Eight weeks before the release of her debut novel, Keira Drake woke up to 50 messages on Twitter asking if she was okay. Her novel, “The Continent,” was to be published in January, and the hardcovers were printed and ready to go.
Drake, a former freelance marketing consultant from Salt Lake City, logged on and saw that her book — which had been circulating in advance reader copies for seven months — had been called racist, and the outcry was growing. Twitter threads live-tweeting the book (many now deleted) burned with angry reactions. Others warned their friends not to read it.
“I’m still in shock at the Native American representation in The Continent BTW,” one person said. “This book could really do some damage.”
Drake, 42, said she tried to defend herself, including on her since-deleted blog. “But as the day went on, I realized, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, it’s so true.’”
Drake contacted her publisher, Harlequin Teen, and asked to push back the publication date so she could make revisions. Harlequin agreed. Natashya Wilson, Harlequin’s editorial director, said it was the first time the publisher has had to delay a book’s release for revisions. The printed hardcovers were destroyed. The new version, which Drake calls the “revision of my heart,” is to be released on March 27.
Drake’s novel is about Vaela, a cartographer’s apprentice from a wealthy family. On her 16th birthday, she is given a ticket to go on tour with her family to a place called the Continent, where two warring tribes battle in a lush landscape. When tragedy leaves her the only survivor of her family stranded on the Continent, she finds herself living with the Aven’ei, one of the communities.
The other group, the Topi, are the main antagonists, and their depiction caused the biggest uproar among advance readers. Drake said she made a list of the criticisms expressed online and enlisted sensitivity readers to help her improve her novel. Sensitivity readers — hired to look for offensive content — have become more common as the publishing industry becomes more aware of its own biases.
Drake and Wilson maintain that the book was never supposed to be about race. “The main theme of ‘The Continent’ is how privilege allows us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others,” Drake said in a phone interview in February.
Wilson explained that when she originally edited the novel, she was looking for potential problems with pacing, plot and dialogue. “I was simply not thinking about things like racial stereotypes,” she said. “It’s almost mortifying to say that because it was so blatantly obvious when it was pointed out.”
The Washington Post compared the old advance copy with a newly revised copy received in 2018 and spoke with Drake about changes she made.
The Topi are more ostentatious — they wear brighter colors, fringed sleeves, bone helmets — that sort of thing.”. . .There are villagers below too; they are singularly dark of hair, with beautiful bronzed skin, and look to be very tall — even the women.
The Xoe are far more expressive — they wear bright colors, great painted cloaks, helmets of metal fitted with bone — that sort of thing.”. . .There are villagers below, too; and quite a lot of them, with skin so white it might be made of writing paper-far paler than even those of the Spirian East. Their hair ranges from silver-not gray- but shimmering silver-to black and every shade in between, and most look to be very tall, even the women.
Drake also changed the name of the race of these people to Xoe because of their similarity to the Hopi, a federally recognized tribe. She added more detail to the description of their home town and removed all 24 instances of the words “savage,” “primitive” and “native.” These terms have been used to dehumanize and justify the systemic discrimination of Native Americans throughout U.S. history.
“Children’s books [are] not free of ideology,” said Debbie Reese, a member of the Nambé Pueblo tribe, in an interview. “They are trying to persuade people to think a certain way about something, whether or not a writer knows it.”
Reese, founder of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, is one of the strongest voices in the movement to improve representation in children’s literature, and her career has been defined by showing how these negative portrayals can be harmful.
In Reese’s blog posts about “The Continent,” she also addressed the depiction of the Aven’ei, which Drake changed in her new version. They initially were depicted as vaguely Japanese. Drake said she was inspired by all Asian cultures, but the original draft gave characters stereotypical Japanese names, mannerisms and roles such as ninjas.
In the light of the dwindling flames, the features of his face emerge: high cheekbones, dark almond-shaped eyes that slope gently upward at the outer corners, full lips. His skin is smooth, his jawline angled and strong.
He is a bit shorter than Noro — perhaps just under six feet — and ruggedly handsome, with strong arched eyebrows and a sweep of long, dark hair about his shoulders. His wide grin turns into an expression of open surprise when he sees me.
Her face is heart shaped, with a delicate pointed chin and a dimple in each cheek, and her hair falls neatly to her chin, shining like a curtain of smooth obsidian . . . her eyes are dark, like all of the Aven’ei, and steady, like Noro’s.
In the light of the dwindling flames, the features of his face emerge: dark eyes, lips set firmly in an expression of concentration. His skin is smooth, bronze in the firelight, his jawline sharply defined.
He is a bit shorter than Noro — perhaps just under six feet — and ruggedly handsome, with strong arched eyebrows and a sweep of long, dark hair swung up into a knot atop his head, both sides of which are shaved from the tops of his ears downward. His skin is bronze, sun kissed, like most of the Aven’ei, much like a Westerner back home-darker than my own but not quite brown. His wide grin turns into an expression of open surprise when he sees me.
Her face is heart shaped, with a delicate pointed chin and a dimple in each cheek, and her hair falls neatly to her chin, shining like a curtain of smooth obsidian . . . her eyes are steady, sparkling hazel in the sunshine.
One of the major ways Drake dealt with the criticism around her racial depictions was to change Vaela’s race. The main character is now part Aven’ei to avoid “the trope of the dark-skinned aggressor or white savior narrative,” Drake said.
Additionally, Drake offers a less militaristic approach to resolving conflict than in her previous version.
I tap the paper. “Build walls. Destroy access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! Spirian construction is vastly superior to anything the natives can contrive — don’t you see? You can save the Aven’ei without ever raising so much as a finger against the Topi. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war.
I tap the paper. “Build towers, so that the Aven’ei might see when a Xoe force is coming. Establish plain sight of all access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! And then, down the line, perhaps the Spire can help the Aven’ei and the Xoe to meet in the middle, to accomplish a peace of their own accord. Don’t you see? You can help without ever raising so much as a single weapon. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war.”
Drake said she was inspired to write her book after hearing a story on the radio of a woman dealing with the war in Iraq. “The entire family was just huddled together at night listening to the bombs going off,” she said. “It was so heartbreaking.”
This conflict is the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which prompted insurgency and, later, the rise of the Islamic State, which in turn destabilized other parts of the Middle East. In Drake’s book, peace is created when a group from Vaela’s home country shoots people to stop them from fighting. The book wasn’t meant to advocate for or against an interventionist foreign policy, Drake said. “I just want to propose the questions.”
She’s confident that this revision says what she wanted to say. “There are certain people who feel the book is unfixable,” Drake said. “That was not something I ever agreed with. I felt that the story of ‘The Continent’ was an important one to tell.”
Everdeen Mason is The Washington Post’s audience editor. She also writes a monthly column highlighting the best new science fiction and fantasy books.