The cover of Yellowface was no mistake. Against the plain mustard background, two human-sized eyes face the reader, foreshadowing the content.

June Hayward, plain and white, is casual friends with the beautiful and Asian Athena Liu. They are both authors – though Athena has seen bright success and June has seen none.

One night over drinks, Athena dies suddenly in front of June, leaving a first draft of her latest manuscript sitting on her desk. June calls 911, but not before stuffing the manuscript in her bag. Over the next weeks and months, she completes the manuscript, tightening, shaping, and omitting details from the novel about Chinese laborers during World War I. The book gets published and released to wide acclaim, while June struggles to come to terms with her theft, appropriation, plagiarism, and jealousy.

Author R. F. Kuang has said she based Athena on herself, and it’s not difficult to see the similarities. They share nearly the same pedigree. Kuang is twenty-seven years old, with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and one in process at Yale. She’s been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards and is a two-time New York Times bestseller.

One gets the sense that Kuang is laughing at herself and her industry, writing from June’s perspective and asking the question, “Who gets to tell a story?” In one scene, June follows Athena around a museum where Athena picks at the bones of the stories of Asian lives during the war like a vulture, saving the tastiest morsels for her manuscript. In another scene, Athena co-opts June’s traumatic event for her own short story. After Athena’s death, June turns the tables, taking Athena’s story as her own despite being white herself.

Yellowface is a story about the harms we do when harm has been done to us, about who gets to tell the stories of others, about what it means to succeed and to whom our success belongs, and about racism in publishing and its flip side, tokenism.

One cannot help but think of Narcissus, who died staring at his reflection in a pool of water. How we can avoid narcissism unless we take a good, honest look at ourselves? How can we avoid the obsession with self that social media and success so easily produce?

Is it ironic that the eyes on the cover are what Athena calls “almond-shaped”? It is far too tempting to see my white self in them, like a mirror showing me all the ways I am complicit in an industry that too often centers and celebrates the wrong people.

There are no heroes in Yellowface; everyone is complicit in the deception: writers, editors, publishers, publicists, and readers. Yet, as one character says, “Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, it is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much.”

And who doesn’t want that?