Thursday, February 08, 2018

Not Recommended: Keira Drake's THE CONTINENT (the 2018 revision)

You may recall that, back in 2016, there was a lot of pushback to Keira Drake's The Continent. 

I recommend you read Zoraida Córdova's critique on November 7, 2016, at YA Interrobang. It is excellent. 

In response to the intense conversations on social media, Drake and her publisher, Harlequin Teen (a division of HarperCollins), decided to postpone the release of The Continent to give Drake an opportunity to revise it. 

I wonder if their decision is based on a multi-book contract? 

The Continent is the first book in a series she is going to write. It is "Book 1" in the series, and will be released on March 27, 2018. 


In their announcement on November 7, 2016 (posted to their Tumblr page), Harlequin Teen said:
Over the last few days, there has been online discussion about racial stereotypes in connection with one of our upcoming 2017 titles, The Continent by Keira Drake. 
As the publisher, we take the concerns that have been voiced seriously. We are deeply sorry to have caused offense, as this was never our or the author's intention. We have listened to the criticism and feedback and are working with the author to address the issues that have been raised. 
We fully support Keira as a talented author. To ensure that the themes in her book are communicated in the way she planned, we will be moving the publication date. 
- HarlequinTeen

I wrote about the 2016 ARC (advance review copy) on January 31, 2017. Over the last couple of weeks, I've read the 2018 ARC. 

My conclusion? 
Drake's revisions are superficial. 
The Continent is not better now than it was in 2016. 


If you haven't read the book, here is what you need to know to make sense of my review:
The main character is a teen named Vaela Sun who lives on a land mass called the Spire. In their heli-planes, people of the Spire like to fly over a land mass they call the Continent, to see the battle there between two nations of people. It reminds them how far they've come. Vaela and her parents are on the tour with Mr. and Mrs. Shaw and their son, Aaden. When their heli-plane crashes on the Continent, Vaela is captured by the Xoe and rescued by Nomo, who is of the Aven'ei nation. 

Let's start with changes to the books description. The first and last paragraphs are unchanged. The middle paragraph has some changes. The word "uncivilized" is gone from the 2018 description. The significant change, however, as shown here in the highlighted text from the middle paragraph, is about who Vaela is:
For Vaela--a talented apprentice cartographer--the journey is a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she's drawn of this vast, frozen land. 
For Vaela, the war holds little interest. As a talented apprentice cartographer and a descendant of the Continent herself, she sees the journey as a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she’s drawn of this vast, frozen land.
In the revision, Drake has made Vaela a descendent of one of the nations on the Continent. That information is presented on page 18:
“Did you know, my mother says, addressing the Shaws, “that Vaela and I are of Aven’ei descent?”
 Aaden looks back and forth between the two of us. “Are you quite sure?” he says. “Many claim as much, but its rarely true.”
 She smiles. “We can trace it all the way back to one of my ancestors, a Miss Delia Waters. She was a cultural attaché for the East—an illustrious position, all told—and spent a great deal of time on the Continent, back in that all-too-short bit of time when we had contact with those living overseas. Anyhow, we haven’t all the details, but we know she married an Aven’ei by the name of Qia who died soon after their wedding. She returned to the Spire, kept her given name, and gave birth to a baby boy—Roderick—a man of considerable accomplishment, so the story goes.”

At her website, Drake said that she is Sicilian, Native American, French, Irish, and Danish and that she takes great pride in her ancestry. Vaela and her mother, in this revision, have pride in their Aven'ei ancestry. She's got it a bit odd, though. Miss Delia Waters was not Aven'ei. She fell in love and married an Aven'ei man. Their son, Roderick, is the ancestor with Aven'ei heritage. An interesting note: as this story unfolds, Vaela falls in love with Nomo, who is Aven'ei. 

For many years while I was at the University of Illinois, I worked towards helping the university get rid of its "Chief Illiniwek." It was stereotypical, but fans loved and love it. When I or others described its history and its stereotypical aspects, we were sometimes countered by a person who said "well I'm part Native American and I think it honors Native Americans." That claim was put forth as a shield to give their point of view credibility. When pressed, they could not specify a Native nation (some said "Cherokee" -- which is not surprising). For others, a research process was being done--much like the one that Vaela and her mother have done. It'd be interesting to know Drake's backstory for their claim. What was Drake thinking of as she developed this for them? And was she (or is she) undertaking similar research on her own Native American ancestry? Either way, her decision to give Vaela that ancestry feels to me like a shield that gives Drake a way to say that this is not a White savior story. If Vaela's actions in the rest of the story changed in some way as a consequence of that identity, it might have worked, but there isn't any change. That identity is just inserted. It is returned to at the end, but all those pages in the middle are unchanged.

When Vaela's mother tells Mrs. Shaw that they have Aven'ei ancestry, Mrs. Shaw has some racist ideas that she doesn't hesitate to speak aloud. Mr. Shaw replies to her. Here's that passage (p. 19):

“I do hope you haven’t inherited any violent tendencies,” says Mrs. Shaw, before sticking a forkful of duck confit into her mouth, chewing it carefully, and swallowing. “I suspect that sort of thing gets passed right down through the generations. Bit of a questionable lineage, isn’t it?

A hush falls over the table at this remark; my mother and father shift in their chairs, and I sit quietly, poking at my entrée, my face flaming even though I am certainly not the one who should be embarrassed. Eventually, Mrs. Shaw looks round at us, her eyes wide. “What? Have I said something off?”

Mr. Shaw clears his throat. “Now dearest,” he says, “that’s a rather singular way of thinking, isn’t it? An outmoded way of thinking? Violence itself is not a thing exclusive to the Xoe and the Aven’ei. After all, before the Four Nations united to become the Spire, the people of our own lands were ever locked in some conflict or another.”
In recent conversations about racist characters and the words they utter, writers and critics state that there has to be someway to immediately check that racism, on that page. Mr. Drake is doing that, above. But, seeing it in action...  it feels forced. It, like the passages about Vaela's identity, are simply pasted into this story. There's nothing to make them work as part of the story. Cut them out, and you wouldn't miss them. Why, then is all of this here? As I said above, it feels like Drake is inserting them as a shield to protect her from criticism. Another change to the 2018 ARC is that Vaela prays, here and there, to "Maker." I wonder if that is Drake's effort to turn that Aven'ei heritage into some semblance of an Aven'ei religion? That is possible, but I didn't find it significant enough to matter.  


Some of the changes Drake made were easy to do. She was able to easily replace every use of "Topi" with "Xoe." She was able to search for "natives" and replace that, too, sometimes making minor edits in the words before and after the change.  Here's an example (highlights are mine):
2016, p. 15:"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the natives on the Continent?" 
2018, p. 17:"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the Xoe and the Aven'ei?"
Those changes, however, are superficial. You can swap "natives" for "Xoe" and unless major revisions are done to the ways that group is depicted, it doesn't matter. We still see them as brutal, doing things like hurling a head at the heli-plane. There's one part in both books where Vaela tells Nomo that they are people, too, but--as before--that effort is overwhelmed by the rest of the book. Indeed, when the Topi/Xoe are attacking the Aven'ei village, Vaela sets out to kill one with her knife and she kills others, later, on a battlefield. Her statement to Nomo that they're people, too, is feeble in light of all else she says and does, and all the ways that Drake describes them. 

If you read my review in January of 2017, you may recall that I was especially troubled by Drake's description of the Topi village. That is gone, but the changes do nothing, because the Topi/Xoe's character (as a people) is unchanged. Here's a passage about their villages from the 2016 ARC. In each of these two excerpts, I'll highlight the major changes (p. 47):
The architecture is different from that of the Aven'ei: cruder harsher, yet terribly formidable, even in the frozen, icy territory the Topi call home. The little towns, too, are much closer together than Aven'ei villages; I am reminded of an ant colony, with many chambers all connected together, working to support a single purpose.

And here's the revised passage in the 2018 ARC (p. 51):

The architecture is different from that of the Aven’ei: the buildings are small, for the most part, with long triangular rooftops dipping low toward the ground. Roads and walking paths twist here and there, looking around and about the small homes and other structures. All is sturdy and formidable in this frozen, icy territory the Xoe call home. The towns, too, while small, are much closer together than Aven’ei villages. I have the sense of greater cooperation, of community, of connection—of something like we’ve established in the Spire. 
Where she used "war paint" to describe the Topi, Drake is using "colorful tattoos" instead. Instead of having "reddish brown" skin, their skin is pale. What they look like, though, doesn't ultimately matter. What they do, is unchanged. When the heli-plane flies over a field where the Topi/Xoe and the Aven'ei are fighting, there's blood everywhere, spattered on the snow. The Xoe have killed all the Aven'ei and decapitated an archer. The Topi/Xoe then scream, raise their fists in the air, "drunk with victory, reveling in blood" and heave the severed head at the heli-plane (p. 51/56). See what I mean? It doesn't matter if the Topi/Xoe are in face paint or tattooed. It doesn't matter how much Vaela's thoughts here and there seem to think well of them. 

At the end of the story, Vaela returns to the Spire to ask for help. In the 2016 ARC, her idea is that the Spire can use its resources to build a wall between the two nations of people. In the 2018 ARC, her idea is that the Spire can build towers. Here's those two passages:
2016 (p. 262):“Build walls. Destroy access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! Spirian construction is vastly superior to anything the natives can contrive, don’t you see? You can save the Aven’ei without ever raising so much as a finger against the Topi. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war." 

2018 (p. 265):“Build towers, so that the Aven’ei might see when a Xoe force is coming. Establish plain sight of all access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! And then, down the line, perhaps the Spire can help the Aven’ei and the Xoe to meet in the middle, to accomplish a peace of their own accord. Don’t you see? You can help without ever raising so much as a single weapon. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war." 
Having given Vaela Aven'ei ancestry, Drake must think that her not-Spire-alone identity solves the White Savior problem of those passages. Who Vaela is, however, doesn't matter. She went to the Spire--to the more "civilized" people--to get help. By the end of both versions, the Spire arrives. They are exercising their power to stop the war on the Continent. I should note that there's more than one nation on the Spire, and it isn't all four that come to help.

Back on Feb 9 to insert a screen cap of the method I use for this kind of analysis. First column is 2016 ARC; second one is 2018. These four pages are from the first chapter, where most of the book's new content appears.


I think that Drake was also criticized for the language she created for the Aven'ei. They, and the language they speak, she said on her website, were inspired by Asian and European peoples--in particular--Japanese. Here's some of them:

Name changes:
Inzu is now Kinza
Teku is now Nadu
Keiji is now Kiri
Shoshi is now Shovo
Yuki is now Raia
Hayato is now Kastenai

Some are words:
miyake is miyara (supposed to be a term of endearment)
takaharu is tanadai (supposed to mean something akin to a whore)

Some of the physical description of the Aven'ei is gone or changed, too. In the 2018 ARC, Nomo's eyes aren't described as being "almond shaped." 


As noted above, I do not think the revisions are substantial enough to address the issues raised in 2016. There are many who wonder what Drake could have done to fix The Continent. 

Frankly, I think these kinds of books rest on a flawed foundation. They're written by people who want to use race and racial issues, misrepresentations of the past and present, to help -- let's be real -- White readers learn about injustice. Along the way, readers of the groups that, historically and in the present, experience oppression and racism on a daily basis, are essentially asked to be patient. I think that's wrong. Drake is trying to be a savior. Her editor is enabling that motivation. Her publisher is putting money into this project. Those are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

Update, Feb 9, 2017: I will begin adding links here, to some of the conversations that are taking place elsewhere.

Courtney Milan, on Twitter, Feb 9, 8:13 AM: "It feels like the author thought the problem was 'this race described as violent and uncivilized is too much like earth races" and not "maybe your world-building shouldn't present an entire race as violent and uncivilized."

K Tempest Bradford, on Twitter, Feb 9, 8:32 AM: "Surprise, surprise, the revised version of #TheContinent is among us..."


Ava Jarvis said...

Comment re: Japanese names: Drake wasn't just "inspired" by Japanese culture, Drake outright lifted directly Japanese names, Japanese words, ninjas, and of course the ever cringe-worthy "almond eyes" description. Drake did almost nothing except give them an imaginary tribe name.

And with everything else... sigh. [I deleted much angry ranting.]

Sam Jonson said...

I would say: Has Drake *ever* heard of The Black Witch by Laurie Forest? Talk about patience! Also, has she heard of James Cameron's Avatar? That film takes place on a planet inhabited by tall blue aliens, yet that film *still* has racist tropes.
(It's so sad...I would really like that film if it weren't so racist. I blame Cameron's love of Edgar Rice Burroughs's books, which have plenty of racist stereotypes in them.)
And why can't she just make either the Topi/Xoe or Aven'ei *suggest* the towers/wall to Vaela? Even better, make one or both nations act racially prejudiced towards the other (imagine: Nazi Germany versus Zionist Israel). (Yes, I know of BDS and JVP and the good work they do to combat Israel's "settlement by brave pioneers" of the West Bank.)

Sam Jonson said...

I forgot to mention--has Drake heard of Marina Abramović and #theracistispresent? The first Advanced Reader Copies of Abramović's memoir Walk Through Walls contained a 1979 entry of the author's diary in which she had described Australian Aborigines (whom she had recently met for the first time) as being like "dinosaurs", with "sticklike legs". Notwithstanding its being a "first impression", that passage was obviously racist. So after the controversy arose, Abramović agreed to remove the offending passage. Now tell me about this "patience" thing, Ms. Drake.

Sam Jonson said...

Oh, and speaking of "inspiration", Drake got the idea to write her book fron hearing about warfare in the Middle East. (See here: In case anyone here doesn't know, those wars are wars that the US started, just so they can try to secure more oil for their army (and companies) to pollute the world with. (As shown in this article:
So apparently, Drake is inserting herself into a novel that is based on a war she doesn't seem to understand very well. Yet another reason why her book still doesn't work.

Sam Jonson said...

I think these kinds of books are called "'acceptance narratives'". The problem with these books is not that they have main characters who start out privileged or as bigots, but that they never ever show any of the oppressed characters' opinions (especially concerning all that bigotry and/or privilege!). They also have a tendency to make some people more bigoted. See this post at YA Pride—that article's points also apply here, since The Continent doesn't actually help White readers know how racist the White Savior (aka Mighty Whitey) trope is and how racist it is to use "warrior" instead of just "man", among others.
And something else...the earliest example that I can find of a book with such a narrative, is The Courage of Sarah Noble, published in 1954. See this review and this story for why it's so damaging.
Now, Ms. Drake, you don't want your book(s) to be that damaging, do you? Especially when you don't even feature any dissident Topi/Xoe (who, I'm pretty sure, would live in exile and in fear of being executed by their authoritarian government, not unlike those Aven'ei) in the book. And why doesn't Vaela, upon meeting the Aven'ei, say something like " great-great-grandpa's homeland" or something?
And lastly, why doesn't she take Nomo and some other Aven'ei (or even some dissident Topi/Xoe) with her to the Spire for the help? Those people could easily have mentioned to the Spire people how the Topi/Xoe leaders won't listen to any of the demands of the Aven'ei or the Topi/Xoe citizens. You know: what Teaching for Change and others try to teach about. Mass movements. Resistance to wars started by stubborn and/or ignorant leaders, like George W. Bush.