Hi awesome nerds, and welcome to Novel Nonsense, which is the new name for my bookish rambles topic.
Today’s topic is the recent drama on YA Twitter surrounding two authors of colour cancelling (though I read both statements as postponing) the publication of their books following backlash and outcry from the community saying that their books were problematic and harmful.
I know a lot of you are probably rolling your eyes and immediately writing this off as a hot take post, but I really hope you will stick with me to the end.
I will not be posting screenshots or anything here, nor will I be naming names aside from the two authors and their books who were called out.
Why? A few reasons. One being that I don’t have permission from people to use their tweets. Another being that some of the people involved are already dealing with trolls in their mentions, and I don’t want to unintentionally add to that. And in the final case, I don’t want to be giving views to the harmful “articles” that are currently circulating about the whole thing.
I am probably the last person anyone would expect to defend the dynamics on YA Twitter. I have, after all, been on the receiving end of some very unfounded and personal attacks by some of the people at the head of these recent call-outs. And I am not saying that YA Twitter is perfect. It really isn’t. But in the case of these books, the system works.
In January, Amélie Wen Zhao’s debut Blood Heir was called out for having anti-black content. At the head of the call-out were two authors, one black and another Asian. A day or two later, Amélie Wen Zhao apologized and decided to postpone Blood Heir until she could rework it and remove the harmful content.
This past week, something similar happened with Kosoko Jackson’s debut A Place For Wolves, except this time the problematic content was Islamophobia and the centering of American characters in a narrative that was not his to tell (the relatively recent Kosovo War and the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Muslims that accompanied it). Twitter was a little more silent, which wasn’t surprising considering that following the last call-out of an author of colour’s book, the people of colour who did the calling out were put into an article without their permission, and without protecting their identities. They were harassed badly, called bullies and worse, and it led to one author leaving Twitter.
Kosoko Jackson has also apologized, and has withdrawn his book from publication at this time.
Something I see floating around is that the authors who called out Amélie Wen Zhao specifically were doing so from a place of competition. Amélie Wen Zhao had a very lucrative deal for a debut author, after all. Isn’t professional jealousy to be expected?
Resounding no. Spend some time following authors, especially authors of colour, on Twitter and you will see what an amazingly supportive group they are. They tweet about each other’s books, and they promote each other’s pre-order campaigns. Diverse YA authors want nothing but success for other diverse authors, because it shows publishing that there is a market for their stories.
The articles that are doing so much harm were written by two separate people. One is a former YA author, though she hasn’t been in the game for a long time. The other has no interest or connection in the YA community, other than to exploit our stumbles for his own monetary gain.
Why does that matter?
Because, to really understand the dynamics of these decisions, you need to be a part of the YA community. You need to care about YA authors and their books, and you need to have some information on why call-out culture is what it is on YA Twitter. You also need to understand the fight for diversity and representation for all teens.
I used to be a big supporter of the idea that books were for everybody. But that was a super privileged point of view, because I am a white woman who has never had much problem with finding herself in books (disability rep notwithstanding).
(Surprise, surprise… the authors of these trashfire articles are white, and they don’t seem to be wiling to examine their privilege at all.)
These days, YA literature is finally in a place where we are getting more representation for marginalized readers. That is an amazing thing! But it doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice one rep to get another. For both of the called-out authors, they offered one positive rep, but at the cost of another marginalized group. And this is what the harm is that people keep talking about.
People don’t seem to understand how demoralizing it is you only ever see yourself as the villain, or the sidekick, or the character who dies to further the white protagonist’s plot. Heck, I don’t even understand it fully. No one is saying teens are dumb, or that they aren’t capable of making up their own minds about stuff. We are just saying that they shouldn’t have to see the same bigoted crap that has prevailed in YA books up until now.
You tell someone something enough times, and they will believe it sooner or later.
Isn’t cancelling books censorship?
Well, that is a little murkier. I am generally inclined to say no, since it is not being mandated by any organization or government. But I am also of the personal opinion that censorship isn’t as dirty a word as some people make it.
Everyone censors on some level, either for themselves or for their kids. You personally find X content to be distasteful, so you don’t buy books about it, or watch TV about it, or let your children under 18 do so.
YA is for teens, which is anywhere from 13-18. Most states and provinces don’t allow for teens to work until 16. An average YA book costs $20 USD at release. This alone means that teens don’t generally have the option to “vote with their wallets”.
That is just one facet. Some others? YA books are not always sold in every country. Schools and public libraries sometimes make the decisions for teens to buy or not buy books. So do parents. Teens are voting for content in one way they can, which is using their voices on social platforms like Twitter.
Where YA still needs work
The agents of both Kosoko Jackson and Amélie Wen Zhao are white. This raises some questions about why they took on books that were so far outside their lane. It also highlights the extreme need for more people of colour in all levels of publishing.
It took until just before publication for both books to be noticed as being problematic, which definitely speaks to a need to get books about certain cultures into the hands of ownvoices reviewers, wherever they may be in the world. Review copies are currently very limited and are generally only granted to people with larger followings in the US, Canada, and the UK.
Sensitivity readers could also have helped a lot. A sensitivity reader is a person of one or more marginalizations (usually those the author is not familiar with) who is paid to read and comment on a manuscript with an eye to catching harmful representation before the book gets to its later stages. This does come with its own issues, though. Lately some people seem to think that hiring one sensitivity reader is enough, and if the book is found to be problematic then it is entirely the fault of the sensitivity reader, which is not how it works. Also, sensitivity readers are generally horribly under paid.
At the risk of tone policing, call-out culture in general can be pretty toxic and harmful. Call-outs on YA Twitter are no exception, and it concerns me because despite adult involvement, we are a community for teens. Just like we need to be aware what kind of representation if out there, we need to be aware of our words when stating our dislike of something. (For the record, I do not believe that the call-outs that Amélie Wen Zhao and Kosoko Jackson received were toxic.)
I hope you have enjoyed my piece, and if you have stumbled into our community via one of those deplorable outsiders that it has shed some light on what we are actually all about.
I am leaving comments open on this to encourage discussion – which is what this topic honestly needs – but know that if respect is not maintained, then I will be closing them.
Stay bookish, lovelies! ❤
First- I gotta say I really love that name!
Ah, i missed that whole thing (though im not really in YA twitter— im not even on twitter that often).. thank you for informing us and giving your takes on it!
I would think that postponing a book to fix the problematic should be a good thing… no? I however see how having white people as publishers and etc. Doesn’t help to make sure the books aren’t problematic as they are fortunated enough to not have lived that (am I making sense..? Hopefully xd)
You are definitely making sense. And yes, to a lot of us it is definitely a good thing that these two authors have chosen to postpone their books. We, as a community, are in favour of that because it illustrates that they actively care about the representation they are putting out as authors of YA fiction. <3
Ugh, this is the first I’ve heard of this and I was really excited for Blood Heir! D: I’m trying to get back into writing and I really want to be a published author someday, but drama like this makes me want to not even try to write the first draft anymore. 🙁 It’s too easy to accidentally offend someone and ruin everything.
I agree, intersectionality is so important – every community deserves representation, and not at the cost of others, as you point out; I’ve even seen authors talk about hiring sensitivity readers when they’re writing ownvoices content, just to get a second opinion so that they’re not relying on their limited personal experience to judge whether something is potentially harmful to the rest of/another part of their community.
there are so many different facets to the situation (as there always is, in any controversy), and you do an amazing job explaining and addressing several of them here. thank you for speaking up, and doing so thoughtfully.