“The narrative and history of slavery in the United states is not something I can, would, or intended to write.”
A young adult novelist on Wednesday agreed to cancel publication of her debut fantasy novel about an enslaved princess, which critics have deemed racist.
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In a tweet pinned to her profile, Amélie Wen Zhao apologized for her work, explaining that as an immigrant from China, she was not qualified to write about “the narrative and history of slavery in the United States.”
“I am so sorry for the pain this has caused,” she said.
Until recently, Amélie Wen Zhao had looked poised to become a breakout star in the so-called YA literary world. Last January, she excitedly posted to her website that she had sold the novel, “Blood Heir,” to a major children’s publishing house in a three-book deal after a bidding-war for the rights. It was scheduled to be released on June 4, 2019.
“I AM GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!” she wrote.
Delacorte Press, which paid Zhao more than $500,000 in the deal, touted the book as “the hottest fantasy debut of the summer,” saying it was part of an “epic new series about a princess hiding a dark secret and the conman she must trust to clear her name for her father’s murder.”
“Blood Heir “takes place in the fictional Cyrilian empire where a group of powerful people called Affinites are feared and enslaved. Zhoa framed the novel as a call for social justice informed by her own immigrant story. Born in Paris and raised in a multicultural community in Beijing, she emigrated from China when she was 18 years old, according to her website.
“As a foreigner in Trump’s America, I’ve been called names and faced unpleasant remarks — and as a non-citizen, I’ve felt like I have no voice — which is why I’ve channeled my anger, my frustration, and my need for action into the most powerful weapon I have: my words,” she wrote on her website.
To The Book Community: An Apology pic.twitter.com/SCdYMOSLOA
— Amélie Wen Zhao (@ameliewenzhao) January 30, 2019
After Delacorte sent out early review copies of the novel, the initial reviews were positive. The book has nearly a four and half star rating on Goodreads. But starting in January, some readers began denouncing the story as racist for its depiction of slavery, and a social media campaign was launched.
“How is nobody mentioning the anti-blackness and blatant bigotry in this book?” one reader wrote on Goodreads. “This book is about slavery, a false oppression narrative that equates having legitimately dangerous magical powers that kill people with being an oppressed minority, like a person of color. This whole story is absolutely repulsive.”
Zhao was also accused of engaging in racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation in the novel.
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In her apology tweet, Zhao felt compelled to turn her immigrant story into an excuse for what she suggested was naive insensitivity on her part.
Zhao said she intended to write the novel from her “immediate cultural perspective” and to address the “epidemic of indentured and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.”
“The narrative and history of slavery in the United States is not something I can, would or intended to write, but I recognize that I am not writing in merely my own cultural context,” she added.
Reactions to Zhao’s decision to pull “Blood Heir” were mixed. Some insisted that the novel was problematic. Jamaican author T.A. Riley called it “distasteful” and said even she would not touch the subject of chattel slavery.
This is the last thing I'll say about the blood heir situation. I get that writing fantasy can be fun bc you get to create new worlds and cultures and the like. But to put something that resembles chattel slavery SO CLOSELY is distasteful. 1/4
— toni ?? (@_tariley) January 29, 2019
But the larger response, at least outside the YA community, was that Zhao had been reduced to public self-flagellation.
Conservative journalist Cathy Young, in an article Thursday for the New York Daily News, compared Zhao’s fate of writers and intellectuals during Communist China’s Cultural Revolution, who were “terrorized into public ‘self-criticism.'”
“The online mobs, unlike actual mobs in Mao’s China, can’t beat and maim people or trash their possessions,” she said. “But when they have the social power to coerce self-censorship and groveling apologies, our freedom is diminished.”
Nonfiction writer Michael Deibert tweeted Thursday: “The internet lynch mob should not get to determine what books get published.”
The internet lynch mob should not get to determine what books get published: The Latest #YA Twitter Pile On Forces a Rising Star Amélie Wen Zhao to Self-Cancel https://t.co/bQMeWtueWL #publishing #freespeech
— Michael Deibert (@michaelcdeibert) January 31, 2019
He linked to an essay by journalist Kat Rosenfeld published earlier in the day at Vulture, which suggested the woke takedown of “Blood Heir” may have had something to do with the YA’s community infamous culture of backbiting.
Jesse Singal also wrote an article in Tablet magazine Thursday condemning the YA “Twitter mob” for derailing Zhao’s career even though “no one could explain exactly what it was about Zhao’s treatment of [slavery] that was offensive.” He dismissed the response as a self-righteous “pile on” based on “out of context” excerpts or just assumptions about a book “most in the community haven’t read yet.”
Even Slate culture intern Aja Hoggat saw fit Thursday to debunk the claims against Zhao’s book.
Meanwhile, Delacorte said that while it supported Zhao’s decision not to publish “Blood Heir,” it would also back her if she changed her mind, and would anyway honor her contract.
“We respect Amelie’s decision, and look forward to continuing our publishing relationship with her,” Random House Children’s Books, Delacorte’s parent company, said in a statement. Zhao was unavailable for interviews, according to her publisher.
The YA and children’s books communities have in recent years earned a reputation not just for petty politics, but also for hypersensitivity and political correctness. In its article about Zhao’s ordeal, The Times listed a number of recent controversies over supposedly racist novels.
“Children’s book publishers have grown increasingly cautious when acquiring books that deal with charged subjects such as race, gender, sexuality and disability. Many publishers and authors now hire ‘sensitivity readers’ who vet books and identify harmful stereotypes,” according to the newspaper.
Of course, the issue of liberal hypersensitivity in culture goes beyond youth literature.
In Hollywood, activists have pushed studios toward identity-based hiring in the name of “representation” and “inclusion.” Filmmakers and actors who have tried to portray subjects or characters from supposedly marginalized groups to which they do not belong have become targets of online campaigns, which have in some prominent cases succeeded.
Even woke comedians have been called out for old politically incorrect jokes, with some of the prominent ones complaining that they can no longer be funny. And even depicting certain white people can now be controversial, as evidenced by the recent uproar over a pair of new films about Ted Bundy.
While supporters of such advocacy hail the forward march of culture, critics warn that freedoms of expression and thought are being sacrificed on the altar of social justice.