AmazonYA Twitter, a social-media community dedicated to young-adult fiction, is a frequently toxic place that aggressively surveils both its members and the books they write for violations of ever-shifting social-justice rules. Last month it descended on A Place for Wolves, the young-adult author Kosoko Jackson’s debut novel.
The controversy, which was fanned and spread mostly by people who hadn’t read the book—only a limited number of advance reading copies had been circulated to that point—centered around the fact that Jackson, who is black and gay, wrote an adventure-romance centered on two foreign teenagers trying to escape Kosovo as war breaks out there, and that the villain was an ethnic Albanian Muslim. “HEY HOW ABOUT WE DONT PROMOTE OR SUPPORT BOOKS ABOUT A ROMANCE BETWEEN AND THE VICTIMIZATION OF 2 AMERICANS, SET DURING A REAL LIFE HISTORICAL GENOCIDE WHERE THE VILLAIN IS PART OF THE DEMOGRAPHIC THAT WAS ETHNICALLY CLEANSED,” read one of the tweets that spread the anger.
Some background here would help: The Hague determined that during the Kosovo War, as The New York Times summed it up, “Serbia had initiated a state-organized campaign to keep control over Kosovo through deporting or forcibly transferring a large part of the population of about two million.” Some estimates hold that 90 percent of the Albanian population of Kosovo was displaced during the war. By another estimate, about 10,500 of the war’s 13,500 victims were Albanian—many killed in a series of horrific massacres perpetrated by Serbian forces against civilians. NATO’s controversial bombing of Serbian positions in 1999 was a direct response to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.
So the general argument from young-adult-fiction Twitter appeared to be that because it was ethnic Albanians who were victimized most severely in the war, it was offensive to shunt their plight off to the side in favor of the story of two foreigners, and to make the villain himself Albanian.
As a result of this controversy, Jackson, who had himself done work as a sensitivity reader—and participated rather gleefully in past YA Twitter pile-ons—agreed to unpublish his book, just a month or so before it was scheduled to be released. Amélie Wen Zhao, a Paris-born author of Chinese descent who had won a very large deal for a YA trilogy of her own, had done the same in January, after her book came under similar social-media fire.
Last week someone sent me a review copy of A Place for Wolves. As I excitedly tore open the package, I kept two common features of YA Twitter blowups in mind. First, they often rely on rather idiosyncratic “rules” about who can write what that most people outside certain radical communities likely wouldn’t recognize as being fair or valid. Second, the game of internet-telephone can get quite intense: YA blowups almost always occur when books aren’t out yet, and as a result false information tends to spread far and wide. In Zhao’s case, for example, much of the controversy centered around a character who a chunk of YA Twitter decided was black but who almost certainly wasn’t intended to be coded that way.
The review copy came with a rather tastefully done bookmark with glowing blurbs from other authors. “A masterful debut,” said Shaun David Hutchinson. “Bright and dark and queer and beautiful,” said Sam J. Miller. Most entertaining, if only for a nerd like myself who had followed this controversy from its first percolations on Twitter, was Heidi Heilig’s blurb. Heilig is a successful YA author and something of an online social-justice enforcer; after the outrage descended on Jackson, she claimed that the offensive material might have been inserted into A Place for Wolves after she read the copy she was sent for blurb purposes. “An intricate, rich story about two boys fleeing mounting unrest, caught between the reality and the sublime of love, death, and family during times of war,” her blurb read. According to someone with knowledge of the situation, after the controversy broke she kicked Jackson out of a closed (but by no mean secret) Facebook “kidlit” group she runs.
My three-sentence review: A Place for Wolves is a bad book, but it never should have been unpublished, because it doesn’t do anything that comes close to warranting unpublishing. It’s true, though, that Jackson, while in no way deserving the mobbing he experienced, did very little to shield himself from the sorts of criticisms he must have known to expect from the bloodthirsty community that is YA Twitter — he didn’t handle the subject of the war itself well. He also shot himself in the foot with a very clumsy editor’s note.
Spoilers ahead, which is a weird thing to say in a reference to a book that is no longer coming out.
A Place for Wolves is told from the perspective of James Mills, a gay, black teenager nearing his college years who was adopted, as an infant, by a doctor mom and an engineer dad. They are aid workers, so Mills is a cosmopolitan kid who has bounced around the world with them, picking up a bunch of languages and hooking up with a bunch of exotic foreign men. (He’s a teenager, after all.) The book takes place mostly in Restelicë, the small town James and his family moved to not long before the action starts and where Mills has recently met Tomas, a hunky Brazilian who quickly became his boyfriend. Both boys become separated from their parents as violence breaks out in their part of the country, and the two must flee north, to a U.S. embassy and safety in the capital, Pristina. The action jumps back and forth in time from the present adventure to jokey and heartfelt letters from James to his sister, safely studying at Georgetown, that were mostly written in his early days in Kosovo.
One problem with A Place for Wolves is the way it is written. Boy, are there some rough moments. A few pages in, James mentions a “scene of our home completely torn apart by intruders, like a beast ripping the ribcage of our shared chest open with its claws.” (Shared chest?) A bit later, he says of Tomas, “If I could bottle that smile, I would. The world deserves to see it. Find a way to use it to power a nation, release it into the world to help the victims of the Rwandan genocide a few years back.” Albanians’ bodies, he observes, “are more jagged and rougher than most, worn and tired from hard labor and oppression.”
Video games often have a tutorial level where some helpful character teaches you the ropes, gives you your first weapon, and teaches you how to use it. “Press ‘A’ to attack,” and so on. These segments are contrived but at least arguably necessary to orient the player. They aren’t usually found in literature, young-adult or otherwise. A Place for Wolves is an exception.
Early on, James enters an abandoned shop and comes across a Serbian soldier named Abaz. Abaz is lying there, gutshot and dying, but all he really does is help James by explaining the situation to him a bit and giving him a gun. “I know, you have questions,” he says. “And lucky for you, I have answers.” (“Press ‘B’ to hear more.”) Abaz also has many opinions about this American teen he has just met, and he isn’t shy about expressing them. “I know a lot about you because I’ve seen your kind before,” he explains. “Strong willed, probably want to do good.” Then he spends a few more of his dying breaths reflecting on James’ natural curiosity: “You’re easy to read. You know that? You’re putting two and two together. Trying to discover why, and how, someone like me, someone who isn’t much older than you, got here.”
Reader, my first impulse when reading a story about the Kosovo War is not, I admit, to feel bad for a Serbian soldier. But I felt really bad for Abaz! He had been summoned into existence solely to get gutshot and slowly die while giving advice to an American teenager. What worse fate is there than that?
There’s a version of this that often catches the eye of YA Twitter: the “Magical Negro.” As per NPR, the Magical Negro is a “trope in literature and movies where a black character appears in a plot solely to help a white character—and then vanishes.” Abaz is a Magical Serbian. Not quite the same thing, given the history of oppression connected to the Magical Negro, but still: Poor Abaz.
A similar dynamic plays out with a friend of James and Tomas named Clara. She seems to exist almost solely to be physically assaulted, repeatedly, and to deliver a sick burn to the villain immediately before being killed by him. This, too, is a commonly invoked trope in social-justice-oriented cultural criticism: the female character who basically exists as a punching bag. Her treatment isn’t as bad as Abaz’s—she is a two-dimensional character rather than a one-dimensional one. But still, what struck me was that whether or not an individual reader would be offended by the fate of Abaz or Clara, the underlying problem is the same: bad, tropey writing.
A lot of the controversy that destroyed A Place for Wolves centered around that villain, Professor Beqiri, who goes from being James and Tomas’s strict but somehow charming teacher to a real bastard of a torturing paramilitary war criminal through a process that I really, really couldn’t understand. Beqiri talks like the villain of an action movie who has himself never seen an action movie but who wants to sound like an action-movie villain. He enjoys discussing his own plots, for one thing. He says of Clara (poor Clara), “She saw through my plan from the get-go. Using her as a bargaining chip to help galvanize public sympathy for Kosovo and anchor hate against the Serbians. I mean, who wouldn’t hate a country that orchestrated the kidnapping and ransom of an ambassador’s daughter? A beautiful, white, picture-perfect ambassador’s daughter, at that?” Save it for the book jacket, Beqiri!
But for YA Twitter, the problem was his ethnicity and religion. To quote the Goodreads review that helped sparked the outrage:
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