Content note: This post will contain uncensored racial slurs in quoted excerpts.
If you’ve heard recent buzz about debut author Keira Drake’s YA novel The Continent, you know it’s not the kind of publicity most authors want to receive. The book, centered around a white main character who heals the centuries-long divide between two warring races, relies heavily on stereotypes of Native American people being savage, warlike, and dangerously drunk, and Japanese people being noble, skilled warriors. Authors and bloggers have been posting their reviews to Twitter and GoodReads (author Justina Ireland tweeted a comprehensive summary), and the usual claims of censorship and mob mentality have risen from people who see no problem with the white savior narrative inherent in the story.
The author’s response would have been a fitting, if daunting, “Don’t Do This, Ever” entry. Drake’s husband took to GoodReads to antagonize readers, some of them teenagers, the very demographic his wife’s book targets. Drake herself claimed that the “Topi” (one letter off from Hopi, the name of a Native American tribe) and the “Aven’ei” (who are given names like “Yuki” and ninja-esque skills) aren’t based off any real cultures, then contradicted herself when she informed Twitter that she’d run the book past Native American and Japanese sensitivity readers. Her fans contacted Justina Ireland’s editor in an effort to undermine her career after she publicly criticized the novel. Another reader began a one-star campaign against Ireland; when the reader’s identity was discovered, she quickly ordered Toni Morrison’s entire backlist, then claimed to have been hacked by author L.L. McKinney.
You can’t make this stuff up.
But one question I’ve seen over and over in this mess is, how did this, a book so irredeemably racist as to inspire a petition to delay its publication, get to this point? How did numerous rounds of edits post-acquisition lead to the ARC reviewers received? How did anyone look at this book and decide to give the author a three-book deal complete with a massive marketing campaigned seemingly destined to seat The Continent as the next The Hunger Games?
Much of the onus, in this case, lies on the author, who saw no issue in depicting non-white people as broad caricatures in her story of a white girl saving the world. The book is published by Harlequin TEEN, an imprint of Harlequin. In 2004, I received a three-book contract from Harlequin’s Mira imprint on the strength of my first novel, Blood Ties Book One: The Turning. At no point in the editing of the series (which spanned not just the five different editors who worked on it, but my former agent, multiple copy editors, and an acquisitions board) did anyone raise an objection to the blatant “Magical Negro” character of Clarence, the villain’s loyal butler. After that series was completed, I stepped, wholly unprepared, into the racism-riddled world of fantasy.
My fantasy series, Lightworld/Darkworld, centered around the general premise that the world of fairies and monsters collided with the human world and that the humans had driven all of these fantastical creatures underground, where they were forced to live in sewers and abandoned subway stations and utilidors. One of the factions of “magical” creatures? Were “Gypsies”.
In the second book of the series, Child of Darkness, I described their encampment in the Underground this way:
The mortal man led him to the center of the city. Only here did the plan of the settlement make sense. All of the winding streets led to the center hub, where a huge, communal fire blazed. Groups of singing, dancing, feasting Humans clustered around the wide pit of flames, mortal bodies writing like salamander shadows in the firelight.
The “him” referred to in that excerpt is a Faerie. I describe them throughout all three books as having shining or glowing white skin. This is how I compared him (and all physically perfect, pale white Faeries) to the “Gypsies”:
Mortals were roughly shaped, as if each was cut from a spare scrap of cloth, rather than crafted from the finest bolt. Of course, his appearance would stand out to them. Could they tell he was not mortal? He was built larger than most Faeries, but he stood only as tall as an average Human woman. The Gypsies were a small people, though, wiry and compact, and Dika had not known him to be Fae, when they’d first met. He’d thought then that it was something of an insult, to look mortal.
Yes, my glorious white fairy thought it was an insult to look like the “Gypsies”, who were cut from spare scraps of cloth. And obviously, these roughspun, earthy people who revel sinuously in the firelight would be amazed at the shimmering white beauty of my hero.
The fairy, Cedric, is in the camp because he’s in love with Dika, a woman who lives with the Dya, the matriarchal leader of her people. The Dya lives in a vardo and dispenses wisdom and fortunes:
A lamp of many-colored glass hung beside the wagon door, and it swung wildly, sending a rainbow of shadows across the figure that emerged. At first glance, the figure seemed not even Human; a hunch-backed thing, like a rune stone jutting up from the ground, with a head covered by a leather cap with dangling flaps that obscured her face. She shuffled, and with each step the shells and trinkets wound on cords around her neck and arms clanked and jingled.
It’s like I had a Romani stereotype bingo card and every square was a free space.
As the brown love interest of a white hero, Dika exists in the novel only to give Cedric some angst and drama; she is killed when the entire encampment is flooded as a result of the ongoing war between the Lightworld and Darkworld factions. Later, he winds up with another white Faerie.
That white Faerie, as it so happens, spends a great deal of the second book in love with an Elf, who ultimately betrays her. The Elves are dark-skinned, violent, and have an affinity for dice games.
Out of the all the Faeries, only one doesn’t have pale skin:
The Faery tossed matted, sand-colored ropes of hair over her shoulder. Her skin color matched; she looked like a stretch of desert landscape, amethyst eyes nestled in the dunes.
She’s a villain. In fact, all of the villainous Faeiries have “matted ropes” of hair. When I wrote the book, I imagined them as having dreadlocks because of their “wild” and “uncivilized” nature.
All of this made it to publication.
I can’t lay the blame solely on Harlequin; I’m the one who wrote this trash. But my mind boggles when I think of the number of hands these manuscripts passed through, and the amount of money and support the series received. Though the books saw dismal reviews and worse sales (they still haven’t earned out their grossly inflated six-figure advance), Harlequin threw a lot of weight behind them. They released them back-to-back-to-back over three months. They took out numerous ads and got some of their biggest names to provide cover quotes. And never once in the entire process did anyone say, “Hey…maybe what we’re dumping so much money on is a racist mess.”
Or maybe they did say that only to have their concerns ignored. Or maybe, like many other publishers, Harlequin has failed to employ enough people of color and people of varied ethnic backgrounds on its acquisitions team (this is pure conjecture). In 2013, Harlequin TEEN published Hooked by Liz Fichera, a novel rife with Native American stereotypes. With the publication of The Continent, it feels like the publisher is doubling-down on its support of racist novels, rather than taking any steps to improve the content they’re selling. Coupled with the fact that the publisher is famous for an imprint propped up on “exotic” ethnicities (as recently as this month there will be another Harlequin Presents book with “sheik” in the title, and Spaniards and Greeks still abound), it makes a person wonder if there are any diverse voices being heard behind the company’s doors.
Do I believe that Keira Drake sat down and wrote The Continent saying to herself, “Ha ha, time to reinforce harmful stereotypes and the colonialist narrative!” while gleefully rubbing her hands together? Of course not. Just like I never mindfully set out to write the racist tropes I wrote in Lightworld/Darkworld. But what I intended to do, what Drake intended to do, doesn’t matter. We still did it, and it’s still harmful. That is fully on us. But deeply racist books like The Continent and the Lightworld/Darkworld series should never make it through the hands of acquiring editors, editors, copy editors, sales and marketing directors and into the hands of readers. That’s a publishing problem, and the only way it can be corrected is from the inside. It’s not enough that publishers hire diversely; they have to listen to the employees who do raise objections. There has to be an open discussion that won’t leave someone silenced for fear of losing their job. Diverse hiring needs to apply to every publishing house, line, and imprint, not just the ones that target readers who aren’t white. And white authors who face criticism over their racially problematic books need to listen to those criticisms, rather than taking refuge with the friendly voices who tell them that they’ve done nothing wrong.
No matter how supporters of the book and of Drake try to spin the current social media conversation about The Continent, this isn’t a free speech problem. Drake hasn’t been censored, but her readers and friends have certainly worked hard to silence her critics. Petty bigotry and fragile white egos will undoubtedly drive The Continent onto all the major lists, but it could have been a better book (and a less public learning experience for the author) if someone had simply addressed the problems in its white savior narrative. Her supporters have turned their ire in the wrong direction; Harlequin TEEN could have spared Drake much of the backlash if they’d requested appropriate revisions–or just not acquired the book at all.
So, the answer to the question “how did this get published?” is fairly simple; white authors write books loaded with racism, the publishers that buy them either don’t have a diverse enough staff to see the problems in the books or they just don’t listen to criticism, then readers decide that since the book was published it obviously isn’t racist. Yes, that is an argument floating around social media right now: if it’s so racist, why did they publish it? If you’re still asking yourself that, I refer you to the very top of this post. Reread it, because you haven’t been paying attention. The problem with books like these begin with the authors but ultimately end with the gatekeepers. If you open your eyes, it’s easy to see exactly who those gates are meant to keep out.
For more information about The Continent and the ongoing discussion surrounding it, search the hashtag #TheContinent on Twitter or Facebook.