I want to talk about world building in fantasy novels and Keira Drake’s apology.
The Continent by Keira Drake has gone from a book I knew zero about to the only thing on Book Twitter™. The Continent follows Vaela Sun, who is gifted a tour of the Continent for her sixteenth birthday. When her plane crashes, she becomes the lone survivor of her trip, left stranded and left alone to survive in the land locked in battle for centuries. The novel is slated to be released on January 3rd by Harlequin Teen.
For those who may have missed it, various authors were tweeting about the problematic content within The Continent on the morning on November 3rd. After that, author Justina Ireland requested a review copy and live tweeted her reaction to its content.
There are two camps. One feels the “social justice warriors” should stop talking about the problematic content in The Continent and are screaming “censorship.” The other wants the publishers to delay release and give the book another editing pass with actual sensitivity reads with this petition. I agree with the latter.
There is no vendetta against Keira Drake. Neither the original posters or Justina Ireland tweeted at the author or messaged her at all. Drake did send Justina Ireland direct messages on Twitter. Drake has issued an apology. Currently, her husband is Tweeting at anyone willing to disagree.
Drake is a debut author. I know what it’s like to be a debut. I know the pain of writing the book of your heart. The nerves, the pressure, the hopes that we pour into our work. But being a debut isn’t a free pass when it comes to criticism. Most authors would agree with me that the scrutiny on our words gets more severe down the line. It is not enough to call a book racist and move on. Six months from now, another book will take the place of The Continent, and the rage cycle will resume. So where do we go from here? I think breaking down fantasy world building and examining Drake’s apology can be the start to a solution for Harlequin Teen.
Let’s start with writing fantasy novels. Writing fantasy is hard. You have to go up against the heavy hitters, the Tolkiens and Rowlings and Martins of the world. On top of an original plot, you need an original world, gripping characters, and something that makes it unique to you instead of regurgitating Game of Thrones.
Fantasy is a genre in which the characters and world take place in an imaginary world, usually (but not always) involving magical creatures and elements. Fantasy = Magic. Scifi = Technology. Things cross pollinate and blend and you end up with a zillion subgenres. (Before anyone wants to explain to me that my definition doesn’t encompass X and Y, relax. We’re getting really basic right now.)
The Continent falls in science fantasy. There is no magic and made up tech like “heli-planes.” Vaela Sun lives in a Utopian world where there is no violence, except in the Continent which is full of “savages” still at war.
For those of you who haven’t read The Continent, the Continent as titled in the book has two warring tribes: the Topi and the Aven’ei. The Topi are described as having “reddish-brown” skin, “painted faces”, and faces with “broad with hard angles.”
…I mean, this isn’t a great leap of logic here… pic.twitter.com/qJ0fsCaNqa
— Justina Ireland (@justinaireland) November 3, 2016
Growing up in the United States, it isn’t a big stretch to use these descriptions to bring to mind stereotypes used to describe Native Americans. Pairing the Other with savagery is also a heinous stereotype. As the author made a claim to have Native American ancestry (though not a specific nation), this should be apparent. Drake explains the origins of her Topi tribe in her “apology” post entitled “The Continent – First Response.”).
“The Topi, one of the native peoples who inhabits the Continent, were inspired by the Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings. LotR is one of my favorite books, and the savage, brutal nature of the Uruk-Hai breaks my heart every time I read it, which is at least once per year. The Topi are a savage people—they are in no way inspired by or meant to represent Native Americans. Like many, I am a person of mixed nationality and race (Sicilian, Native American, French, Irish, Danish), and take great interest and pride in my ancestry.”
When Keira Drake says that she modeled her world on fictional people, there’s a flaw. The Uruk-Hai are technically not people. They’re Orc and man. They’re violent. They’re fodder and nameless. But they’re also not sad. Orcs are not given names or speaking parts in contrast to the Fellowship and their allies. They’re a nameless army created by an evil wizard. They’re evil fodder to make Aragon grow into the Once and Future King–I mean -Heir of Isildur and bring forth the Age of Man. Orcs are beastly and hideous and the darkness to the white race of Man, portrayed by Tolkien and brought to life by the very white films. How else can you show the “goodness of Men” if not by contrasting them to a thinly veiled race of dark-skinned monsters?
I do love the Lord of the Rings, but it has its racial issues as well. The Topi in The Continent are not Orcs. They’re described as human.
Keira Drake claims to be partially Native American, which still does not excuse the stereotype. According to my Ancestry.com results, I’m 8% African, but that doesn’t give me the authority or background to write about a fictional Black tribe from a coastal desert land. The idea that Drake, claiming to be part Native American, didn’t see the connection and similarity between the words Hopi and Topi shows a disconnect with Native Americans and First Nations. The creation of the Topi relies on the construction of our human descriptions. As fantasy readers or writers, we fancast. We see the actors and setting in our minds by what’s described on the page. We know if we’re basing things off of other cultures.
In her apology, Drake says, “Any likeness of the fantasy cultures in the book to actual cultures was unintentional, and was not brought to my attention by a large number of early sensitivity readers.” Since Drake did not base the Topi on a Native tribe, were her multiple sensitivity readers only Asian? African-American?
What sort of sensitivity readers do you get for a book where one tribe is based off Tolkien’s hybrid monster army? If Drake is claiming to have multiple sensitivity readers, but also claims to not have based the book’s races on human races, how can someone sensitivity read without intent?
As Drake is also of Irish ancestry, she knows of the negative “drunken” stereotype associated with Irish men. Other races said to be drunks are African Americans, Latinxs, and Native Americans. In The Continent, the Topi have a scene where they drink and one nearly rapes the main character. The violent, drunk threat of Native men towards white women is also a stereotype.
When you come from a certain background, you are well aware of the stereotypes that are said about you and your people. I don’t want to deny anyone’s identity, but Drake is a white woman, and does not have to deal with the racial biases and repercussions that Native Americans have to every single day.
Other descriptions that evoke the Topi as looking like Native Americans are that they are “dark of hair” and beautifully bronze and tall:
Further evidence that the Topi are people and not monster-Orcs comes from the editor’s questions at the back of the book.
Tropes can be subverted. Fantasy authors should know the expectations of the genre and can use that as an advantage to trick their lovely readers into an unexpected ending. Stereotypes are different. Stereotypes are harmful. When they’re translated from the human world and into the fantasy world, that’s lazy writing. But here, Harlequin Teen and Keira Drake have an opportunity to make it clear that the Topi are either monsters different than the human races described in the rest of the book, or work to subvert the racist stereotypes currently at play.
As for the Aven’ei tribe, Drake says:
“In regard to the Aven’ei, this fictional group of people was inspired by a large number of cultures, including Asian and European peoples. The language of the Aven’ei is phonetically similar to Japanese; that is purely because as a linguist who studies four languages, I find it absolutely beautiful, musical, perfect in sound. The Aven’ei are not Japanese. Nor are they Korean, or Chinese, nor are they based on an assumption that Asian cultures are interchangeable. They are a fantasy race: brave, intense, flawed, invented.”
The only non-Japanese thing about the Aven’ei is their tribe name. The names used for the Aven’ei characters are Japanese: Yuki. Noro. Aki. Keiji. These are not invented names. Pairing that with Keiji’s training to become an “Assassin” dressed from head to toe in black brings to mind the image of a ninja. Pairing that with the physical descriptions that stereotypically reference those of Asian descent, we have the Aven’ei’s “almond eyes.” There is no denying the predominant Japanese influence.
Keira Drake goes on to say:
“The diverse peoples of the Spire itself are widely varied. This book is a fantasy novel, not intended to represent the cultures of our world, but to express the diversity of appearance in life which is natural and beautiful.”
Now I write directly to Keira Drake. I’m sorry, Ms. Drake. I don’t understand what this means. Respectfully, if The Continent is as you say, an allegory, then it 100% represents the cultures of our world because you’re representing the violence of our world. I want to point out that when creating fantasy, there are few wholly original worlds. The names and descriptions you use are basing things on pre-existing cultures. It becomes appropriation when it isn’t done right. Did Tolkien appropriate Norse culture when he created Rohan? No, but he was a white dude, and the riders of Rohan were good guys. (At least, sexy Karl Urban was.) If you, as you claimed, want to “listen and learn,” then please rethink these things before proceeding with The Continent.
I’m not personally acquainted with Debbie Reese, but I know that she is an expert and scholar in her field. She has also Tweeted about The Continent, the lack of diverse staffs at publishing houses. If contacted, WNDB would be able to help pair Harlequin Teen with sensitivity readers. Perhaps new clarifications can put to rest the who the Topi and Aven’ei are.
When I read fantasy, I know what people look like based on what is in the text. I know they’re based on a race. The people of Dorne in Game of Thrones aren’t Arab and Mediterranean, but they look it. The people of The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson aren’t Spanish and Iberian, but the words are there to represent that it was the dominant cultural influence. The people of The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi aren’t Indian, but we know the book is based on Hindu and Indian culture. When world building, you can’t cherry pick the things you like from other cultures, put a new name on it, and hope no one notices the similarities.
I know this is daunting. The idea that you work so hard to create a novel, only to see that it has hurt many people, isn’t an easy realization. Julie Murphy is an example of someone who didn’t get something right in their book, and penned a thoughtful apology.
For anyone who claims that a “book is just a book” and that this is “just fiction,” reconsider. What was the last book that changed your life? What was the last book that allowed you to feel represented? What was the last book that saved you from hurting yourself? Words matter. That’s why we hold authors to a higher standard when their words cause pain to others. I am not above reproach, and there may come a time when I mess up, too, and I hope I will have the YA Community there to help me right my wrong.
As fantasy authors, we know what inspired us. Culture, race, setting. To deny any of it is a disservice to the people who read our books. When you’re crafting your epic worlds and adventures, keep in mind the people you’re writing for. It is my sincere hope that Harlequin Teen and Keira Drake give The Continent another editorial pass. And I honestly wish them well should they get it right the second time around.
After writing this post, I read the news that the debut group, The Swanky 17s has disbanded following The Continent controversy. My debut year (2012) gave me some of the best friendships I have, and I feel for the authors who will miss out on that camaraderie. My email is open to anyone who has industry questions or just wants to say “hello.” If I can help in some way, I will try.