Recently my latest creative pursuit, a departure from my stalled work in progress, has started bumping against a writerly controversy about which I had previously been only vaguely aware, that of authors receiving sharp pushback on their characters and in some cases their entire story concept because of perceived cultural disrespect or disregard. And though my pursuit has to date been a personal one, I still found myself chafing under what at first seemed arbitrary and potentially insurmountable barriers. You see, my current exercises involve crafting scenes in which I seek to embody characters unlike myself, with life experiences far removed from my own. In doing so I imagine their worlds, borne of research and admittedly from instinct too, as with any fiction. On one level the exercise is simply a creative challenge. But it is has also become an emotional touchstone since my attempts to “walk a mile in their shoes” have reawakened my empathy in an increasingly isolating world. Makes for good stuff, huh?
You would think so, or at least I did. But my joy in this new pursuit has since tempered. You see, last week I stumbled upon a New York Times article about author Amélie Wen Zhao withdrawing her debut novel, Blood Heir, from publication following accusations of insensitivity and outright racism in her portrayal of a fantasy world in which characters born with special powers are enslaved. Though Zhao, a Chinese immigrant, has explained the inspiration for the novel stemmed in part from largely overlooked indentured servitude prevalent across Asia as well as her personal experience as an outsider, criticisms soon overtook the initial positive reception of advance readers, leading to her decision to withdraw the novel prior to its scheduled June release.
Not having an advance copy myself, I cannot assess the full veracity of the complaints. Yet the situation immediately struck me as unfair. After all, an author chose to forego a publishing dream pursued for most of her young life right at the cusp of its fruition. In the days since, I have devoured reports of other recent works withdrawn from publication, both before and after their market releases. And though I now have more insight into the issues at play, my feelings remain torn. So I turn to you, fellow Unboxers, to help unravel the decidedly thorny matter of the degree to which writers should shape their creations to meet the expectations – or demands? – of potential readers.