Anonymous Review: Mulan as an Important Cultural Narrative

In January I opened up my blog as a platform for readers to post anonymous reviews of the books they'd read and didn't want to review because of possible blowback (trust me, the struggle is real). 

While this isn't a review, it is an important discussion of how vital cultural stories lose their context outside of their origin cultures and can make members of the culture feel alienated, something all authors should consider.

Beginning/Preface

When I found out there are two YA retellings of Mulan coming out this year, I was ecstatic. Mulan was one of my favorite childhood stories, and I memorized the entire Ballad of Mulan, on which the Disney adaptation was based, as a child. My family wasn’t fond of watching the TV when I was growing up, but when there were drama adaptations of Mulan, they would let me stay up late to watch them. To this day, the 1999 Taiwanese adaptation of Mulan is still my favorite one, though it’s a loose adaptation and quite campy.

So when I was about to add THE TRAITOR’S KISS by Erin Beaty and FLAME IN THE MIST by Renée Ahdieh to my Goodreads TBR list, my heart sank after I read the blurbs. I had to walk away from my computer and spend several days ruminating on how disappointed and upset I was about these two Mulan adaptations/retellings. Both books have their issues, and while THE TRAITOR’S KISS is readily apparent on why it is offensive, FLAME IN THE MIST devastated me on a personal level. Thinking about it makes me seethe in anger even though the deal was announced late last year.

I’m going to divide the rest of this discussion into three sections. Section One is the story of Mulan; Section Two will be on THE TRAITOR’S KISS’ and Section Three on FLAME IN THE MIST. Both Sections Two and Three will discuss material I break down in Section One about how to do a proper retelling of Mulan and why I found both TTK and FITM problematic.

 

Section One: The Story of Mulan

In the West, most people think of the Disney adaptation of Mulan, which came out in 1998. If you are not familiar with it, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia. If I reference this version of the Mulan story, it will be mentioned as the Disney adaptation.

In contrast, here is a link to the Ballad of Mulan with the Chinese text and a side-by-side translation. If I reference this version of the Mulan story, it will be mentioned as the original source or the Ballad.

The Ballad of Mulan was written sometime in the sixth century C.E. during the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Tuoba clan, who were not of ethnic Han Chinese descent, ruled Northern Wei at this period. That is why the king is called Khan/汗 in the Ballad. There are doubts about whether or not Mulan was a real historical figure or an amalgamation of several different women from the period, but this post will not touch upon that.

->So What Did Disney Get Right in their Adaptation?

The answer is very little. Only:

(1) There was a great war that required a draft, into which all males were conscripted.

(2) Mulan did replace her father, who was too old, as a man in the army.

->The Actual Contents of the Ballad

(1) Mushu, Cricket, the grandmother, and Khan didn’t exist. (Sorry to burst everyone’s bubbles. Those were my favorite parts of the Disney adaptation too.)

(2) Mulan has two parents, an older sister, and a younger brother

(3) The draft list is twelve scrolls long, and Mulan frets because her father is too old and she has no older brother to replace him. Her younger brother is too young to go to war too.

(3) She asks for permission from her family to replace her father. They agree. (She does not abscond with her father’s armor, unlike in the Disney adaptation.)

(4) She does this as a boy.

(5) The war takes over a decade.

(6) The army wins and returns home. (Mulan is still in disguise as a man the entire duration.)

(7) When the emperor/Khan attempts to reward her with money and an imperial post, she only asks for a horse to return home.

(8) After returning home, Mulan hangs up her armor and re-dons her female clothing.

(9) When her former compatriots visit and see that she’s a girl, they are stunned, but do not treat her differently.

(10) There is no love interest or Li Shang equivalent in this story. Mulan was alone the entire time.

The entire story of Mulan is predicated on Mulan replacing her father in a war against the enemy. It emphasizes familial ties and shows Mulan as a character with agency and loyalty. She willingly does this to protect her father and younger brother so he can continue the family line. The Ballad is not a story about fighting, though it is an important element of war. It is not about a girl secretly disguising herself as a man to fight either. It is also not a girly martial arts film.

Ergo, you cannot have a Mulan retelling in any context without the inciting incident of a heavy war and a willingness of a daughter to sacrifice her life to keep her father and brother safe. There is a Chinese proverb/saying that Mulan epitomizes: 代父從軍(replacing the father to follow the army.) This is what differentiates Mulan from other stories of a girl disguising herself to join a war, à la Jeanne d’Arc or Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier. That is why THE TRAITOR’S KISS and FLAME IN THE MIST both are not and should not be considered Mulan retellings and their pitches should have never included Mulan in the first place. To use Mulan as a comp was not only misleading, but also disingenuous based on the key components of the Ballad and the aforementioned points.

Most importantly, aside from the emphasis of filial and devotion, there is also an emphasis of loyalty to the state and defending the country against foreign enemies. We see this both in the Ballad and the Disney adaptation in which the emperor thanks Mulan and tells her she saved China.

Section Two: THE TRAITOR’S KISS (formerly known as THE MATCHMAKER’S APPRENTICE)

Several problems exist outside of the scope of this discussion with THE TRAITOR’S KISS. See here, here, and here for the major issues already raised. (Erin Beaty also supports THE CONTINENT, a book that Harlequin Teen has pulled from publication for further revisions after many book bloggers called out the novel’s problematic and racist content.)

Nothing in TTK resembles the Ballad. Sage is an orphan (which negates the predication of what I’ve mentioned above). She is reliant on her uncle’s family, which is why she goes into matchmaking to support herself.

It is ludicrous for a girl to become a matchmaker in historical Chinese society. Matchmaking was more than pairing two individuals who were compatible in personality. It included, for lack of a better word, a ‘sixth sense’ gift in which the matchmaker had to calculate the two candidates’ birth-date, horoscope, and birth-times to see if the gods allowed them to have a long, fruitful life. Moreover, given that it is implied in the both the Disney adaptation and the Ballad that Mulan is from a relatively privileged family, wellborn girls were not permitted to become matchmakers because it was seen as a lowborn occupation.

Last but not least, a whitewashed retelling of Mulan is not Mulan. You cannot divorce an intrinsically Chinese story and main character and toss it in a non-Chinese setting. There are plenty of figures in Western history Beaty could have used for her comp titles or her main character. Why not Jeanne d’Arc? Why not Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier? Why drag Mulan into this story when there is nothing pertinent to her?

Section Three: THE FLAME IN THE MIST

->Notes:

(1) I do not know whether or not the Japanese representation is truthful and good, and I am not qualified to speak about it.

(2) There have been criticisms of Tamora Pierce by PoC. This is not a master-post, but it links to other issues bloggers have raised in the past.

(3) I will spend more time on this section because unlike TTK, which is more conspicuous in its problematic content, the issues from FLAME IN THE MIST are more subtle and less obvious to non-Chinese readers.

(4) I understand that Renée Ahdieh is half-Korean, and spent the first few years of her life living in Seoul based on this interview. That is why I feel stunned that she would write a Mulan-esque story in Japan even more. 

Before I delve into the issues with the fact that FITM is Mulan meets Tamora Pierce set in Japan, I want to discuss Sino-Japanese relations and re-emphasize that Mulan is a story about a daughter defending and saving not only her father, but also China from foreigners.

->The Complexity of Chinese-Japanese Ties in the Contemporary Era

The relationship between China and Japan is fraught. Much of it originates from the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Japan dreamt of amassing a large empire like the British and Germans, and wanted to conquer every Asian country for this goal. In their quest to achieve pan-Asian dominance, the Japanese imperial army committed a plethora of horrific atrocities. This trauma still collectively haunts the national psyches of many Asian countries including South Korea, Taiwan, China, North Korea, the Philippines, and many others.

In China alone, Japanese soldiers killed approximately 10 million people, many of whom were civilians. The most well known event of Japanese military violence during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45 C.E.) was the Rape of Nanking. Japanese soldiers hunted down Chinese civilians for sport, forced fathers to rape daughters, sons to rape mothers, and slaughtered the Chinese in contests to see who could have the most kills. One of the most horrific things I learned about the massacre was when my grade two teacher told us how Japanese soldiers would slit pregnant women’s bellies open and yank the fetus to see if it was a boy or girl, laughing while the women bled to death. Here are some photos from the Rape of Nanking. (TW: violence. They are extremely graphic, so open the webpage at your own risk.)

(There are other issues here too, such as comfort women. For further reading, here is a link to just one specific group, though comfort women came from many parts of Asia. This is still an ongoing problem, and not likely to be resolved in the imminent future.)

Though the Rape of Nanking happened over sixty years ago, it is a heavy point of contention today in Sino-Japanese relations, and this plays out in the media each year. Each time a Japanese government official goes to Yasukuni Shrine, China and countless other Asian countries condemn and protest the visit. The Shrine holds the names of over two million people who died in service to Japan, and commemorates their sacrifices. But it also contains the names of war criminals who contributed to or supervised the atrocities Japan committed in the second Sino-Japanese War.

For example: Iwane Matsui and Akira Muto played key roles in the Rape of Nanking and Japanese wartime brutality. Both men were also found guilty of committing war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after WWII ended and sentenced to death. China and many Asian countries who were brutalized during Japanese occupation perceive these visits as Japan reviving their trauma and scars. They argue Japan longs for its glory-filled days of attempted hegemony in this action and is un-apologetic about the war crimes it committed in the twentieth century.

Adding to that, the Japanese government has downplayed, if not euphemized, the full extent of what they did in their school textbooks. Some ultra right-wing groups and individuals go further and claim the atrocities never occurred like Holocaust deniers do. These two actions have been met by angry denunciations from other Asian media and increased diplomatic strain. Finally, aside from the legacy and consequences of Japanese wartime activities, Japan and China are also embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

These are simply a few of the complex issues between China and Japan. I do not know if Ahdieh was aware of them when she decided to write a Mulan meets Tamora Pierce story set in feudal Japan, but I cannot help but wonder if she did research this. I do not necessarily expect her to have an insider’s perspective, but given she spent part of her life in South Korea, which has its own difficulties with Japan (see the comfort women example above and here), I am quite stunned. I have to ask, why not adapt or retelling a story of a Japanese heroine in feudal Japan? Or a Korean heroine set in Korean history? You do not need to be Chinese in order to love her story, but given how endemic to Chinese history Mulan is, why use her when you cannot do so respectfully?

 

Putting a Mulan-esque story outside of a Chinese setting is already problematic in TTK, but if you write a Japanese retelling of Mulan, it negates the Ballad and its message of a girl who is fighting the enemy to protect her family, her father, and China even further. What makes Mulan unique is the fact that it represents deep-seated Confucian, Chinese ideals. It cannot be retold in a non-Chinese setting. FITM is not a diverse story if it excises the symbolism and multifaceted cultural nuances behind the Ballad and the figure of Mulan for a Japanese retelling.

 

I personally found the idea of a main character modeled on Mulan in a Japanese setting also an egregious insult to my own family. Two of my grand-uncles died in the Second Sino-Japanese War, one as a soldier, another fleeing the Rape of Nanking; my eldest uncle died when the Japanese bombed the hospital he and my grandmother were staying in. My grandmother escaped with minor injuries while my uncle perished. My earliest memories are of her lighting incense for my family members, which she did daily until she passed away. So when I read the blurb of FITM, it didn’t only feel as if someone kicked me in the stomach, it brought back the memories of my grandmother crying when she told me about her brothers and son, and how she blamed herself for not being able to save her son. My relatives are like Mulan in my heart. They died to give my grandmother and my family freedom. In an alternative world, if Japan had succeeded in their dreams, I would be considered a lesser human because of my Han Chinese background. I would not know how to speak Mandarin. I would not be free.

 

What Ahdieh and FITM do not only disregards what makes Mulan so special to my Chinese heritage, but it also insults my own family’s efforts to preserve Chinese independence and liberty.

 

Conclusion

 

Mulan retellings are much more than the Disney adaptation. The Ballad is an intrinsic part of Chinese history, of nationalism, of a brave young woman who sacrificed herself for her father and family. When an author takes Mulan into their story and strips her of the very things that make her Mulan, it is no longer a Mulan retelling or Mulan. It is a gimmick used to sell diversity because it is ‘hot.’ It is disgraceful, disrespectful, and an insult to the people who cherish Mulan as their personal heroes, especially children who grow up in the West. Because growing up as Chinese-British/American/etc, we are pigeonholed into liking Mulan because she is the only figure Western media has deigned to give us.

It is cultural appropriation and hurts people who dearly love Mulan.

-

Final Note:

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to bully Ahdieh or Beaty or dissuade non #ownvoices writers from their adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan. However, if you are an outsider writing this story, I ask that you be respectful and mindful of the cultural nuances behind the Ballad and its context. Otherwise you will insult and do harm to your readers.

 

 

 

Writing is Hard: Redemption Arcs for Racist Characters

I wasn’t going to write about the Black Witch. And I’m still not going to write about it (if you’re curious about the book you can check out Goodreads here:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25740412-the-black-witch).  But I do want to talk about two things that have been on my mind since reading reviews: racism in fantasy and redemptive arcs for actively racist characters.  Because I think it’s important for authors going forward to understand why and how an author ends up with books that attempt to deconstruct ideas of power but then fail miserably.

This is two blog posts because it is such a deep and thorny subject.  So let’s talk about redemptive arcs for racist point of view characters.

***

A lot of folks have become kind of enamored of the redemptive arc for problematic characters.  And while I do believe that a redemptive arc is compelling, it’s important to understand that redemptive arcs for certain folks are a hard sell.  Asking me to sign on for a racist’s redemptive arc is a no go.  Here’s why:

1.  Redemptive arcs for racists aren’t for readers of color.  They’re for white readers.  When writing a redemptive arc for a racist, authors are centering white feelings. In most Western societies, white people are the only people who have the power and luxury to be prejudiced and have the system support their bias (racism= prejudice + power). Centering white feelings and perspectives and experiences is an echo of the function of racism. So by writing a redemptive arc for a racist, even within a fantasy world, authors are catering to the feelings of people who can be racist. White people.

2. Prejudice is not the same as racism, and a redemptive arc for a racist is not the same as a redemptive arc for someone who is prejudiced.  Racism is active, prejudice is passive.  So if a redemptive arc is something you’re looking to write it’s going to be much easier, and much less shitty, to write a character who changes their arc by doing something active than by changing their actions.  Because the impact of their original actions will always exist.

3. Redemptive arcs rarely start early enough.  You cannot start a redemptive arc for a character in the last act or last half of the book.  It must be seeded early and with nuance.  Otherwise, the reversal will make zero sense to the reader.  If you’re writing a redemptive arc for any sort of character it must be the central arc, otherwise it just reads like bad characterization.

4. Your reformed racist cannot be the only “enlightened” character.  There’s a huge problem with the redeemed racist often being the only person who sees the light, with the help of a marginalized character.  This isn’t really how the world works.  White people who are prejudiced/racist rarely listen to minorities (because they see them as lesser. Hello, racism!).  They listen to other white people.  That means you’re going to have to include a voice of reason early on in your story.  This voice of reason rarely appears.

5. Redemptive arcs for racists require a heartfelt scene in which the oppressed person or people forgive the terrible racist for all of the harm they’ve caused.  These scenes are complete and utter bullshit. First off, they propagate the idea that marginalized groups should be willing to turn the other cheek, even when they’ve been grievously wronged.  Second, they make it seem like a heartfelt apology can undo years of hurt.  This literally isn’t how the world works.  There is no redemption for racists.  Not everyone gets or deserves a second chance.

So, if you’re planning on writing a redemptive arc for a racist or extremely prejudiced person, remember that by default you are writing for a white audience and centering white feelings.  And if that isn’t your goal, adjust accordingly.

Writing is Hard: Racism in a Fantasy Landscape

I wasn’t going to write about the Black Witch. And I’m still not going to write about it (if you’re curious about the book you can check out Goodreads here:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25740412-the-black-witch).  But I do want to talk about two things that have been on my mind since reading reviews: racism in fantasy and redemptive arcs for actively racist characters.  Because I think it’s important for authors going forward to understand why and how an author ends up with books that attempt to deconstruct ideas of power but then fail miserably.

This post is about addressing racism within a fantasy storytelling structure.  I’m going to save my discussion about redemptive arcs for racists for another post.

I touched on the idea of dismantling racism within a fantasy setting on twitter earlier this week.  Authors, especially white authors, like to tackle ideas of racism within fantasy settings by creating fake races for the point of view characters to be racist against.  This seems like a good idea in theory, but it is actually harder than just writing fantasy cultures that have a correlation to real world cultures and deconstructing real world racism within a fantasy setting.

Here’s why:

1. You have to teach a reader about the power structures in your fantasy world. And then deconstruct them.  Part of writing fantasy is about teaching a reader how to read your book.  This involves setting up scenes that illustrate the possible outcomes that can exist in your fantasy world.  Can your characters use magic? Great, now you have to show the reader the price of that magic, or the societal ramifications of that magic.  But you also will have to do that for the racism against the made up races within your book.  So creating a made up race creates more work to be done on the page.

2.  You have to be especially careful about how you code your characters.  If you accidentally code a race as a real world race but neglect to deconstruct the power structures of the real world you’ve created a trap of your own making.  If you code a fantasy race as several different real world analogs then that means there are several different cultural expectations you must subvert on the page.  If you don’t address the stereotypes and cultural narratives surrounding the real world people, then you aren’t going to be successful at deconstructing the power structures of your fantasy world on the page. You have to always be actively deconstructing and subverting at least two power structures: the real world one that people understand and expect and the one you’ve built.  Oh, and also worldbuild and have a plot in there somewhere.  That's a lot of spinning plates to manage.

3.  You can’t erase the real world people of color who actually suffer from racism.  This is a biggie, because one of the reasons authors resort to made up races is to not have to tackle real world racism and expectations of cultural out groups.  But erasing Black people in a book that dissects and deconstructs the ramifications of chattel slavery in a fantasy world where the legacy of chattel slavery is the driving force behind the world’s current power structures is itself kind of racist.  Erasure is it’s own kind of marginalization.  And let’s be honest: if you aren’t comfortable talking about how racism exists in the real world, your fake world racism discussion is going to be shit.

4. Fantasy races like elves and vampires are not human and by their definition are already the other.  So if the recipients of your fake racism are non-human races then as a writer you have to work even harder to show the dehumanization of the people who suffer from racism (or whatever you decide to call the prejudice that is tied to power that takes the place of racism).  And if those people are not human then you are going to have to first humanize those characters, and then show the complexities and nuance of them as a people.  As well as all of the stuff we talked about above.  That is a lot of work.

Bottom line:

Readers will bring real world expectations to your fantasy world.  That means they will also bring real world expectations of power structures to your fantasy world.  That means those expectations will have to be subverted and addressed on the page, along with all of the worldbuilding that is required from writing a fatnasy.   And if you can’t do that in a way that keeps your story moving, your story will fail.

Anonymous Review: ROSEBLOOD by A.G. Howard

In January I opened up my blog as a platform for readers to post anonymous reviews of the books they'd read and didn't want to review because of possible blowback (trust me, the struggle is real). 

Today:  ROSEBLOOD by A.G. Howard

*****

I was so excited to read the recently released YA novel, ROSEBLOOD, which is a Phantom of the Opera retelling. That is until I noticed (almost immediately) the problematic content regarding the protagonist Rune Germain, who is Romani on her father's side and whose ethnicity is used as a stereotypical plot device. 

The first mention of Rune's ethnicity we see is on pages 2-3: "That my grandmother's and accusations compounded the gypsy superstitions my dad had already imprinted on me, and they've affected how I see the world. Mom's partly right. It's hard to escape something so deeply ingrained, especially when I've seen proof of otherworldly things, having been possessed most of my life."

This excerpt has two problems. First, the term "g**sy" is a racial slur, especially when lowercase. The correct term is Romani or Roma. Sometimes Roma reclaim the name for themselves, but in general people outside of the community shouldn't use it because it is offensive to many due to the history behind the word. When the Romani first arrived in Europe from India, the Europeans referred to them as "Gyptians" because they mistakenly thought they'd come from Egypt. This is also where the term "gypped" comes from, which is also racist because it plays on the stereotype of Roma being thieves and scammers. Second, this excerpt implies that Rune has the ability to "see otherworldly things" which is a stereotype that they have ties to the occult or the supernatural.

Rune is a great singer, her musical talent passed down from her father. However, she is unlucky in that whenever she sings, it drains her of energy. The blurb on the back of the book reads "her greatest talent is her greatest curse." The "g**sy curse" is yet another harmful stereotype that caused fear and hatred of the Roma by the Europeans, and is an overused plot device seen in several other books and film. One page 146, Rune says "there was something in my gypsy blood--something tainted and wrong...just like Grandma said." And again, the use of the racial slur. On page 208 she says again, "I might be a monster, though I'm not sure what kind...I might be under a gypsy curse, and that's why my Grandma tried to kill me." 

On page 219 Rune says "Taking one last look at myself in the mirror--black, wild hair that ties me to Dad like my possessed musical performances once did; eyes the same color as Mom's but that see things no one else can; cursed, gypsy blood like Grandma's--I have to wonder: on which side do I belong?" More stereotypes here; eyes that can see the supernatural when no one else can (accentuating her "otherness") the "cursed g**sy blood" and the questioning of which "side" she belongs too, insinuating that possibly her Roma "side" is bad....? I could be wrong here but that's how I interpreted it. 

On page 330 Rune finds out the history of her ancestor, Saint-Germain, and his ties to the Phantom: "{Saint-Germain} took his leave of society to travel with a caravan of gypsies...Saint-Germain became the Romani Roi of the group--their gypsy king." Here the author uses the correct term, Romani, so I'm not sure why she couldn't use it instead of using the slur over and over. Also, if you are not born Romani, you cannot "become" Romani. It doesn't work that way. 

In the Author's note, there's talk of all the research that went into the book about the potential real person whom Christine Daae is possibly based on and the real person Saint-Germain. And yet...if only she'd put in research into the Romani people, she would've discovered that the cliche "g**sy curse" plot device is a stereotype and that the word itself is a slur. 

 

 

The Trivial Matters

Last night, someone sent me a link to Jodi Meadows’ new book, Before She Ignites.  I didn’t really understand the context until I saw the cover.

The cover, which is gorgeous, features a Black Girl in a pretty dress.  Awesome.

But the fact that the cover appears to be the first of it’s kind and it belongs to a white author serves to reinforce the absolute whiteness of publishing.  Because even when it wants to increase representation, publishers look to white authors to fill that need.

And that is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

See, there is a dearth of Black fantasy and Science Fiction writers getting published.  The numbers tell the story.  We can chalk it up to lack of quality or Black authors not wanting to tell stories, but I think we all know that for the lie it is.  After all, the Fireside Fiction report came out and confirmed what we've long suspected to be the systemic inequity in the short story market.  That is why FIYAH magazine stood up.  And the stories in there illustrate just how amazing Black authors are.

But back to YA.

The dearth of girls of color on book covers, pretty dress or not, isn’t a new discussion, especially among PoC. Here is the Root talking about the whitewashing of the Liar cover in 2009. In this blog post from 2012, I talked about the need for more diversity on book covers in response to criticisms of dead girls on book covers.  Ellen Oh discussed it as well in 2012, comparing YA books to middle-grade.  And this YALSA post from 2012 talks about the trend and how it reinforces beauty standards that center whiteness.

Now, five years later, we’re getting a pretty black girl on a book cover for the first time and that honor goes to a white author.  Consider the implications of that.  It means that for PoC to get access to something we’ve agitated for within publishing we have to wait for white authors to normalize it.  That isn’t equality.

That’s table scraps.

“But Justina,” you say, “authors don’t pick their covers.”

“But Justina,” you say, “the reason that author got the first cover of a pretty Black girl in a dress is because there aren’t any Black authors publishing those books.”

And that is exactly the problem.

Authors write their books, and then someone has to decide to publish those books and put a cover on them.  That the first Black girl in a pretty dress cover went to a white author is a marker of the inequality in the system, a system where gatekeepers prioritize and center whiteness even when opening their aperture to include books featuring marginalized voices.  This is no different than a book like When We Was Fierce or The Continent making it all the way to publication.  They are canaries in the coal mine of publishing, pointing out that even when folks are trying to do better they’re still reinforcing the same problematic notions of white supremacy that led to racial inequity in the first place.

And that will always bear discussing.

Anonymous Review: Sad Perfect

Last month I opened up my blog as a platform for readers to post anonymous reviews of the books they'd read and didn't want to review because of possible blowback (trust me, the struggle is real).  Well, today is another anonymous review: Sad Perfect by Stephanie Elliott.

Enjoy.

Note: the original draft sent to me had a lot of beautiful formatting that Squarespace dumped.  I've decided to leave the review as is rather than try to change anything and lose the voice of the reviewer.  Any confusion is all my fault.

Updated 2-9-2017 12:11 PM EST:  I've removed the passage about medication at the request of the reviewer.

***

Introduction, Summary, Disclaimers

A couple weeks ago, a post came up on my twitter feed. “Looking for someone who can review this ARC [advanced review copy] of a new YA book,” it said. (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t want to put anyone near the dumpster fire that often follows unfavourable book reviews—and this one’s a doozy.) The tweeter—let’s call her S—didn’t feel comfortable reviewing a book about eating disorders (EDs) because she didn’t identify as someone who’s suffered from one, and felt like the review should be by someone with that experience. She expressed the concern that the author of the book was not an example of own voices, either.

So I stepped up, offered my services, and we had a really great chat over direct message about my qualifications, and the extortionate price of imported American candy. I’m writing this review anonymously, but I think I should cover a little bit about myself, my background, and why I think I was a good and fair choice to review this book. Trust me, it’s relevant.

I’ve been a writer for decades, and an editor for almost as long. I’ve done editing work for YA and the adult market, in various genres (contemporary, women’s fiction, memoir, speculative fiction, romance, historical, et cetera, et cetera).

The reason I stepped up is because I’ve suffered from an eating disorder for seventeen or eighteen years, to a greater or lesser extent. It has landed me in the hospital twice, but because it was an unusual presentation it wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-twenties. I have what’s called purge-restrictive anorexia, which means that I both restrict my diet and force myself to purge even if I don’t binge.

This book, “Sad Perfect” by Stephanie Elliot, is not about my ED; it’s about a newly identified disorder called “ARFID”, or “avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder”. There can be some overlap with anorexia or bulimia, but ARFID is identified as a disorder in which the sufferer avoids foods that aren’t “safe”, or experiences the vast majority of foods as disgusting. It seems to be exacerbated by trauma and anxiety: a sufferer is more restrictive when anxious, and the disorder can be triggered by trauma. Sufferers are often characterised as “picky eaters”,  which delegitimises their genuine suffering and prevents them from getting a diagnosis or the proper treatment.

In recent years I’ve been able to keep my anorexia under control, but there are certain things that bring about an episode. When I do suffer a resurgence of symptoms these days, my anorexia looks a lot like ARFID: I’ll associate certain foods with safety and sometimes certain classes of foods will taste horrible. A couple of years ago, a psychologist suggested to me that I might be experiencing ARFID-like symptoms.

When I first offered to do the review I told S that she didn’t have to worry about me reading the book, that I was mostly out of danger and I didn’t think it would hurt me.

Well, I was wrong.

“Sad Perfect” is not just problematic. It’s not just inaccurate. It’s dangerous. The night I first read this book I sat on my bed and sobbed for nearly an hour. I had to give my husband instructions to watch my food intake like a hawk because of how tempted I was to starve myself.

I’ll say this again: the reason I have been so determined to do this review is because I am terrified that a teenager with an ED will pick up this book and that reading it will pose a serious risk to their health.

If you suffer from an ED, especially if you suffer from anorexia or bulimia, I suggest you stop reading this review right now. The quotes I provide are really, very, super triggering, because in order to ingratiate herself with teen sufferers of ARFID, the author of “Sad Perfect” has decided to vilify sufferers of anorexia and bulimia.

Oh, there are other problems too: there’s a total of one PoC and white heteronormativity is held up as beautiful; the love interest is a classic example of you’re-so-special-not-like-all-those-other-girly-girls misogyny; the manuscript is rife with inaccurate, generalised information about EDs and other mental illnesses; and of course the author of the book is not an example of own voices (Elliot’s daughter suffers from ARFID, but she has no ED herself).

So much for the general disclaimers and summary. Let’s get to the specifics—and I’m not kidding, if you have anorexia or bulimia, I REALLY suggest you skip the rest of this review, and unless a lot of stuff gets fixed, the entire book.

 

 The Plot

Sixteen year old Pea unknowingly suffers from ARFID, and it affects her every single day. She can’t socialise normally because social occasions revolve around food. She can’t enjoy dinner at the table with her painfully generic, Home Improvement family. Her utter tool of an older brother doesn’t seem to care about her. But then Pea meets Ben, a teenage boy written by an adult author who has perhaps never even seen or spoken to a teenage boy in her entire life, but who does know exactly what she’d want to see in a potential boyfriend for her daughter, and writes accordingly.

Right after Pea meets Ben, she’s diagnosed and begins therapy. One on one therapy helps, but not as much as Ben, whose bulging, veiny arms (not joking) are always ready to engulf Pea in their calming embrace. Pea decides that she doesn’t need her medication because of how much better Ben makes her feel, which is characterised as a bad decision even though the author makes it clear that Ben totally helps Pea more than medication or therapy can (???). Pea, off her medication, begins to get surly and anxious, which leads to a fight with Ben. To cope, she begins to scratch at her skin with safety pins (Which are featured on the cover. Way to romanticise self-harm, publishing!). After someone anonymously tips her school, Pea finds herself in a hospital ward, under suicide watch with other kids who are deemed at-risk. Her family blames Ben for her worsening symptoms and her self-harm.

This is very traumatic for Pea, because the hospital ward is apparently run by villains from rejected Harry Potter drafts or A Series of Unfortunate Events, and because her parents are clearly casting blame where it doesn’t belong, because Ben makes no mistakes whatsoever and is like a cross between a bodybuilder and a messiah—but she eventually gets out, and after her brother beats up Ben when Pea sneaks out to meet him, and Ben admits he called in the anonymous tip, everything is okay and Pea sets out with new resolve to stay on her meds and happy that her boyfriend is just omg so perfect.

 

 Anorexics and Bulimics Are, Apparently,  Just Awful

Pea is diagnosed with ARFID at a clinic for eating disorders, which is also where she participates in her one-on-one and group therapy sessions. Immediately Pea disassociates herself from the other girls, who all have anorexia and bulimia.

 

Shayna said your disorder isn’t like theirs—and you want nothing to do with these girls. - p48

 

The first encounter with the anorexics and bulimics is an example of mild othering, and it put me on guard. Elliot, having written Pea with a likeable voice (even though it’s in the second person), immediately proceeds to write every other girl with an ED as if she’s casting for Heathers:

 

“So she’s just like a picky eater?” a very thin girl says. - p49

 

Given that Pea has spent most of the book up until now ragging on girls who want to be popular (specifically, girls who care about nothing but Instagram likes, a fact she mentions so often I went back and marked every instance of it with a specifically coloured index tag), this kind of speech clearly codes anorexics and bulimics as the kind of bitchy, popular girls that Pea hates. Likewise, the constant reminder that Pea is not like “other girls”—not in everyday life, and not in the specific realm of eating disorders either. ARFID, too, is set apart as more serious, somehow more “special” than the boring anorexia or bulimia that the other girls have.

 

‘ “I’m not like any of you,” you start, and every single one of them shifts in her seat. […]

“That’s bullshit. Your parents wouldn’t have brought you here if you weren’t exactly like us.” She crosses her arms over her chest and nods to the other girls, waiting for them [to] say something, anything to agree with her.

Shayna says, “Hailey, judgment-free. That sounds like an assumption to me.” ’- p71

 

Notice how the therapist and voice of authority, Shayna, backs up Pea’s claim that she’s special. This happens every time someone in group therapy challenges this idea. On the next page, after Pea makes some (unchallenged and incorrect) assumptions about anorexia and bulimia, there’s this paragraph:

 

‘You totally called them out, and were not so nice about it, telling the girls that your stuff was more serious than their own problems, and that they didn’t understand what you were going through.’ - p72

 

In context, it’s very clear that this is Elliot’s opinion, not just her protagonist’s. I began to suspect that Elliot held some very real and serious grudges against anorexics and bulimics, presumably because her daughter suffered some bullying from either a person with anorexia or bulimia or because her daughter’s ARFID was sneeringly compared to those disorders.

 

‘ “The other night, I made my boyfriend leave because of the monster, and he wasn’t doing anything wrong. […] This monster makes me do bad things. Do you guys have any idea what I’m talking about?”

“You mean like Ed?” one of the girls asks.

Shayna interrupts. “Ed is a term we use for eating disorder, like we’ve given it an identity.”

You look at Shayna and then address the girls again. “It’s worse than Ed. It’s like having Ed plus having a real monster.[…]” ’ - p151

 

Uh, what the fuck? Yeah, some therapists use the name “Ed” to personify EDs, but trust me when I say that for every person with an ED there’s a different manifestation of the voice that tells you to do horrible things to yourself. For some people there’s not even a separate voice, just the compulsion. My voice was certainly a monster, a monster much more graphic, nasty, and horrible than Pea’s monster is described in this book—a monster who called me a pile of garbage in human skin, a monster who told me I shouldn’t exist, a monster who made me avoid mirrors and other reflective surfaces, who said that the only way to purify the wretchedness of my own existence was to starve myself away from it, like a waif or a ghost.

This kind of othering would be okay in a book with a narrator that the author acknowledges is unreliable. If Elliot had made it clear that Pea is mistaken, or being unfair, that anorexia and bulimia are in fact very serious indeed, and that they have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, it would have been okay—but she doesn’t. Pea’s assumptions about these disorders are left entirely unchallenged, and readers are left with the distinct impression that the author thinks that all anorexics and bulimics are foolish and melodramatic. This is utterly unforgivable; Elliot is making villains of suffering teenagers who are at risk of serious health problems and death. Nowhere does she mention that bulimic patterns cause heart problems or that anorexia can lead to osteoporosis.

There’s more: the anorexics and bulimics in this book are coded as unpleasant, even disgusting. Here’s what Pea has to say about the above bulimic who tried to claim kinship with her, Hailey:

 

‘Hailey, the worst of the bulimics, the one who binges on Oreos and pancakes, who hides candy bars in her sock drawer, who purges everything she puts into her mouth[…]’ - p71

 

It gets nastier.

 

‘[Y]ou sit with the other girls—the ones who don’t eat and the ones who throw up—and you are quiet as you listen to everyone talk about how they are either struggling to eat a salad or struggling not to puke[…].’ p150

 

‘One of the girls—Nina, she’s textbook anorexic—comes over and hugs you. She’s standing and you’re still sitting and it’s a totally awkward hug, because she’s much too thin and has sharp elbow edges, plus you don’t even know her.’

[…]

‘Her breath stinks. You imagine it’s what death smells like.’ - p152

 

This is never, ever addressed again, not once in the entire book. Every time Pea interacts with anorexics or bulimics it’s in this kind of setting, and using this kind of tone. Pea never thinks about how unfairly she thought of the girls in her group, how dismissive she was of their EDs, how deadly their illnesses might be. Bulimics and anorexics are always equated with “girly” girls, girls obsessed with popularity, girls obsessed with their own looks while Pea achieves normative beauty without trying, the kind of girl that Ben specifically mentions with dislike when he’s describing why Pea is so special. The tagline for the book even echoes this: “Perfect is only on the surface.” What bullshit.

 

 

Dangerous Inaccuracies

Here and there in this review, I’ve mentioned that “Sad Perfect” is full of worrying inaccuracies about EDs and mental health in general. There are examples and examples and examples, so I’m not going to go into every single one, but the instances that concerned me the most were inaccuracies about mental health treatment.

In her othering and vilification of anorexics and bulimics, Elliot stereotypes these disorders and sufferers of these disorders in harmful ways. I mentioned one of them above, girls-who-starve-and-girls-who-puke, and this stereotype is echoed by Shayna, the voice of authority about ED facts that Elliot provides. Bulimia can manifest in a lot of ways—purging can be done with excessive laxatives, or through excessive exercise, for example. Elliot does have Pea acknowledge that bulimics can use laxatives, but it’s a brief one-off, overshadowed by mentions of vomiting and associated imagery.

Yet another example of harmful inaccuracy:

 

‘And you know your problem is not anorexia or bulimia, because you’ve never wanted to lose weight[…].

You’ve always had a healthy-looking body, and that’s one of the reasons your parents could keep denying something was wrong. You’re neither too thin nor heavy.’ - p19

 

Here’s where own voices makes a difference: I said my anorexia presented in an unusual way because I always looked normal, even when I was literally eating nothing but one sandwich a week, plus the occasional mouthful when I needed to seem like someone who ate. Most of my calories came from alcohol. I looked really skinny, but normal. I still suffer from anorexia, and now I’m on the heavier side of normal, because I have no natural guide for portion control and am afraid of eating too little and getting into bad habits again. (I think of it as a sort of whiplash.) I never obsessed about losing weight. It was all about food: how food was a taboo, how it was indulgent to eat at all, how “good” I was for avoiding food. On bad days my body is ugly to me because it’s evidence of all the nasty, horrible food I “gave in” and ate. I didn’t want to be thin; I wanted to disappear. Saying an anorexic wants to lose weight is like saying a junkie wants to feel happy.

But if you don’t have an ED, and your only concern is your daughter’s well-being, how likely are you to concern yourself with portraying other people’s experiences accurately? Especially if your strategy for connecting with teens who suffer from ARFID is to make them feel special and superior to those boring anorexics and bulimics.

One more:

 

‘ “You guys, from what I heard last week, have had traumatic experiences at older ages, like divorce or abuse, or something bad happening later. […] [Y]ou used to be able to eat normally before you had your disorder. […] But I never ate normally.” ’ - p72

 

First, childhood anorexia is a real disorder. People can develop it at extremely young ages. Secondly, Elliot is contradicting herself: a little earlier in the book, her mother says that Pea ate normally until she was about three years old. ARFID is actually closely associated with autism (one of the reasons it’s common in young men), a fact that Elliot completely fails to mention, and autism generally manifests from birth. You’d think she would mention something that important about ARFID while writing a book intended to help kids who suffer from ARFID, right?

And then there’s THIS:

 

‘You go straight to the psych ward. Because that’s really what it is. A place for crazies.

You don’t talk to your parents on the way to the “hospital” as they call it, although you know it’s the Crazy House. You’re scared to death, because you’ve seen movies about crazy people and you know it’s all just about taking your meds in small paper cups and wearing hospital gowns and maybe even getting strapped to your bed at night. And freaky people shouting out the answers to Jeopardy! every evening, and crappy food they might shove down your throat to force you to eat.’ - p196

 

After much wtf-ing, I thought, how great it would be if Pea were to have a mostly good but mixed experience of the hospital ward? She’d meet some good people, think about how she was mistaken in characterising them as “crazies”, perhaps have some problems with the staff who don’t understand her ED for what it is, a passage that corrects a character’s mistaken assumptions…you know, good writing. Instead, one of the kids that Pea gets to know commits suicide (in a closed ward, and it’s never explained how this is possible); Pea is not given any of her “safe” foods and so is left to starve for weeks; bullying is rampant and horribly addressed; and, as I’ve mentioned, the majority of authority figures in the ward are cartoonishly villainous. Pea refers to the ward as the Crazy House for the rest of the book, even after she leaves it.

The problem with this characterisation is that it’s clearly done to drive plot, and not out of any concern about the well-being of the real kids who have experienced being under suicide watch at a hospital ward and who might read this book. Emergency intervention saves a lot of lives, but Elliot doesn’t acknowledge this. What happens when a teenager reads this book? How will they feel about emergency suicide intervention? Pitting teenagers emotionally against the people who are trying to help them is a dangerous practice.

 

 

Boys Don’t Get Eating Disorders

Shortly after I read and was reeling from this book, I think the next morning, I had my weekly therapy appointment. My therapist is a qualified psychologist, who’s worked in both the private and public sectors for decades. I described this book to her, about how dangerous I thought it was, and she made an excellent point.

I told her that nowhere in this book is it acknowledged that anybody but girls can get an ED, that the clinic’s therapist specifically mentions “our girls”, that Ben’s lack of knowledge about EDs in general is coded as gendered knowledge, that there is not one single whiff of a suggestion that a) genders outside the binary even exist, that b) trans people exist, or that b) anyone who is not a cis female can get an ED, and she said that this aspect of the book was what upset her the most.

My psychologist told me that anorexia and bulimia are more common in women because they’re often tied up with gender-specific social pressures, but that actually newly named disorders like ARFID are more common in young men. It was her opinion that the erasure of non-female sufferers was dangerous, especially given the enforcing of traditional gender roles that I described to her.

So let’s talk about those next!

 

 

I Ran Out of The Colour of Sticky Flags I Used to Mark Misogyny — Twice

Here is a photo of my ARC copy of “Sad Perfect”.

 

 

 

All of the large dark green flags, and then the little dark green flags, and then when I ran out of those too, the little purple flags—all of those are examples of misogyny. So I’m not going to type them all up, especially because FSG, the publisher, could probably do me for copyright infringement, as they make up approximately 85% of the book by weight.

There’s bog-standard, alas romance-and-YA-typical misogyny about what boys should be and girls should be:

 

‘He’s definitely taller than you, a lot taller, probably six inches taller.’ - p7

 

‘His hand is large and warm and protective.’ - p35

 

‘ “This part scares me,” you admit.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re safe,” he says. ’ - p12

 

‘Jae comes over and helps you pick out an outfit, one that’s not too datey looking, not too casual, one that says, I’m confident and I look nice, and I’m not easy, and I like you.’ - p28

 

There’s the kind of misogyny that Elliot probably reinforces in her children at home:

 

‘Of course it’s then that your dad decides to take ownership over you and gives you a big hug and kiss and says, “Be good.” ’ - p28

 

There’s the kind I mentioned before, the othering of the kind of popular, image-obsessed girls who are coded as the only kind that suffer from anorexia or bulimia:

 

‘You kneel on your bed and and emit a little girlie squeal and then want to shove it back into your mouth, because you sound like one of those stupid girls. You don’t want to be a stupid girl.’ - p23

 

‘ “I thought you would have picked a pink or yellow ball,” he says.

“Why?” you ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe that’s what I expect girls to do, pick girlie colors, but you’re different. I should have known better. That you’d pick the unexpected color.”

Well, green is my favorite color, so I wanted the green one,” you say.

“Aren’t you feisty tonight,” Ben says, laughing.

You feel good around him. Ben makes you want to be yourself.’ - p53

 

Please note that at ‘feisty’ my eyeballs tried to escape my head from all the rolling they did, and the biro I was using nearly bit through the paper. For reference, here is a picture of my annotations.

 

 

 

And there’s the kind of misogyny that made me put the book right the eff down and pick up a very, very large beer—the kind that means Pea has no agency against her own eating disorder.

As she’s spending time with Ben:

 

‘You don’t feel the monster anywhere inside you.’ - p80

 

‘He’s the only one who seems to keep the monster at a lull.’ - p137

 

As she’s thinking about Ben in the hospital ward:

 

‘You’re going to have to trust him. Trust his love.

You’re going to have to be better to him.’ - p 246

 

As she’s making a list of what her fears are for therapy:

 

‘ “Ben not liking me anymore.

BEN NOT LIKING ME ANYMORE.”

That is your biggest fear.’ - p116

 

My note here just says, “Bigger than DYING???”

It doesn’t help that the monster is coded as male. Throughout the book, the effect is very odd, as if Ben is fighting off a romantic rival, as if Elliot’s version of Team Edward/Team Jacob is Team Ben/Team Eating Disorder:

 

‘Because no matter how much you hate the monster, he’s important. You take care of him because he tells you to. It’s that simple.’ - p43

 

The protagonist of any book like this, that has been written to help a group of vulnerable people, should have agency. What Pea has instead is a boyfriend—and this is incredibly dangerous. What about the teens who pick up this book who aren’t in a romantic relationship? What about the teens who pick up this book who happen to be ace or aro? What about the teens who pick this up and are in a relationship, but not a good one? This book is not a call to arms; it’s not something you can read and feel empowered by. It’s an ode to the perfect boyfriends of misogynistic fiction that satisfy some kind of saviour complex women and girls have been trained to have.

Pea’s lack of agency is especially dangerous given the problematic nature of romantic relationships when suffering from an ED, the nuances of which teens are less likely to pick up on unless told. Pea and Ben are clearly physically attracted to each other at first sight—that’s what teen love is based on, mostly, that and hormones—and when you have an ED, it often affects your body. Pea declares that hers is unaffected, but that certainly won’t be the case for everybody who picks up this book. When I was most physically affected by my ED, I was an older teen, dating a gorgeous boy who was also very enamoured of my appearance—but the problem is, my body at the time was unhealthy. This made his attraction by nature problematic. Elliot has a responsibility to her readers (a stance I’ve taken throughout this review), and in this case even though Pea’s body is “normal” (whatever that means) her readers’ bodies might show evidence of their EDs, and so they might have relationships that are problematic in the way mine was. So Elliot has a responsibility to at least address this, somehow, in some way.

 

 

Victim Blaming, Unrealistic Expectations

 

So what conclusion does Elliot reach? Well…

 

‘You unconsciously created the monster, someone else to blame, because you didn’t want to take on the responsibilities of fixing what was broken.

The monster was never real.

“I’m ready,” you tell Shayna. “I’m going to take the responsibility to get well, and not blame something else for my problems.”

Of course, you’ll need Shayna’s help, and with time, patience, and determination, you’ll succeed. You’re sure of it.’ - p299

 

Oh, cool, so basically my eating disorder is all my fault and it was never real in the first place? HOW DID I NOT REALISE THIS SOONER??!??!!1111

Way to victim blame, Stephanie Elliot. Not just blame, shame. And way to also set up your readers for crippling shame and disappointment when they discover that for the vast majority of ED sufferers, it’s a lifelong battle! Pea also promises to never scratch herself with safety pins again, and the suggestion is that she never will again—Elliot’s authorial voice has us believe that Pea is telling the truth, and also that it’s fact that Pea never does self-harm again. This is not how self-harm works: once people develop coping mechanisms for anxiety, they will be tempted to use them, no matter how harmful they are.

What if (heaven forbid) Pea breaks up with Ben? Without her saviour, how can she possibly defeat herself?

 

 

Miscellaneous Weirdness, Bad Writing

1. Pea and Ben bond over their mutual love for the band U2, which is not appropriate in anyone under the age of forty-five:

 

‘ “Um, favorite band?” he asks.

“Oh God, I don’t know, like forever, or of the moment?” you ask.

“Ever.”

“U2.”

“Bonus points, right there,” he says.’ - p57

 

2. Physical appearance is equated with morality:

 

‘Ken, the nerdy fat kid who was Malik’s roommate, comes up behind you and snatches the envelope out of your hand. He walks around and sits super closet you on one of the chairs. He’s creepy and his teeth are crooked and really yellow.’ - p241

 

This goes both ways: everyone who is awesome is attractive.

 

3. ARM VEINS (wtf)

 

‘[H]e’s got those awesome veins running through his forearms. […]You follow quickly because this is really happening…and arm veins!’ - p9

 

Arm veins are also featured on pages 13 and 32, and Elliot mentions that Ben was actually inspired by a real boy who held her own daughter’s hand—so, okay, you know what? Just a little creeped out.

This kind of veining only shows up when you train to puff up your muscles for appearance, rather than training for strength. Bodybuilders actively seek to traumatise their muscles to artificially swell them—and as you do this, the body tries to get more and more blood to the muscle, to help it heal. So this is romanticising a trait that is extremely unhealthy for a teenage boy, and in someone who is seventeen, could signify another eating disorder: exercise bulimia.

 

 

Racism, QUILTBAG Phobia

…more like erasure. Everything is white and normative and white and normative. There are exactly ZERO QUILTBAG characters in the entire book, one PoC character (maybe a couple of lines of dialogue at most), and a few PoC cameos—and every PoC appears in the hospital ward, with obvious coding that suggests the author is associating PoC people with low income. This isn’t done in a way that acknowledges white privilege and tries to confront it or talk about it constructively—rather, it’s done in the unconscious way that assumes disadvantaged kids will be mostly PoCs, and that everything “normal” is white.

Cool. We definitely needed more books like this, because if there’s anyone underrepresented on the shelves, it’s middle-class heteronormative cisnormative white people!!!

 

 

Conclusion

This book needs to be fixed before it hits shelves, before any at-risk teens, especially those with anorexia or bulimia, can get their hands on it. I’m a full grown adult, and this book disturbed me enough to send me spiralling into a depressive episode: I couldn’t bear to think of what would have happened had I gotten my hands on this when I was a vulnerable, very ill sixteen year old.

 I couldn’t bear to think about what might happen if any teen opens this book expecting help, hope, and support, and finds instead that they are vilified, depicted as disgusting, made to think that they won’t get help from hospitals, their family, or group therapy but will get help from their crushes, given false hope about their illness, made to think that their illness is melodramatic or silly, that they don’t even have an illness because they’re not female, or any of the other horribly unhealthy, dangerous things Stephanie Elliot has to say in this book.

Anonymous Review: Wait for Me

It seems like every time I point out a book with a questionable premise of Twitter a dozen or so people slide into my DMs like "That book is a mess but I'm afraid to say anything."  Ever since author Kathleen Hale doxxed an anonymous reviewer, a lot of folks have been afraid to critically review a book. It's difficult to be completely anonymous on the internet.

So, from now on I'm offering up my blog as a place for readers to critically review books with problematic content. Because you can't improve if you don't know what you did wrong in the first place.

I hope this review helps people make informed decisions.

And how do you write a WWII story and ignore the Holocaust entirely?

Sometimes I see a book in the PW deal announcements and get excited about it. Then a couple years later, when the book is actually coming out, I find myself cringing. Since that deal was announced, I’ve learned and grown and can see a questionable premise for what it is.

Wait for Me was one of those books. But I kept seeing reviews saying it handled it well and was so good and so I decided to give it a shot. And while reading it, I really enjoyed it! Then I sat back and really thought about it and oh, what a mess this book is.

In 1945, Lorna lives in a small town on the Scottish coast - Aberlady - with her dad and a girl from the Women’s Land Army who helps on their farm. Her brothers, John Jo and Sandy, are off fighting in WWII, John Jo on the front lines and Sandy in offices in London. Lambing season is approaching and one of the former farmhands was injured and retired from work. There’s no way that Lorna, her dad, and Nellie can handle the lambing season on their own; Lorna is still in school and Nellie doesn’t handle births well. So Lorna’s father agrees to take on a German POW from the nearby camp as free labor.

You can see where this is going.

Lorna is, at first, horrified at the prospect of a German soldier working on the farm with them. Her brothers are off risking their lives fighting Germans, they still live with blackout curtains and light restrictions in the evening since they live on the coast, and now her dad wants one working on the farm?

Then she meets Paul. Paul who, she learns, speaks English fairly well. Half his face was burnt by a grenade on D-Day before he was captured, but he may have been handsome? Probably? Eventually she decides he’s definitely handsome, burns and all. Because….that’s important.

Later we learn that Paul was from Dresden, where he lived with his mom and younger sister. His dad had gone off to war and died years before and Paul was working as an apprentice to a watchmaker until he was old enough to be drafted. He didn’t want to be a soldier, it is made clear, he just had to be. Which, I guess I can’t fully blame him for, but we’ll get to why this is still a problem later.

Time goes by and the town is clearly unhappy with Paul. Lorna’s best friend, Iris, keeps giggling about him being handsome but also terrible because he’s German. But Lorna defends him - he’s nice and quiet and works hard. He even gets to sleep over on the farm when lambing season picks up, wearing Lorna’s brothers’ things. Meanwhile Iris is being courted by the pastor’s son, William, an awful boy who tells Iris how to feel and where she can go. Lorna keeps telling Iris that William is awful and Iris keeps insisting he isn’t as he grabs her arm and drags her somewhere else. Super convincing, right? Everyone else in Lorna and Iris’s class is equally awful. The teacher is nice though, forgiving Lorna for always being late and trying to get her to think about college.

And so we’ve set the scene.

First of all, nothing is ever mentioned about Jewish people or concentration camps. This is spring of 1945 and it never comes up. You can argue that Lorna may have been unaware and say that Germans didn’t know about the camps and Paul left Dresden before it became widely known - but Dresden is a 45 minute drive from the Sachsenburg Concentration Camp. And Buchenwald? That was a little over 2 hours away. Sure, that’s by today’s standards and it was different then...but Dresden was the biggest city near the Sachsenburg camp. I’ve been to Munich and I went on a day trip to Dachau from there - those nearby big cities could not have been oblivious. The traffic they would experience, the supplies that would be needed - a lot would need to go through big cities. But it’s not mentioned, not once. There’s no excuse for not mentioning this at all. It’s great that Paul wanted nothing to do with the Nazi party, but he still knew and still became a soldier anyway. And how do you write a WWII story and ignore the Holocaust entirely?

Also at one point, Paul learns that Dresden was destroyed by Allied bombs and is clearly upset about it, but Lorna is oblivious and learns about it months later...and does nothing. The boy she claims to love has likely lost his home and his sister and mom might be dead and this is never really addressed. This book is problematic, but it’s also just messy.

Second, literally every man who isn’t Paul or Lorna’s dad is terrible. William is a manipulative, emotionally abusive asshole who tries to ban Iris from going to Lorna’s house without him. Additionally, it’s eventually revealed that he kissed Lorna when they were kids. One day when he gets suspicious about Lorna and Paul, he manhandles Lorna and tells her if she has needs, she doesn’t need to go to a German. While Iris is just a few feet away. William’s father - the pastor - is spineless and follows his awful wife’s orders. Nellie is dating an American pilot and in love with him. She even takes Lorna to a dance at their air hanger. At this dance, Nellie leaves Lorna with one of the other pilots, who gets her drunk and tries to rape her, and she then has to get home on her own. Nellie comes back the next morning and about a month later, discovers she’s pregnant. She tries to go to her American pilot and tell him, but he’s been ignoring her. So she goes on the base to tell him, at which point he tells her he doesn’t love her, he’s got a wife back home, and breaks up with her. Even Lorna’s brothers are a bit sketchy; Sandy’s okay, but John Jo comes back on leave and spends most of the time drunk.

Speaking of Lorna’s brothers, John Jo is not happy about Paul being on the farm. At all. Things come to a head when he comes home while Paul is helping to clean up a cut Lorna gets on her knee. John Jo freaks out about it, threatening Paul and pushing him until he hits the ground hard enough to get a cut on the back of his head. Lorna brings John Jo inside and yells at him, telling him that she hates him. He leaves the house, she goes up to her room and cries herself to sleep, and in the morning John Jo is gone, having left without a word to anyone. Paul has also acquired a black eye and bruised knuckles from fighting John Jo, but no explanation is given as to when this fight happened. Shortly after, a telegram arrives saying John Jo is missing. Lorna blames Paul, trying to hit him, until she’s restrained. She then takes all the blame on herself for telling John Jo she hated him and causing him to leave (which...he would’ve done anyway? He only had like another day or two off before he had to return so…). She continues to blame herself until a telegram arrives saying he’s been wounded and taken as a German prisoner. At this point, she tells her dad about all of it and that it was her fault? I dunno.

On the other hand, Sandy comes back and basically gives Lorna and Paul the okay, everything’s hunky dory and Paul is a good guy. ??????

Third, the friendships are just kind of awful? Nellie abandons Lorna, knowing she’s younger, innocent, and never drinks, with an American soldier so she can go have sex. Why would you do that?? And IRIS. At one point, Lorna tells Iris that she and Paul kissed, then told her she couldn’t tell anyone. And I don’t blame her. Iris argues that she can’t lie to William, so unless he specifically asked what they talked about that afternoon, she wouldn’t tell. (We see where this is gonna go, yeah?) Iris told William, who quickly spread word, and the town begins shunning Lorna and gossiping about her all the time and it nearly destroys their friendship.  

Meanwhile, pregnant Nellie was out herding cows when a German plane comes and starts shooting at her and the cows?? Several of the cows die and Nellie nearly miscarries, but Lorna and Paul are nearby and get her to safety and get her a doctor and she keeps the baby. But it is 1945 and they are still getting attacked by Germans. But the doctor is assuring them that Paul, the German soldier, and Lorna saved Nellie and her baby’s life. WHY DID THIS SCENE EVEN HAPPEN?

Now it’s Victory Day, everyone’s celebrating the end of the war. John Jo is okay, sure the teacher’s son was killed in action and she’s been mourning for a month, but otherwise it’s all good. Parties are thrown, rationing is ignored, and there’s to be a celebratory mass.

Lorna goes to the celebratory party for the kids, then returns home. Lorna’s dad, who hasn’t gone to church since his wife died 15 years ago, insists that all of them - including Paul - go to this celebratory mass. Lorna’s like ???? and same, girl, same. But it’s a time of peace and celebration so SURE let’s bring Paul. They get there and everybody’s kind of pissed. Their housekeeper and her family stands with them in support while the pastor tries to tell them that nobody wants Paul in that church. Then, THEN, the teacher who had her son die in the war emerges from her house. We all must come together, she says. So many prisoners of war and families who miss them, we should be welcoming Paul!

Girl, I’m sorry, but did you miss that your son was killed by Germans like six weeks ago? Alright then.

So she marches them all into church and Iris tries to come along. William gets pissed and says no, she cannot do that to him, she has to sit with his family. She opts out and goes to sit with her family instead. Praise! I thought. The girl is learning her boyfriend is an abusive asshole!

Church ends and there’s another celebration and Paul has headed home, but Lorna’s still there and she gets to watch William propose to Iris. Lorna specifically says that not only is this proposal revenge against Lorna, who clearly did not like William, but also against his mother, who had embarrassed him publicly earlier in the day. Clearly, Iris is gonna say no now, right? EXCEPT WRONG, SHE SAYS YES. She says it’ll have to wait since William is gonna get drafted and she has plans to go to college to study fashion, but she’s still gonna marry him anyway. Lorna never tells Iris about the kiss as kids or about the manhandling two months ago.

The book ends with Paul and Lorna looking towards a possible happily ever after. The author then includes an Author’s Note saying the things she changed, then saying that this was a thing that actually happened. German POW were sent to Scottish and British farms and many of them never went home or went home, then came back because they married Scottish and British women who lived on those farms.

Usually when a book is written about a German soldier and he’s a romantic character, he has a redemption arc. But not in this book. Paul never changes. He is kind, caring, and lovely the entire book. Everyone else had to change to accept Paul. Lorna had to change to see that actually Paul was great, everyone else had to see that German soldiers were just like them, just doing what they were told, and should be forgiven. And they had families who loved them and missed them, just as they loved and missed their boys at war. All of this while never mentioning what Germans did to Jewish people, what they did in the Holocaust - things that cannot be forgiven or overlooked because they were just following orders. Maybe Paul wasn’t active in this, but he had to have known something living so close to two camps. And he’s supposed to be forgiven. One of their local kids died, five of them went missing - including John Jo - and they are still supposed to be compassionate and kind.

This wasn’t a story that YA needed. There are a lot of YA WWII stories we do need - especially stories actually about Jewish people by Jewish authors and stories that make actual heroes of WWII love interests - but this wasn’t one of them. Especially when told in a way that basically presents a German soldier as the only decent man so you’re manipulated into liking him. I’m just...kind of floored that this book is coming out as is (admittedly, I read an ARC. Some things could change but...I haven’t heard about it). And I’m disappointed in the many people who loved this book without any hold ups to the content. Yes it’s well written and engaging and I stayed up way later than I should have finishing it. But then I looked at it again in the morning and saw all of these problems. This is not okay. Normalizing and romanticizing people who fought to protect fascism in this climate? Is not okay.

Do better, publishing.

The Official Unofficial Guide to Getting Sensitivity Reads

I get a lot of questions on Sensitivity Reads, and even though I think I have a pretty good write up here it seems like maybe, nah. So I’m going to go into more detail about when I think you should have a Sensitivity Read done.

This is one Hundred Percent Justina Ireland’s Best Practices which means this blog post and six dollars can get you a grande latte at Starbucks. 

AKA, it’s my opinion and other people may have different opinions that I literally don’t care about because otherwise I wouldn’t have spent the time typing this up.

Here we go.

When to do a Sensitivity Read depends on the book.  A Sensitivity Reader is basically looking for aggressions against readers from marginalized backgrounds or cultural out groups (those groups not centered in society).  There are three ways that writers writing outside of their cultural experience perpetuate these:

1.  Direct microaggressions.  These exist in stories that rely on stereotypes at a foundational level.  These stories begin from a flawed idea or a stereotypical perception of a societal out group (again, this is any marginalized group not centered within society) and yet never quite dismantle the trope or move past the surface level ideas of the existence of those in the out groups.  This would include ideas of savage cultures and white savior narratives. This also includes disability porn, where the disabled person’s story/struggle serves to lift up or better the main character.  Stories where cultural differences are central to a fantastical world would most likely fall into this category as well due to the worldbuilding involved.

2. Incidental microaggressions.  In these stories ideas of differing social groups and their interactions are at the heart of the plot but the author fails to deconstruct those ideas in a new and enlightening way.  This would be most contemporary “culture clash” stories. Usually anything described as Romeo and Juliet would fall into this category, unless it’s a fantasy or sci-fi, because worldbuilding.

3. Collateral microaggressions.  These exist within stories where the plight of out groups are not center to the plot, yet their depiction adheres to popular misconceptions and those stereotypes and shallow characterizations are never deconstructed on the page.

So, when to hire a Sensitivity Reader?  Well, for numbers one and two, as early as possible.  If any of the story’s developmental points or worldbuilding relies on cultural markers then those need to be addressed as early as possible, because correcting inaccuracies will require more work and therefore should be done earlier in the process.  Either immediately after acquisition if being done at a publishing house or after the first round of structural edits.  Again, early detection is best.

For a number three, where minor characters are members of cultural out groups, the reading can be done later in the process.  Because the tweaks will be less intense.  Before or during copy edits is a good time to get this done.  Again, these are very minor issues with word choice and secondary characters, not main characters.

But the reality is it’s better for a Sensitivity Reader to be hired later than never.  Everything is fixable until publication (and even after, things can be corrected for reprints) so it’s better to understand problems before the book hits publication.  Are some things unfix-able? Yes, of course.  And those unfix-able things will still be obvious after publication.

But the idea is to get a chance to fix those issues, not to just pretend they don’t exist.

Please Show Your Work

I've gotten a lot of people asking me to "show" my work, so to speak with regards to my reading of Carve the Mark.  Here you go.  I'm only including my notes for about the first half of the book, because after that descriptions are convoluted and contradict each other.  All citations are taken from the uncorrected ARC:

Page 7: He blushed as soon as he realized who it was, and Eijeh poked his cheek laughing, “I can tell how red you are even in the dark!” [This tells me he’s white and very pale, since PoC don’t turn red, we get ruddy.]

Page 13: But their dad was always touching her, pressing the tip of his finger into her dimple when she smiled, tucking strays back into the knot she wore her hair in [This tells me mom has straight hair, there’s also language about other people with their hair sticking up in all directions that suggests straight hair. We also learn a number of pages later (300-something) that mom has “stick” straight hair.]

Pg 20: Osno…flicked his dark hair out of his eyes.

Pg 23: Cisi has curly hair and an angelic countenance like Akos’ father.

Pg 29: Vas Kuzar is described as having golden eyes, “like melted metal.” This immediately made me think he was high yellow. One of his companions has scars all over his face going every direction. The skin around the longest one, next to his eye, is puckered.

Pg 37: “sojourn-our most significant rite” [this could’ve been some kind of riff off a stereotypical spirit walk or something, but later coding of the use of the word “cleric” for the Storyteller and his rejection of hushflowers, which the Thuvhe produce and is kind of like pot, coded this for me as influenced by white perceptions of Islam. I could also tie this back to the Thuvhe’s festival of light that opens the story and their complaint about having to fear a violent neighbor as coding Jewish. There are other things, such as the holiness of language and the perceived harshness of the Shotet language (a constant Western criticism of Arabic) that made this read as based on a skewed perception of Islam].

Pg 38: “My hair itches,” I said to my mother, tapping at the tight braids on the side of my head with a fingertip [if you don’t know, this is a common thing black women do when they’ve just gotten their hair braided]. There were only a few, pulled back and twisted together so my hair wouldn’t fall in my face [I took this to mean she’s wearing cornrows].  Later on page 38: I was looking at my mother’s hair.  It was dark, like mine, but a different texture—hers was so curly it trapped fingers, and mine was just straight enough to escape them [I take this to mean that her mother has ethnically black hair and she has a less curly texture]. 

Also on page 38: “Today,” she told me, “is the first day that most Shotet will lay eyes on you, not to mention the rest of the galaxy. The last thing we want is for them to fixate on your hair. By fixing it up, we make it invisible. Understand?” [This codes as black for me as well, because hair acceptability is a huge thing].

Page 40: My mother’s fingers were stained with paint from touching so many outstretched, decorated hands [body painting, plus the fact that Cyra’s mother is wearing a dress made from grass that is described to be similar to savannah grass, codes this as them being quasi-African. Google African fashion and you’ll get body paint, scarification, and woven skirts]

Pg 41: His other arm…was marked from shoulder to wrist with scars, stained dark to stand out, [first mention of the Shotet marks being scarification].

Pg 55: [the doctor’s skin is the same color as her mother’s, suggesting a common lineage] Many Shotet had mixed blood, so it wasn’t surprising—my own skin was a medium brown, almost golden in certain lights [this reads as a lighter skinned black girl. Coupled with the comment about her curls being less dense than her mothers, this codes her as black to me].

Page 156: [where we get the description of Ryzek as pale] Ryzek Noavek, pale and young, the product of two vicious generations. My darker skin and sturdier build meant I took after my mother’s family…[I took this pale here to be pale from her perspective, since she’s darker than him and we’re in her POV].

Page 181: when we meet Jorek (another Shotet) he’s described as having “skinny brown arms”. He is the only brown Shotet that we really meet who isn't all about the murder.

Only about half of the characters are described in any way (there is literally a laundry list of characters who are marched onscreen just so Ryzek can torture and murder them). 

There are a bunch of other issues in the story with regards to colorism and how even the language Cyra uses to describe her own culture (she calls her own language “harsh”).  And that the leader of the renegades seems to be the only Shotet coded as white (blond with an eye patch).  Her appearance is so late that it almost felt like an afterthought, and there are problems having the single “good” Shotet coded as white, but whatevs.  But I think this is probably enough.  If someone doesn’t read it the same way, they don’t read it the same way. My concern was that people go into the story forewarned so they aren’t slapped upside the head with the same old stereotypes.

And FYI, you don’t have to make excuses for why you’re going to read a book that plays off of problematic tropes, and you don’t have to email me about it. You do you, boo.

 

The Continent, Carve the Mark, and the Trope of the Dark Skinned Aggressor

Oh, worldbuilding.  You are so hard and so important to any fantasy world.  Worldbuilding sets the scene in a big way and allows a writer to create a world unlike ours in which to tell a story. 

But what happens when your worldbuilding is vaguely racist and relies heavily on aspects of white supremacy?

Both The Continent and Carve the Mark, two YAs slotted for an early 2017 release, fall into this trap.  Both rely on a tired old trope for their worldbuilding: a dark skinned savage race that serve as the aggressors throughout the story.  This isn’t anything new, but it is lazy and promotes problematic ideas of race and culture.

In The Continent, the first introduction we get to the war-like and aggressive Topi is hearing about their savage ways from the “civilized” people who live in the Spire. The first on page appearance of the Topi is watching them slaughter a band of Aven’ai, after which they cut off a vanquished warrior’s head and throw it at the heli-plane carrying the main character, Vaela Sun, and her family.

In Carve the Mark the first introduction we get to the Shotet is the male main character, Akos, thinking about how “fierce, brutal” the Shotet are.  They killed his grandmother and the reader is told that the cities of the Thuve (who are ostensibly white since they are described by their ability to blush and their light eyes) still bear the marks of Shotet aggression.  The first on page appearance of the Shotet is when they arrive unexpectedly at Akos’ family farm and murder his father before kidnapping him and his brother. 

Similarly in The Continent, the first time Vaela Sun interacts with the Topi, after her craft has crashed, she is kidnapped by them and taken to their camp.

These aspects of a make believe culture of savage war-like peoples have their roots in the beliefs and stereotypes used to other people of color in the real world.  According to scholars of racial inequality, one of the ways groups are othered by the majority is by “using the values, characteristics, and features of the dominant group as the supposedly neutral standard against which all others should be evaluated.”* And we see that at length in both Carve the Mark and The Continent.  The language used to describe the warlike, brown skinned antagonist peoples contains value judgments that stand in direct contrast to the belief systems of protagonists the reader is meant to sympathize with: 

In The Continent:

·      The Topi paint their body in a savage manner that the civilized people of the Spire find appalling

·      They are described as fierce and warlike, unlike the educated people of the Spire

·      They have no art or technology and their dwellings are crude encampments

·      Their speech, when heard by the main character, is described as guttural

·      They are nomadic

 

Similarly, in Carve the Mark:

·      The Shotet language is described as harsh, with sudden stops and closed vowels, unlike the beautiful, open vowel sounds of the Thuve

·      The Shotet carve marks into their arms when they kill someone, meaning that both men and women have many scars, and this practice is seen as barbaric by the loving and peaceful Thuve

·      The female main character, Cyra, describes her mother’s kinky hair as curly enough to trap fingers, while her curls are looser and allow fingers to flow through. The Thuve have straight hair.

·      The Shotet have no home planet, rather they travel around the universe in pursuit of the current, a unifying life force that allows people to have gifts (all of which seem to manifest in violent ways in the Shotet, and it is even stated by a doctor that the reason Cyra’s gift causes her pain is because of her people’s tendency to violence)

·      The Shotet ruling family is one that embraces violence, so much so that the matriarch is famous for having killed her brothers and sisters, contrasted against the scene of Thuve familial love that opens the story.  This is further reinforced by the cruel treatment Cyra receives from her brother

·      The Shotet kidnap Akos and his brother, who are Thuve, and force them into a life of what can most easily be described as brutal slavery.

 

The only difference in these two stories is the real life cultural “bad guy” that seems to be the inspiration for the fantasy race.  The Topi closely follow Native American cultural stereotypes, while the Shotet closely follow North African ones (including cultural markers that shadow Islam, such as an annual pilgrimage and the use of cleric as a title to refer to a holy man).

These coincidences in world building aren’t happenstance.  Rather, it’s because both authors, whether consciously or not, are pulling from the story tradition of the white hero versus the dark enemy.  We see this construct in many facets of fiction, such as Westerns where Cowboys versus Indians or thrillers where the American hero (usually white) faces down a dark skinned third world villain.  It’s a popular construct, and one that relies on othering people of color to make it work.

But what is difficult is realizing that these same constructs of white versus not white (where not white can be people of color or even a created non human species such as the Uruk-Hai) exist in the real world and have a real impact on how readers perceive a story.  The same cultural programming that lets us immediately recognize that the Topi and Shotet are "bad" with relatively few details are the same ones that lead to real world racial profiling and structural inequality in treatment of minorities. 

The bottom line is that books like Carve the Mark and The Continent both utilize AND reinforce cultural white supremacy.  It's only because of cultural white supremacy that readers are able to code these cultures as evil. And because readers code brown-skinned people as evil in a literary context the cognitive paths for them to code brown-skinned people as evil in a real are reinforced.

There’s more to be said about the way the plot elements reinforce the initial wouldbuilding truths in both books (Cyra of Carve the Mark is the perfect example of a talented tenth Negro or an educated savage, the person who manages to rise above their genetics and culture) but I think there’s already enough here for readers and writers to chew on. We should all be critical readers and writers who consider the implications of our worldbuilding more fully, by reading more broadly and understanding the impact of the story frames we use.

 

*This is taken directly from Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey’s writings on identities and social locations in the third edition of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.  The essay, entitled “Who am I? Who are my People?” describes four main ways in which social systems maintain structural inequality:

1.  Using the values, characteristics, and features of the dominant group as the supposedly neutral standard against which all others should be evaluated.  In this case, values and traditions held as important in other groups are denigrated because they are not the same values as the dominant group.

2.  Using terms that distinguish the subordinate group from the dominant group.  In this scenario the subordinate group only exists in relationship to the dominant group, and its identity is solely described as not being that of the dominant group.

3.  Stereotyping.  This involves making simple generalizations, usually negative, of a group that is applied equally to all members of the group without thought .

4.  Exoticizing and romanticizing.  This is the inverse of what most regularly perceives as stereotyping, in that it applies “positive” stereotypes to a group.  These positive stereotypes still come from the value system of the dominant group and function to strip the complexity and individuality from members of subordinate groups

It's Not That Bad

On Tuesday, while walking back to her apartment after a double shift at Applebee’s, Marianne’s neighbor hit her with his car.

It wasn’t something she could have planned and it definitely wasn’t something she saw coming.  One moment she was walking down the sidewalk, ear buds blasting Carly Rae Jepsen, and the next she was pinned between the front end of a blue Honda Civic and the magnolia tree in front of her building.  There had been no slow approach of the car or that brief moment of realization that something bad was about to happen.  It was nothing like that.  One moment she’d been walking, thinking about how little she’d made and how rent was due in a couple of days, and the next was her, the car, and the tree joined together.

She’d always been partial to that magnolia tree.

She didn’t register the pain at first.  Instead she just looked down, her Applebee's apron pushed up over the hood, and thought Well, fuck.

“Hey, are you okay?” a voice asked.  Her neighbor, Kevin or Kenneth or some other white guy with a K-name that she’d met briefly once in the laundry room and immediately forgot, was standing nearby. His expression was somewhere between put out and upset.

“You hit me with your car,” Marianne said, because there wasn’t much else to say and she was pretty sure shock was setting in.

“So, you aren’t okay?” Keith or Kristoff demanded.

“No, not okay.”

He sighed, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed 911.

Pain began to come to Marianne in bits and jagged pieces, and Carly Rae was singing to some boy to call her maybe in her left ear.  The right ear bud had fallen out and was buried somewhere between the latch release of the hood and Marianne's right ovary.

She couldn’t help but think hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but lose my number, you killed me maybe.

Marianne was not nearly as happy about it as Carly Rae Jepsen was.

“You know, maybe you could tell me how hurt you are? I could probably help.  I took a first aid course once,” Kelvin said.

“I don’t think that’s going to help,” Marianne said.  She couldn’t feel anything below her waist and she was beginning to taste blood in her mouth.  Breathing wasn’t going so hot, either.  

And to be honest, Kaden didn't really look up to the task, with his khakis and off brand polo shirt.

“Oh, well, fine, if you don’t want my help you just had to say so.”

“I’m pretty badly injured.  I need an ambulance,” she said.

Everything was definitely fucked.

“Sorry if I offended you,” Kris said before moving away.

Marianne prayed for unconsciousness.  Maybe I’ll pass out and when I wake up this will all be over, she thought.  She’d wake up in the hospital with a bionic lower half and would be recruited by an international spy organization to take down dictators.  Or maybe she’d just meet a really cute doctor and they could go out on a date.

She hadn’t had a real date in months.

“Hey, how are we doing here?” someone asked.  Marianne managed to look to her left.  The EMT stood there, smiling down at her. He seemed nice, but a tad...unconcerned.

“I think I’m dying,” she said.

The EMT laughed.  “Now, now, now.  No need to get hysterical.”

“Hey, do you think you could take a look at this,” Kevin asked, pointing to his head.   “I hit my head on the airbag pretty hard.”

“Sure thing buddy, just let me take care of this,” the EMT said.

“Okay, but my head really hurts,” Keifer said.

“You hit me with a car and I’m dying and now you want the EMT to see to you first could you just shut the fuck up?” Marianne said.  She’d thought she was saying it quietly, but halfway through she realized she was screaming, tears flowing down her cheeks.

Klaude crossed his arms.  “Wow, you’re being totally unreasonable.  Yes, I hit you with my car, but I apologized.  And I offered to do first aid and even called an ambulance for you.  You should be more grateful. After all, not everyone has an ambulance to see to them when they get hurt.  What about those people?”

“You should really try to see it from his side,” the EMT agreed.

And then Marianne, having achieved the final slight a woman can endure, turned into a beautiful font of pure, fiery rage and burned Klayton, the EMT, the Honda Civic, and the magnolia tree to ash.

She felt really bad about the tree.

 

Let's Discuss Cultural Appropriation with Owls

In the last few weeks since Lionel Shriver’s amazing display of white privilege and tears at a book festival it seems nothing has been on (white) writers' minds so much as cultural appropriation.

More specifically:  how dare you tell me I can’t write poorly executed stories about marginalized groups I don’t belong to without consequences?

The reality is, no one is telling you what you can and can’t write.  Just like no one is stopping you from dressing up in a Klan hood and going to a Kanye West concert. Sure, it’s probably not a great idea, but you’re free to do whatever you want.  And I'm free to tell you that was a stupid idea when you get your ass beat.  Yay, self-determination!

The bigger issue I have is the number of people who patently do not understand what cultural appropriation is, despite Amandla Stenberg’s awesome video on it last year.  There are a lot of white writers propping up strawmen just to knock them down in poorly written blog posts.  And really, if you’re going to create strawmen, they should at least be created within the framework of the real issue.

So, let’s discuss cultural appropriation with owls.

Imagine you’re a snowy owl.  But you’re the only snowy owl in the entire zoo.  There are lots of owls in the zoo: barn owls, great horned owls, even a screech owl. Yay, owls!

Now, imagine all of the other owls make fun of you for your beautiful white feathers.  Maybe because of your feathers they make you eat last, pass laws so that you can’t join in owl games, or even force you to live in the worst part of the enclosure.  Pretty soon you’d start to hate your white feathers.  You might even think about plucking them out.  After all, you’re all owls! If you didn’t have your white feathers you wouldn’t be so different.

Why would you want to steal my swerve?

Why would you want to steal my swerve?

One day you show up to eat, last because that’s the law, and you see the great horned owl decked out in white feathers.  Everyone is oohing and ahhing the white feathers, talking about how amazing they are, praising the great horned owl for being so cutting edge.  Yet here you are, with your seasonal white feathers, ridiculed for the same thing.  And when you speak up about it the rest of the owls shush you and tell you that you should be happy someone wanted to have white feathers besides you. 

But you’re still eating last and living in the worst part of the enclosure because of your white feathers.

That is what cultural appropriation is.  It isn’t the fact that you wrote about someone not like you, it’s the fact that you wrote about someone not like you and got rewarded for it (or expected to be rewarded) without acknowledging the inequities in the system that allow you to benefit while others are punished.  It’s about taking from people who already have so little within society, and expecting to be able to do it without criticism or complaint.

It is, at its heart, entitlement.

Why would you want that?

Stop Telling Black People to Self Publish Part II: Real Numbers

So, last month I wrote about how it's a common refrain that whenever numbers about inequity in publishing come out folks want to offer up self-publishing as a solution.  And while I think self-publishing is a fine choice to make when you have a choice, I don't think it's a viable solution when talking about racial inequity, because building a new system doesn't mean the old system has been dismantled.

But, in the interest of science, let's also talk numbers.

I have published two books, and I've just recently gotten my royalty statement for each.  My numbers for my books are not great, but considering my first book wasn't in Barnes and Noble, they aren't completely abysmal, either.

Here are my numbers:

Vengeance Bound

  • Hardcover: 1096
  • Ebook: 335
  • Trade Paper: 511

 

Promise of Shadows

  • Hardcover: 2933
  • Ebook: 476
  • Trade Paper: 1055

 

Now, you can take away a couple of things from those numbers, mainly that Promise of Shadows was a better book than Vengeance Bound (it is). Also that PoS might be visually more appealing than VB (that, too).  But what I want to focus on is the fact that ebooks sell significantly less than either hardcover or paperback.

We can point to the fact that YA is aimed at teens and teens like to read physical books more than electronic books (maybe), but I think the biggest takeaway here is that shelf space increases a book's sales.  Sure, you could have a successful self-published book.  But that book's success will be compounded by having a physical presence in a bookstore.  The more people who lay eyes on your book, the better the chance for a sale.  This is the reason so many books in Target end up on the NYT: more foot traffic and more chance to get that sell.

If people, especially people of color, limit themselves to self publishing and a digital only chance for a sell, they're limiting their chance of success right out of the gate.  And in a system where the deck is already stacked against them, how viable of a solution is that really?

If We Don’t Exist We Don’t Exist

Last night I got into a completely unproductive discussion on Twitter (Justina, is there a productive twitter discussion?) about the idea of diversity in media.  The person in question had posted a video in which she posited that diversity wasn’t so much about getting PoC and LGBT folks into media but about getting creators to acknowledge they exist.  If PoC and LGBT folks want representation we need to create it ourselves and support those authors.

After I picked myself up off of the floor I tried to explain to her (after she camped out in my mentions for a bit) why these ideas completely ignore race and social change theory, but she wasn’t hearing it.  The more I thought about these ideas the more they bothered me, so let’s discuss why these ideas are 1. Wrong and 2. Fucked up.

Authors from centered groups know that people from marginalized groups exist.  I don’t think any white author walks outside, sees a brown person, and thinks “Holy shit, that dude is brown. I didn’t know you could do that.”  Even if you were a hermit living in a compound in the woods subsisting on the bounty of the land you’d still see people different from you when you trekked into town to mail in your manuscripts or whatever.  The problem isn’t that authors from centered groups don’t know that marginalized readers exist, it’s that they don’t care about them. 

Refusing to include diverse characters in a work, or settling for shoddy representation, is saying to people from that group “You aren’t important enough for me to consider you a reader.” A lot of people say to write the book you want to read thinking this means you write a book for you and only you, which is great if you’re going to trunk the book later, less good if you want to be published.  When called out on shoddy or nonexistent representation some authors will tell you that’s what they do, but if the book you write is all heterosexual able-bodied white girls with blond hair and blue eyes, it’s time for some soul searching.  If you ONLY want to read about people who look exactly like you, that’s a problem.  

This is also a problem if you’re a person from a marginalized group and you write only blond haired, blue-eyed, able bodied white girls, because that is a sure sign that you’ve ingested some problematic beliefs and maybe a bit of self-hate.

So, what about the second point, supporting creators who write books with character diversity?  I totally believe we should support PoC and LGBT creators.  But the idea that supporting PoC and LGBT creators means we don’t criticize the people who erase us from media again and again (or include us only as red shirt characters) is ludicrous.  Criticism and discussion, sometimes very loud discussion, is how things change.  Not by passively sitting back and hoping someone notices we exist and decides to include us.  This isn’t the high school cafeteria where we wait for an invitation to join the cool group, this is real life.  Recognition requires work, and sometimes that work is loud.  Because the end result is worth it.

I also want to point out that “create your own” is a tactic used daily by members of centered groups to derail or defuse movements of equality.  It’s a way of continuing to marginalize PoC and LGBT folks.  By being locked out of mainstream media we continue to exist on the margins of media we consume, the same way we exist in the margins of society.  The goal of equality movements is to bring ignored groups into the center with everyone else.  “Create your own” directly contradicts that goal.

Anyway, another day, another frustrating conversation about diversity *shruggy guy emoji*

Stop Telling Black People to Self-Publish

One of the things that happens a lot whenever I talk about diversity and inclusion in publishing is that someone will inevitably shake their head and say “Black people should just self-publish. It’s a much better way of doing business.”  And it makes me want to turn into a molten puddle of WTF because there is so much wrong with that statement that I never know where to begin.

Let me begin by saying: I am not here to argue about the viability and importance of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. The same way I don’t get into arguments over whether burritos or burgers are better. I love burritos. But I’ll also eat a burger.  Both are good. Neither one is BETTER than the other. It all depends on taste.

burrito.gif

But saying that Black people should just go ahead and self-publish rather than working for equal access to traditional publishing spheres is…well, it’s fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of oppression.  And it’s a super privileged argument. Just because you’ve decided through your own processes that you don’t want access to traditional publishing no one else should? Son, that ain’t how it works.

Consider a steakhouse. I want to go have a steak at the steak house. I have my money in hand and I’ve made a reservation, but when I show up the hostess refuses to seat me.  Or she seats me and only offers me a menu with chicken. I don’t want chicken. I want steak.

The self-publishing people are essentially saying “Well, steak isn’t good for you anyway. I’m a vegan, and you really should go to this awesome tofu restaurant I love.”  Because they’ve decided steak isn’t for them they can’t understand why anyone else would want steak.  But the issue here is THEY made the decision that they didn’t want steak. In the case of Black authors, the decision is being made for them by an industry practicing anti-blackness.  There is a huge difference between eating tofu by choice and because it’s the only thing you're allowed to eat.

And that is what every single diversity discussion is about: ACCESS.  No black authors are asking to be given an unfair chance.  We’re asking to be given the same opportunity to eat a steak that everyone else has, even vegetarians. 

Why is that so hard to understand?

A Response to the Fireside Study Detractors: Burning Down Your Strawmen

So, the response to the Fireside Fiction numbers has been predictable.  But since some folks are still all about Misdirection 101 I wanted to tackle some of the predictable criticisms I saw directly.  If these sound familiar it might be because I wrote about them in my Diversity 101 post.

 

How is an editor or reader even supposed to know if an author is black? I don’t even know what the race is of the authors I read!

This is a really fun way to dismiss internalized bias and cultural cues! “I don’t know! I never pay attention.” Even if you say you aren’t paying attention, the reality is that your brain is.  Researchers have discovered that even if a person thinks they aren’t making choices based on cultural indicators, they are, and those decisions are based around perceptions of blackness being bad.  So, of course it will be even harder for a story with a black main character to get selected. But this also extends to black authors and their work.  And if you don’t think cultural cues seep into a work, you aren’t paying attention and really shouldn’t be discussing literature in any form.

 

How many black people write SFF anyway?!? Maybe those numbers represent everyone who actually writes.

This statement is adorable in its complete and utter lack of reality.  Reading is one of those things that appeals to pretty much everyone equally across a demographic, meaning for the most part you can assume a standard distribution of representation across any broad genre, such as SFF.  Remember a few years ago when we were told women don’t read SFF? How funny was that?

But taking this literally, you should expect to see about 16% of submissions to a magazine coming from black authors, which aligns with average US population.  And if you think black people don’t read SFF you’re ignoring sales data that points to the exact opposite. This also ignores the numerous authors who end up self publishing their SFF.  Take a walk through the self published aisles and you’ll see many more black faces than you ever do in traditional publishing.

Black people are reading and writing SFF at the same rates as white people, if not more.  The real question you should be asking your self is what if those numbers are higher than the standard distribution? How bleak does the data become then?

 

Okay, that’s all fine and good, but black SFF just doesn’t sell.  No one wants to read Afrocentric fantasy.

Cool story bro, but NK Jemisin and her Patreon would disagree.  So would all of the people who bought Black Panther number one and made it the bestselling comic of 2016So would this study that found movies with diverse casts did significantly better at the box office. 

Gee, it’s almost like there’s a reason short SFF is struggling.

 

“Shared History”, Little Black Sambo, and the Problem with Historical Importance

So, yesterday I was reading this article and it reminded me of a conversation I’d had recently about the picture book Little Black Sambo.  LBS is well-known for being the Most Racist Picture Book Ever.  Not that it really is/was the Most Racist Picture Book Ever (there were much worse published) but that it was the Most Beloved Racist Picture Book Ever And Took Forever To Get Removed From Libraries and so it holds a special place in the consciousness of kidlit folks.

Anyway, the conversation went like this:

Random Person: I think we should have Little Black Sambo in print, you know, for Discussion and Knowledge.
Me: …
Random Person: you know, so people understand our Shared History and Racism.
Me: *walks away*

This, friends, is not a conversation one can have without it devolving into a screaming match about the cycle of oppression and censorship and whatnot, so I did what any brilliant black woman would do.

I walked away while praying to Jesus* to give me strength.

Here’s the thing about the term Shared History: as soon as white people say it you know some straight bullshit is about to follow.

The term “Shared History” implies that both parties participated in it equally.  It sounds really nice, like we all sat down together and had a television special Thanksgiving dinner: pumpkin pie and a turkey and Grandma Mabel’s stories about going to Woolworth’s for penny candy all set against a Leave It to Beaver background.

But there is a huge difference between a history of a concentrated campaign of violence and oppression and disenfranchisement and being on the receiving end of that violence. It’s akin to a mugger turning to his victim in the court room and saying “I think we really shared a moment back there in the alley, you and me. Right before I brained you with the pipe.”

There is no “Shared History”. There is only History: mine erased, yours whitewashed.

This is why any statements about the necessity of violent images to interpret history is complete and utter bullshit. Because it shows you’re ignoring how that history differed before the conversation has even gotten started. It’s a statement that privileges white knowledge over the pain of black folks (and every other marginalized group, the underdogs of history).  It’s a statement that clearly demonstrates that you STILL don’t give a shit about us, just some ephemeral idea of being a Good Person.

Most importantly, it shows that you aren’t paying attention.  Because all of that problematic imagery you want to preserve for Science! And History! And Knowledge! It’s still with us right here, right now.  It’s still making its way into picture books, and people are still defending it.  If you want to learn about racism and injustice all you have to do is take a walk outside, yo.

So yeah, miss me with that "Shared History" and your Little Black Sambo discussions.

I’m good.

 

 

*I am not a Christian, and I feel like I pray to Jesus for strength a lot and maybe I’m wearing out my welcome so if you could recommend another deity I’d be much obliged

SFWA Official Platform!

So, I'm running for SFWA Director at Large.  Interested in my platform? Here ya go!

Hi All!  My name is Justina Ireland and I’m running for director at large. I’m a young adult author who is a Book Riot contributor and very active on social media.  I’m also an Army vet who is currently an employee for the Department of Defense.  My day job relies directly on both my leadership and policy experience, and I hope to bring both of those to bear if elected Director at Large (which sounds kind of ominous but honestly, I’m harmless).

I’m the founder of Writing in the Margins, an organization that has assisted unpublished people from marginalized backgrounds in learning the skills they need to get traditionally published.  I’m hoping to bring this same love of teaching to SFWA to jumpstart the mentoring program and offer craft classes to members who may have seen their sales stall for one reason or another.

My platform is focused on increasing membership in SFWA by recruiting eligible Middle Grade and Young Adult authors and providing much needed representation in those areas. SFWA membership is but a fraction of what it could be, and by adding members SFWA could expand its presence into the world of kidlit. That would mean new markets for members, new conferences where SFWA has yet to make an impression, and an influx of new blood and increased funds into the organization.  I also want to strengthen recruitment of eligible non-members by developing programs that assist newer authors in marketing their works and finding their way in that tumultuous first year of publication and offering a program that assists current authors in self publishing and marketing their backlist.

My platform includes:

  • Outreach to eligible children’s authors to increase membership.
  • Increased opportunities for current members in the form of marketing classes and craft classes
  • Increased representation at smaller conferences for authors who are unable to travel to larger conferences in major cities.
  • Better marketing for members by seizing social media such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook in real and actionable ways.
  • Cookies for everyone. Oatmeal raisin AND oatmeal chocolate chip.

 

(That's my official platform, but also I am passionate about diversity and would really like to see SFWA do some outreach to marginalized groups who are eligible but who haven't joined due to #racefail or Puppy Drama or one reason or another. Just something to keep in mind even if I lose).

 

Anyway, vote for me if you like stuff!

The Places We Don’t Go

There are places I don’t go.  That isn’t anything unusual. Lots of people have places where they won’t go, right?  But one of the very real facets of being a minority is that there are seemingly normal places I will not go, or if I do go, I have to take extra consideration before I do.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, stores.  My skin color makes trips to these places a crapshoot of “Will something terrible happen or not? Maybe if I straighten my hair/wear khakis/be extra polite.  Maybe then it’ll be safe.”

One of the fundamental things white folks cannot get is the feeling that nothing is truly “safe”.  I’m sure we’ve all heard the story from the white guy who gets lost in the 'hood, and how he was super worried and lost and just “EEK!”  But he wasn’t really afraid.  He was at best uncomfortable.  No one put him in physical danger.  No one threw a drink at him, called him a slur, tried to inflict violence upon his person.  Maybe someone watched him drive by, their eyes hooded with suspicion. But he didn’t feel scared.  He knew, deep down, that everything was going to be All Right.

To be a minority is to carry a low level hum of fear with you wherever you go.  It’s an anxiety without treatment.

And an attack can happen at any time.

***

On the way to work today I drove in behind a truck decorated in Confederate flags.  The woman was older, her hair the kind of ashy blonde white women clinging to their youth dye their hair.  While I was driving in behind her, reading her bumper stickers of “Confederate American” and “Heritage, Not Hate” and a hundred stars and bars, all I could think was “This woman probably has children. Maybe grandchildren.  There are probably a passel of kids ingesting the poison she spews in between jumping on the trampoline and making popcorn and just being a kid.”

When she turned to drive into the same place I work, I parked my car and watched her get out, bouncing on into the building.  I sat in my car a long while, thinking, seething.

There are places I don’t go, but even that doesn’t keep me safe.

***

Trump is a joke. A laughingstock, someone not to be taken seriously.

I didn’t hear this from one single person of color.

Maybe it’s because we know how quickly a joke can turn mean, how often friends become aggressors, how even those we trust can slip up with a flippant “Well, you know, it’s one of those black names” or “ugh, I cannot tell Asians apart.”  Maybe because we know that deep down, too far down to really think about, more of our neighbors are nodding along with Trump’s speeches than people suspect.  More people are whispering about how Trump is a “straight shooter” than anyone wants to consider.

We know because we’ve been there.  It’s a place we’ve been forced to visit often, whether we wanted to or not.

***

Whenever people ask me about writing black people I tell them “You need to figure out the places where your main character won’t go.”  For the most part this confuses folks.  They list the obvious: country bars, the white side of town, etc.

I can’t explain to them the the list is longer, broader, deeper.  How to you say to someone “Remember a time you were scared, terrified.  Now squeeze all of the emotion into a pebble and put it into your shoe.  You don’t feel it all of the time, but every now and again you step on it, hard, and all of those emotions come roaring back.  That is what it is like to be black in this country."  How do you say that to someone without seeming to overreact?

Most folks don’t get it.  Or if they do, they get only a small bit of it. It’s hard to fully internalize.

We all have places we won’t go.

This is Not the Diversity You’re Looking For

I’m a huge fan of military history.  A bit of a war hawk, I’m fascinated with how American identity was forged through violence.  French-Indian War, The Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Mexican American War, various skirmishes with Native Americans, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc.  These are the foundations of American identity.  It’s the history we teach in school to small children when we talk about patriotism.

And black people have participated in every single one of those conflicts.  Bet you didn’t know that as early as the Revolutionary War there were all Black units (and not just John Laurens battalion of 3000 enslaved men from South Carolina). No, Blacks have always served, but history has found it easy to ignore our service because most of the time we have been shunted off into our own units, separate and ignored.  It wasn’t until Truman desegregated the military that Blacks began to get more recognition of their service than an historical footnote.  And that desegregation of the military was the first step to ending overt Jim Crow and desegregating wider society. Separate but equal ain’t ever equal.

All of this is why I greet the news of S&S forming a Muslim imprint with so many mixed feelings.  The idea of an imprint to address diversity concerns at first blush sounds great: Yay! You’ve acknowledged that you’re lacking in representation! You’ve identified people to help address the problem! You’re making space for new voices and working toward a solution!

But specialized imprints have existed for a long, long time, especially for books that are targeted at readers from traditionally underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. And they aren’t a real, viable solution for the unbearable WHAM(white, hetero, able bodied, male)ness of mainstream publishing.  Imprints just more forcefully mark books as the “other”.  Books from imprints aren’t getting the same financial push and the same attention. If they were, you’d see more diversity on bestseller lists.  And the CCBC numbers wouldn’t be quite so heartbreaking.

All that to say: segregated imprints aren’t BAD, but they ain’t GREAT, either.  Imprints are a good intermediary step for publishers trying to find an inclusive way forward, but they’re really a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.  I don’t want imprints to become the solution to the WHAM problem.  I don’t want segregated battalions that history can easily forget and dismiss.  Diverse books aren’t lesser, they aren’t charity.  They’re just as good as WHAM-centric books, and they belong on lists right next to their more WHAM, mainstream counterparts. 

So don’t accept imprints as anything but an intermediary step toward publishers looking at their lists, their whole lists, and integrating and decolonizing them and ensuring they reflect the reality we live in.  Because that is the real diversity you’re looking for.

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