It’s been a while
It’s not so much that I had little to say; just little time to say it.
My MA is progressing well. I am at the beginning of a new module: Writing the Novel, in which the idea for my latest novel is gradually emerging. This module leads into the final module, in which I hope to complete this new novel. The problem with all that, of course, is that I needed to finish the one I was already working on, to (cliche alert!) clear the decks and make both time and headspace to approach a new story.
So I’ve been busy finishing Jane, Forgotten (which is now complete and entered into a competition in the hope of bringing it to the attention of a literary agent, in the hope of bringing with it a larger publishing deal, with the blessing of my current publisher, who sees the benefit in this for us all).
I’ve been continuing to promote Dear Isobel (have you read it yet?) and have enjoyed doing some fun interviews (this one, for example: Operation Awesome)
I also had final edits and a whole pile of other demands to prepare A Diet of Death for its upcoming October release. Luckily, the edits were minimal, and the proofreads fun – it was reassuring to know that I actually enjoyed reading it and losing myself in Jess O’Malley’s world. A Diet of Death is a very different book from Dear Isobel, which will make it far easier to market and find a ready audience for. There is a huge audience for cosy mystery, and I hope those readers will welcome my new series into their realm. I had originally planned to get busy on the third Jess O’Malley mystery as soon as I finished Jane, Forgotten, but it felt like a bit of a cheat to use my MA course for that book, so my new idea is something completely new and another standalone! I’m not saying much about it now, except: Bookshop. Quest. Male Protagonist. Dual (multiple, probably!) Narration. Did I say Quest? That’s the part I’m going to have fun with – there will be a treasure hunt of sorts; a mystery and a puzzle. I don’t have it fully mapped yet.
However, none of this is what spurred me over here to blog today. Nope. What brought me here today is the cover for A Diet of Death. It’s been going fairly well, and the designer has followed the brief for the front, so that’s fine. But then what happened next is a shock to me, from my privileged ‘white Brit’ stance, but will be less of a shock to those of you who do not have this white English-speaker privilege to lead you through life like skipping down a garden path surrounded by roses. I’m sorry that I have this when some people don’t, I truly am.
I had wanted to ensure that the back cover included the characters of Jess and Marcus. I wanted this very, very much. I wanted this for this reason:
Spoiler alert: Marcus is half-Chinese.
So why the need for a picture? Well. I don’t open the novel by spelling this out. But first, let me back up a little. This series is set in a rural Irish small village community. Like the one I live in. Where most people are white Irish, or white British like me. I think we have precisely ONE non-white person in the village, and I can think of maybe one couple who are open about being gay. This is, unfortunately still the reality of rural Irish villages. However, much as need to keep my books real land authentic and believable, I am not prepared to whitewash my stories. I can’t put in masses and masses of diversity (see above – authentic, real) but I CAN and WILL do my damndest to chip away at barriers and include a diverse cast of people. I have to do this is a natural, authentic, inoffensive way, so when Jess does meets Marcus for the first time, she does not run up to him yelling, well blow me, you aren’t white! Because, 1, she’s not an insensitive bitch, and 2, it’s just not important to her because Marcus is simply a person. So, the novel progresses, and aside from his name (Marcus Woo) there is no reference to his heritage, his skin colour, or his family history for a long while, because why should there be?
Initially, I don’t think it came up until Jess’s nieces mention it in Book 2 (Spoiler alert, oops).
Here is (MASSIVE Spoiler Alert!) what happens midway through Book 2.
But then I had a problem. One of my beta readers, to whom I am indebted, always, voiced an issue – and that one comment was enough to worry me. They had presumed, in that awful way us white English-speakers seem to do, that Marcus was white-Irish, and when midway through Book 2, Marcus tells seven-year-old Bryony that his mum is Chinese, my reader was surprised, and not impressed, to need to ‘rebrand’ her image of Marcus. I have since added the odd tiny hint in book 1 now, but I’m damned if I’m going to ‘other’ him by laying out the exact shade of his skin, his ancestral family tree, and all that within the first page we meet him on when I don’t do it for any other character.
So I had this idea that if we put an image of Marcus and Jess together on the cover, we’d get around this by simply showing readers who the characters are. Easy peasy, I thought. And the cover designer said, yep, no problem, we’ll get this thing done.
And then yesterday I found out we won’t. This is, in part, a budget issue. Being with a small publisher, we are necessarily and understandably not on Big Budget Covers with bespoke images. We are in the realm of designers who rely on stock photos and vectors. And there, it seems, is a HUGE PROBLEM that is unacceptable and disgusting and heartbreaking: There are very few vectors of Chinese men. In fact, (and this won’t surprise you now you’ve come this far) there are very few vectors of non-white men. The images the designer found were:
- A handful of young men with chiselled cheekbones and wavy dark hair. Let’s ignore the chiselled cheekbones for a minute, as that quickly becomes irrelevant. I have met with literally hundreds of Chinese students over the past five years, and let me just assert that NONE have wavy hair. NOT ONE. Chinese hair is straight, end of.
- Cartoon stereotypes with overly slanted eyes and/or eyebrows. Yes. Really. In 2022.
- Cartoon stereotypes with those long, thin moustaches, and yellow conical hats. Yes, really. In 2022.
Did you think the list would be longer?
Did you think we may have managed to move on from the afore-mentioned stereotypical, incorrect portrayals?
Did you think that it would be easy enough to find ‘ordinary bloke who isn’t white’ as a professional-looking vector on the largest stock photo sites on the internet?
I am disappointed, but also, very ashamed. This is 2022, people. There are people in this world with a million different skin tones and shapes and sizes and looks, yet the stock image sites do not include them. I’m upset, disappointed, and ashamed. So, no, you won’t see the characters depicted on my book, because we will not be using the horrendous, outdated, handful of images available to us. I am sorry.
Here’s to the Marcuses of this world, who deserve to see themselves on the covers of books. I’m sorry. I promise I tried.
John L Bell
Well said, Jinni!