Twelve years ago I was sharing a house in Annapolis, Maryland. My housemate had 3 kids who visited every other weekend. Her youngest, Rosemary, introduced me to Tamora Pierce and I introduced her to Joan of Arcadia.
I have since read most of Pierce’s books, both her Tortall and Emelan worlds. She has a gift for writing characters that stick with you. She has written some wonderful female characters. However, as a person, Pierce has revealed herself to be messy on race and representation. She has defended lack of representation, she has defended problematic portrayals of POC by other white authors, and in a post defending her defense of lack of representation, she used the term “blacks” to refer to African Americans. Instead of listening to and considering her privilege and assumptions, she becomes defensive and flounces off. I suspect that she considers herself to be a liberal, progressive person who wants a more inclusive society. She probably was, but the bar for progressive keeps moving higher. As it should. We are all messy in our own way as we are all products of a racist, patriarchal culture. Most of us need to keep doing better.
With all this in mind, I revisited a couple of my favorite books of hers, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen. It’s possible that I chose her most problematic books.
I knew when I read and enjoyed this the first time that the Trickster series was a white savior story. It kind of bothered me, but I didn’t really think about it. The question I had going in was, will I be able to separate the writer from the book, or does her messiness show up in the book too? It does.
Here is the plot of the whole series – Aly is the teenage daughter of the first woman to become a knight in Tortall in generations, and the king’s spy master. Aly has helped her father with his coding work and has learned a lot about spycraft. Her parents won’t allow her to work as a spy. She runs away from home and is captured by pirates and sold as a slave to the Ballitang family in The Copper Isles. The Copper Isles is an archipelago. It was ruled by the matriarchal raka, but 300 years earlier it was conquered by white invaders, the luarin. Slavery is not determined by race, but the society is racially divided. The Ballitang’s eldest daughters, Saraiyu and Dovesary, are biracial and the descendants of the last raka royal family as well as the ruling luarin family. The Trickster god, Kyprioth, has chosen Aly to be part of a conspiracy to overthrow luarin rule and restore a raka queen to the Copper Isles throne. The main conspirators are the raka servants in the house. They have been planning this for generations. Lots of stuff happens. They succeed.
Raka culture seems to be based largely on Polynesian culture, and luarin culture is basically European. Aly is classified as luarin. Here are my main problems:
1. We white people sure do like saving the brown natives from conquest in fiction.
I think there’s a collective guilt and sentimentality about the rich cultures lost to European conquest. In many genres, a pale faced savior arrives and either single handedly, or with a group, saves the darker skinned natives from conquest, or restores their autonomy. Aly is not the leader of the conspiracy, but she is necessary. It appears that no one else in the islands could have been the conspiracy’s spymaster. Aly spends an awful lot of time explaining to the raka how they ought to behave.
There is a secondary white savior towards the end of the second book. It always bothered me that in the decades the raka conspirators spent planning, they didn’t make a plan for the last hurdle. Instead, it was left to either chance or a long costly fight. That seems out of character for the characters Pierce wrote, and generally unrealistic. But it leaves an opening for a luarin character to save the day.
A good read on the real world white savior complex is Teju Cole’s 2012 Atlantic article, “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”
2. This is not how conquest happens.
We are told in the very beginning that the luarin were able to conquer the raka because the raka had weakened themselves with infighting. In other words, it was the raka’s own fault. This is brought up repeatedly. It’s used as a cautionary tale about why the raka need to come to terms with the luarin.
That’s not how conquest happens. Conquest happens because the invader has superior technology and sometimes as a bonus, weakens the indigenous populations with disease. It’s never the fault of the invaded.
3. Racism is bad, but don’t go so far as to dismantle white supremacy.
Aly and Dove are very concerned about making sure there is no bloodbath when the luarin are overthrown. At one point it is noted that the luarin have done a lot to improve The Copper Isles, though no specifics are ever really given. That’s what all the colonizers say – but look how much I taught you while I was stealing your land! Saraiyu and Dovesary are acceptable to the luarin nobles because they are part luarin and have been raised in that milieu. They are raka, but not too raka. There are characters who are depicted as bad because they insult or denigrate the raka. But so much weight is given to the value of the luarin in discussions that it comes across to me now as if Pierce is saying, yes, let’s have more racial equality, but not take away too much of my privilege.
4. The myth of the good slave owner.
The Ballitangs are good people because they are good to their servants and slaves. Slavery is normal in The Copper Isles, so it is possible for a good person to be a slave owner. No. The very act of owning another human being is evil. I, like many white people in the United States, am descended from slave owners. My ancestors were not good to their slaves, if only because they viewed them as property. I will not let my ancestors or my self off the hook by indulging in the myth that there were good slave owners. There were less cruel slave owners. There were no good ones.
What’s good in these books? Pierce is still an engaging author. It’s an engaging and gripping read. I do like that thoughnthere is a prophecy at work, the characters do the work to earn their victories.
So what will I do about Tamora Pierce?
I won’t be reading more Pierce. Yes, she writes great female characters, but so do a lot of other writers. I will be looking for more writers of color and more diversity in storytelling. This year I read some YA fantasy by Intisar Khanani. Her Sunbolt series features a main character who is briefly noted as having darker skin. I’m pretty sure she’s going to save the day.
If you must read Pierce’s books, and they are not the worst books out there, read critically. If you have a kid reading her books, talk with them about conquest, race, and privilege. Make sure they know the assumptions and flaws of the white savior narrative. I know it’s easier and tempting to just shut off your brain and be entertained. That’s not inherently bad. Just keep in mind that stories are how we reinforce or challenge the structures of privilege, racism, and misogyny in culture.