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[Minor edits for style and clarity made on 2/23/12.]

In The Boy at the End of the World, I describe Fisher, the protagonist,  as darkly pigmented.

Here are the passages:

From pages 17 and 18, when Click is telling Fisher about the concept of clothing:

Your skin is darkly pigmented to give you some protection from sun exposure.

And on page 106, when Fisher is looking at his reflection in water.

His own reflection stared back him, dark and lean and scratched.

I wrote Fisher as a boy who is artificially bred in a pod from a broad mix of genetic material. He’s a far-future analog to a person of mixed race.

Maybe now’s a good time to say a few words about myself. My parents are both Dutch-Indonesian, or Indo. That means something else than just the offspring of one Dutch parent and one Indonesian parent. Indos came about from the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, and from those colonists having children with Indonesians, giving rise to a distinct culture, neither Dutch nor Indonesian.

I am multiracial. My skin is light brown. My features are a mix of, well, Dutch and Indonesian. People often don’t know what to make of me. When people see me, sometimes they see a person of color. Sometimes they see an Asian person. (Indonesia is in Asia, so that makes sense.) Sometimes they see a Latino person. Sometimes they see a white guy with a tan. When people don’t know what you are, they will sometimes project their own expectations on you. It’s totally fine. I don’t get offended when they mistake me for something I’m not. If they’re interested, I’m always more than happy to talk about my racial and ethnic background.

As I said, Fisher’s a mix of things. Growing up, I didn’t see many brown-skinned heroes on book covers, and I wanted to look at Fisher on the cover and be able to see someone whom I could imagine being me.

When it came time to develop the cover, my publisher asked for my input. Often, authors have no participation in the development of their covers, so I was really pleased that Bloomsbury asked for my thoughts. I found a graphic from an anthropology website showing the range of human skin tones across the world (there’re a lot more than just white, brown, and black), and I indicated the range of skin tones I thought would be right for Fisher.

In the first version of the cover, Fisher’s skin tone was well within the range I’d indicated. The problem was that he was standing in shadow, and what looked brown in a color swatch looked like white skin in shadow on the cover. The hair was too light, too, I thought.

My editor sent the art back to the artist. After another couple of attempts, I thought they got it right. I look at Fisher, and you know what I see? I see a brown kid. He could be multiracial. He could be Indo. Maybe people will see a Latino kid. Maybe they’ll see a kid from somewhere in Asia. If people see a white kid with a tan, that’s okay, too. I like that people don’t know quite what to make of him. It feels cozily familiar.

When I look at Fisher on the cover, I see someone who could have been me when I was twelve. As a brown, ethnically ambiguous, multiracial person, I’m really happy about that.

(By the way, comments are welcome, but I screen them. Not because I fear controversy, but because spammers are EATING MY SOUL. If you post a comment — and you’re not a SOUL-EATING SPAMBOT — it’ll appear as soon as I get a chance to unscreen it.)

Crossposted from Greg van Eekhout. You can comment here or there.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2011 06:54 pm (UTC)
This is a great post, thanks.

I think it's easy to forget sometimes that world isn't binary. It's particularly good to see some of that in-betweenness represented.

Can't wait to get my copy!!
Jun. 20th, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
Fisher looks a lot like LB, colorationwise, on the cover, so, while I didn't give it any thought, he's in the "swarthy desert folk" category in my head (my own color pallette). I generally don't think of the color of a character, unless it's integral to the plot. For example, with NK Jemison's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I had very clearly in mind that the main character was different than the dominant culture where she was, I didn't have it that she was black and they were white (though it's explicit that she's dark skinned, her being from the "far north" I think overrode that and I made her paler in my mind than the darker dominant culture.)
Jun. 30th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
IIRC the main character in HTK was supposed to be a Native American-esque analogue?
Jun. 21st, 2011 12:24 am (UTC)
Cousin Ellen
I see Indo! Congratulations on your newest book.
Jun. 21st, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
Re: Cousin Ellen
Oh, good, so it's not just me, then.

Jun. 21st, 2011 01:38 am (UTC)
I love this post. Being Italian, back when I was a kid, was no more "white" than the Latinos of today. My sister and brother are red-heads with pale skin (thanks to an English great grandmother) while my older brother and I are ITALIANS. We grew up in a very Dutch neighborhood, and were the "ethnics" that were going to bring the place down. I don't recall seeing my face on book covers or in movies either--unless it was the seductress character. (Hmmm...not too shabby!)

I'm glad Fisher turned out just the way you wanted him to. I can't wait to see for myself!
Jun. 21st, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
awesome! :)

(also I'm half dutch so we must be related, right? ;)
Jun. 30th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
Dude, you are sooo lucky. (Not just because authors rarely get any input at all.) Running http://racebending.com I regularly get emails from book readers decrying the whitewashing on book covers. It happens probably more often than in movies and it is often more blatant since the cover will contradict what is written inside. And it can happen to anyone, even Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin. Sometimes it isn't whitewashing but seemingly-deliberate obfuscation (eg: Midnight Riot)

It's funny and also kind of sad. One of the most interesting emails I got was from a woman who worked at a chain bookstore (Barnes and Noble, I think) in a big city with a lot of families of color. These families may come in and spend almost every weekend afternoon in the book store, especially if they cannot afford that many books at home, only buying one or two books every few months if at all.

These kids are often excited to see books with kids that "look like them" on the cover. But she said it's hard for her to find books like that. On the flip side, she also likes to recommend books with protags of color to kids who are white. Maybe your book will be one of those books.

This year, more non-white babies were born than white babies, and this trend will probably hold through next year and following. If Boy at the End of the World is still being sold with this cover or a similar one ten years from now, you're capitalizing on a pretty good market.
Jul. 1st, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
Whitewashing is a HUGE problem in book publishing. It seems every publishing season brings a new, egregious example. Some people felt my cover was an example of it, and while I respect them for their vigilance and for speaking out, I honestly disagree with them and I felt I needed to make a simple, non-confrontational statement.

Jul. 1st, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
Huh. Interestingly enough, I have not heard anyone saying the cover of The Boy at the End of the World was an example of whitewashing.
Jul. 1st, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
That could be more a function of people not talking about the book or even being aware of it, but here's one discussion.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I can see being bummed that you can't really see Fisher's face and he's in the shadows (it has been used to obscure characters' ethnicities before, eg: Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix books.) But to me the cover makes it pretty clear that he is brown, which is better than a lot of covers.

Bloomsbury has a terrible track record for this stuff, so I can see why they would be concerned.
Jul. 1st, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and the overall composition was there from the earliest sketches, before the artist knew he should be painting a brown dude.

Bloomsbury worked hard to get this one right, I'm happy to say.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )