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Presented by State Library Victoria

(OPEN FOR DISCUSSION) The Hand, the Eye and the Heart' by Zoe Marriott - 'Culturally appropriating' and 'LGBTQI+ offensive' books

It was about 7 pm last Friday night when I went into Goodreads in furtive search of a new book.

I had just finished re-reading the amazing ‘Throne of Glass’ series, and was moping about my inability to find new quality reading material, before I recalled the inexplicable existence of the internet and my neglected Goodreads account. So, in my post-several-hours-of-reading-daze, I scrolled through my feed on Goodreads, only to accidentally click on a random link that catapulted me through a back corridor of the internet to the Goodreads profile of a book.

That book was called ‘The Hand, the Eye and the Heart’ by Zoe Marriott.

‘The Hand, the Eye and the Heart’ was a YA fantasy/action/adventure novel inspired by Mulan that tells the story of Zhilan/Zhi, a protagonist who is both Chinese and non-binary. It seemed like it had an interesting premise, and Mulan was one of favourite Disney heroines, so I decided to look at some of the reviews.

Reading several of the top reviews and comments I noticed there was an ongoing trend of users scathingly criticising the author (who is Caucasian and cisgender) for ‘cultural appropriation’ and for her portrayal of a gender non-conforming character, calling her a ‘culture vulture’ and telling her to ‘listen to queer asian voices’. Admittedly, I was quite curious as to how the content had offended so many, so deeply; so after a few seconds of deliberation, I decided to borrow the book for myself.

With the biting remarks of the reviews still firmly indented in my mind, I approached every page and sentence with no small amount of bias, scanning and checking for negative stereotypes, underlying racism and misrepresentation of the non-binary people. I finished the book as a gelatinous mass of confusion with aching eyes.

Why confusion? You ask. Well here’s why.

Personally, I found nothing disrespectful about the book. As a part Chinese person myself, I did not feel remotely offended or hurt by the presentation of the characters, the description of their appearances, or their actions. On the contrary, it was empowering to have a bad-ass cast of characters of a racial background that I share and is less represented in fantasy YA. I do identify as cisgender, so I understand that my word for the author’s representation of non-binary characters weighs a lot less. However, although I don’t have any experience about this, I believe those readers who are angered by ‘misrepresentation’ in this case should understand that the setting of the story is vastly different from today’s society, and thus, Marriott’s writing of Zhi(lan)’s character and transitioning experience does not reflect or hold many similarities to how the process occurs in reality.

To reviewers who hold beliefs like the ones below…

“As a white, nonbinary person, I am incredibly uncomfortable with a white, cis writer telling a Chinese-inspired Mulan re-telling with a nonbinary protagonist”

“Want to tell this kind of story, cis white people? Do it with your own place”

My opinion is that any author of a certain race, sexual orientation or gender identity should not be limited to write characters or relationships that pertain to their own identity. Implying that an author’s identity inhibits their ability to respectfully write a character of a different identity, is frankly, offensive, and should not be tolerated. It is understandable to critique authors if they write insensitively or without regard to a certain demographic, but even in this type of case, I believe reviewers should aim to provide detailed and constructive feedback to authors, instead of aggressively spewing hate. For me, it is not the author who influences my impression of a book, rather, their writing and how they handle complex topics.

But this is just my opinion, and I would love to hear from other people who have read the book or have encountered a similar situation before. So to the comments we go! Everybody is welcome!

Oh and thank you for coming to my ted talk!

5 comments

inky State Library Victoria

Interesting and insightful. The YA literature community has a reputation for a strong cancel culture that can sometimes get out of hand. It sounds like you have used your own judgement here and it is clear that you are a very discerning reader.

1w ago
imosshelf

Cancel culture in YA (or any community, really) is so toxic and I am so sick of seeing people dragged through the mud for inoffensive things. I agree that some things need to be condemned (like a curse so dark and lonely) but good, accurate representation should be celebrated, no matter the background of the author. I think this was a great post, Guppy!

1w ago
guppy

In reply to imosshelf

Thank you! I was a little hesitant about writing this at first, because negative reviews and opinions on the book had so much support, but I just felt like all the hate the author was receiving was unjustified... Cancel culture can really be a blessing or a curse depending on what it is directed at!

1w ago
sekhmet

I should read this! Interestingly, it seems (from this post at least, I don't know much about this kind of thing) that people have just gotten so used to minority characters getting written wrong that they presume any minority character written by a cis/straight/white author is going to be bad.

1w ago
guppy

I think it can be really hypocritical because some people negatively review 'biased' authors based on, like you said, their own presumption and bias. It would be cool to get another opinion after you've read the book!

1w ago