Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reviewing While White: Undefeated

by Sam Bloom, KT Horning, and Megan Schliesman

Some of the football fans at Reading While White (Sam, KT, and Megan) have read Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2017) and are finding it extraordinarily discussable. If you are familiar with Sheinkin’s books you’ll be Unsurprised (hehe) to learn that it has garnered 4 starred reviews. We can’t imagine it won’t be discussed later in this year as a major award contender. Recently we had an email conversation wherein we weighed things we greatly appreciated against questions we still have. The conversation is below, with a few tweaks for the sake of coherency.

Sam: I loved so much of this book, but I think there is A LOT to talk about with the choices Sheinkin made.

KT:  If you were expecting the book to be about the Carlisle Indian School, you might be disappointed.It's actually about the Carlisle football team which was so influential in the development of modern football. Jim Thorpe is the central figure but he is just one of the many star players that Sheinkin writes about. Thorpe went to Carlisle specifically to play football because he wanted to play on the greatest team at the time – maybe of all time, once Thorpe was was added to the team. Anyway, the boys on the team were treated very differently from other students at Carlisle – they had their own dorm, got good food, etc., something that contrasted with the conditions for the others. So there was a really big incentive for the athletes to excel because they didn't want to be treated like one of the regular kids. But even so, they were really exploited (kind of like college players today) because they brought so much money into the school. I thought Sheinkin did a really good job of writing that part of the story. The parallels to modern football are fascinating.

Megan: I agree, KT.  I actually started this book and could not put it down.  The stories of the athletes are so compelling. And there are so many fascinating stories about how this team influenced the way football is played – including the forward pass! The game owes so much to the Carlisle Indian School team and individual athletes there.

Sam:  Speaking of the forward pass, Megan, that particular section is one of the most thrilling bits of writing I’ve seen in years. (It’s on pages 120-123, if you have the book and want to follow along.) Sheinkin recounts the way Carlisle fullback Pete Hauser’s “lordly throw, a hurl that went further than many a kick,” set the powerful Penn football team and fans back on their heels. This is one of countless times in Undefeated where Sheinkin writes about football in such a skillful way that fans of the game will certainly be in heaven, but football haters (I know there are more than a few of you out there!) will also be compelled to keep reading.

KT:  Yes! I loved the story when Thorpe kicked the football and then ran down the field to catch it himself. It was also interesting to learn about their coach, Pop Warner, who really helped to develop the Carlisle team but who wasn’t really the most admirable person. His ultimate betrayal of Thorpe was terrible. And there were just so many interesting personal stories of other teammates who were also great athletes and were so influential in the development of modern American football.  They were the first football players to figure out they could run around, rather than through, the other team, and they also practiced and practiced to increase the length of their field goals, kicking distances we take for granted today but that were unheard of in the early 20th century.

Megan:  At the same time, I came away from the book thinking that if I did not have prior knowledge that the Indian Boarding School System was brutalizing not only to students but their families, and that policies forced Native children to attend, I would not come away from this book understanding this. I think all but one of the Carlisle athletes he briefly profiles went to Carlisle if not willingly (and sometimes eagerly, at least as outlined here), then because their family wanted them too. That is so counter to the overall narrative of boarding schools with which I’m familiar. And at the least, I wanted an author’s note contextualizing the experience of these athletes at Carlisle in the larger story of Indian Boarding Schools, so that readers can understand that this was an experience forced on generations of Native children and had a profound impact on them and their families. It was psychically cruel, in addition to the physical cruelty that children often experienced.

Still, I thought Sheinkin did a good job of pointing out the elite athletes at Carlisle had preferential treatment—better food and conditions—compared to the grimmer reality for most.

KT: I agree, Megan. All those haunting before and after photographs of the students when they first got to Carlisle, and then afterwards when they had been forcibly assimilated speak volumes. But I also agree with Megan that an author’s note would have been helpful for readers who don’t know much about Indian Board Schools in general.

Sam:  There are moments when Sheinkin seems to remember the brutal facts (such as in the Epilogue, when he writes about the difference in experiences between athletes and non-athletes: “[I]t becomes clear that these schools inflicted enormous and lasting pain on entire generations of young people”). In the acknowledgements Sheinkin admits to struggling “to find some kind of balance between stories about this thrilling team… and the harsh realities behind the stories.” Personally, I don’t think he entirely succeeded. I’m not a fan of didacticism, but like Megan and KT, I wanted more of the “harsh realities” Sheinkin alludes to in the above quote. I think he owed that to young readers, and while he gave glimpses, they were too few.

(Plus, let’s be honest: Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off.)

Megan: In fact, I was struck by his choice to offer a brief mention of how racism is playing out today in terms of Native people and football when he brings up the controversy surrounding the Washington R**skins team name. It felt almost tacked on in the chapter it was part of, and yet I was glad he acknowledged it. (This topic, too, could have been further discussed in a Note.)


KT:  Even with its faults, I still think it’s a pretty great book overall. But, again, we’re all reading it as non-Native critics. I’ve given a copy to a colleague here at the UW-Madison School of Education who is Lakota. He’s a football fan, too, and he knows a lot about the Carlisle Indian School, in general, and the story of this team. He also recommended an adult book on the subject by Sally Jenkins called The Real All Americans. He’ll let me know what he thinks about the Sheinkin book once he’s read it.  I’m eager to see what he has to say and, with his permission, I’ll share his comments when they come in.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why "Rock Star Librarian" is an Oxymoron

So, in a weird way, I think the Wall Street Journal kinda nailed it this time. If you read it right.

The article talks about a bunch of White men as "rock stars" of the children's literature world. I think that's one of the more accurate descriptors I've heard. Sure, they'll call themselves book "champions," but with cardboard cutouts, fancy titles, huge contests, highly publicized road trips, book deals, and more, who could blame the Wall Street Journal for terming them rock stars--or us, for thinking they doth protest a little much?

"Publishers can’t advertise in classrooms and marketers can’t reach kids who haven’t yet hit social media, but these experts enjoy a direct line to school gatekeepers." Just look at all the blurbs, the cover reveals, the cheerleading blog posts, the fervent tweets, the... um, the advertising, the marketing. And what a sweet deal for publishers! They don't even have to pay these rock stars the usual rates they pay those who work in their advertising departments--free books and some perks (fancy dinners, access to big names for interviews) will do just fine. Unless… until... they do... hire... them. Which makes me ask: Since when are the skill sets for librarian-ing and advertising so similar? And, can we fix that, please? Because they shouldn’t be. And neither publishers nor librarians should think that they are.

Here's the real kicker, as far as I'm concerned: What has the growth of the rock star done to the professional field of librarianship and other children’s literature professionals? Are we just here to function as de facto members of every publisher's advertising team? I know the "right" answer, but I'd believe it a little more if I'd ever seen one of these rock stars do something that might piss off a publisher even a little.

The ugly upshot is what happens to librarians (and other field professionals) who do actually (and thoughtfully) criticize books, book creators, and/or publishers. Especially the women of color and Native women who dare criticize. They're labeled as angry, combative, overly-sensitive, and generally unreasonable. Is it harder to get hired/published? Darn right it is. And perks? Fancy dinners? Forget it.

(A slight pause here to thank those publishing professionals who do, in fact, appreciate the hard work of these librarians, and who expect and encourage criticism and critical conversations. We see you.)

I understand why the article’s subjects aren’t happy with it (and are denouncing it on social media)... and I'd be really interested in what their conversations looked like with the Wall Street Journal.  Did you confront the WSJ about how they've belittled and dismissed calls for better representation in their previous (ha) reporting on children's literature?  Did you say “if you are taking the time to visit me at a work event, please do the same for a woman of color?”  Did you think about saying, perhaps, “I will give you a comment about inequities in the field, including yours, as well as a list of names of people to whom you can talk in order to right some of those inequities?”  I’m grateful to Donalyn Miller (whose voice and advice to include more diverse voices were excluded from the article, despite the fact that she co-founded the Nerdy Book Club), and to many others, for speaking up about this; see this thread by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for one.  I wonder what other conversations took place before the fact.  Did anyone consult with friends and allies about whether doing this piece was a good idea in the first place?

And, what now? Will you take a look at some hard truths and use your power to advocate (not just advertise) for marginalized people? Or will you reap the best of both worlds--you get to be rock stars AND you get to be appreciated because you denounced the article?

What are our responsibilities, as children’s literature professionals living in a rock star world? A few thoughts (add more in the comments, please!):
-If you are in charge of selection/buying, actively seek out voices beyond these white men--for that matter, seek out voices beyond white women and the major review journals too.
-Deliberately incorporate the vital work of librarians and critics of color and First/Native Nations into your decision-making processes. Need somewhere to start? Check out our list of Kindred Spirits.
-If you are a rock star, acknowledge your privileges, and your limitations. Do you practice admitting that you do not know it all, or that you are still in the process of learning about structural racism and unconscious bias? Do you regularly guide people to voices beyond your own?
-Do not put anyone on a pedestal. The truth is, these guys are on pedestals that other white people (largely white women, like me) created. We crowned these rock stars; we can un-crown them too.

This brings me back to the article, which correctly did not include any women, people of color, or Native people under the descriptor "rock star." Because they're not. Partly because “rock star” denotes “white man” in the first place (at least, it does to the Wall Street Journal) but also because they’re so many other things. They're educators. They're critics, and critical thinkers. They're responsible budget-spenders. They’re tireless fighters. They're advocates. Who would have time to be a rock star, on top of all that?

-Allie Jane Bruce

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content, by Kara Stewart

Note: This post, authored by Kara Stewart (Sappony), first appeared on From Here to Writernity.

Are you seeing American Indian characters or content?
Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate Native content

Developed by Kara Stewart (Sappony) with many thanks to Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) for contributions.

Dear Agents and Editors, 

Have you just been presented with a manuscript that has American Indian content? I know what you’re thinking. “Great googlie mooglies, how do I tell if the Native content in this doorstop is accurate or if it will cause a garbage fire for my agency/house?”  

Or you may be thinking, “Well, I really like the voice, the plot is killer, and the author says she did a lot of research.” 

Or you may not be overly familiar with problems in the ways that writers create American Indian content, and think “I’m sure it’s fine…”

Or….*eyeswipe over listed resources*  
“Okay! A resource list! Content should be good to go.” But that niggling doubt… are those resources reliable?

Or perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s just this one little paragraph that has American Indian content... and it sounds okay to me...we don’t need to check on just that!”

Stop right there!

I know neither you nor your authors want dumpster fires, so here is a handy (errr… I think it’s handy and hope you do, too!) set of questions (and answers!) you can use to evaluate that manuscript. And a bonus resource list! By using it, you can gain skills to inform yourself and help authors create great books that help, rather than harm.

Just pick from List A (for authors who claim to be American Indian) or List B (for those who do not) and have at it!

A couple of notes on the questions:
  • These are meant as guides. Any single question may not lead you to a definitive answer, but will inform you. Or you may come up with additional questions to ask or research on your own.
  • It is not racist or bad form to ask questions specific to American Indian citizenry. For American Indian populations, the question/answer is larger than underrepresented minorities or historical oppression, and involves tribal citizenship.  American Indian people are, first and foremost, sovereign nations­ with structures in place to govern ourselves. This includes citizenship. Asking “Are you enrolled?” or “Are you a citizen of your nation?” then, is a question that many welcome. The answer will tell you a lot. Most American Indian authors will understand why you are asking and openly share their citizenship with you.
  • One little paragraph, sentence, or phrase can make a difference in a book’s tone, believability, consequences, and how an American Indian reader may respond to it. Why include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph? Choose from List A or List B.
  • For List A, Question 4 and for List B, you will need at least one, preferably two, vetted readers from the tribe whose content is included. The author’s American Indian contact and their auntie who works at the college does not count. An objective, tribally-vetted person from the tribe who is familiar with Native literature does.
  • Is pondering these questions slightly uncomfortable? It is for me too, but I believe it is crucial that agents and editors take an informed, pro-active stance in the stream of what gets published. Cliché, but we need all hands on deck. I’m not suggesting an interrogation, but a conversation that includes these questions will greatly improve depictions of American Indian people in children’s and young adult books.
  • As editors and editorial agents, you often ask writers to revise something that you think isn’t right. It might be a factual error, or asking for clarity. You can do that, too, with American Indian content.
  • Ultimately, what you’re asking is this: “What will children most likely walk away from this book/section believing about Native people?” Boil it down to what is/isn’t on the page. And don’t forget American Indian children! What will they walk away with, when they read this book or this section?


LIST A: For authors who claim to be American Indian

1. I see your bio says you are Native American. What tribe do you associate yourself with?

2. Is that a state, or federally recognized tribe? 
3. How are you involved with your tribe? 

4. Are you writing about your tribe or another tribe?

List A Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
1.       The author should be able to definitively name a specific tribe. If not, they may have Native ancestry at some point in their family lineage, but they are most likely not part of a tribe or familiar enough with it for them to be able to write in the #OwnVoice framework.  If an author seems to change their mind, giving  different tribe names at different times, that indicates they’re in an exploratory phase of finding out their American Indian ancestry. Note: if an author tells you they are Native via a DNA test, hit the pause button! Read (re-read) Kim Tallbear’s article, There Is No DNA Test To Prove You’re Native American. DNA means nothing. What matters is lineage and kinship, not DNA.

On the plus side, an author may say, “I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and of Navajo descent” or "I am Sappony". Or, “I am Lumbee and Sappony, enrolled with the Lumbee” or "I am an enrolled member of the Sappony", if the author understands that there are members, and there are enrolled members, and it sometimes makes a difference.  Note: if a writer gives you enrollment information for two distinct tribes, that’s a sure sign that the writer is not versed in citizenship. While we may have parents or ancestry from more than one tribe, we are enrolled in one. That’s a protocol widely known amongst those who are raised with knowledge of their native communities. You can also ask the author for their tribe's website and contact information. Many tribes verify membership through tribal ID cards. You can ask to see the tribal ID card. “And do you have a tribal ID card?” is acceptable. If the person does not have a card, but is a member/citizen, they’ll likely know that they (and you) can verify enrollment or citizenship through letter/email. We are asked for our tribal ID cards fairly often – at university offices, to register to dance at powwows, or as acceptable forms of identification to vote in some states, for example.

2.      Question 2 is, in essence, a check on Question 1. It is easy for someone to fudge their way through Question 1, especially if you, agent/editor, don’t feel confident in your ability to sniff out American Indian authenticity. If they don't know if their tribe is state or federally recognized, that is a red flag that points to shallow understanding and knowledge.  It lessens the chance they are really part of any tribe. Neither state nor federally recognized is 'better than' or more authentic than the other. If their tribe is neither state nor federally recognized, that could be a warning signal to find out more, since there are many groups that claim to be American Indian tribes.

3.      Asking how one is involved in the tribe they claim is another check on Question 1. Being a member of a tribe is more than an enrollment number or membership verification. It a way of life. It is giving back to your tribe, your family. It is being involved. Some nations require tribal members to live nearby, or require participation in tribal activities. Possible follow up questions: Did you grow up in the community you are writing about? Do you live there now? Are you able to get back to see your family much? If a person says they serve on the tribal council, or sit on a committee for their tribe or state or federal Indian organizations, volunteer at tribal events and can name them, or can tell you other ways they give back to their own Indian community, their state-level Indian community or the federal-level Indian community, then they have a higher chance of creating content that is accurate.

Caveat: volunteer work at various Indian functions or organizations is not really an indicator on its own since many non-Natives volunteer and may therefore think they have enough Native experience and friends to write about us. See List B.

4.      If the author is American Indian but writing about another tribe, see List B. American Indian tribes are so varied that a Lakota writing about the Mohawk, a Pueblo writing about the Sappony, a Tohono O’Odham writing about the Ojibwe, means that the author is writing about a culture not their own, a culture outside of their own experience. They may have a fundamental understanding of the overarching issues, stereotypes and values in ‘Indian Country’ in the generic sense, but would be an outsider to another tribal culture. We think that you will still need a vetted reader, or two, from the tribe whose content is in the book. See List B.

LIST B: For authors who are not American Indian but claim to have done research and/or have enough American Indian experience to result in authentic, accurate, non-stereotypical text:

1.       Why did you want to write a book about American Indians/include this part with American Indian content in your book?

2.      What tribe are you writing about/what tribe’s content is included in this part of your book?

3.      Why did you select this particular tribal nation for your story?

4.      Who have you interviewed/spoken with in the tribe, and can you give me the names and a statement from the tribe that acknowledges that these people are vetted by the tribe to speak for them?

5.      What is your personal experience with this tribe?

6.      What resources have you used to inform your work?

List B Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
List B questions are more recursive than List A questions.

1.
·       If the author talks about having worked with American Indian kids/community and says that they asked the author to write a story for them, and this is that story, we have an example of saviorism. It’s not just authors of European ancestry who can get it wrong. Writing from ANY ‘outsider’ culture – White, African American, Asian, Hispanic – should have equally rigorous scrutiny when including American Indian content. If the author is being a savior, they may have saviors in the story, too. Also, very commonly, authors will express having an affinity for American Indian culture, being fascinated with Indians, or growing up near a reservation – Danger, Will Robinson! Proceed with caution! This can be code for “many stereotypes ahead”.  See Answer 6 for great resources to combat that.
·         If there are a couple of American Indian references in the book, “some Indian tribes say…” or “..look like an Indian..” or “Hopi legend says…” or “Indian burial ground” or “wise, old Indian man said …”, ask the author why they chose American Indian culture for that reference. We’ve seen many books in which it seems the author did not imagine American Indian children as amongst the audience for the book. With that in mind, ask why the author needs to include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph. Can the scene stand without it? Why is it there? Can another group reference be substituted there? If the answer doesn’t support accurate, non-stereotypical text, you probably want to lose it.

2.  If there is no specific tribe mentioned . . .  
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

3.      This answer circles back to Question 1 but will give you more specific information. Pay particular attention if the author says something like, “I had a neat idea for a historical fiction book based on a real tribe/person/event.” See Answer 6.

4.      Via a social event or mutual acquaintance, a non-Native author may feel they have someone they can turn to who can help them with their American Indian content.  But that doesn’t mean that the Native person your author spoke with speaks for the tribe, has a larger view of the cultural questions, or knows anything about American Indian representation in literature. The author may pose questions and receive vague or simple affirmation for that content. The assumption is that feedback from any American Indian person is fine, or that positive feedback from an American Indian person is validation of authenticity, accuracy and acceptance. That is a false assumption.  You and your author—and your author’s readers—deserve more than that. Writers worked, in some cases, years on the manuscript. It is important to find someone who can give the content the serious attention it, the writer, and readers, deserve.  This is why it is important to have not only appropriate, but objective, American Indian information contacts as well as vetted (someone the tribe agrees can speak for them) readers. 

5.      This answer circles back to Questions 1 and 2, but will give you more specific information. Again, if the author talks about working or living with/near American Indian kids/community and the story written was well received by them . . . time to ferret out more information. What experience? For how long? Time frame? What did the work/interactions consist of? What about this experience enables you to write from the point of view of an American Indian person?

6.      The Devil is in the details . . . and the overall tone. Authors can have all their facts historically correct according to accepted sources available. But it is the interpretation of the facts into a story that makes the book harmful or helpful. I’ve seen a number of books that get most of the ‘facts’ correct, but the overall tone is that of stereotypes (which may be difficult for non-Indian writers, agents and editors to see when that has been the prevailing mode of American Indian representation). I’d highly recommend that agents and editors read the Revised Criteria from How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti­-Indian Bias. Reading a manuscript through that lens and thinking deeply about Eurocentrism and colonialism will make all the difference. You can find guidelines, suggestions, statistics and a number of resources here at Writing About Native Americans. It is a long post (as was this).

       But if it is truly important to you and your author to stop perpetuating stereotypes, you will have made it to the end of this post. And that one.

Resources
Is My Novel Offensive? by Katy Waldman for Slate
Writing, Tonto and the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is Always the First to Die


-Kara Stewart (Sappony) is a Reading Specialist in the public schools. She currently serves on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and on her Tribal Council.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Bring It Back: Families


families-cover.jpg
Among the many genres and subgenres of informational books for children are those about the people around us. One niche in this category are books about families.  Most bookstores or libraries will stock several of these titles.  Some explore families worldwide (beware the title that compartmentalizes race, ethnicity, and religion to geography - especially making America a White land) others look at families here in the United States.  Most authors and photographers do a good job of showing the wide range of families (big families, small families, adoptive families, interracial families, gay and lesbian parents, divorced families) however the writing style tends to use overarching and general language. One exception to this trend is Susan Kuklin’s Families.



Kuklin, Susan. Families. Hypersion, 2006, 36 pages ISBN 978-0786808229 op











Kuklin interviewed several children between the ages of four and fourteen to learn more about their families. Fifteen families are featured - each on a two page spread.  The children selected clothing, household items, and pose for their family photos.  Each child picked a historic family photo they referenced in their conversations. These images are inset with accompanying text to deepen our understanding of the family's history. This approach to crafting a book about American families creates a text that is wholly unique. We hear the child’s view on their own families. While all of these families live in the United Stated they represent the reality of a global society. The assortment of families we find in this type of book are all here but with a depth and breadth unparalleled by other titles. Kuklin has captured the voice of children introducing the multitude of possible families.   The availability of this notable  project is now limited due to it being out of print.

Some questions that come to mind: Hyperion, can you bring it back? If the pictures and cultural references are outdated, creating barriers to reprinting, maybe a second edition is in order?


families-jehangir.jpg




JEHANGIR: My family’s from India. People think we’re Hindu because most of India is Hindu. I’m Muslim. The things I do are mostly Muslim. But the things I eat and wear are usually from Indian culture.








Cover image, photograph, and excerpt from the author’s website. To see more photos and excerpts from Families visit http://www.susankuklin.net/childrens-books/families/

- Ernie Cox

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

by Angie Manfredi

Names matter.

Names matter when it comes to people and  to cultures.  And names matter when it comes to locations. So I was hesitant when I first heard the title of Faith Erin Hicks’s graphic novel The Nameless City. What would it mean for a city to be “nameless”?

The Nameless City is the first in a series.  The main plot revolves around two characters, Rat and Kaidu, who become best friends even though they are from different worlds.  In Hicks’s universe, “different worlds” pretty much breaks down to “conquerors” and “conquered.”  The main action takes place in the titular “Nameless City” - a city, valuable for trade due to its location at the opening of a river passage, that has been the subject of repeated cycles of conquest over generations.  Kaidu is a member of the Dao people, the current occupiers of the city.  Rat is a member of the group known only as “The Named,” i.e. the residents of the city, presumably made up of “generations” of residents who have survived the cycles of occupation. I say presumably because one of the main weaknesses of The Nameless City is not taking the impact of generations of conquest as serious as is warranted.  Who makes up “The Named” and when does a city resident become considered as such?  Are “The Named” composed of any disenfranchised citizens no matter who is conquering the city or can you become part of “The Named” when a new conquering group arrives? If Kaidu’s Dao people were conquered and replaced as leaders would the Dao then belong to “The Named”? Hicks never specifies any of this or sorts it out in any coherent way and that’s a real problem in a story that is ostensibly about the importance of different cultures and people coming together to build a coalition: how can we appreciate that if we can’t really tell them apart in the first place?

The idea that some people, and some places, are “nameless” is a common, and troubling, White stereotype.  It allows White people to other and exoticize people of color. Hicks never uses “tribes” to describe the people who have lived in/conquered the city. This is just one of the problems with how the book avoids specificity of culture and location.  Various groups are referred to as “the horse people,” “the people of the river,” and “the warrior people.” The first people who lived there, whose language and science has been lost, are referred to as either “The Northern People” or the “The First Builders.” But we also get a few specific names such as Dao, Yisun, and Liao. Do those names sound “Asian inspired” to you?  They did to me and that ties into the key problem of The Nameless City.

I say “Asian inspired” for a number of reasons, one being the fact that Hicks herself has openly talked about how she drew inspiration for the story. Here’s an interview with her at Comics Alliance:


CA: You say it’s loosely based on feudal China?
FEH: Well, the setting is based on that particular time period, but there’s no historical link between the story that I’m telling and and events that happened in that period. I just used it as the inspiration for my story’s setting.
CA: If you weren’t worried about historical accuracy, did you still spend time researching?  And did you limit your research to that period, or did you pull in some elements of other things?
FEH: I did a little bit of research on later periods, but most of it was specifically influenced by the Mongol dynasty that oversaw China during the thirteenth century.

There are some really troubling statements here and I think those attitudes show up in the text. Writers, especially White writers, should not just cherry pick the aspects of a culture and history that they want for the look and atmosphere of a story while leaving out anything that they don’t know enough about or don’t feel engaged by.  That's a textbook definition of appropriation and it's endemic in works by White people.  Just because White writers choose to make up cultures, tribes, and even races doesn’t mean they then somehow exist in a world where real life biases are harmless.

Along with the names, the “Asian inspired” elements show up everywhere in this work and it is clearly intentional. There are Chinese junk ships, Chinese style clothing and fighting, and the repeated use of Asian inspired names as mentioned above. There’s even street signs that have “Chinese-like” writing that isn’t actually a real language. What elements did Hicks use as "inspiration" and what did she leave out?  WHY?  What do those omissions tell us?

The Nameless City  has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Kirkus and Booklist both starred it, Kirkus named it to their Best Fiction of 2016 list. But let’s take a closer look at the reviews. The Publishers Weekly  review says it has "a Tibetan air" while the Kirkus review says it is "Asian-influenced" ... these things aren't interchangeable. Booklist seems more aware of Hicks’s process and says the setting “resembles thirteenth-century China.”

Resembles? Influenced? Air? These are weak words for the fact this book takes place in a world that samples from Chinese history on a surface level only when it suits the author. Asia doesn’t mean only China.  Tibet and China are not interchangeable. These cultures and places deserve more than being used as set decoration or “trendy” influences for stories. The fact that reviews are just lumping it in with hand-wavey "you know, like, over there?" is indicative of the problem. Asia is not a mono-culture and removing details, appropriating only what you want, perpetuates the kind of thinking that now, more than ever, kidlit/YA should be tearing down.

At one point in The Nameless City (pg. 89), Kaidu’s father (part of the Dao, the group currently occupying the city) tells him, “For thirty years the Dao have brought peace and prosperity to the Nameless City.” Hicks makes a great choice: to illustrate this scene with Kaidu receiving this pronouncement from his father while sitting in front of a painting showing Dao warriors in battle - specifically while they are slaughtering people. It’s a bracing contrast, one left for the reader to wrestle with, and the kind of brutal introspection this text needs more of. In another scene towards the end, a monk from the Named describes the Dao’s battle as a “sneak attack.”  Kaidu repeats back the story he knows: “It wasn’t a ‘sneak attack’! It was a heroic battle.” The monk answers, “So the Dao say. The Yisun might think differently” (194). Again, these are the kind of conversations about conquest and ruling that this book should be engaging with, but too often Hicks chooses to smooth over the consequences of colonization and conquest by falling back on half-explored themes of how perhaps we’re more alike than different. This is all further complicated by the opaqueness regarding an actual, specific setting and culture.

There are certainly some strong elements in the The Nameless City.  But overall this is a title I can’t recommend. Cultures aren’t interchangeable. Names matter, even in supposedly Nameless Cities.

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Further Reading: Laura Jimenez’s takes a critical look at Nameless City, including how it fails the Bechdel Test.

I couldn’t have written this piece without the support and help of two of my favorite indie comic creators: Wendy Xu and Trungles. Wendy has a short, informative tweet thread about the issues she had reading The Nameless City as a Chinese person. And Trungles has a tweet thread about the problems (and the strengths) of the book.

Let me stress that one of the most important things you can do to boost the voices of artists of color is to support their work financially. So if you love indie comics by creators of color, I urge you to check out and support Wendy’s Patreon and Trungles’s Patreon. I love getting their drawings and updates!