Amélie Wen Zhao was off and running.
Raised in Beijing and now working in Manhattan's financial district, Tablet reported that Zhao scored an enviable young adult fiction book deal last year with an advance of at least $500,000. Her first novel in a planned trilogy — "Blood Heir" — was set for publication this June, the outlet said.
But not anymore.
Thanks to yet another "pile-on" by a posse within the bloodthirsty Twitter mob — this particular gang accused the author of anti-black racism in her novel, Tablet said — Zhao fell on her sword and announced Wednesday in an all-too-familiar-sounding apology to the digital pitchfork crowd that she was killing her own book.
How did this happen?
The outlet said a "whisper campaign" was launched against Zhao, courtesy of a white female "YA reviewer with just 800 or so Twitter followers" who tweeted, "I have nothing to lose by it and have the time, I'll tell you which 2019 debut author, according to the whisper network, has been gathering screenshots of people who don't/didn't like her book. Amelie Wen Zhao."
This rumor-spreader — who "claimed confidential sources let me know privately" about Zhao's alleged screenshot gathering — added that "POC [people of color]" made the claims, Tablet reported.
"If a confused friend ever asks you to sum up the culture of YA Twitter in one sentence, 'Imagine a white woman explaining that she is spreading unverifiable rumors about a first-time author of color in order to protect people of color' will do nicely," the outlet quipped.
More from Tablet:
I mentioned the whisper campaign on Twitter without naming names, thinking it might fizzle out, and then forgot about it. But by the time I again dipped a toe into YA Twitter a few days later, on Tuesday night, things had exploded: YA Twitter was attacking Zhao's still unpublished Blood Heir on multiple fronts. As usual, the standards of argument appeared rather strange and lacking, at least to an outsider. L.L. McKinney, a YA author who recently published her own debut novel, highlighted for her 10,000-plus Twitter followers the fact that one of Blood Heir's blurbs read, in part, "In a world where the princess is the monster, oppression is blind to skin color, and good and evil exists in shades of gray…." "….someone explain this to me. EXPLAIN IT RIGHT THE FUQ NOW," she tweeted. "I don't give a good god damn that this is an author of color," she said later in the tweetstorm. "Internalized racism and anti-blackness is a thing and I…no." The argument, such as it is, appears to be that because in our world, oppression isn't blind to skin color, to write about a fantasy world in which it is is an act of "anti-blackness." (McKinney didn't respond to a request for comment submitted via her agent.)
But perhaps the most damaging, drawn-out broadside came from Ellen Oh, an established YA writer who is herself of Asian descent, and who co-founded We Need Diverse Books. Oh published an extended tweetstorm to her 11,000-plus Twitter followers in which she noted that "colorblindness is extremely tone deaf." Then she proceeded to address Zhao without mentioning her by name. "Now I'm going to talk directly to Asian writers," she wrote, particularly "Asian writers who did not grow up in western countries" like Zhao. "Your lack of awareness may not be your fault given your lack of cultural context, but it IS your fault if you do not educate yourself when it is expressly brought up to you." The admonishment continued, "And if you have the luxury of getting this important criticism before your book is actually published, it is YOUR responsibility to make it right. Do right by the audience that your book will be reading. Do right by the kids who will be reading your book."
While the colorblindness accusation was part of the campaign against Zhao, the most potent claims of anti-black racism stemmed from a rumor that swept through the community based on the advanced copies of Blood Heir that had already been released. It was alleged that the novel contains scenes involving chattel slavery, or something like it, including one in which a black character named May sings to the protagonist Ana immediately before dying. The assumption that May is black fueled a lot of anger—the criticism seemed to be that Zhao was positioning a black character as disposable, as a plot device.
Jesse Singal, the author of the Tablet piece, said he emailed Oh — "the YA writer whose tweets to Zhao as a fellow author of Asian descent had castigated her for her lack of awareness and cultural context" — for further comment. Singal noted that while Oh offered a civil response, it "didn't really contain any new or compelling evidence 'Blood Heir' can be fairly called a racist book."
'I am so sorry for the pain this has caused'
The outlet noted that after about a week, Zhao caved to the Twitter mob. Here's her apologetic statement:
Singal's reaction to Zhao's apology is a breath of fresh air. He charges that the YA fiction posse in the Twitter mob are "celebrating their role as the righteous disciplinarians who, by revealing the text's coded racism, compelled Zhao to unpublish her book and seek forgiveness."
"This episode is yet further evidence of two conflicting truths about contemporary online outrage dynamics: It demonstrates both that corporations should, as a general rule, simply ignore angry people online, in part because they are rarely a representative sampling of consumers or operating from a good-faith place of full context, and that online mobs trafficking in misinformation and outrage can have significant real-world effects," he added.
Others responding to Zhao's apology and decision to kill her own book went further.
- "Kiera Drake did the same thing you are doing and her career is over," one commenter observed. "You will never make the mob happy. You should have gone ahead and published it. We need books about human trafficking now. There are currently 30 million people in slavery today, 6 million are children."
- "So....we're essentially now burning books before they are even written?" another commenter said. "Sad. Publish what you want. An immigrant from a non-free speech country essentially being shamed out of free speech. Terrible on so many levels."
- "She was coerced by a mob," another said. "Don't minimize the smears she endured and act like she made a dispassionate decision. This [is] a textbook case of bullying."
- "Imo, publish your book immediately and on schedule," another commenter offered. "Literature is supposed to push boundaries and reveal truths through often shocking and realistic scenes and dialogue, not censor itself for overally sensitive infants. To me, it sounds like you were doing just what was needed."
- "Important note: Never indulge the mob," yet another said. "Not only will being this nice not help you against them (nice words now won't stop them in the future), its consequences will be rained down on the next person tenfold."