Being a good ally is hard. It’s not something you can decide to do overnight. And it’s not something you’ll get right every time, even if you’ve been at it a while. The problem is that every day we get it wrong, people from marginalized communities suffer and die.

That’s why I think we need to talk about white author Alexandra Duncan and Ember Days.

On June 20th, Duncan released the cover for her upcoming book Ember Days, a book about “the granddaughter of a powerful Gullah conjure woman, sent to Charleston to combat an evil force circling the city and hiding in plain sight.” Mentions of the book show up as early as July 2017, when the book was already in the hands of Duncan’s editors. But with the cover launch also came a conversation about cultural erasure and diversity on Twitter.

Within four days of the cover release, Duncan had chosen to withdraw her novel. She posted a formal letter with the support of her editor and publisher (you can read the whole thing here):

Colleagues reached out to me to express concern that the premise of the book…was harmful. The Gullah Geechee culture has been systematically repressed and erased, and in my misguided attempt to write a book that was inclusive of the cultures of Charleston and the Lowcountry, where the book is set, I participated in this ongoing erasure. My own limited worldview as a white person led me to think I could responsibly depict a character from this culture.

Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise in my research or conversations about the book is evidence that I was not the right person to try to tell this story. I am deeply ashamed to have made a mistake of this magnitude and hope my actions will not negatively affect the cause of bringing greater diversity to children’s literature…I have tremendous respect for those authors and the Gullah Geechee community and feel sick to think I caused anyone harm with my work.

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Here’s where the discourse around Ember Days starts to get toxic. Following a publication on Publisher’s Weekly (which has been since edited), the name of the individual who brought these concerns to Duncan has been consistently attacked by people who don’t seem to understand what’s going on. They liken the issue of representation to trying to “protect white culture.” However, they never acknowledge the difference between the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups and their own. Others have infantilized Duncan, saying she’s being manipulated in spite of her direct statement that withdrawing Ember Days was her own decision. Another common critique: how can BIPOC creators claim to want representation if white people can’t be the ones to tell those stories?

Cover of Ember Days by author Alexandra Duncan

Cover for Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan

It’s a painful dialogue that shows just how much work we have to do as a society to combat systemic racism. I’ve struggled even in the writing of this article — talking about systemic racism while applauding a white writer — even though the behaviour I’m endorsing is “good allyship.” Still, I think we have to talk about the importance of showing up and being seen to make the right call when being an ally is hard work. I wish it wasn’t the case, but discourse across Twitter shows we’re not there yet.

So, I want to applaud Alexandra Duncan for deciding to cancel Ember Days. From even a casual look across social media, her personal website and interviews, it’s clear she’s doing her best. In 2018, she contributed to an anthology that explored the diverse experiences of injustice, empowerment, and growing up female in America. Since its launch in 2014, Duncan’s personal website includes a section on a better world, acknowledging “one person alone can’t save the world, but we can all break off a tiny piece of a problem.” Then, she lists documentaries, donations, and fair trade organizations she believes in.

I’d like to end this article with the last bit of content from her apology letter, which I think couldn’t say it better:

I would like to end by suggesting that if you were looking forward to a new book from me, you instead support Black authors by buying or pre-ordering the following recently published or upcoming YA books, all of which contain elements of fantasy or folklore:

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton

A Blade So Black, by L. L. McKinney

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna

Kingdom of Souls, by Rena Barron

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn

A Phoenix First Must Burn, by Patrice Caldwell

A River of Royal Blood, by Amanda Joy

A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

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This article was originally published on 6/27/20

Melissa Taylor-Gates
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