A Review of a Book That Will Never Be Published, Thanks to the Young Adult Twitter Mob
Kosoko Jackson's A Place for Wolves isn't great, but it didn't deserve to be canceled.
YA 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:
And don't even get me started on the well-educated Muslim man, Professor Beqiri, who turns out to be a coldblooded terrorist who's [sic] only purpose seems to be to murder and torture and commit harm, even killing his own men. Why, exactly, did the author choose to make the main villain in this story an Albanian Muslim, when it was ALBANIAN MUSLIMS WHO WERE ETHNICALLY CLEANSED? Whatever happened to being aware of what point you're making with your characters? Another reviewer mentioned that it was somewhat understandable that Professor Beqiri was portrayed as the villain, given that he kidnapped the [main character's] parents. But that is exactly why I think it was a terrible idea to center this story around fictional Americans. Because most of the readers reading this book will have no prior knowledge of this war, and this will be what they take away from the Genocide. And those who do have knowledge may very well have been affected by the war. Kids. Teenagers. Who already hear about how Muslims are terrorists in the modern world, having to read historical fiction about a tragedy that affected their own family, only to see they're the evil terrorists once again. In what world is that okay? In what other Genocide would we agree that stories saying the victims were just as wrong should be published?
Point taken about Beqiri being a paper-thin Bad Guy, but I saw no actual mention of his religion in A Place for Wolves. Indeed, it's possible he wasn't even meant to be read as Muslim—most Kosovar Albanians are Muslim, but not all of them. So there's pretty much zero chance any young reader's takeaway from this would be "Muslims bad!" Beqiri doesn't fit the "Muslim terrorist" trope at all, for what that's worth. He "studied at Oxford" and "has a British accent that's stronger than the Albanian one."
As for his ethnicity…it's complicated. In A Place for Wolves, Beqiri is involved with the Kosovo Liberation Army, a militant group that was dedicated to winning Kosovo's independence from Serbia. It is almost impossible to say anything about the horrific conflicts that accompanied the crackup of Yugoslavia without pages worth of hedging, and one of the forces that shaped the KLA's militant stance was Serbian oppression of non-violent Kosovar Albanian independence-seekers. But, well: The KLA itself perpetrated various atrocities, including the murders of not only Serbian but Albanian civilians—though not at the scale that the Serbs did.
Maybe the problem is that A Place for Wolves isn't really about the Kosovo War, even though it takes place during it. The reader hardly learns anything about the complicated nature of the conflict. Nowhere is the flatness of the book's background clearer than in Jackson's portrayal of Beqiri. All we hear from James about Beqiri's ideology is that he really, really hates Serbs; it strikes James as an obsession. But why does he hate Serbs so much? The book doesn't say. Beqiri himself doesn't say, either—which is silly because he bloviates about so much other stuff so blandly. ("Very American of you. Sticking your nose in places it doesn't belong. That's been a theme of your people throughout history, hasn't it?" Shut up, Beqiri.)
If Jackson had filled out Beqiri's backstory a little bit, it would have made it harder to criticize A Place for Wolves for devoting so much time to the KLA's own unjustified violence. It also would have simply made for a better story. Just explain, with a bit of visceral storytelling, how he became radicalized! There's no of stories about Albanians being horribly repressed by the Serbs, which is in fact part of the real-life origin story of the KLA. Less supervillain rambling, more humanity. Instead, Beqiri just comes across as a psychopath.
At the very end of A Place for Wolves, there is a fleeting reference to the NATO bombing campaign that effectively ended the war. Then comes an author's note that provides the book's only real zoomed-out view of the conflict. That's where things really go off the rails:
The NATO bombing, which the United States was complicit in, has been used as justification for ending the genocide of Kosovo-Albanian population. [sic] As such many people regard Serbia as being the "villains" in this conflict. One could argue, as seen in this book, that the Albanians are the "villains," based on James's experiences. This decision was not made lightly and is not to change a person's minds [sic] about the genocide, and who was at fault, but to show that in war, there are multiple sides to every story. All Albanians were not good. All Serbians were not bad, and as one can see, characters and people, can (and usually do) hold both alignments within them. Good people make bad choices. Bad people make good ones. And most people are somewhere in the middle…
The confusingly phrased statement, which came up in some of the critiques that led to A Place for Wolves' unpublishing, seems rushed. It almost feels like Jackson is running his book's plot through the infantile moral calculus of, well, much of YA Twitter, in which the world is neatly divided into oppressors (bad) and oppressed (good), and in which any conflict about anything must be viewed through that prism based on the identities of the participants. But who, outside of Twitter weirdos, would ever claim that "All Albanians were good" or "All Serbians were bad," and how does the narrative choice to take one particular Albanian and portray him as a deeply evil murderer, without really explaining how he got to be that way, add any moral texture to any of this? And what does it mean to say that Jackson is not trying "to change a person's minds about the genocide" when his book doesn't even discuss the widespread murder of Albanians in any real detail? (For what it's worth, a United Nations court did rule in 2001 that the atrocities committed against Albanians did not constitute a genocide under the term's technical definition.) If I had to guess, Jackson or his publisher recognized that there was a chance the book would ruffle some feathers and attempted to preempt that with an author's note that actually made things worse.
But again: None of this means the book should have been unpublished. It means that, like many books, A Place for Wolves is bad, and that certain readers with a deep knowledge of the subject matter would likely view it as offensive. But the vast majority of the missing nuance and context here would have gone right over the heads of a young reader. The claim that had the book been published, it would have hurt kids (obligatory during any YA Twitter pileon) really makes no sense. Beqiri is Albanian, yes, but elsewhere in the story it's clear that James can tell that many other Albanians are suffering (even if the reader never gets a sense of just how dire things are). And as always, the YA Twitter pile-on spread critiques of the book that were untrue or exaggerated—the idea that Beqiri's religion had any bearing on his villainy, for example, or the idea that the book featured "two Americans." (Yes, Brazil is part of 'the Americas,' but that's not what the term implies and I doubt it's what the critics leveling that charge meant.)
It's perfectly possible to say "This was a bad and clumsily written book that missed the moral mark in its treatment of a terrible war" without wanting the book to be unpublished. That has to be possible, or publishing itself is headed to a very dark—or very boring—place.