[Background for those who are unacquainted with the drama surrounding The Continent. If you already know this stuff, feel free to skip to the meat of my post]
The Continent is a young adult fantasy novel slated to be published by Harlequin Teen in January 2017. Some advance reviewers have called out the novel for racism. For a detailed breakdown of all the problems, check out this review and this twitter rant.
I haven’t read the book myself, but basically the novel, among other things, involves a wealthy privileged white race, and a variety of other races – one of which is red/brown and uses bow and arrows, and another which has “almond shaped” eyes and Japanese-sounding names. The Mary Sue, who is white, of course, sails in, learns all about the cultures involved and somehow saves everything.
This is all a summary of what I have read in reviews, again. I am not speaking first hand and for more correct details I refer you to read reviews written by those who have read the book.
Anyway, reviewers pointed out the racism, and they were immediately attacked by fragile whites with death threats and such. Then people turned on the author and sent HER death threats and such. Both reactions are very uncool. Death threats never made a person less racist, or less offended, and therefore don’t solve anything.
The author posted a response basically saying that death threats are uncool (which I agree with) and saying that her book isn’t racist because she didn’t intend it to be. In fact, she intended it to have an anti-racist message.
These are my thoughts.
First of all, I completely believe the author when she says that she didn’t mean to be racist. I know racism is woven into the very fabric of our culture’s unconscious. I know that it’s possible to consciously believe that all people are equal and that racism is bad, while still mindlessly following the racist scripts that we were raised on, from the “magic negro” to Asian fetishism.
If you are white, and you have not devoted yourself to ferreting out these subtle, unconscious assumptions, and stomping on them, then you are part of the problem.
It is not the job of POC’s to constantly point racism out to us (although it is certainly helpful when they do). If you are caught being accidentally racist, it’s your job to say, “I see. I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot.” You cannot make excuses, because no matter what you think your reason is for being racist, the real reason is simply that you didn’t ferret out your subtle, unconscious racist assumptions and stomp on them well enough.
Keira Drake failed on the first point. She clearly didn’t make the slightest effort to check her story for racism, otherwise she would have known that the shining-white-saviour-who-saves-the-other-races is a storyline that POCs really, really, REALLY dislike and for good reason. It doesn’t matter that the white saviour usually learns to love and embrace these other cultures. It’s still considered a racist storyline, even in fantasy genres *cough*AVATAR*cough*.
She also failed on the second point – while she is, at least, apologetic about her offense (rather than pulling a Trump and doubling down as so many fragile whites are wont to do), she made excuses. Because the arrow-shooting, savage red/brown people aren’t based on NATIVE AMERICANS! Oh, no, they are based off of Tolkien’s Uruk-Hai. You know, the dark-skinned, flat-nosed race from Lord of the Rings that has sparked accusations of Eurocentrism and racism against Tolkien? That one. So, totally not racist.
And that other race? It isn’t meant to be Japanese or any other Asian race. It’s a FANTASY race that just HAPPENS to have ‘almond shaped’ eyes. And she made their language sound Japanese because she thinks the language is really beautiful. It’s all just an unfortunate coincidence!
“They are a fantasy race: brave, intense, flawed, invented.”
I believe that she didn’t mean to be racist, but I find it a lot harder to believe that she didn’t think that her fictional races didn’t bear a passing resemblance to real life peoples. Does she genuinely believe that the eyes and Japanese-style language were completely unrelated? Does she really think that she created something unique in that combination?
And this is where I really go from just frustrated/annoyed to completely astounded.
Because I know that unconscious Eurocentrism plagues our society, and that many, many otherwise good people have committed similar errors. I know that this isn’t okay, but it happens. And while it frustrates me, I can’t say that it surprises me.
Here’s what really surprises me:
Even if you are a person who suffers from unconscious prejudices (as most of us, including I, surely are), surely, as an author, your goal should be to avoid stereotypes?
I mean, who wants to say, “I’m an author! I wrote this book which uses a tired plot line and includes races blatantly similar to ones already created by other authors and/or cultures which exist in real life. Basically, I have created very little which is truly original!”?
Fantasy isn’t really my genre, but if I were to make a fantasy story about a young saviour who manages to resolve hundreds of years of interracial war, I would want to mix it up a bit. Maybe make the saviour brown, or hell, purple or something. Maybe have white people shooting arrows or something. It’d be different, you know?
That’s what really gets me. Even if you can’t understand why stereotypes upset the people they represent, surely you can at least understand that a stereotype is – at the very least – a story which has been told too many times.
For example, take the controversy around Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You.
The disabled community was very upset by this book/movie, because it is chock-full of the kinds of stereotypes and tired storylines that they are trying to overcome. When you point this out to fans of the book, they will protest and point out that many people do become depressed and want to kill themselves after a disabling accident. But that isn’t the point. The point is that it has been DONE. It has been done, quite literally, to death.
What about the other people? What about the people who adjust to their new circumstances and continue to find value in life? Why doesn’t someone tell that story? Surely, even if you can’t understand why stories like Me Before You, Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside and their ilk bother people with disabilities, you can at least understand that suicidal quadriplegics are hardly original.
As authors, we should strive to tell the stories that are still untold. Do we really want to dress up old tropes and trot them out again with fresh ribbons? Isn’t it better to create something new?
And yes, I realize that all of this sounds ironic, coming from an author whose upcoming book started out as a parody of another author’s work.
But you see, I wrote Chemistry because I wanted to take a tired story-line and make it fresh again. I wanted to jumble it up, and turn it upside down, and reverse the parts that bothered me most. My particular target this time was sexism and abusive relationship tropes, not race or ableism, but I hope my point still stands.
Authors, make something different. Everyone benefits.
And publishers, for heaven’s sake, even if you’re too blinded by your own privilege to spot an offensive stereotype, at least ask yourselves, “do we really need another book like this?”