Sunday, March 18, 2018

Not Recommended: TOMO EXPLORES THE WORLD (and the TOMO series) by Trevor Lai

A few days ago, I learned about Tomo Takes Flight by Trevor Lai. Published in 2017 by Imprint/ (Macmillan), it is part of a series. Based on suggestions that it has Native content, I decided I ought to take a look.

The first of Trevor Lai's Tomo books, Tomo Explores the World, was published in 2017. Two others are due out in 2018.

According to Animation World Network, Lai was born and raised in the area currently called Vancouver.* His parents are of "Hangzhou, Hong Kong and Taiwanese descent." In 2012, Lai founded UpStudios. Here's a couple of paragraphs from the article that help me think about his Tomo books.
Up Studios may be based in China, but Lai stresses that neither location nor nationality defines his company. He looks for universal stories rather than those based on Chinese culture or heritage. “We definitely consider the Chinese market for all [our properties] but they don’t necessarily have to launch here first,” he explains. “I’m really proud of the fact that we make shows as a Chinese company, and the success we have in the local market is wonderful. But, I think the international validation of the concept has to be, ‘Now its on the BBC, now it’s on CBC in Canada, and oh, by the way, it was created in China.’”
Indeed, some of his main achievements to date are with international publishers. In 2015, Bloomsbury Children’s Books signed another of his characters, Piggy, on a six-figure picture book series contract, the largest ever US debut deal for a children’s author in China. That was followed by a deal with Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for a book series based on his explorer, Tomo.
A "universal" story can often fall into a very slippery (not recommendable) space. Tomo is a good example of that. Tomo is apparently meant to be a Native kid--but his nation--to Lai, doesn't matter. Tomo lives on a tiny island. Tomo's people fish. He doesn't like to eat fish, and he doesn't like to fish, either. Here's his dad:

Here's his grandfather (I'm wondering if this wise man with ear to ground is based on that Hollywood image of an Indian with his ear to the ground...):

Here's his great grandfather (do the Indigenous peoples of the area currently called Vancouver tell a traditional story about a fisherman taking a fish from a shark? If so, then Lai is appropriating an Indigenous story):

And here's Tomo:

Given that the author grew up in Vancouver and the Tomo books are about a fishing people, I'd at least expect the illustrations to reflect the art and culture of one of the Indigenous peoples in that area, but here's where that "universal" part gets the author in trouble. Instead of being specific, Lai gives kids stereotypes. In the illustrations I shared above, note the geometric designs on their clothing, the turquoise jewelry, the bear claw necklace, and the pendants they all wear (each with a unique image on them). That sort of imagery is throughout the book.

Lai's work is, I gather, doing quite well. That's good for his pocketbook, but not for children whose ideas of Indigenous peoples will be warped by the Tomo books. In short, I do not recommend the Tomo series of books by Trevor Lai.


*Several weeks ago, I read a series of tweets from Indigenous scholars in Canada who are using "currently called" or similar phrases for places. While some will obviously find that sort of thing threatening, I think it is also accurate and a terrific way for us to remind readers that all these places were, and are, known by different names to the original peoples of the places currently known as the United States and Canada.


Ava Jarvis said...

*facepalm* *facepalm* *facepalm*

Oh gods I hate this.

"Universal" in this context so obviously means "stories that will be bought for white children." He talks about the BBC and Canada, because nowhere else matters to him, including China. This is the kind of talk I've listened to from non-natives with East Asian heritage who, for whatever reason, whether consciously or not, have decided that the best thing to do is to pretend we're white, reject our heritage or pretend it doesn't matter, and completely integrate.

As someone of Southeast Asian heritage, I also tried to do this, because it just hurt too much to acknowledge that I would never be treated as anything other than alien here on any career path and life path. My own father and mother also tried to do this as well.

Of course, this road ends badly. No matter how much money you make, no matter how much talent you have, no matter how much experience you gather, you will never be considered the equal of a white person. Gods help you if you end up in the power of white people during this, because you will never rise up. The higher you go, the more dangerous it gets, and it only takes a single mistake for them to throw you under the bus.

This veneration for white people even happens in countries with non-white populations; like, looking Asian means you'll probably not be hired as an ESL teacher even in China or Vietnam (and I imagine elsewhere there also). Children who look like they're at least partly "white" are considered more beautiful than children who don't look like that at all. Colorism is a huge problem as well. There are even ways for Asia-based companies to "rent" white actors to play the part of a CEO at some big presentation because white CEOs are still considered more respectable. If they could get away with hiring white CEOs they probably would, if they don't already.

Basically the West infects everything. That's what "universal" really means.

Even worse than anything else that might happen to someone who tries to integrate in this way (and trust me, you find out really quick how far you're going to fall when white people no longer see you as a non-threat), they end up hurting other marginalized people.

I can see Lai swimming up the river and like, maybe it will end well because he's based on China and not in the West, where it's way easier for white people to backstab you. But he'll hurt a lot of people on the way. And in the end, it's all for nothing.

Ava Jarvis said...

Also, "currently called" is the best thing ever.

Beverly Slapin said...

Ugh. Thank you, Debbie. Thank you, Ava. I will be using the term, "currently referred to as" whenever I can.