March 30, 2017

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“When We Was Fierce” Pulled as Demand Grows for More #OwnVoices Stories

Charlton-Trujillo-When-We-Was-FierceAmid increasing controversy around author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s most recent book, When We Was Fierce, and her use of a made-up dialect along with what some deem as stereotypical characters, Candlewick Press has postponed publication of the book.

“After discussion between the author, her agent, and Candlewick about the dramatic contrast between the pre-publication reviews as compared to many of the social media and blog responses to When We Was Fierce, we decided together to take some time for further reflection and thus postponed publication,” said Tracy Miracle, executive director of publicity and marketing campaigns for Candlewick Press, in an email to School Library Journal (SLJ).

The decision is just one that follows a line of recent concerns around representation of characters in stories, from Scholastic’s decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington to discussions around the use of the word “tribe” alongside images of children in natural surroundings with feathers in their hair, in Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids.

Some in the literary community are now wondering if publishers will start to lean away from titles and subjects that could invite heated debate—or instead choose to enlist sensitivity readers to pore over manuscripts while also seeking more #ownvoices submissions, which are considered books about diverse characters, written by those in the same diverse group.

Candlewick Press’s Miracle says the publisher not only supports the mission of #ownvoices, but also actively welcomes submissions from writers who “…work from their own diverse life experiences and stories,” she says. Additionally, in terms of sensitivity readers, the publisher has “employed outside readers in the past and will continue to do so. The decision is made on a case by case basis, generally between the editor and author,” Miracle says.

In the case of When We Was Fierce, some educators, librarians, and authors found that sensitivity lacking. Jennifer Baker, Minorities in Publishing podcast creator and member of We Need Diverse Books, is one. She posted a guest review of a pre-publication copy of When We Was Fierce on the blog, Crazy QuiltEdi, calling the title “off-the-mark” with narration that was “deeply insensitive,” she writes.

Although she is emphatic that she is not attacking author Charlton-Trujillo, she joins the ranks of educators and librarians, including K.T. Horning and Edi Campbell, who have also posted on why they have found the book problematic. Baker herself hopes to see more stories told from diverse viewpoints. But to Baker, Charlton-Trujillo’s novel was “glaringly offensive,” she says.

When We Was Fierce was highly problematic from the inaccuracies to this very arm’s length approach, [and] the stereotyping of black characters specifically,” she says. “The made up dialect the author used was so egregious, it is horrible.”

When We Was Fierce tells the story of 15-year-old T and the decision he makes, after watching the beating of a disabled teen, that puts him and his friends in danger. Early reviews lauded the story, from Publishers Weekly calling the book a “heartbreaking and powerful modern American story,” to Kirkus referring to the novel as “…a compassionate, forceful look at the heartbreak and choices these black boys and men face.”” Amazon still lists the book with an August 9 publication date. (SLJ has held its review for now.)

But Baker is unclear on how the novel could have been seen as anything other than problematic. Nor does she see how the story could be revamped, even as Miracle says they are talking about possible next steps with Charlton-Trujillo, and will discuss those plans “..when we and the author are ready to do so,” she writes.

“It’s too offensive,” says Baker of the book. “It is not salvageable.”

Even as Candlewick Press says it has used outside readers to review manuscripts, Baker believes more must be done. At a recent American Association of University Professors’ panel, she learned that some university presses, including, she says, Duke University Press and The MIT Press, are looking not just to increase diversity in their books, but also putting structures and guidelines into place to ensure goals, aligned to a clear mission statement, are met.

“I think the industry is looking at this with a BAND-AID approach,” she says. “Diversity in books seems easy. They’re getting books with this content. But they’re not making sure this content is respectful, responsible, and accurate.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. Kathy Ishizuka Kathy Ishizuka says:

    The tag “censorship” was inappropriate to this news story and has been removed. Thank you, readers, for bringing this to our attention.

    • A book is pulled from being published because a group of people found it offensive. How could anyone think of that as censorship? Thank you for pulling that very offensive and in appropriate tag for this story.

    • Meggan Conway says:

      Why is it inappropriate? I have not read the book, but based on what I’ve read about it I am glad that it has been pulled. However it is, in fact, censorship. Sorry if you don’t like that word. We can’t say something’s censorship when a book is pulled when “their side” side doesn’t like it but it’s not censorship when “our side” likes it. Every Banned Books Week I celebrate not only the freedom to read, but the freedom to complain.

  2. It’s an interesting conundrum: Should the publisher be more concerned about placating the author of an offensive piece, or should they be more concerned about offensive materials? I can see going either way on both sides.

    • My earlier comment was hopefully seen as sarcastic. This almost fits the dictionaty definition of censorship but the editors of this publication or someone is clearly uncomfortable with labeling censorship, censorship. I suppose people are feeling if a work is pulled for the right reasons (it’s seen as nonrepresentational) that’s not censorship. But it actually is censorship.

      I would quibble with the critics of this novel as well. Their feeling is that the novel misrepresents language and relies on stereotype. The same criticisms could be leveled at Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It’s heightened poetic language does not represent actual black english of the time or region and the novel is almost cartoonishly (and to my mind offensively) sexist. However, none of us here would argue to suppress this work and many people consider it an established classic.

      As a man who comes from India, I know my opinion on this novel doesn’t count in the same way the voices of this novel’s critic’s do, but I was incredibly moved by the story and the language was beautifully constructed (even if it was not accurate). I thought we had moved beyond the notion of art as documentary and certainly we do not lack for diverse authors who can provide a more authentic vision for those who crave that.

  3. “Postponed publication” isn’t quite accurate — our library as well as others in our consortium have copies on our shelves now.

    • The publisher has recalled our copies. I ordered the title based on reviews and an article I read about the author working with at-risk teens. I was looking for it to read it myself when I found out we have to send them back.

  4. As a aspiring black ya author, I find this form of censorship very disturbing. It’s called creativity and if you don’t like, don’t read it. We as African American author
    must be very careful when playing in this game of respectability politics and shallow diversity. So, the characters’
    vernacular is not up to their standards; who are they too judge? Should books about black life meet a certain criteria
    of not offending certain people.

    • Well said, LaShelle. And why is the main source who’s quoted in this article no more than an opinionated podcaster? This is not someone of consequence and power who needs to be spotlighted. The book’s author, an artist who undoubtedly put her mind and deepest soul into her work, does not deserve to become the subject of someone’s gossip.

  5. @LaShelle @Jamie @rkhurana
    I find you all’s post very interesting in your defense of creativity in using and relying on stereotypes to represent a group. You feel as though people shouldn’t be offended and want better from creators. Well in that case you can also defend:
    Early 20th century films portrayals of Black people with dark skin and big pink lips eating watermelon with low language skills. By you all’s logic, they were also being creative so they get a pass.
    Mid 20th century portrayal of women as simple minded damsels in distress who need men for validation and only like to gossip. Creativity should give these portrayal a pass with you all.
    When you use a stereotypical portrayal of real world mannerisms and vernacular to portray a people, then yes, it is offensive.

  6. Realitor76 says:

    The tag censorship is appropriate because censorship is the issue. (True definition of censorship = anybody telling anybody else not to say something-or-other). Let’s face the facts – if anybody was really offended (felt wounded, dehumanised, and/or threatened) by the invented dialect in this book, that person would be mentally under-developed, and in need of constant care because they unable to cope with everyday life. The complainants are NOT like this. They are power-hungry egomaniacs who have discovered that assuming the role of “professional offence-taker” gives you the power to stifle freedom of expression, and stifle creativity – and that is the single most degrading dehumanizing thing one person can do to another, beyond any physical violence. Because it is an attack on their very Self.

    I suppose the people who object to the dialect in When We Was Fierce would also object to Thing-Fish if it were written / staged / recorded today?

  7. Realitor76 says:

    You – the website owners – are exerting censorship (i.e committing a crime against humanity and against reality itself) by upholding the false notions that (a) there is any such thing as “vulgar language” and (b) that the “idea” and the “messenger” are separable.

  8. These arguments very much echo those made by D.W. Griffiths when the NAACP protested his baby, “The Birth of a Nation,” a century ago. His next project, “Intolerance,” was in response to the meanies who’d dared to make him feel uncomfortable by citing how racist his movie was. In his view, the NAACP protesters were the intolerant ones.

    BECAUSE we live in a society in which freedom of speech is a protected right, people like Edi Campbell and Jenn Baker (and to set the record straight, Jamie, Jenn Baker is a podcaster, writer, and a We Need Diverse Books team member who has extraordinary expertise in the field) have the right to criticize. BECAUSE we live in a free society, Candlewick and e.E. Charlton-Trujillo are free to *change their minds*.

    Y’all are confusing free speech with consequence-free speech.

  9. The cool thing about tolerating just the things you approve of from every possible angle is, it makes tolerance so much easier to practice. It becomes something any one of us can aspire to. And indeed, if it results in far fewer worthless books being published than are currently, then it’s a regime I can certainly tolerate! With no offense meant toward this particular author or book, neither of which I am familiar with – y’all had this conservative at “pulled from publication”!

  10. Allison Williams says:

    If we prevent certain titles from being published because they don’t meet the standards of outside readers, do we also require publishers to publish books that support the opinions of said readers? Why did the publisher do a complete 180? Did they really change their minds because they saw the error of their ways or were they just too cowardly to take a stand? The marketplace should be broad enough to support a multitude of ideas whether we are comfortable or not.

  11. Actually, this is not censorship at all. Censorship is the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts or refusing to make the book, movie, speech etc inaccessible to others. This is a very different case, where a business decision was made by the publisher to pull its own book. Part of the confusion probably stems from the fact that since books are pre-released for reviews, the content was read by some but is now inaccessible to others.

  12. Responding to the Color Purple argument. Alice Walker is black a child of the south and yes that is how rural black folks spoke back then. I still have some rural cousins who speak in that dialect.
    Walker’s classic is definitely an authentic rendering of one section of historical AA life and culture.

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