Race, Books, Pop Culture, Social Justice

YA author canceled her debut novel, ‘Blood Heir,’ after accusations of racism

Representation isn't valuable if it means diminishing the others. And no, you don't get a free pass for being a POC.

Over the past few weeks, what started as quiet exchanges and carefully censored commentary on inclusive fiction within the young adult community exploded into controversy.

The heart of the furor? Blood Heir, a Russian-inspired fantasy from debut author Amelie Wen Zhao slated to release later this year, was pulled after fellow YA authors raised concerns that the book was racially insensitive in its handling of slavery and the death of a black character.

Many have lamented the situation as a loss to Zhao, despite her publisher acknowledging that they will be publishing the books bought from her in her original deal and her agent stands behind her, meanwhile, the two women of color authors who originally offered critique have been brigaded and sent death threats.

Blood Heir is not the first book to be the subject of such debate and upheaval.

From Laura Moriarty’s take on potential Muslim internment camps in American Heart to Jack Gantos’ A Suicide Bomber Sits In A Library, the concept of what makes inclusive fiction worth reading has included a great deal of criticism for books that do not make the cut.

The fact that Zhao’s removal has caused such upset seems to touch on this ignorant rule that all-inclusive fiction should be accepted for its existence and effort.

In many of the articles that denounce Zhao’s critics as part of a jealous, vicious mob of “PC culture,” they’ve seemed to have seized on Zhao being a fresh-faced immigrant who had no idea of the cultural implications of making a Black character enslaved and doomed to die first for the sake of a white protagonist.

By pointing out that Zhao is a woman of color, her defenders suggest that less scrutiny should be placed on her efforts of representation. After all, how can a woman of color be racist against other people of color? And how can an immigrant be held to account for America’s history of racism and bigotry?

This is one argument that is often raised in regards to the critique of inclusive fiction. It cannot be denied that American exceptionalism does not apply to all writers’ backgrounds and personal missions in writing their narratives.

However, anti-blackness and colorism are global issues that are apparent in both Asian and Asian-American communities. So to give Zhao a free pass because of her ethnicity is reckless and dismissive of the societal triggers these portrayals of past trauma causes.

Many point to Zhao’s cancellation, a rarity in an industry where books are more often given the chance to be rewritten, as a double standard that would not have occurred if she were a white author. While this may be true that still does not excuse the pain that she acknowledges she caused these marginalized groups.

Speaking from personal experience as being one of the bloggers who braved the Islamophobic premise of American Heart, inclusive fiction done wrong is not an easy thing to swallow. It is never easy to read narratives in which your existence is stereotyped, demonized, and belittled.

The fact that such narratives are defended and marginalized voices are instructed to “read before critiquing” proves that there is nothing revolutionary, important or educational about them. It is a perpetuation of what inclusive fiction sets out to deconstruct.

Representation isn’t valuable if it means diminishing the others.

Like it or not, inclusive fiction does not merely mean plopping in a marginalized character or two and calling it a day. Writing about people who have historically been denied respectful representation can never be taken so lightly.

It requires thought and research, and understanding in some cases about who gets to tell a story and whether or not that person is you. There is no divorcing real-life histories, divisions and suffering from fictional narratives.

In the case of American Heart, the premise of a potential internment camp wasn’t actually the issue so much as the author’s decision to deny her Muslim character any real presence and place all focus on a white protagonist.

Meanwhile, author Samira Ahmed’s upcoming Internment, on the same topic, has been welcomed. The difference is not merely the fact that Ahmad is a Muslim-American author, but rather the care and research that she has repeatedly referenced in the process of writing the title.

Even if an author decides to write about marginalized communities outside of their own, they have the option of sensitivity readers. These are paid readers —some are often authors— who are solicited by the publisher to scour a manuscript for insensitivity and problematic materials. This route would have been useful for writers like Zhao, who despite having an immigrant background and experiences with oppression, are not accustomed to the lived traumas of others.

So if nothing else, Blood Heir has certainly demonstrated that the We Need Diverse Books movement does not stop at that simple, stirring statement. Rather than denouncing this situation as censorship, this an opportunity to discuss what is really needed to move forward with the inclusive fiction movement.