As an American who’s written a novel about an American girl caught up in political turmoil in Honduras that includes Honduran characters, I’m particularly concerned about controversies like the one blowing up on the Twittersphere over the YA book, A Place for Wolves, by Kosoko Jackson, and an earlier one involving Chinese immigrant Amélie Wen Zhao’s book, Blood Heir. Both authors suffered online attacks, accusing them of cultural insensitivity, and, as a result, both authors pulled their books from publication. Previously, another YA book, The Black Witch, survived similar attacks by the YA book community and went on to be published and do well, despite the effort to take it down.
A “sensitivity reader” himself, Kosoko Jackson identified problematic content for major publishers of YA fiction, berating writers for portraying characters from communities they’re not considered part of, such as People of Color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. Then the tables turned. Readers previewing his soon-to-be published novel A Place for Wolves, about two black, gay men who fall in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo war, attacked him for fetishizing genocide, portraying a Muslim character without being a Muslim, making the villain an ethnic Albanian, and more. Suddenly Kosoko was on the receiving end of the same kind of flak he’d been doling out to others. After much criticism, the author declined to publish his book. Read more about it here and here.
Amélie Wen Zhao’s about-to-be-published novel, Blood Heir, a loose retelling of Anastasia with magic and racially-diverse characters, also endured a flood of attacks, receiving negative reviews for racial insensitivity to People of Color. One Goodreads reviewer accused it of “anti-blackness.” Like Kosoko, Zhao asked her publisher to pull the book. It’s way too complicated to get into in this post, so read about it here
Before its publication, The Black Witch, a YA fantasy by Laurie Forest, was being called “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice” – until Shauna Sinyard, a YA blogger, wrote “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read … It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.” Thanks to Sinyard, the novel was the victim of a coordinated, vitriolic, online campaign to bury it, including a demand for Kirkus to retract its positive review. Despite the protests, the book has been well-read and well-received by many. You’ll find the whole story here.
According to the post in Tablet,
“These paroxysms tend to focus on issues of social justice and representation. And to be sure, many respected authors, publishers, and other YA figures argue that the genre has legitimate work to do with regard to diversity and representation. … But while some of the social justice concerns percolating within YA fiction are legitimate, the explosive manner in which they’re expressed within YA Twitter is another story. Posing as urgent interventions to prevent the circulation of harmful tropes, the pile-ons are often based on selective excerpts pulled out of context from the advance copies of books most in the community haven’t read yet. Often, they feature critics operating on the basis of idiosyncratic ideas about the very purpose and nature of fiction itself, elevating tendentious interpretations of the limited snippets available to pass judgment on books before they have been released.”
I certainly hope that this minority of angry voices on sites like Twitter and Goodreads behaving like YA police don’t have the final say on the enjoyment and success of books that have yet to be published, and readers can decide for themselves what they like and choose to read.
I wholeheartedly agree that writers need to be sensitive to people and cultures we’re representing in our books, and there needs to be WAY more diverse voices out there, but since fiction writers engage in “what if’s” and world-building, I would find it incredibly limiting to be restricted to writing about characters only like myself. I can only hope that when writers do write characters who aren’t like ourselves, we strive to avoid prejudices and stereotypes.
What do you think?