Some Thoughts ...

Thursday, September 3, 2020

I debated whether I wanted to share this post on the blog today. I don't want readers to think that I'm beating a dead horse. Talking to Ari last night, however, made me realize that I needed to do it. I needed to word-vomit my feelings so that I can finally move on. I don't know that anyone even wants to read this, but that's okay. I'm doing this for myself. If you do read this, I'm emotional and not the most eloquent person so this post is going to feel disjointed and I'm sorry for that.

If you happened to be on romance Twitter last week, then you already know what occurred. I decided to publicly share a review, written by a white woman, for Amalie Howard's upcoming title, The Duke's Princess Bride. When Sourcebooks Casablanca revealed the cover and blurb of the book, I had a very emotionally violent reaction to it. The cover, which features a white man and a South Asian woman, made me uncomfortable. My discomfort was only heightened as I read the summary of this historical romance, which described how the hero, a white man, would be saving a biracial Indian princess. I started seeing the cover everywhere and it continued to bother me, so I made a hasty subtweet without outright mentioning the book. I also remember sliding into Aarya and Ari's DMs, two South Asian and Indo-Caribbean friends respectively, to see if maybe I was overreacting. Both felt the same way, but again, we didn't say anything publicly without having read the book.

When the ARCs went up, I encouraged Ari to maybe download it because I knew that she was a much stronger person than me and wouldn't be as biased as I obviously would be. I forgot about the book for a few weeks until Ari mentioned she was reading it and was uncomfortable with some of the content. I made my way to Goodreads only to see raving reviews after raving reviews, all by what appeared to be white women. The sole negative review was a short review that linked to a lengthier post on Medium. Now, I generally do not rely on white readers' opinions when deciding if an ownvoices book is for me, but curiosity got the best of me in this case. I read Vicky's review carefully and tried to go in with an open mind, only to be subjected to horrific quotes taken directly from the text. I'm not going to reiterate what Vicky's review mentioned but every single one of my suspicions was confirmed. 

The hero, it turns out, was an ex-officer of the East India Company, who owned plantations in the Caribbean. And all of this is just casually mentioned in the book, in an almost dismissive way from what I saw of the quotes shared. I never want to read books about heroes with strong ties to colonization, and certainly not paired with an Indian woman, whose people the British colonized and then hired as indentured laborers. I come from an island in Africa that was colonized by the Dutch, British, and French. The East India Company brought slaves and indentured laborers from Madagascar, India, and China to my home so all of my fellow citizens are descendants of slaves and mistreated indentured laborers. 

I was hurt and angry at the author's choices and I took to Twitter to share the link to the review, very clearly pointing out that the reviewer was white. My motivations in sharing the review had nothing to do with attempting to cancel the author and her book or destroy her career. If you guys have been long-time followers of the blog, then you know that I have been supportive of every author of color (AOC) I've promoted on this blog and on my social media. Even when I don't like a book by an AOC, I've been known to promote them in various ways. I pride myself in my support and I've always wanted this blog to be a positive space. So, it doesn't help my own goals trying to malign an AOC and their work. However, I also care about my fellow marginalized readers and reviewers, and I wanted to warn them, so they wouldn't be harmed as I was simply reading the quotes. 

The tweet didn't get as much buzz the day I shared it, but the next day is when things blew up. A group of South Asian authors fixated on the reviewer being white and accused her of being "wokety-woke" and nitpicky of a book by an AOC. Somehow, more authors got involved and the conversation spiraled into something that had absolutely nothing to do with my original point that this book was problematic. They wrote tweets about how white readers are always more critical of books by AOC and that AOC should be allowed to write the fun stories they want because white authors are allowed to. While I wholeheartedly agreed with the points they were trying to make, I felt like they were dismissing the very obvious problematic content in The Duke's Princess Bride, which Vicky presented with direct quotes and facts from the book. Vicky's review was well-researched and well-presented. I personally took Vicky's review as a warning to South Asian readers so that we wouldn't be harmed while reading the book. To me, it seemed like these authors were condoning the colonizer hero who owned plantations and the unchallenged colorist and racist ideologies presented in the book. They were ignoring my feelings, as well as several other South Asian readers' feelings towards this book. They were using "white authors have done it in the past, so we should also be allowed to write colonizer heroes" as an excuse. 

I honestly felt chided by their tweets. Though they didn't directly engage with me, it felt like they were telling me my opinions didn't matter. My hurt feelings didn't matter. Fuck guys, I was so devastated because nearly all of the authors engaging in this discourse were authors that I had loudly and proudly championed throughout the years. They were authors who I valued so much because they were writing stories about people who looked like me. One of these very authors was questioned by a white woman just the previous week about the historical accuracy of her newly announced historical romance series and the entire romance community, including reviewers like myself, rallied to support her. But when it came to supporting South Asian reviewers like Aarya, Kailia, and me, we were instead attacked. We were called "mobs" for calling out extremely problematic content in a book. None of us directly called out Amalie Howard. We were very careful about that because as I said earlier, none of us wanted to cancel this author or her book. Yet, apparently, we only ever come for AOC's throats and not white authors with problematic historical romances. Since all these authors were focusing on Vicky's "whiteness", Ari, decided to finish the book and publish a fantastic review that confirmed everything Vicky said. The Duke's Princess Bride was problematic and there was no denying it. One of the authors eventually apologized for dismissing our voices but the rest of them? Crickets! 

Today I learned that the author who apologized to us completely deleted her apology from Twitter. Why? I don't know, but it felt like another punch. These past few days have been so mentally trying for me and for other South Asian and Indo-Caribbean readers. I've debated whether I wanted to continue putting this much energy and time into blogging and promoting authors. I obviously don't blog for validation from authors. I blog for myself and for my readers. But I can't help but feel like I'm not valued by the very people I spend hours of my weeks highlighting for a grand total of zero dollars. I am just so crushed. I grew up as a YA blogger and saw how ungrateful the industry as a whole was towards bloggers. I always naively told friends that romance was not at all like that. Authors seemed so much more appreciative of all the work that we did. I was clearly oblivious.

I've learned a lot throughout this whole debacle. Here are some more rambly thoughts.

- Readers and reviewers are our biggest supporters. I feel like I've gotten close to so many folks last weekend. I was completely overwhelmed by the love and support shown. I had so many people in my DMs making sure I was okay. My heart was full. I just want to say thank you so so much to each and every one of you. <3

- I've learned which authors I need to be reading and promoting. I'm so so grateful in particular to Tasha L. Harrison and Katrina Jackson for being loud in their support for us South Asian and Caribbean readers from day 1. They never wavered and at times even engaged directly with the authors, which could not have been an un-frustrating experience. 

- I'm also thankful for authors like Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, and Nalini Singh for using their large platforms to side with us and for understanding our concerns. Nalini Singh in particular had such lovely things to say to us and it made me so proud to be one of her fans.

- I also have to respect Amalie Howard's reaction to everything. She didn't engage with any of us while we were having the conversation, and simply posted a statement saying she would be making edits to the book having listened to our concerns. I personally will not be reading the book, but I wish her nothing but the very best. 

- Sadly, I've decided that the best thing for me is to not spend any time reading authors who obviously don't see me as an important and valuable voice in the community. I'm sad because it does mean no longer reading books from authors I've considered my favorites in the past, but I can't in good conscience act like this weekend didn't happen. Maybe, if we had gotten proper apologies instead of the self-patting tweets about "mitigating explosive situations" behind the scenes, acting like they weren't responsible for blowing the entire thing into something else in the first place? But we didn't get any of that, so I'm not going to be reading, reviewing, and recommending these authors again.

- I also want to add that I do think white readers are very hyper-critical of books from AOCs. It's a source of frustration for me too. It's also a discussion we need to have as a community. However, that does not mean that we should let harmful content such as colorist, racist, and casteist ideas slide by. That's not the right message to pass on to anyone.

- Publishers, you need to do better. I'd like to know what happened to all the diversity initiatives we were promised when George Floyd was murdered??? You desperately need to hire sensitivity readers as well as editors from diverse backgrounds to ensure that marginalized readers aren't hurt like this. Ownvoices doesn't automatically mean unproblematic.

- I'm going to wrap up with a quote from Ari's review: "Secondly, to my fellow West Indian and Desi readers who may have been excited to read this book but are now dissuaded: we deserve romances that are not dependent on a colonizer saving the day and I am sorry that this book is not a win for us. To the readers who were vocal and expressed concern but were met with pushback, your efforts were not for nothing and I truly appreciate you all using your platform to bring light to the issues with this book. WE DESERVE BETTER. PERIOD."

I could not agree more. We shouldn't be settling for poor representation. We deserve much better than that.