when good books go underrecognized because they have “diversity”: a case study

So, as mentioned, next in my adventure of reading fantasy novels was Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor [IndieBound]. Again, recall that I don’t really like fantasy, but this was recommended to me, and I had already read and liked three of Okorafor’s other books, The Shadow Speaker [IB], Akata Witch [IB] and Who Fears Death [IB]. Akata Witch had definitely been my favorite in that group, since it takes place in the real world and could easily be classified as paranormal thriller rather than fantasy.

Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl who was born with vines growing out of her head, making her “dada” and her hair “dadalocks.” This is the type of thing that is semi-accepted in her society (a parallel globe that tells stories about Earth as a sort of urban legend that may or may not be a real place) but still looked at with a bit of derision, if not total ostracization. Zahrah still goes to school and has friends and all that, and her parents are not dada, so I guess it’s some sort of recessive gene or similar.

Anyway, Zahrah learns that she has an additional weird thing about her: she levitates, and after conferring with a dada woman she meets at the Dark Market (think Knockturn Alley), she learns that this is her body learning how to fly. She and her best friend start going to the edge of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle (how adorable is that name?) so that they can work out her flying lessons in private. Then her friend is bitten and falls into a coma, and of course the only cure is in the egg of an elgort, a dangerous creature living in the heart of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. Nobody in the world ever goes there, so he’s going to be lost forever.

Zahrah, of course, heads into the jungle herself to track it down, meeting magical mentors, fantastic beasts, and little communities of almost-people.

Classic setup for a fantasy quest story, no? Yes. It has a vaguely Snow Queen-esque setup, with a girl hero setting out to save a boy that is decidedly not a romantic prospect. It has a magical journey and a sassy guide. Actually, that part reminded me of Ella Enchanted. Ella has her magic book, and Zahrah has a computerized compass that is always nagging her about how far from home she is. It takes place in a world that is as overrun with technology as ours is these days, but technological advancements involve using plant energy, so it’s familiar and refreshing at once.

None of those things is weird. None of those things, generally speaking, is unfamiliar to anyone who has read a fantasy novel. Outcast kids finding themselves to be extraordinary is not a hard thing to find attractive in a story. Talking animals are a beloved device. A comedic sidekick, whether electronic or otherwise, is a pleasant thing.

This is a well written book that fits perfectly into the fantasy tropes we consider standard.

So why does it only have 175 reviews on goodreads, not 7401 (Ella Enchanted)? Not 3626 (Beauty by Robin McKinley)? Not 5183 (Splintered by A.G. Howard)? Not 3079 (Alanna: The First Adventure)? Not even 672 (Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore)? Why does WorldCat list Zahrah the Windseeker in 380 member libraries, but for those other books, respectively, they are collected in 3418, 2078, 1139, 1528, 802?

zahrahWe all know the answer:

BECAUSE THERE IS A BLACK GIRL ON THE COVER.

That’s why. Let’s not pretend it’s a “lower quality” book than others, or that it’s not creative or interesting. Nobody wants it because nobody wants to pick up a book with a black girl on the cover.

I will concede that the original cover, here, is incredibly dated and looks way older than 2005. It’s hardly attractive. But that cover at the top of my post? BEAUTIFUL. And anyway, there are plenty of sci-fi and fantasy readers who give things a try even when they have hideous covers, so why not try one even if it looks a bit old school?

Because there is a black girl on the cover.

This is a book that absolutely any fantasy reader would be happy to give a try if I described it in every other way and just left out that Zahrah is black and lives in what is clearly a parallel for west Africa. If I wrapped this beautiful paperback in a paper bag or deleted the jpg from the Overdrive record, a million people would give it a try.

But there’s a black girl on the cover, so it’s niche and only for other black people. Obviously. We all can read books about white girls and love them, even identify with them. Ella of Frell was my best friend and also the girl I was jealous of for her amazing magic book. Alanna got to kick ass and have sex with a future king. Even the girl in Magic Under Glass, who is brown, got more play because Bloomsbury did up some whitewashing for her cover.

Zahrah doesn’t hide that she’s black, just like she doesn’t shave her dadalocks, as some people in her society do. So the book isn’t getting picked up. And there’s no reason for that.

I’m not even trying to suggest that this is the most phenomenal book of all time. It’s above average, but, as I noted, isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. It’s just doing what any good book does, which is building a beautiful, interesting world and putting compelling story into the format that we expect our stories to come in. Why isn’t that enough for people?

Because there’s a black girl on the cover, and black girls couldn’t possibly have stories that resonate with Normal People.

Even though Zahrah is just a normal preteen struggling with shit and getting her period for the first time, which females of all colors get.

Even though Zahrah wants to please and disobey her parents at the same time.

Even though Zahrah has a secret magic in her, and let’s not lie – literally every human has wished this to be true about themselves at some point in their lives.

Zahrah is Everygirl.

Zahrah is also a black girl. Zahrah, like real black girls, struggles with how to present her hair in a society that has beauty standards that go against what her body naturally does. I don’t remember seeing a black girl like this in any books I read when I was young, and man, would it have been gratifying. Zahrah is boring and ordinary, magical and extraordinary, and she’s also black, and every black girl should know that she’s magic, and every black girl should know that she’s Everygirl.

We fail all girls (all readers, really) when we don’t read and promote books like these properly. When we don’t buy them in the first place. And when you booktalk something like Zahrah as primarily about a black girl when, if it were about a white girl, you’d booktalk it as being about an ordinary girl who learns she’s not so ordinary, you fail. This is an everybook. This is why we don’t get closer to having equity and social justice in publishing. Because we look at a book cover like Zahrah and we’ve been trained to go “ugh! Black girl on the cover. Must be irrelevant to everyone else!” Because even well-meaning teachers and librarians fail to recall anything else about a book’s content once they know it’s a “diverse book,” and so they present it like medicine, not a good book.

I feel like I’m going in circles here, but look: Zahrah the Windseeker is a normal, good book about things you see in lots of other books. It has bonus points of recognition and real-world parallels, especially for black girls. They deserve that, because they don’t get it enough. They also deserve to have their white friends read such a book so that their white friends know the feeling of being a little bit outside and know the feeling of finding a friend in a book who is slightly not like them in some way.* But at its core, there is nothing about Zahrah the Windseeker that should turn off any reader who likes fantasy.

But there’s a black girl on the cover, so nobody does.

Get over it. Get over your instincts and pick up books like this anyway.

*The rest of us learned long ago to stretch and put ourselves in the bodies of others, and it’s important that white people learn that just because some aspects of an identity are unfamiliar doesn’t mean the entire experience is, nor does it mean that they shouldn’t have to try a little harder or be a little uncomfortable.

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One thought on “when good books go underrecognized because they have “diversity”: a case study

  1. Pingback: january reading in review | sarah HANNAH gómez

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