05 Dec A note on race in SONG OF THE CURRENT
First, a little about me and the book: So I’m a white woman, and I wrote a main character in my YA fantasy who is biracial. SONG OF THE CURRENT is supposed to be a fun pirate-y romp, with river smugglers and gods and princes in disguise, set in a world that’s a mashup of the Age of Sail and the ancient Greek empire. I imagined a fantasy setting similar to the Mediterranean, with a bunch of diverse countries within sailing distance.
I know the basics of problematic tropes and can usually spot them in media. I already know not to use food words to describe people’s skin color or features. No POC die so the main character can learn a valuable life lesson, and I don’t have a Country Full of Brown People, who are sworn barbarian enemies of the Country Full of White People. I thought because of these things, it meant I was capable of spotting representation issues in my own work. However, in the wake of THE CONTINENT, I went back with the intention of taking a super critical look at my book, and I believe there are some problematic areas. At the time of writing this, ARCs of SONG OF THE CURRENT have already been printed. I am speaking here of things I’m in the process of specifically addressing for the final copies of the book.
[After this point there are mild spoilers for SONG OF THE CURRENT. You could probably deal, although it’ll spoil the surprise when we meet Caro’s family in the book.]
In the book, Caro lives with her father, a working-class wherryman and river smuggler, who has pale skin and red hair. At some point in the past he fell in love with Caro’s mother, a high-up member of a wealthy merchant family, who have brown skin. Her parents aren’t married and they don’t live together, but it’s eventually revealed that they do have an ongoing relationship. I wanted to gender flip the relationship to make Caro’s mother the career-oriented one and her father the nurturing one. As a result, Caro is not as close to her mother’s side of the family. Caro is aware that they look down on her father, so there’s some resentment there. She also has some issues with her mother for being “more interested in shipping contracts than little girls” during her childhood.
For Plot Reasons, Caro is avoiding her family. She’s on a smuggling mission with political consequences, and she suspects they will fall on the opposite side politically. (It’s really hard to explain this without spoilers!)
So here’s the thing. I think the portrayal of Caro’s family– as individual characters– during the section of the book set at their house is overall positive. What I’m worried about is that I noticed several places where Caro’s internal monologue or dialogue has her saying harsh things about them, things that don’t really seem warranted from what we see of them on the page. She mentions not trusting her mother, without explaining why. She uses “they” more often than “we” when referring to her mother’s side of the family.
I think it’s possible to read this internal monologue as self-hating. Race is not mentioned, and this was not my intent AT ALL. Nevertheless I’m uncomfortable with several lines that seem to reference these sort of nebulous negative feelings toward the major POC characters in the book, from my POC character who identifies more with her white father. With the character background I’ve chosen for this book, there’s absolutely no room for unexplained negativity. Therefore, during first pass pages, I am specifically A) adding lines of backstory to explain any unexplained negativity, or B) removing language with insinuations of negativity.
If everyone in the book has the same skin color, then there’s nothing problematic here at all. It’s just family drama. That was what I intended to write. It was supposed to be about class, and the idea that Caro feels pressured by her mother to be a part of the family business when she doesn’t really think it’s “her”. And I just liked the idea of this prominent trading family that also dealt in information and secrets, and my main character being unsure whether she can trust them in her particular situation.
But they don’t all have the same skin color, so unspecific negativity is going to necessarily take on shades of meaning I didn’t intend. There’s one conversation I intended to be about class and hypocrisy that, when I read it again thinking about race, took on an uncomfortable tone. Edited to add: This scene occurs on 162-64 of the ARC, and it’s been changed for the final book. Caro says her mother’s family doesn’t like her or her father, which seems way harsh considering we never see this on the page. They’re nothing but nice to her. Markos rightly points out that this might be all in her head, and she snaps at him. Originally that scene was longer, and I think the way it got cut down altered the meaning in a way I am not happy with. I rewrote it post-ARC.
I am also making tweaks with regard to the frogmen, my fantasy race of frog people who are children of the river god and are found around boats. Specifically many of Fee’s (the frogman who crews on Caro’s family wherry) lines got cut when I did a big dialogue cut during one revision. So as I read first pass pages it really jumped out at me that she disappears on the page a lot, more than I thought. There are also a couple instances where Caro says she’s making her “first solo run,” which I don’t think she would say at all, since Fee is there with her. (I believe those mentions are a remnant from a time in the draft when Fee actually was not there… and somehow no one caught it.) And finally, there’s a moment where the male MC believes Fee is a slave owned by Caro’s family. Caro is properly horrified. This was a remnant of early world building when I was thinking Greco/Roman —> empire –> slaves. But now I’ve written book two and world built more deeply, and I was like, wait a sec, there’s not slavery in Akhaia, so why is there a throwaway slavery reference? Holy ****! That’s been cut. There should never be a throwaway slavery reference that isn’t unpacked in the text. I’m very sorry I missed this. I put it in because the character at that point in the story is a dick, but him being blasé about slavery is just irredeemably dickish in my opinion.
Is it bullshit that these things never struck me until the last last minute? I believe it’s a combination of A) this was once a 115,000 word manuscript, cut to 92,000 words, in which both the frogmen and Caro’s conflicting feelings about her two families were explored more. My brain just assumed some lines were in the book, then I realized as I read through the ARC that they were actually not on the page. And B) after reading a lot of really good criticism of THE CONTINENT, I went back and looked at this book ruthlessly, and things popped out at me with regard to white supremacy & fantasy cultures that did not before. And C) to be completely honest, people told me I’d done diversity well, and I was sitting around patting myself on the back instead of continuing to dig deeper and get better.
I take responsibility for my own writing. If Caro comes across as a self-hating teen POC, then I have failed in what I intended to do, which was write a book that was a fun adventure in a fantasy world not populated by all white people. If a reader can’t have fun reading the book because of what I wrote, then that’s my fault as a writer. I do believe any interpretation of Caro as self-hating is a failure of my craft, because regardless of intent, I wasn’t specific enough on the page.
Anyway, if you read an ARC of SONG OF THE CURRENT and you don’t see these things, fine. It’s entirely possible that I’m overreacting. I’ve had several people tell me I am, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. If you do read the ARC and you see these things, know that I see them too, I am sorry, and I’m making changes for the final book.