During the whitewashing cover brouhaha that erupted around Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix a lot of white people fell over themselves to signal-boost and shout how very outraged they were over the whole thing (including pearl-clutching over their race being insulted. What race is that? Why, Caucasian!). One of them (cache) had this to say:
This story, which anyone who’s read it can tell you, is authentically Chinese. It is set in the Xian province of historical China and is deeply, deeply ingrained in Chinese history, Chinese culture, and Chinese folklore and mythology.
This is not a Chinese-inspired alternate universe. It is not a matter of disguising willful racism as poetic license. It’s a story set in *actual* pre-China, with *actual* Chinese characters. It is a story with mythical elements and fantastic adventures, but it is never inauthentic in any way.
It’s from nothing to “holy shit, shut the fuck up, white person” in one paragraph flat. It also reminds me that while Racefail ’09 has done something to affect the genre, a lot of it was really about white people scrambling to save face and look more enlightened than the next white person, and a long, long train of SJ warriors clawing each other out of the way to be the first to yell “GOTCHA!” for years afterward.
See, I understand that this person is trying to be very progressive, very supportive, and very Minority Warrior about it all. And sure, whitewashing is a real issue which more people should be made aware of…
But I’ve had it up to fucking here with white people making grand proclamations concerning authenticity.
*For what it’s worth, I tried to contact this person privately: all I asked was “Are you Chinese?” I received no reply and soon found all the relevant entries locked from public view; I’ve subsequently found out that Bookshop is, in fact, not even a little bit Chinese in any way.
The Minority Warrior goes on to talk about–
its original beautiful, proudly Chinese cover
I don’t think I need to point out why it’s presumptuous for a white person to talk about something being “proudly Chinese” as though she knows a thing about being Chinese. Let alone when that something isn’t “proudly Chinese” but cheap, hideous exotified claptrap.
at its heart it is a story about female empowerment that is brought about through connection with culture and heritage. It is a coming of age story that is inextricably tied to Ai Ling’s empowerment through her identity, not just as a woman, but as a Chinese woman.
And, again with the commentary on Chineseness. With italics for emphasis. Whitey can’t stop, shan’t stop, will never ever stop, for whitey knows best. Disregarded is the fact that the Chinese-based culture in question is hateful, racist and deeply misogynistic, whereas the culture based on the west in the same narrative is touted as post-feminist and egalitarian on top of being racism-free. They are social justicing, okay? Critical thought is not welcome!
I’ll teeter further out on that limb and say it’s a very Christian worldview, because it takes the view that every person deserves forgiveness and understanding, no matter how evil they are, or how heinous their sin.
The idea of forgiveness and grace being, apparently, exclusive to Christianity. I don’t think they even know how to spell “Buddhism.” You know, the religion that revolves around the idea that if you keep reincarnating you’ll eventually reach a state of grace and enlightenment–that everyone is inherently capable of reaching that state, given enough hard work and striving? It’s an oversimplification, sure, but the idea that forgiveness and understanding are some exclusive Christian thing reeks of white man’s burden so hard I want to dig up Rudyard Kipling’s corpse and throw it into an acid vat. Which would be unkind to the vat, now that I think about it, so maybe I should throw the rotten carcass at this person instead.
When we left our heroine, Ai Ling, things had settled down for her considerably after a long and tumultuous journey to the capital of Xia (the fictional country based on China’s historical Xiang Province)
What is this gibberish. Not only does Cindy Pon say that she doesn’t base her books on any particular period in Chinese history, let alone a specific region, this doesn’t make any sense. At a guess, Bookshop looked up “Xian” on wikipedia, stumbled on that, and decided it’s gospel truth. Or maybe this factoid was pulled out of someone’s ass, I don’t know. Whites are experts on everything.
I won’t even touch the “oh, this is an amazing piece of work because it’s about forgiving a rapist! GRACE COMES TO EVERYONE!!” because that makes my skin crawl and I’m not sure if I want to comment on missing the internalized misogyny, the borderline-abusive relationship between Ai Ling and Asshole Love Interest because fuck it, I’m done caring and YA as a genre is an eternal hopeless scum-pond where Bellas, Edwards and Minority Warriors thrive. But does anyone know why exactly we need more narratives about rapists being forgiven and where they’re granted a perspective so we can learn they are people too?* What fine subtleties am I missing? Are murderous rapists the new protected class? “Rapists: They Have Feelings Too!” pride parades? Brb vomiting.
*There could be a point made that rapists are also everyday, ordinary people, not monsters who leap out at you from dark alleyways, to raise awareness that you too could have raped or done rapey things/thought rapey thoughts, because things like acquaintance rapes–and misogyny functions insidiously, not as a result of “evil monsters who decide to be sexist.” But I really don’t think a narrative that goes “so, this is how a murderous rapist who eats people’s souls came to be that way, and this is how he is completely forgiven at the end without even having tried to apologize for the horrible shit he did–including apologizing to the girl he tried to rape” contributes to that point in any fucking way.
Silver Phoenix is an exquisite Asian fairytale, something I’ve been hoping for for some time. Of course, my knowledge of ancient China is pretty limited, but it felt very authentic to me, and we can chalk up any problems to the fact that this is fantasy, and not exactly China.
The magical and mythological themes in the novel were really interesting. It seemed like many of the myths and creatures were or easily could be rooted in real Chinese mythology.
Allison, someone afflicted with an acute case of yellow fever (i.e. orientalist fuckwad):
A highlight of this book was the food. Ai Ling sure loves her food. The author took care to describe every meal and snack in great detail. As someone who has spent time in Taiwan and Japan and loves authentic Asian food, this book made me drool continuously for hours.
There’s also what Robin McKinley said, which I covered way back when, with gems like:
The first paragraph of the prologue of SILVER PHOENIX may make the average modern first-world female reader rock back on her heels slightly. [...] It has a gorgeous Chinese girl in a great PINK robe+ against a light, bright background with glimpses of a Chinese-y dragon and a building with curly corners [Which I thought was Japanese, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination in the Far East].
The ensuing discussion from above featured:
I have to admit I’ve never heard of this writer, but the setting appeals to me instantly. The last books I read which were set in the far east were Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy (Across the Nightingale Floor was the first book)
To which I can only say: eat your keyboard and choke on it. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori is disgusting dreck by the way. If you like it for the setting, please kindly eat your copies. I hope the ink gives you some kind of poisoning.
Reviewing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, a book set in faux-China:
I think UNDER HEAVEN would be a fine introduction to his work. It’s chock full of his strengths (most particularly his well-developed characters, authentic settings and intricate plots), and it should give you an idea of how you react to what might be percieved as his weaknesses (repetition, the odd slow patch, etc).
Regarding the same, on the Paizo boards:
And I think it always takes him time to get going (in the 4 or 5 Kay novels I’ve read), yet I’ve never had a problem with it because the writing is so beautiful and the feeling of being submerged in another culture feels so utterly authentic once you get there–it’s worth the price.
Amazon review from one Giles Gammage:
In “Under Heaven”, Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay swaps the familiar harmonies of Europe for the more exotic tones of China, but the leitmotif remains the same–the power of personal decisions to shape world-shaking events.
The beginning of Under Heaven is very exotic. This is Chinese-flavoured high fantasy yet without the trappings of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque martial arts genre.
Guy Gavriel Kay? White dude. So white. So very very white he looks like a corpse.
The purpose of this post isn’t so much to tear into these reviewers as individuals, but to show their reviews up as part of the trend of white people being taken as an authority on cultural/ethnic authenticity: nobody challenged Bookshop’s assertions of “authenticity” (though one person did point out some problems) or even said It’s not your place to make such claims. It ties neatly into people bleating “authentic!” over Bacigalupi’s racist, orientalist tripe The Wind-Up Girl, with people taking for granted that expat-written diarrhea about Thailand is perfectly authentic and authoritative, and the excrement that is the travel writing genre where white people who do nothing special traipse around in EXOTIC LAND and get praised for their deep insights, their “authenticity,” their “insider looks” into poverty-stricken thirdworldia or whatever’s the flavor of the month for useless bleeding-heart slacktivists.
And, moreover, this cultural imperialism springs exactly from people who believe they are enlightened liberal social justice warriors who are interested in the plight of developing nations and chromatic folks, not proud card-carrying members of the Aryan Nations. It’s a type of insidious racism that Minority Warriors don’t want to admit they are party to because, damn it, they read about the invisible knapsack so BY GOD THEY ARE ONE OF THE GOOD ONES!1!! Give them the gold stars! They signal-boosted whitewashed covers and made all the correct noises! What more do you want. What more do you expect.
I don’t know if these are the “allies” anyone looks for, but I for one would rather do without if these are all the “Anti-Racist Allies! 50% Off!” isle has to offer. Not even with that discount. Not even if you give me free extras–in fact especially if you give me extras. What do I want? A fucking refund.