Apocalypse Zhao

Pulling ‘Blood Heir’ Before Publication Just Might be OK

Amélie Wen Zhao’s publishing story is all about your lens.

For some, the debut young-adult author’s fantasy novel Blood Heir, slated for a June release before Zhao pulled it last week, fell victim to overzealous political correctness and censorship. “Heir” was targeted, they say, by inaccurate claims of racism.

For others, including some high-profile authors of color, “Heir” was flawed from the get-go, with unacceptably racist passages. They maintain Zhao made the correct choice to withdraw the book in response industry critics, who included the co-founder of the We Need Diverse Books organization.

I’ve been reviewing children’s and young-adult books for more than a decade now, and I think Zhao made the right call. The dust storm of controversy, parsing individual passages, misses the point.

This isn’t about whether Zhao intended to write a racist book. Nor is it about whether I, other white reviewers, or the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry think she wrote a racist book.

Fellow authors of color, who’ve made it their mission to ensure that young people read diverse and inclusive books, called Zhao out for her storylines.  They work to flout commonly-held views, calcified by privilege. They have a perspective that most in the industry don’t have.

These aren’t random readers. Nor do they cast themselves as unimpeachable: one of the most vocal critics of “Heir,” author L.L. McKinney, acknowledged on Twitter that she asks others to read her work to ensure she’s not unwittingly including homophobic tropes.

The vitriol doled out to McKinney and WNDB’s Ellen Oh in the aftermath of their criticism is particularly shocking even by Twitter standards. Both locked down their accounts after receiving threats like the one sent to Oh that called her “slanty-eyed” and compared her to female genitalia.

The industry has changed

Criticism isn’t banning. It doesn’t mean any hint of controversy gets erased. It means that we listen when these authors raise an issue, in part because we may not be able to see it for ourselves. If the industry were capable of doing this on its own, there wouldn’t be a need for a We Need Diverse Books movement.

Zhao’s publisher didn’t pull “Heir.” Zhao did, issuing an apology to readers. She retains her three-book contract with Delacorte Press/Random House, which has been open in saying they’ll continue to work with her.

When I first started reviewing kids’ books, I did things I don’t do today. I referred to certain titles as “perfect for boys/girls,” perpetuating the idea that boys (or girls) won’t read books about girls (or boys). I failed to look for the “bury your gays” trope. And I paid little attention to whether I was including authors of color when I did blurb-y roundups for summer reading or holiday gift-giving.

None of this was intentional. But once I knew better, I changed the way I approached these reviews. Good intent doesn’t excuse harmful impact.

McKinney, Oh, and others called out the unwitting impact of Zhao’s words. Rather than turning on them, we should pay attention.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

3 thoughts on “Apocalypse Zhao

  • February 4, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Yeah, but if they really wanted to make a difference, they would have talked to her about it. The book isn’t published yet, there’s still time to change it. Instead of having a conversation with this writer about their concerns, they never even spoke to her. They aired their dirty laundry on Twitter to score SJW brownie points. The book isn’t even out yet, 95% of the people commenting haven’t read it. They tarnished a woman of color’s career because they couldn’t refrain from making a scene on social media. It’s unprofessional.

    Also please explain to me how it’s not racist that Americans demand that people of color conform to American society and that their own stories from their own countries don’t matter. Please explain how it isn’t racist to force people of color to censor their stories to be sensitive to American readers. Slavery, unfortunately isn’t unique to America. A criticism of Chinese and Russian slavery and indentured servitude, which is still happening right now I might add, is not the same as narratives about American slavery.

    There’s also the question that the character wasn’t even black, having been described as both “bronze” and “tan” with blue eyes.

    Please explain how it isn’t racist to accuse a Chinese woman of plagiarism for using common YA tropes?

    This quest to be not-racist has led to racism because it’s not been treated with complexity and delicacy. Articles like this don’t help.

    • February 5, 2019 at 9:37 am

      Nobody canceled her contract. No doubt the books will still come out, albeit in different form. The critics didn’t call for her book to be pulled or banned. Are they going to have a private conversation with every writer with whom they find fault? (Maybe they did try to talk to Zhao privately, for all I know.) But is this not a cautionary tale worth examining for all writers? All they’re asking is look at your stories and take out the bias. Zhao’s Asian heritage doesn’t exempt her from criticism. These writers are entitled to their opinions and their worldview (as are you).

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