasing a special edition of the novel, with an essay about Asian American representation in literature by Kuang. Independent booksellers have chosen it as their top “Indie Next” pick for June.
The novel has drawn praise from industry outlets like Booklist, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, which lauded Kuang’s unflinching accuracy: “Yes, publishing is like this; finally someone has written it out.”
“I laughed out loud and also groaned,” said Zakiya Dalila Harris, who drew on her own experience as a Black woman working in publishing for her novel, “The Other Black Girl.” “It felt so real and triggering.”
The book stirred discomfort from the start. When Kuang sent the first 100 pages to Hannah Bowman, her literary agent, Bowman at first tried to dissuade her from pursuing the project, warning that nobody would want to publish it.
“We did have a conversation where I said, ‘There are things in here that I am afraid could offend people you work with’,” Bowman recalled.
After Kuang insisted, Bowman sent it out, and was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic responses. “For publishing insiders, it’s just catnip, it’s so dishy about the industry,” Bowman said. “Everyone who’s read it has said, ‘This is saying something that needs to be said.’”
Within HarperCollins, there was brief, awkward debate about whether some might see “Yellowface” as a not so subtle critique of the company.
“There was a lot of conversation on our side of, ‘Oh my God, she’s writing this takedown of publishing, is it going to be a problem for Harper?’” said May Chen, who acquired and edited the book, and noted that parts of the narrative rang painfully true to her as a Chinese American publishing executive. “We’re like ‘Wow, does she like us?’”
For Kuang — who at 26 has built a devoted following for her deeply researched and thought provoking fantasy novels — publishing a scorched-earth satirical takedown of the publishing industry was creatively and professionally risky. She’s keenly aware of how she has benefited from publishing’s hype machine, with its social media marketing campaigns and breathless book deal announcements on industry websites. At the same time, she has started to chafe at the ways in which she and her work have been promoted and sometimes pigeonholed as “diverse.”
“I have participated in all of this, but I’m also starting to get very tired of it,” she said. “It’s not just people who think you don’t deserve your audience or your place in publishing who will say, ‘Well, you’re only there because you’re a token diverse author.’ You also get this rhetoric from people who are trying to support marginalized voices,” she continued. “I hate the feeling of being read just because somebody’s trying to tick off a diversity check box.”
Kuang, whose parents immigrated to Texas from Guangzhou, China, when she was 4, started writing her first novel as a way to reconnect with her family’s culture and history.
While studying history at Georgetown University, Kuang took a year off and went to live in Beijing, and began writing episodes of a fantasy story that she sent to her father. Those chapters became her debut novel, “The Poppy War,” a martial arts-infused Chinese military history that drew on the Second Sino-Japanese War. She sold it to HarperVoyager as part of a trilogy, and it was nominated for the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
At the same time her fiction career was taking off, Kuang immersed herself in Chinese history and language, and got master’s degrees in Chinese studies from Cambridge and Oxford. She loved the camaraderie and the erudite atmosphere, but was uncomfortable with the elitist culture of academia. The experience inspired her fourth novel, “Babel,” a historical fantasy set in mid-1800s Oxford, about a powerful group of translators who can wield language like a magic spell.
Like the “Poppy War” trilogy, “Babel” used fantasy tropes to examine complex themes: the impact of colonialism and racism, and the way elite institutions drive social inequality. The book hit the New York Times best-seller list, and went on to sell some 350,000 copies.
Kuang had just turned in the manuscript for “Babel” when she got the idea for “Yellowface” in early 2021. It was a few months after protests had erupted following the police killing of George Floyd, and publishing, along with other industries, was wrestling with issues of diversity and representation. Kuang was skeptical that those conversations would lead to action. “A lot of promises were made and a lot of goals were set, and I think that very few of those promises have been kept,” she said.
It was easy for Kuang to conjure the caustic, blithely racist voice of her narrator, June Hayward — a struggling novelist who is consumed by bitterness toward her former classmate Athena Liu, an industry darling who writes best-selling novels that draw on Chinese culture and history. In June’s warped view, Athena only succeeded because publishers wanted an Asian American author on their list.
“I’ve been living with June’s voice in my head for a really long time,” Kuang said. “You start internalizing a lot of the insecurity and doubt about your place in the room. I’m constantly questioning, like, do I deserve the space I’m taking up? Do I deserve this audience?”
After Athena dies suddenly in June’s presence, choking on pancakes while drunkenly celebrating a Netflix deal, June steals Athena’s work in progress, a novel about Chinese laborers who were sent by the British to the Allied Front during World War I. She sends it out as her own, and publishers swoon: June gets the six-figure advance and spot on the best-seller list that she feels she deserves.
She’s also unsettled by accusations that she was profiting from the pain of Chinese laborers and guilty of cultural appropriation, and is haunted by an anonymous account on Twitter that accuses her of stealing Athena’s work.
June’s publisher tries to head off scandal. A book publicist gently prods her about her ethnic heritage — “You’re not … anything else?” the publicist asks after clarifying that June isn’t Asian. A Korean American editorial assistant suggests that June hire a sensitivity reader to make sure her depiction of Chinese workers isn’t offensive. June refuses, and then gets slammed by critics for being “inauthentic.”
While writing the first draft in a feverish few months, Kuang drew on her own insecurities and experience of being an Asian American author in an overwhelmingly white industry.
“With Athena, I’m trying to work through my worst nightmares about what I could become,” she said. “She is that token Asian author who is prized because of her ability to be a cultural broker. And because her career is founded on being the one who is able to explain Chinese history, Chinese Americans, to white readers, she’s also very threatened by any other Chinese American writer in the room. ”
Kuang seems to be reveling in the irony that a major corporate publisher is releasing such an unsparing takedown of the industry. In late February, she posted a video on TikTok and Instagram, in which she smiles innocently, hugging a copy of “Yellowface,” with a caption that says “HarperCollins: Sure we’ll publish that satire you wrote about the publishing industry we’re sure you didn’t say anything mean about us.”
For Kuang, who is under contract to publish three more novels with HarperCollins, writing about her worst professional anxieties has been like an exorcism of sorts.
“Part of what made me write ‘Yellowface’ was I finally had to trap it down on the page,” she said. “Now all that nastiness is between the covers.”