Another YA author pulls book after criticism about cultural representation
On Aug. 27, author Jordan Marie Green bounced onto Twitter to announce her young-adult book deal, complete with thanks and exclamation points. Four days later, she came back to announce she was pulling the book.
What happened? Jordan Marie Green is white. Her novel’s plot and main characters drew heavily from indigenous cultures of Hawaii in depictions that critics say Green flubbed in harmful ways.
Dancing With Fire’s demise is the latest stumble in a publishing industry that until recently has had limited space for non-white creators and editors. It shows how publishing continues to struggle as it seeks to support more inclusive books.
Green is far from the first author to pull a novel over criticism about representation. In June, white author Alexandra Duncan pulled Ember Days, which would have depicted South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee community. Last year, young-adult author Kosoko Jackson, who is Black and gay, pulled A Place for Wolves over its depiction of the Muslim community. And Amélie Wen Zhao, an Asian author, pulled her young-adult fantasy novel Blood Heir in early 2019 over its depiction of slavery.
Perhaps the highest-profile recent debate over representation centered on white author Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Marketers and some authors heralded it as an essential read about the Mexican immigrant experience, but critics argued it was a pulpy brownface thriller that did more harm than good.
The book accelerated the announcement of Dignidad Literaria, a coalition of writers who met with executives at Flatiron Books, the imprint of Macmillan that published American Dirt. Editors there promised to increase representation at all levels of their business. Macmillan is also the parent company of Feiwel and Friends, the imprint that bought Green’s Dancing With Fire.
All the criticism didn’t stop American Dirt, which stayed on shelves and eventually rose to the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Zhao revised her book and Blood Heir published in November 2019. A second book in the series, Red Tigress, is set to arrive in 2021.
Jordan Marie Green announced she was pulling Dancing With Fire and then dropped out of sight, deactivating her social media accounts and blog. She tweeted that she withdrew her book “out of an abundance of love for the Pasifika community,” adding, “Apologies to any hurt in this process and best of luck for aspiring authors out there!”
Her initial announcement described Dancing With Fire as a YA rom-com “in which a 16-year-old girl dreams of trading in her hula skirt for a pair of fire-knives, chronicling the obstacles she faces breaking into the male-dominated sport – including winning over the director by playing tour guide to his spoiled teenage son.”
Author and media critic Jeanne, a Tongan who grew up in Hawaii and tweets at @fangirljeanne, was one of several Twitter critics who saw red flags.
“Hawai’i isn’t just a location and hula isn’t just a kind of dancing (despite its ubiquity in tourist entertainment),” she wrote in a lengthy thread detailing trouble spots with Green’s story.
Hula’s “use as entertainment for outsiders has a long and painful history,” she wrote. “You don’t use it lightly, especially in a story set in Hawai’i and certainly not when the performer isn’t Kānaka,” or a native Hawaiian.
In a Zoom interview, Jeanne stressed the twin challenges of both the book itself and the world it would arrive into. There are very few books that accurately depict the multilayered indigenous island culture, she noted, drawing parallels to flawed portrayals of Native culture in the United States. Dancing With Fire would bear the considerable weight of being the introduction to native Hawaiian culture for many readers, she said.
“There is not a lot of representation for us in the mainstream media,” she said. “A majority of what most people know is basically from tourist guides or media created by white people. You’re already fighting against every tiki bar in existence.”
She said she understands how Green could have “a sense of belonging” after spending time in Hawaii. But blithe references to being a female trailblazer in fire-knife dancing (women already compete) after trading in her grass skirt (men and women both wear them) and featuring a colonial-inflected stereotype of “the brown girl falling in love with the rich white guy” all add up to a “flippancy that feels disrespectful,” she said.
White, Straight, Able-Bodied
Compounding Green’s challenges, she’d blogged about pitching a different Hawaii-set novel with similar themes as part of #DVpit, a day on Twitter designed for marginalized authors to showcase their books to potential agents. While DVpit’s FAQ states that it doesn’t investigate authors’ marginalized status, it also clearly indicates that the event is “specifically for writers/illustrators who have been historically, chronically marginalized/underrepresented in publishing.”
In a blog post shared on Twitter, Green wrote that even though she was a self-described “white, straight, able-bodied author,” she would still pitch her book that day. “Though I may not seemingly fit into one of the marginalized groups as an author, aren’t we all marginalized in a way? If we could only write about our own personal experiences, there would be no fiction category. We write to explore other experiences and situations, not merely to catalog our own. And in my case, I’m doing the best to represent the cultural diversity I loved when living in Hawaii.”
That decision cost Jordan Marie Green an agent this week. BookEnds Literary Agency’s Moe Ferrara apologized via tweet for representing Green (“I … have come to a better understanding of the nuances between someone’s experiences and their identity”), later adding another tweet to say that “My decision to terminate our working relationship was based solely on receiving information yesterday about her actions toward DVpit and how she misrepresented herself.” Feiwel and Friends editor Emily Settle tweeted “I fucked up. I’m sorry,” calling her decision to buy the book a “very bad, tasteless decision on my part.”
Melanie Conklin, a white author who helped organize this year’s Everywhere Book Fest with We Need Diverse Books co-founder Ellen Oh and author Christina Soontornvat, tweeted that it was “past time” for the industry to revamp a system that let a proposal like Green’s get so far.
“Every publisher should have addressed this by now,” she wrote. “Every editor should know that cultural appropriation is not okay. Every agent should exemplify inclusion. Every white writer should leave space at the table.”
“The question we should be asking ourselves as white writers is ‘Should I write this story?’ not ‘Can I write it?’” Conklin said in a phone interview, adding that “it’s time to get past Diversity 101.”
The depth of knowledge from writers with lived experience can’t be duplicated simply by research, she noted. Most importantly, she added, white writers shouldn’t be taking the few spots available to creators of color.
“You have to ask, ‘Why would I write this story that is not mine to be told?’ … We know better, so we should be doing better.”