Monday, July 6, 2020

Judged by Its Cover

Over the past several decades, many authors have made a concerted effort to be inclusive of other cultures in their books and with positive representation. That’s why I was very disturbed to read in Publishers’ Weekly that YA author Alexandra Duncan felt it her duty to cancel publication of her manuscript, Ember Days, because of cultural appropriation.

Duncan has been interested in the cultures where she lives in the south. She sought to write about the folk magic traditions of the Gullah Cheechee, and her main character is Naomi, the granddaughter of a powerful Gullah conjure woman.

When Duncan posted the book cover on Facebook, she received backlash from fellow writers, even though apparently none of them had read the manuscript. She fell victim to their comments accusing her of participating in the erasure of this group, saying to Publishers’ Weekly, “I definitely struggled with whether it was okay for me to write about a culture outside my own and especially about the difficult topic of passing, which Naomi does for part of the book while going undercover in an all-white magical society….”

She added that “In my misguided attempt to write a book that was inclusive of all cultures of Charleston and the Low Country,” she hadn’t realized, despite her copious research and conversations about the book, her “limited worldview as a white person” led her to think she could accurately represent this culture.

She finished by saying, “Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise…is evidence that I was not the right person to write this story. I am deeply ashamed….”

I think her critics are sadly mistaken and that Alexandra Duncan should not have been made to feel as though she committed the cultural crime of the century. The late mystery writer Tony Hillerman, a white man, has a whole series of books that take place on the Navajo Nation. The two main characters are Navajo Nation police officers.

Since his death, his daughter, Anne Hillerman, has carried on the series, having written five books to date. She has added a third Navajo main character, the wife of one of the officers, who is a cop with the county sheriff’s department. Neither Tony nor Anne has ever been accused of cultural appropriation. Quite the contrary. This series, which is my favorite, has been on the Bestseller lists, and both Anne and her father have been lauded at book fairs throughout Arizona and New Mexico for their work.

How are authors supposed to include diverse characters in their books if they are not of those ethnicities and risk backlash as a result? Does that mean that a black author can write only about African-Americans? That he or she can’t write a book with a lead character from another race?

What about an author including a person of the same race but from another time period? Almost no one who is alive today is part of any culture from prior to one hundred years ago. Should authors be prevented from writing historical novels because they are not from those time periods?

Should James Michener never have published his blockbuster novels Hawaii, Sayonara, The Bridges of Toko Ri, Poland, or any of the others that take place in different countries?

And consider James Clavell. Should he never have published his bestselling novels Shogun, Tai Pan, Noble House, or King Rat because they were set in Asia? Should Michener’s and Clavell’s books be banned because of “cultural appropriation”?

Another writer colleague of mine, who is Hispanic, wrote a book with a main character who was a little white girl living with her family in Tennessee during the Depression. Should she be “deeply ashamed” because she is not a little white girl from Tennessee during the Depression and therefore “not the right person to write this book”?

These ideas can be taken to extremes.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc., of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Shouldn’t accusations of cultural appropriation go to intent? Writing about a culture to educate and inform is a far cry from a white person showing up in blackface at a Halloween party.

Every author I know who writes about other cultures has people from those cultures who act as advisors and review the manuscripts to ensure accuracy. This is a needed partnership. What’s wrong with the author including an Author’s Note to explain the research, name the advisors, and clarify why he or she is writing about this topic?

Perhaps I am sensitive to this issue because I, too, have Navajo characters in two of my novels. While the protagonists in both are Caucasian, the male lead in one is a Navajo astrobiologist. This character was largely inspired by Fred Begay (aka Clever Fox), the first Navajo nuclear physicist, whom I interviewed decades ago and who gave me the ideas for some of the plot concepts in the book, which I have finally written and is due out next year.

In my middle-grade series, the first book takes place on the Navajo Nation. While, as I mentioned, the protagonist is white, the story has Navajo characters and seeks, as do the Hillerman books, to show the culture in a positive light and that both cultures’ viewpoints of the world are valid.

Why Navajo characters? First, I have a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. Second, the Navajo culture has proven so resilient. In 1900, because of government and religious interference, there were only 20,000 tribal members. Today, there are over 250,000. They have kept their language, religion, and traditions and even have a junior college on the reservation. That they have overcome their previous oppression and trauma should be shouted from the mountaintops.

The second book in the middle-grade series takes place in Lincoln, England. Lincoln is my ex-husband’s home town and I lived there for a few years. Should I have not written this novel because I am not British?

The third book takes place at Mission San Juan Capistrano. My main character in all three books sees ghosts, and she’s going encounter one who is a Native American girl killed in the 1830 earthquake. Should I not write this book because I wasn’t living at Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1830 or a Native American?

My personal view is that Alexandra Duncan’s book was unjustly criticized and it should be published. She shouldn’t have buckled to the criticism. It would be very educational to people like me who are not from the south and have never heard of the Gullah culture or the white magical societies. If the characters were portrayed in a negative light, I could understand the opposition. But they don’t seem to be and now we are going to miss out.

What a tragedy.


PW editors. (2020, June 25). Removed: Upcoming YA novel Ember Days canceled by author. Publishers Weekly.