Jordan Marie Green Plays with ‘Fire’
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.”
8 thoughts on “Jordan Marie Green Plays with ‘Fire’”
While I appreciate the importance of writing about marginalized groups in fiction in a sensitive manner, it seems concerning that this laudable aim is now resulting in the bullying of authors into withdrawing books.
The case of Amélie Wen Zhao seemed particularly egregious, as Zhao’s use of a slavery plotline was (deliberately?) misinterpreted by her detractors as an insult to Black Americans, rather than the critique of forced servitude and human trafficking in Asia that Zhao intended.
Given we have recently seen Nevada librarian Amy Dodson threatened for publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, American writers, librarians and publishers have an obligation to stand up for the ideals embodied in the First Amendment and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. YA Twitter should consider that rejecting these ideals in the name of a shriveled,
self-righteous “anti-racism” (that owes more to Robin DiAngelo than James Baldwin or Maya Angelou) may well backfire on them.
As for Jeanne, perhaps she might consider the words of a Black Woman (as well as a great writer), Zadie Smith, about her debut novel, “White Teeth”: “It had all sorts of mistakes I’m sure, but if I didn’t take a chance I’d only ever be able to write novels about mixed-race girls growing up in Willesden.”
I find Zhao’s case particularly interesting as well — because there was much discussion at the time about ‘cancel culture’ and her losing her book. But she didn’t. She released the book a few months later, went on NPR to talk about it upon its release, and apparently did well enough to warrant a second book in the series. No one’s bullying her now. Jackson, also mentioned in the story, has a (different) book coming out early next year. Too soon to tell what will happen with Duncan, as she pulled her book just a couple of months ago. Cummins’ tour was canceled but the cash is still rolling in — her book is still in the top 10 on Amazon, months after publication. Did these writers *really* get canceled?
Well, Kosoko Jackson had to withdraw “A Place for Wolves” (as you said, he has a different book coming out in the future). He may not be canceled /ostracized, but he still had to remove his book from publication. These controversies seem to be an American issue – I’m not aware of similar issues happening in Canada, Britain or Australia.
Also, I’m wondering if (say) a Native American writer decided to publish a carefully researched, sensitivity reader-checked YA novel about Black Americans. Would this be welcomed, or would our hypothetical writer be angrily told by YA Twitter to stay in his/her/their lane?
That’s an excellent question, and in fact something related has already happened: An author who is Native questioned the accuracy and authenticity of a Black/Native writer’s depiction of Native myths. There was some discussion of whether she was ‘really Native’ or had the authentic experience necessary to write about this culture. Ultimately, as far as I can tell, no repercussions and no pulling of books in that situation. So many permutations to consider in a complex conversation. Some of the debate around the Zhao book was that very issue of one marginalized community calling out an author from a different marginalized community — if you’re not white, are you immune from criticism, or is this an equal-opportunity discussion?
And just to add another layer on, this week there was also a wonderful Medium essay from Becky Albertalli, the author of “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” (inspiration for the film “Love, Simon”), who wrote about how she was quietly questioning her sexual preference at the same time as critics were saying she shouldn’t *really* be writing about gay people. Linked here: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62
To your point about this being an American issue — not so sure. In Australia there has definitely been similar debate about Aboriginal culture and writers and representation. And the whole JK Rowling TERF debate (as outlined by our own Katie Smith) rages in England as well as here in the U.S.
There was nothing wrong with Zhao’s book, and she herself was the target of anti-Chinese racism in the campaign against her, orchestrated primarily by another author who was jealous that they would both be having “russian fantasy” novels coming out in the same year. (The origins of this feud started on a forum.) When Zhao worked through that, and after some edits to clarify the language in a couple spots, her novel was well received and regarded by all.
Not sure who you’re referring to exactly or how you might be aware of a particular Zhao critic’s main motivations. Were you involved with the initial debate, or subsequent edits on the book? Happy to hear more.
Many authors were in the author slack channel where the criticism was aired. Emily Duncan, who wrote Wicked Saints, tore into and mocked Zhao’s appearance and book cover.
This personal attack you’re describing is terrible. I wasn’t aware of this particular Slack-channel criticism. I do know that two other authors from marginalized communities who raised issues with Zhao’s book as originally written were also subjected to vicious attacks online that included death threats — to the point where one closed down her social media accounts for several months. For me the key is to be able to have these discussions and offer criticism without it turning into World War III.