I’ve held off about commenting on Amélie Wen Zhao controversial book Blood Heir, since it seemed that more than enough online pundits were weighing in, both for and against the book. Also, I didn’t really understand what the problem was all about. Yes, it had something to do with slavery, but what did Zhao actually write that at least some people found so offensive?
However, as a matter of good conscience, I felt I should look into the matter and see what it was supposed to be all about. To that end, I decided to seek the answer from one of the most liberal information outlets I could find, Slate.com. It doesn’t get much more leftist than Slate. Writer Aja Hoggatt wrote an article called An Author Canceled Her Own YA Novel Over Accusations of Racism. But Is It Really Anti-Black? published January 31, 2019. I found the write-up really even-handed, especially given Slate’s obvious leftist perspective.
First off, here’s the summary of the book I found at Amazon:
In the Cyrilian Empire, Affinites are reviled and enslaved. Their varied abilities to control the world around them are unnatural–dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, might be the most monstrous of them all. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls.
But when Ana’s father, the emperor, is murdered, her world is shattered: Ana is the one framed as his killer. To save herself, she must flee the safety of the palace and enter a land that hunts her and her kind. And to clear her name, she must find her father’s murderer on her own. Yet, what Ana finds is far worse than she ever imagined. A greater conspiracy is at work in Cyrilia, one that threatens the very balance of her world. And there is only one person corrupt enough to help her get to its rotten core: Ramson Quicktongue.
A cunning crime lord of the Cyrilian underworld, Ramson has sinister plans–though he might have met his match in Ana. Because in this story, the princess might be the most dangerous player of all.
Okay, so in a fictional empire, a group called “affinites” are “reviled and enslaved,” but they also possess some sort of special abilities. A princess named Anastacya Mikhailov (sounds Russian) possesses affinite blood and abilities, which she keeps hidden while living in the palace (so far, not unlike the Biblical story of Esther, which is estimated to date back to the 5th century BCC, or about 2,600 years ago).
The rest seems to be a classic saga of murder, entrapment, and vengeance which you’d find in multiple modern and ancient works, some going back to Shakespearean drama or even earlier to Greek tragedy.
Obviously, a summary doesn’t contain all of the information in the novel, but since the novel is unavailable, thanks to the aforementioned online pundits, I have no ability to read it at present.
But according to the Slate article:
…some YA influencers in the Twitterverse accused Zhao of racial insensitivity, among other things. This led to both a Twitterstorm and one-star Goodreads reviews, including one in particular that accused the novel of “anti-blackness”.
What? Where do you get “anti-blackness” and why are “YA influencers” so influential?
They’re YA authors and fans with substantial followings who are attuned to trends in young adult fiction and often push for better representation and diversity within the genre. Some of them receive Advanced Readers Copies, or ARCs, so that they can preview books similar to professional critics before they’re published.
Okay, that (sort of) answers the “YA influencers” question and how they knew what was in the novel, but what’s this “anti-blackness” thing?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, but last week, Twitter user @LegallyPaige accused Zhao of compiling screenshots of people who weren’t fans of Blood Heir ahead of its release and harassing them: “I’ll tell you which 2019 debut author, according to the whisper network, has been gathering screenshots of people who don’t/didn’t like her book and giving off Kathleen Hale vibes: Amelie Wen Zhao.” (@LegallyPaige has since made her account private.)
This opened the floodgates, with others accusing Zhao of plagiarism and of her book being offensive to African-Americans. YA novelist L.L. McKinney voiced her displeasure with this particular description of the book:
In a world where the princess is the monster, oppression is blind to skin color, and good and evil exist in shades of gray…comes a dark Anastasia retelling that explores love, loss, fear, and divisiveness and how ultimately it is our choices that define who we are.
The description led McKinney to also state that the book was “pretty much about” the oppression and slavery faced by the African-American community.
But did Zhao base her tale on America’s history of slavery, and further, was she guilty of the crime of “color blindness?”
Zhao’s apology included:
The issue around Affinite indenturement in the story represents a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor 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. I am so sorry for the pain this has caused.
Which brings up a good point. The history of slavery covers a lot of territory, back into prehistoric times probably, and can be found all over the globe, not just in the United States. According to DigitalHistory.uh.edu:
Slavery dates back to prehistoric times and was apparently modeled on the domestication of animals. From the earliest periods of recorded history, slavery was found in the world’s most “advanced” regions. The earliest civilizations–along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus Valley of India, and China’s Yangtze River Valley–had slavery. The earliest known system of laws, the Hammurabi Code, recognized slavery. But the percentage of slaves in these early civilizations was small, in part because male war captives were typically killed, while women were enslaved as field laborers or concubines.
According to the article Iraq Slave Markets Sell Women for $10 to Attract Isis Recruits published at International Business Times in 2014, children as young as one year of age have been sold as slaves, and Qin Shihuang states that during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCC) “Men sentenced to castration became eunuch slaves of the Qin dynasty state and as a result they were made to do forced labor, on projects like the Terracotta Army.”
Presenting the full human history of slavery is beyond the scope of this one blog post (Google will help you look it all up yourself), but I cite these specific examples to illustrate that it’s entirely possible, and even likely that Ms. Zhao did not use the United States history of slavery against black African people as the basis of her fantasy story. Slavery has involved people groups from all over the world, and cannot legitimately be attached to only one people group during the past 400 years.
Further, according to the Slate article, there’s no certainty that any of Zhao’s characters were black, so it’s very difficult to see the point of the novel being “anti-black.” Hoggatt further states in the article:
That still depends on your point of view—McKinney maintains that the book perpetuates anti-blackness even after all this—but if not false claims then maybe claims driven by passion rather than facts. As the overwhelmingly white publishing industry pushes toward more inclusive and socially aware storytelling, public scrutiny has only gotten harsher. While it is important to hold both industries accountable and push for greater progress, it’s important to make sure these claims are truly valid.
Trashing someone’s reputation and forcing them to halt the publication of their first novel based on “claims driven by passion rather than facts” sounds at least reactionary if not irrational. After the initial twitter rage storm subsided, if indeed the critics involved were simply “driven by passion rather than facts,” they should have gone back and checked their facts. Apparently, they didn’t, seemingly satisfied that they’d cowed Zhao into silence. Does that make Zhao’s critics bullies?
Now it was Zhao herself who halted the book’s publication which was scheduled for this coming June. What does the publisher have to say?
While the future of the Blood Heir series in particular is uncertain, Zhao’s relationship with her publishing house seems to be in good standing, at least publicly. In a statement to the New York Times, Random House Children’s Books, Delacorte’s parent company, said, “We respect Amelie’s decision, and look forward to continuing our publishing relationship with her.”
As a nascent author in the SF/F realm myself, and one who isn’t a member in good standing in the social justice outrage brigade, I can’t help but wonder what I’d have done in Zhao’s position. I’d probably be talking with my agent and the publisher about simply delaying the release of the novel. Then I’d go back over it with a fine-toothed comb and make it incredibly, unmistakably, obviously NOT about the United States or its history of slavery and exploitation against African-Americans. I probably would make it incredibly, unmistakably, obviously about the general history of slavery during human history, and if her cultural touchstone is her own, then why not use China’s history, which as I mentioned above, goes back well over 2,000 years. Then I’d ask the publisher’s editorial staff to go over my revisions to make absolutely sure I’d done the job I set out to do. After that, I’d have the novel published, and if the reactionary critics decided to again react, they’d have nothing factual upon which to base their ire (not that they ever did in the first place).
If I could talk with Zhao, I’d tell her to hang in there, and that a few hyper-emotional and vocal critics on twitter does not represent the wider world of her readers.
Oh, the Slate article said that Zhao’s critics gave “Blood Heir” very poor reviews on Goodreads, but as of this writing, out of 248 ratings and 239 reviews of Blood Heir at Goodreads, the overall rating is 4.19 out of five stars. Not bad. Not bad at all. Where can I get an advanced copy to read and review?