On the eve (just a couple hours before, in fact) of The Last Airbender opening night, I saw a new blog post by Cindy Pon, author of the fabulous fantasy Silver Phoenix. It broke my heart. I refrained from commenting anywhere that night and literally turned off my computer so I could just, you know, take that time for some indulgent self pity. And also write a private journal entry to myself about this + TLA that I refrained from posting up publicly because I basically keysmashed expletives for about 10,000+++ words in capslock.
In other words, I was too distraught to be coherent enough to offer anything meaningful or constructive to add into the conversation. Having given this a couple of days to calm down enough to write something beyond FUCK and HATE though, I think I am reading to put in my own two cents about this situation.
This was the original cover of Silver Phoenix in hardback:
THESE are the new repacked covers for the first book and its sequel:
Many people have contributed in blog posts and/or comments on how they felt about these covers. I too have many many feeeeeeeeeeelings on this matter, and there will probably be a series of posts regarding Silver Phoenix and Asians-on-covers related things, but for this post in particular I wish to simply address the covers on their own. I will speak about these covers in 3 parts.
Make no mistake, these covers were clearly repackaged to remove any traces of "racial markers" that would give away the protagonist's "Asian-ness", to make it “less ethnic” to reach a “broader (white) audience”. I, and many people who have posted on this, find this a disgrace. Please do not bring up the fact that these new covers are ambiguous enough to be a person of Asian descent, the fact that they tried so hard to make these covers look ~*racially ambiguous*~ (i.e. can pass for white) speaks for itself. The novel Silver Phoenix is a fantasy deeply steeped in Chinese culture and folklore, and to advertise the story with a cover that tries to obscure this fact is dishonest and downright wrong. As bookshop has put it, it robs this novel of its integrity.
The reasoning given behind these cover repackaging move was because the first book didn’t sell well. A large part of this had to do with the fact that the book buyers who decide what will be stocked in shelves choose not to include this title. Now, we may never know whether or not the book buyers skipped this title because it had a clearly Asian face on the cover, but the undeniable fact is that the PUBLISHERS decided that THAT HAVING AN ASIAN FACE ON THE COVER MUST HAVE BEEN THE REASON BEHIND THIS TITLE NOT GETTING PICKED UP. It upsets me, really really upsets me that this was the reasoning given, because it’s SO NONSENSICAL. Think of it this way if for some reason anyone reading this still think this is a logical conclusion: no one ever goes ‘gee this fantasy title about a Caucasian girl going to magic school didn’t sell well, it must have been because we had a white girl on the cover.’ THIS ONLY HAPPENS WHEN WE HAVE A POC ON THE COVER. If a POC title doesn’t sell well, having a POC protagonist is always to blame. FAIL FAIL FAIL RACIST SHIT FAIL I’M SICK OF THIS CRAP.
I understand the need for a cover repackaging due to the first hardcover editions poor sales. Repackaging the cover makes sense. But whitewashing the cover as a marketing strategy? Is wrong. And most likely has far more to do with the prevalent systematic racism type mentality rampant all over the YA (and probably other genres/categories) book industry than any type of reality in the actual success of a novel.
This is all I have to say about this stupid, stupid matter, but if you want to hear in more detail about why this kind of marketing mentality is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS, megwrites wrote up a long post detailing and explaining why this is such a logic!fail Attack of the Whitewashing Strikes Back Again!
These covers not only were repackaged to obscure Ai Ling's race, but they were also repackaged to imitate all the Melissa Marr/Alyson Noel/Kelley Armstrong/etc look. This was presumably done as a business tactic, to imitate covers of successfully sold fantasy/paranormal titles so that the book buyers of the large retail bookselling industry will decide to actually stock this book in its shelves. Besides calling into this sketchy business tactic rationalizing the whitewashing of Silver Phoenix, don't people just find the fact that publishers are actively putting out more of these same-old covers grating? I honestly probably would have swallowed a new cover repackaging of Silver Phoenix a whole lot better if they just went for a pure object cover or something, since the cover also besides the whitewash seems to like to emphasize the ~*glowing*~ object, but no, we get these types of passive!white girls holding shiny object crap that takes away the woman's agency. When you cut off the eyes, the face, the body parts of the cover model in the cover frame to maximize the focus on an inanimate object, you RENDER THE PERSON IN THE COVER, A WOMAN, INTO A PROP, A BACKGROUND.
THAT. IS. WRONG.
And, okay, you know what? I get it, shiny objects are pretty, yaddyadda, but honestly I think you can achieve the same shiny!object with the whole ~*dark urban*~ kind of cover just as effectively with those purely object covers a la Holly Black. If the cover is just the shiny object then it's symbolism without the skeevy cut-up woman agency-removal stuff (and also sans the whitewashing problem! YOU COULD HAVE KILLED TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE, GREENWILLOW). Judging by the fact that publishers are repacking covers to imitate this look in order to get more sales is basically a horrifying alarm bell sounding on what our future shelves. Just one or two of these covers are fine and are less problematic so long as we still have covers featuring active!woman with a full face and/or showing the eyes looking out towards the reader, but I am not cool with seeing these kinds of agency-removal covers DOMINATING the YA paranormal romance section for the next 10++ years of YA lit. *SHUDDERS*
I understand that these covers are a norm, but it's a norm I'm not willing to embrace, and I ask for those who care at all about the portrayal of postive women in teen fiction and women with agency on their covers to please listen and let's work together to stop feeding the YA book industry in churning out sales that promote these kinds of cover marketing. Please. Let's ask for change. We deserve better.
Okay okay, seriously, WHO THE FUCK DO I HAVE TO BLOW IN ORDER TO GET A DAMN FULL FACE OF AN ASIAN GIRL WITH HER EYES TOWARDS THE AUDIENCE ON THE DAMN COVER?!?!?!?!
For white teenage girls, the covers a la Melissa Marr/Kelley Armstrong/Alyson Noel are not, as of yet, all they get for cover models on their YA books. We have white women cover modeling their full faces, a full figure, their back figure, their side profile, a close up of their eyes ETC. And sure not all YA books about white teenage girls make it on the shelves but YA books featuring white female protagonists do dominate the YA shelves and even if we weren't happy with the way one type of cover featured (white) women, we could just move to the next shelf and more or less easily find another one that will have active women looking head on at her audience.
Let me tell you something about the likelihood of getting a FULL, eyes-looking-out-at-the-audience distinctly Asian face on the foreground of the cover for YA books: Maybe 1 or 2 covers from 1 publishing house, every one or two years. Probably 3 years if we're only including these types of covers with Asian authors.*
Do you see - do you understand, how amazing and incredible it was to have the Silver Phoenix original cover the way it was? Nevermind just YA books, across all genres and categories of the US publishing industry, fiction featuring Asian females almost never ever show a full face like that, the EYES so clearly shown. It's not that these covers never happen, but that they come so rarely I could probably count them on my fingers and they always grab my eyes because they're like crumbs to me, to those starving for Asian representation I can get behind on fully.
If ever I get an Asian female protagonist's FACE on my cover it's usually with her head bent a little forward, eyes lowered and showing the eyelashes. Because the face of Asian women is a demure and quiet one, see?!?!?!?!
The fact that the book buyers refused to have this face on their shelves, the fact that now we have another cover of a teenage girl who is of Asian descent displayed as being passive and demure is like ten steps back from where the original book packaging has gone. And I won't lie: this hurts me. As a teenage girl of Chinese ethnicity, this hurts like burning.
What will it take for active!Asian protagonists to be fairly portrayed on covers AND be shelved in bookstores faced-out for readers to buy? WHAT WILL IT TAKE?!
A Post Script:
My father once cautioned me against hoping for so much. Don't look for Asian faces in Hollywood, don't look for Asian faces in this white-dominated world, if I really needed one watch a Mainland China film, a Hong Kong drama, a Taiwanese rock concert -- but I'm still here. I'm still asking. And maybe my dad is right, maybe this path can only lead to disappointment and heartbreak as this book making industry keeps making all the signs that they just don't give a damn about what I want, but I have met some good people on this blog, and I'm still young (maybe childish?) enough to believe in change.
Thank you to all who read this post to the end. Thank you for listening. If you care at all about this, as a YA reader, as a believer in rightful Asian representation in fiction, whatever, please consider spreading the word, speaking up. Words are the start of change, and silence only reinforces the status quo. (Disclaimer: I cannot and am not obliging anyone to speak out! If you don't care, then you don't care, I can't make you change your mind.)
Finally, an embed video of Silver Phoenix's book trailer. Because Cindy Pon wrote a beautiful story, and everyone should give it shot:
(If you liked the trailer and wish to read a few sample pages, you can find the first 70 pages of Silver Phoenix here.)
*Not sure how empirically I can prove this, but I find that most of the full Asian faces I see on covers have a white author attached to writing it. If you want to prove me wrong and that the cover treatment on Asian content for white and Asian authors are completely level and exactly the same, go ahead. I'll listen.