In the wake of the backlash to last week's takedown of YA novelist Amélie Wen Zhao's unpublished novel Blood Heir, two authors who brought Zhao's work up for critique are reported to have suffered death threats. A tweet went out calling for those sympathetic to the authors who called out Zhou's book to buy and donate these author's books to their local schools or libraries, to make up for the damage done by the violent threats.
Ellen Oh, author of middle grade and young adult fiction, and founder of We Need Diverse Books, and L.L. McKinney, young adult fantasy author, were among the most ardent proponents of the Zhao's book being censored. Because of the backlash to their opposition to the book, brought out of the depths of YA book Twitter by journalist Jesse Singal, these authors were subjected to hatred. Not cool, everyone. As bad as it is to hound an author out of her premier publication, it is at least as bad to send death threats to people with whom you disagree. This is the children’s literature community, after all.
In response, friends and advocates of Oh and McKinney circulated a Google doc wherein educators, librarians, and those who want to show their support, can buy Oh and McKinney's books for school and library shelves. The idea is that an increase in sales would go a little ways toward making up for the harassment. It must be great to be part of such a supportive community.
A tweet read: "Ellen Oh and L.L. McKinney have been on the receiving end of some vile harassment (including death threats) recently. ... To help offset the hardships caused, a number of us are putting together a drive to get their books into libraries and schools!"
While it's may be nice to some that YA book Twitter is standing up for YA authors who trashed another YA author, it's discouraging to see that the decrying of books as well as the promotion of books are both being done based not on the content of the books themselves, but because of the author's perceived relationship to the main characters and story, and what that means in the broader social context. A more cynical person might suggest that this is all part of some kind of promotion for Oh’s and McKinney’s books.
Zhao's book is shelved because it is considered problematic for an Asian author to have written a book with a white main character, Oh's and McKinney's books are about to hit the shelves because their perspective on what kind of person should write what is deemed the right one. How can this be relevant?
The only metric by which this makes sense is if it is assumed that a writer’s ethnic or racial identity, and the historical and social ramifications thereof, define the author’s perspective, in both a conscious and unconscious way. The idea is that we cannot even fully understand our own perspective due to inherent unconscious bias and that therefore we need to rely on the shorthand of our identifiers to tell us what we most likely perceive.
Is it possible to think, perceive and experience outside of your identity boxes? We Need Diverse Books envisions "a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book," and has the mission of "putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of children." This is an admirable mission, and representation matters. The problem lies in the method through which this mission is pursued, not with the intended outcome.
Yes, this mission can be undertaken through advocacy for authors who are writing stories with characters that are outside the historical literary mainstream. Yes, this mission can be undertaken through promoting and encouraging authors who have diverse identities. But there must be a freedom for authors to write honestly and truthfully from their imagination, and to not feel cowed by standards that would not only dictate who is writing what kind of story, but what kind of story is being written at all.
Writing stories, good ones, ones that matter, is not a formula. The imaginative process requires total freedom. And while experience, perspective, and identity can play a role in that, is there not, locked away deep within us, a self that cannot be quantified? That vibrates to the tone of the universe and unhindered by the realm of perception? It is to this self that the writer of stories should appeal, and to no other.
There is a greater kind of representation that matters, and it is the one that strikes resolve in the heart of the reader to live their lives fully, according to their own individual pursuit of love and liberty, without falling prey to the expectations of gender, race, ethnicity, or identity.