Is My Novel Problematic??
The other day I got the sort of review I had been dreading. One that said my novel was in not so many words a bit racially insensitive.
“One thing that surprised me, in a not so nice way, was when Theo wanted to become an Asian. It's one thing to like Asian cultures it's another wanting to be an Asian while the entire story reeks of white privilege wreaking havoc in Asian countries. Was I offended? Perhaps mildly so.” - @shawnwithbooks
I had two simultaneous reactions to this,
1) ‘These are fictional characters; I’m not advocating the things they do.’
2) ‘Oh, fuck this person’s right, and I already printed two hundred copies!’
When I got the criticism, I entered a half-panicked stupor. I called off the publicity drive that I’d been planning for pride month and had a lot of discussions with people. I was pretty certain I was going to make some changes. This will make some people pleased, and leave others thinking I’m succumbing to online censorship. There have been a couple of news stories about more high-profile books that have changed lines due to being called out on Twitter. Casey McQuiston removed the line in Red, White, & Royal Blue: “Well, my UN ambassador said something idiotic about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and personally apologize.” Authors have also cancelled launches due to being called out: Amelie Wen Zhao’s novel ‘Blood Heir’. It may be the examples the media chooses, but these both seemed like the result of slightly overzealous keyboard warriors.
I think a question that authors need to ask is: am I making changes because I don’t want bad reviews or because I genuinely think elements of my book are problematic? My intention had been to write a book that presents the sometimes-dubious ways white western people interact with Asian culture. I wanted it to be observational and nuanced rather than preaching a woke morality. But I definitely didn’t want a book that is unpleasant for Asian people to read.
The novel is narrated by Theo who has anxiety and isn’t particularly comfortable in his own skin. He’s an anime and k-pop fan who used to want to look like the characters and singers he idolises – he wanted to look Asian. I think this is actually quite a common thing among anime fans in the west, many of whom are alienated queer teens, finding an identity in something different to their own culture. But people find this offensive because it’s seen as reducing someone’s heritage and racial identity down to a look. Or ignoring the prejudice people of that identity have to face. There is a degree of naivety to anyone wanting to look Asian, but I also don’t want to vilify them. Rather than cutting what I think is an important aspect of the character I tried to remove stereo-typing and give a bit more explanation:
“I was a teenage anime geek who listened to J-rock and K-pop and wanted to be Asian. I wanted to be beautiful and androgynous with choppy black hair. I dyed my hair and realised my thin face and too-big Renaissance nose were never going to look Asian.”
“(Anime and J-rock) became my escape from being a nervous wreck who hung around a group of people who only vaguely knew I was there … I wanted to be Miyavi with his androgynous good looks. I wanted to be Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion with his adorable face and lithe body. For world book day I dressed up as Sasuke from Naruto, with a headband, and a spikey black wig. The effect was deeply fantasy destroying. I was in fact a spotty kid from England with a skinny face and a nose from a Renaissance painting.”
Theo ends up being taken on a drunken bender across East Asia by an alcoholic called Max who claims to have won the lottery. Thus ensues ‘white privilege wreaking havoc in Asian countries!’ As someone who has lived and traveled in East Asia, this is something I’ve observed, and I’m probably guilty of taking part in. I tried in the book to make some of Theo’s train of thought highlight this: “Max’s inebriated bravado makes me cringe a bit more here, where people are obviously poorer ... I feel like an ignorant white person and worry this will be added to my long list of life-regrets.” I also have Max’s lack of filter bringing up issues. When Theo is fretting at passport control, Max reassures him: “We’re rich white people from England.”
I did question how I would feel reading a book about two drunk straight guys going to gay bars? A book where I am the other. I think to appreciate it I would need satire and depreciation, and a fair portrayal of gay people and their reactions. So, I went back through the book adding a bit more commentary from Theo, more reactions from Asian characters, and more descriptions of them too. These examples are from a scene where Theo tells a Taiwanese guy called Jackie about the drunken journey:
“How long have you been travelling for?” Jackie asks.
I count on my fingers, “Two weeks, I think.”
“It sounded like months,” Jackie laughs. “Want a beer?”
“I knew British people liked drinking, but …” Jackie grits his teeth.
“I’m not normally a drunk,” I insist. I almost say that I was on a rebound, that it was all Max’s fault, but even in my drunken state that seems like a stretch.
He falls asleep, and I peer at his beautiful face, the slight rise and fall of his chest, streetlight shining through the blinds.
He falls asleep, and I watch the slight rise and fall of his chest, streetlight shining through the blinds. I feel awkward about all my posters of hot Asian guys compared to this real person next to me: cute, sarcastic, and bilingual.
I think this blog is entering the territory of virtue signalling now! But I’m still trying to weigh up in my head whether it is possible to make this book less triggering. That is: a book with a white first-person narrator that talks about fetishization and colonial aspects of tourism without a hard moral conclusion. I’m not saying I don’t want to trigger people, I just don’t want to trigger them for the wrong reasons. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have bowed to the online criticism Casey McQuiston got for her comment about Benjamin Netanyahu. But in the case of my book, I think the critique was mostly fair and has hopefully helped me deepen the novel.