Yellowface Summary, Characters and Themes

Yellowface is a 2023 satirical thriller by R.F. Kuang, exploring the dark side of the publishing industry. 

When struggling author June Hayward’s successful friend Athena Liu dies suddenly, June steals Athena’s unpublished manuscript and publishes it under her own name, claiming it as a diversity win. As June’s career takes off, she’s haunted by guilt and the fear of exposure, leading to a downward spiral of obsession and deceit. The novel delves into themes of cultural appropriation, racial identity, and the toxic nature of social media.


June Hayward, a struggling writer, is consumed by envy for her successful friend, Athena Liu. When Athena dies unexpectedly, June steals her unpublished manuscript, The Last Stand, a story about the forgotten Chinese Labor Corps in World War I.

June passes the manuscript off as her own, retitling it and altering its content to make it more palatable to white audiences. 

She publishes the book under the pseudonym Juniper Song, adopting a racially ambiguous persona to obscure her plagiarism. Despite initial success, the book faces criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese characters and the erasure of cultural nuance.

June’s deceit deepens as she navigates the literary world, facing accusations of cultural appropriation and theft. 

A Twitter account, @AthenaLiusGhost, becomes her relentless critic. When June discovers the account’s owner is Geoffrey Carlino, Athena’s ex-boyfriend, she confronts him and silences his accusations.

However, the controversy surrounding The Last Stand continues to haunt June. She attempts to write original work but finds herself relying on Athena’s notes for inspiration

When her plagiarism is exposed, she faces backlash but finds support among right-wing readers who applaud her erasure of Chinese culture.

June’s desperation grows as she tries to maintain her career and reputation. 

She teaches at a youth writing workshop but is exposed by her students. She seeks solace in her mother but finds only disappointment. 

Finally, inspired by a positive review, she decides to write a pseudo-autobiographical account of her relationship with Athena, hoping to manipulate public opinion.

Athena’s Instagram account reactivates, tormenting June with ghostly messages. Obsessed with ending this torment, she meets with Geoff, who suggests she ignore it. But June’s guilt consumes her, and she agrees to meet with Athena’s ghost.

At the meeting, Candice Lee, a former colleague who June had wronged, reveals herself as the person behind Athena’s account. Candice has recorded June’s confession and plans to expose her. In a desperate act, June attacks Candice, hoping to destroy the evidence.

June wakes up in the hospital with broken bones, her memory hazy about the incident. Candice goes public with June’s confession, triggering a media storm. 

Despite her downfall, June clings to the belief that her white privilege will allow her to salvage her career. She resolves to write her own tell-all, determined to manipulate the narrative and regain the public’s favor.

Yellowface Summary


June Hayward

June Hayward is the protagonist and unreliable narrator of the novel. 

Ambitious and insecure, she harbors deep-seated jealousy towards her more successful friend, Athena Liu. June’s desperation for recognition and validation drives her to plagiarize Athena’s work after her untimely death. 

Throughout the novel, June grapples with guilt, paranoia, and a deteriorating sense of self. Her actions are often impulsive and self-destructive, revealing a complex character plagued by ethical dilemmas and a relentless pursuit of fame.

Athena Liu

Athena Liu is a celebrated Chinese American author whose untimely death sets the events of the novel in motion. 

Athena is portrayed as talented, charismatic, and ambitious, embodying the success that June desperately craves. 

Her novel, The Last Front, becomes the subject of June’s plagiarism, sparking a series of events that expose the dark underbelly of the publishing industry. 

Although deceased, Athena’s presence looms large over the narrative, influencing June’s decisions and ultimately serving as a haunting reminder of her transgressions.

Candice Lee

Candice Lee is an editorial assistant at Eden Press who is assigned to work on The Last Front. She is intelligent, perceptive, and committed to ethical publishing practices. 

Candice’s suspicions about the novel’s authenticity and June’s identity lead to conflict and ultimately her dismissal from Eden Press. 

Candice’s determination to expose the truth and seek justice for Athena drives her actions throughout the novel, making her a formidable adversary to June.

Daniella Diaz

Daniella Diaz is June’s editor at Eden Press. 

She is portrayed as ambitious, pragmatic, and willing to overlook ethical concerns in pursuit of commercial success. 

Daniella’s complicity in June’s plagiarism and her efforts to manipulate the narrative surrounding The Last Front reveal a cynical and opportunistic attitude towards the publishing industry.

Geoffrey Carlino

Geoffrey Carlino is Athena’s ex-boyfriend and a struggling author whose career was marred by accusations of racism. 

Geoff harbors resentment towards Athena for her success and blames her for his downfall. His involvement in the online campaign against June and The Last Front is fueled by a desire for revenge and a twisted sense of justice.

June’s Mother

June’s mother is a practical and supportive figure in June’s life, offering emotional and financial assistance throughout her struggles. 

However, her unwavering belief in June’s talent and potential sometimes blinds her to the ethical implications of her daughter’s actions. Her presence in the novel serves as a reminder of the complex relationships and conflicting loyalties that shape June’s decisions.


Cultural Appropriation and the Erasure of Asian American Voices

Kuang’s novel delves into the complexities of cultural appropriation, highlighting the erasure of marginalized voices in the publishing industry. June’s theft of Athena’s manuscript, a story deeply rooted in Chinese American heritage, and her subsequent modification of the narrative to cater to white audiences, exemplifies the exploitation and distortion of cultural narratives for profit. 

The novel questions the power dynamics inherent in cultural appropriation, where dominant groups often benefit from the creative labor and cultural heritage of marginalized communities. 

Furthermore, the industry’s dismissal of Candice’s concerns and the silencing of her voice underscores the systemic erasure of Asian American perspectives, perpetuating a cycle of inequality and invisibility.

The Toxic Nature of Ambition and the Price of Success

Yellowface examines the destructive nature of ambition and the lengths individuals will go to achieve success. 

June’s relentless pursuit of literary recognition, fueled by envy and insecurity, leads her down a path of deception, manipulation, and ultimately, violence. 

The novel questions the ethics of ambition and the compromises individuals make in the pursuit of their goals. It also explores the toll that such ambition takes on mental and emotional well-being, as June’s guilt, paranoia, and isolation escalate throughout the narrative. 

The novel suggests that the relentless pursuit of success, especially when driven by toxic motivations, can have devastating consequences for both the individual and those around them

The Illusion of Authenticity and the Performance of Identity

“Yellowface” questions the authenticity of identity in the digital age, where individuals can curate and manipulate their public image. 

June’s adoption of the pseudonym Juniper Song and her carefully crafted author photo exemplify the performative nature of identity, where individuals can strategically present themselves to appeal to specific audiences. 

The novel also critiques the commodification of diversity, as June’s racial ambiguity is exploited to market the stolen manuscript as a “diversity win.” 

The story challenges readers to consider the difference between genuine representation and the performative gestures used to capitalize on diversity for personal gain.

The Perils of Social Media and the Power of Online Narratives

The novel explores the double-edged sword of social media, highlighting its potential for both empowerment and destruction. 

While online platforms provide a space for marginalized voices to be heard, they also become breeding grounds for cyberbullying, harassment, and the rapid dissemination of misinformation. 

June’s reliance on social media for validation and her subsequent downfall due to online accusations underscore the power of online narratives to shape public opinion and influence careers. 

The novel serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of relying on virtual validation and the potential consequences of online mob mentality