Yellowface by R F Kuang
I first came across R F Kuang with last year’s very enjoyable Babel, an alternate history of the British Empire told in a world where magic exists and is controlled by an elite group of individuals.
Yellowface is very different, but no less enjoyable. It’s a book about books, and in particular, the publishing industry.
Our protagonist is June Hayward, a would be novelist who’s previous book did not set the world on fire. Meanwhile her friend, Athena Liu has it all going. She’s been published with enormous success, has a Netflix series coming and is generally adored by the publishing world and readers alike.
Hayward is, of course, insanely jealous at this turn of events. But she’s still a friend, and one evening, when they’re back in Liu’s apartment, tragedy strikes and Liu chokes to death. However, it turns out that Liu has a new book in the works – one that she has not yet told anyone about, including her publishers.
Hayward takes the manuscript during the melee, and so goes down a road that she is unable to turn away from. She takes the draft and decides to edit it and take… co-ownership? Full ownership?
There’s racial imperative here too. While Hayward is white, her deceased friend was Chinese-American, and furthermore, the story Liu is telling is about Chinese labourers during the First World War.
What follows is a breezy look at the contemporary world of publishing, cultural appropriation, race and politics. You certainly get the feeling that Kuang has been here, and she grasps with some of the challenges faced. When June adopts “Juniper” has her first name, that might imply that she is Asian especially when mixed with photos that leave the viewer unclear as to her race. Of course Kuang is herself writing about a white woman, and indeed has spoken of the right of authors to write characters of other races.
While in some respects, Yellowface feels as though Kuang had a few issues she really wanted to get off her chest, and this isn’t comparable to immense breadth of Babel, I really enjoyed it. But then, I do love books about publishing itself.
All The Lovers In The Night by Mieko Kawakami
I picked up a copy of this in Foyles, who are always excellent at finding good Asian titles that might otherwise pass me by.
Fuyoko is a proofreader who works for the most part alone, taking enormous pride in her work. She’s not really a people person, and in due course realises that she can earn more money if she goes it alone as a freelance, with one of her few friends offering to provide much more work in a way that will be much more beneficial to her.
We sense that she might be on a downward spiral however, but things change when she by chance meets a man named Misutsuka. He’s a little older, and their interests seem divergent from one another, but she gets entranced by him.
Yet her nervousness means that she medicates herself with alcohol, which in turn means that she’s never really at her best. So, the question becomes, what will happen with the burgeoning relationship?
Kawakami’s writing (ably assisted by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd) is succinct but beautifully observed. The hum drum details of a life so devoid of human contact – where only Fuyoko’s birthdays, celebrated with overnight walks, seem to break up the monotony of it all. I was spell-bound by this powerful, yet enormously empathetic little novel.