Weekly Words: Black Authors and the White Gaze

*Trigger Warning: Discussion of R***, Incest, and S***** V******* in Writing*


Happy Friday!

For the second week of June, I typically share what I'm reading, sometimes what I'm writing. I'm still reading Marlon James's Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and I've gotten to a point where if I actually carve out time to read, I make it further. Imagine that!

However, I want to stop and discuss something I noticed while I was looking through the reviews to see how people felt about it. It has an average of 3.5 stars on Goodreads, with 75% of readers rating it at least 3 stars. As I said in the previous post, one reviewer said to read it in small doses because it's dense, and that's one of the reasons I'm still reading it. I made it through George R.R. Martin's A Feast For Crows and A Dance of Dragons. I think I can make it through a book 500 pages shorter. And as it's being called the African Game of Thrones, I am comparing it to GOT. I'll get into some of that in a minute.

The other reason I'm still reading it is as a Black fantasy author, Black readers don't get to see fantasy written from the Black perspective frequently, especially the Black male perspective, and Black authors deserve Black reviews. SFF is still saturated with white authors not only writing white MCs but overstepping and writing POC MCs, so not only do audiences receive a usually poor misrepresentation of POC in fantasy, POC writers get shut out of the traditional publishing industry because "there's already a ____ story," or "this doesn't feel authentic to _____" (which I've seen many POC writers say this was told to them, ironically), or the biggest one, "I (the agent/reviewer/reader) can't connect with this."

The latter is a problem of the white gaze. White readers open these books by Black and NBPOC authors with a lens of expectation that we can't meet because we're not white. We're not going to tell stories in the same way as white writers with the same historical influences as their readers, because our histories, stories, and mythologies are different. So, when we don't meet this impossible expectation, or sometimes even exceed it, these are the kinds of reviews we get (I'm going to highlight some key elements of these reviews):

From Goodreads, 2-star review (excerpt):
"honestly, this is the most pretentious book i have ever read. its so far beyond high-brow, its in an obnoxious league all on its own. james employs every literary device possible to transform his words into riddles, half-truths, and vague mysteries. as a reader, i dont mind having to sometimes work for a story. some of the best stories take patience to dissect deeper meanings. but what is really happening here is marlon james hiding behind his fancy words and complicated sentences to distract the reader from the lack of substance and development. the rhetoric in this story is dense, convoluted, and bogged down with false promises of something worth reading. the prose is evasive and meandering, dragging the reader around and around in circles without an end in sight. its honestly a disorganised and conceited mess."

From Goodreads, 2-star review (excerpt):
"Of course, the African foundation brings with it different types of stories and forms than those which underly the Greek/Roman mythic tradition but the same fundamental questioning is at its heart. Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s an interconnected compilation of stories, featuring representations of violence and transformation throughout. Here, the overarching narrative is the tracking of a lost child, but this is a book of movement and journey, change and discovery. There’s so much more to it than this one tale, instead it’s a meandering exploration of an unknowable world.
And yet, it's precisely this which is its downfall."

I can barely call the first one a review. It's a scathing takedown of the author's skill, and it's only a PART of their review. They went on for five paragraphs. What this actually reads like is this: "How dare a Black man attempt to create something intelligent." Something white men have been praised for doing for centuries is suddenly terrible when a Black man does the same.

The second review almost felt like the reviewer got it. While in their full review, they still recommend the book as an exploration of folklore and myth and a particular style of writing, they call it meandering and unknowable and claim that is the book's downfall.

I've said almost exactly this in another blog post: Unknowable to WHOM?

White readers need to be careful how they read and review books by POC. It's that simple. If you are reading a book written by a POC and you don't understand it or can't connect with it, I would highly recommend before running to review it, you ask yourself, "Why?" and more importantly, "What am I missing?"

Because many of the 2 or fewer-starred reviewers tell on themselves, and what they are telling is, "I've never read anything besides white folklore, white mythology, and white narratives." One reviewer even mentioned the consequences a white male would have received if he had tried to write this book. Well,  to that I ask, "Why would a white male be trying to write an African-based fantasy with a queer, Black MC in the first place?"

POC writers and readers have not had much of a chance to read our own narratives. Schools don't focus on anything else until February or college, so most often than not, we're relying on ourselves or others before us to shine a light in the right direction so we can write something true to us. Black Leopard Red Wolf is HEAVILY built on not only African folklore/mythology, but African cultures and issues we as Black people know about. So, when the discussion of homosexuality or female genital mutilation sneaks into the conversation (and I say "sneaks," because it took me a second to realize the implication of what a character was describing to the MC), Black readers who know the beliefs and practices of certain African countries/communities know why the author was pointing it out. Some of these countries (there are 54 in Africa) still have violent systems of misogyny in place--some by their own hand, some by the effects of white supremacy. This is something else Black readers know and understand that a white reader might not know or might even ignore.

Many of the low-star reviews also mentioned the trigger warnings, and yes, there are a lot of triggers. One reviewer said, in talking about the comparison to A Game of Thrones, that it is all the parts of GOT that they didn't like. And that's a very fair statement. But let's unpack that as well.

Unless you live under a rock, you know GRRM and the Song of Ice and Fire series. If you didn't read the book, you saw the tv show, or heard about it, or have heard about both if you neither read nor watched. GRRM wrote these books at a time where trigger warnings did not exist. As a matter of fact, I have only read two books where trigger warnings do exist, and they were both written by Black women who self-published their books. I have yet to see trigger warnings in traditionally published books, and if there are, they are new.

Back to GOT, if you've seen the show without reading the books, you might not know that all of the characters were aged up. Because all of the Stark children are no older than 14 in the books. Danaerys Targaryen, whose brother sexually abuses her and forces her to marry a 30-something-year-old man, is 13 years old in the books. 20-year-old Renly Baratheon is in a homosexual relationship with 15-year-old Loras Tyrell, and Renly is later murdered. ASOIF is heavy on rape, incest, child abuse, and sexual humiliation.

I point all of this out as someone who LOVES those books, and I also ask: where were the scathing think pieces by white readers on these issues? At the most, I saw outrage from readers when certain scenes in the tv show were changed to add more rape. But both the books and the show received a resounding thumb ups from the masses. A Game Of Thrones alone has a 4.5-star rating with 94% being 3 or more stars on Goodreads.

So, while we are entitled to our opinions, who are we to praise one book despite its gross flaws because it aligns with the medieval Euro-centric narrative we are used to and figuratively burn another book with the same flaws because it is coming from the "unknowable" place of African-based storytelling?

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