Warning: This review contains discussion of sexism, racism and violence.
Several people recommended Karsten Knight’s Wildefire to me because I’m Polynesian, Tongan, and this is one of the only YA novel featuring a Polynesian lead that they knew about. The concept is promising, a Polynesian female lead with the powers of a goddess. Unfortunately, Wildefire not only doesn’t deliver on that promise, it so woefully misrepresents Polynesian culture and women in general, I found it offensive.
Sexism, Violence and Bad Dialogue
She spent the better part of each day feeling like a grizzly in the polar bear cage, and now Lizzie Jacobs was poking her with a stick through the bars.
The book opens on the lead character, Ash, brutally beating another girl for “stealing her boyfriend.” This is an unnecessarily long and heavily detailed scene of excessive violence. At one point Ash hits her rival, Lizzie, so hard the other girl breaks off the side mirror of a vehicle with her face. Ash even “experiences a pleasurable surge of victory” when Lizzie flinches away from her after being beat down. Let me remind you Ash is supposed to be the hero of the story.
“showed this whorish man-stealing bottom feeder, who has terrible split ends, a little bit of street justice.”
This depiction of violence and sexism is not only shown as acceptable but admirable, especially in its use by women against other women, all throughout the book. Ash takes great joy in sneering sexist slurs at her victim as well as all the other female characters. She isn’t alone in her violent, misogynistic behavior. Eve, her sister and the villain, is even more vicious. The sister’s clash everything they interact and one of their confrontations results in the murder of another teenager girl. This volatile relationship, and their emerging powers, are primary conflict of the story. This could have been really interesting, but their ridiculously over the top characterizations reduced the story to sexist cautionary tale about perils of women with power, with the added bonus of the racist stereotype of “angry brown girls.”
I cringed while reading these caricatures of teenage girls spewed some the most laughably bad dialogue I have ever had the displeasure to read. Teenage girls don’t talk like this. No human being does. Characters walk into scenes rattling off exposition in a stream of consciousness, often bring the momentum of scenes to a screeching halt. “Snarky” one-liners are shoehorned into almost every conversation. Ironically the overwrought, often bizarre metaphors, like the “grizzly in a polar bear cage,” end up being a lot funnier than any of the “witty” banter. It’s clear the intention of both the snark and bewildering metaphors is to impress, but sadly it have the exact opposite affect.
Context, Colonialism and Cultural (Mis)Representation
“I grew up a Polynesian chick raised by white Jewish upper-class parents in a white Jewish upper-class neighborhood, and they weren’t exactly overflowing with information about my heritage.”
While Wildefire is marketed on featuring Polynesian mythology and a Polynesian character there is a distinct lack of true representation in the book itself. The fact that Ash is Tahitian is only mentioned, by other characters, a whopping three times in the entire book. Ash, herself, only ever self identifies as Polynesian, when she bothers to speak about her ethnicity at all. She is completely alienated from and ignorant about her own culture. While it is understandable for Ash to feel close to her foster parents and identify heavily with American culture due to her upbringing, the narrative takes it a step further by casting her sister, the only other Polynesian character in the story, as the villain.
This is a classic example of Tokenism, a kind that is popular in the urban fantasy genre. Having a lead of color raised by white people gives that character, and by extension the author, a “legitimate” claim to the culture and their mythology (which is usually the source of their supernatural powers), while still keeping them relatable for the white readers and easy to write for a white author. Putting a Polynesian face on what is essentially a white characters isn’t diversity. It’s cultural appropriation.
An author, ignorant of culture and its history, often uses the most readily available information on that culture most of which are based on racist misinformation. Consequentially, they end up perpetuating damaging stereotypes, even replicating the discrimination and oppression experienced by people of color in stories featuring us. Which is exactly the case with Wildefire.
“I don’t give a shit if we were discovered abandoned in the same hut in the Pacific. Hell, I don’t care if we crawled out of the ass of the same sea monster.”
When we put Wildefire‘s portrayal of Ash and Eve’s ethnicity and powers into historical context it is easy to see how it mirrors the legacy misrepresentation of not just Polynesians but all indigenous people. Colonial propaganda is woven into the cultural consciousness of America. Popular media both classic and new regurgitate these stereotypes about indigenous people again and again. We are cast as bloodthirsty witch doctors, savage cannibals and even seductive fiery volcano goddesses. These stereotypes inform how people view us, and even influence those who seek to write about us.
Inaccuracy, (Dis)Respect, and Racism
When asked why he chose to write about a Polynesian character Karsten Knight responded:
“…I drank a lot of Hawaiian punch while I was growing up, so in some ways, I’m an honorary Polynesian. [..] the Polynesian myths are some of my favorites. There’s just something seductive, tropical, and exotic about the island myths.” [source]
Knight’s casual use of fetishistic terms like “seductive” and “exotic” along with his little racist joke clearly illustrates just how little respect he has for Polynesian people and our culture. This was no surprise to me since his lack of consideration and casual racist humor is present in every page of his book.
Ash degrades her own culture and casually uses racist jokes to demean herself and other characters of color. Words like “clay-colored” and “earthen” are used to describe both Ash and another woman of colors’ skin tone. I shouldn’t have to explain why equating brown skin with dirt is offensive. However, it’s the inaccuracies in the portrayals of all the non-white cultures featured in the story that really shows how little care was put into writing this book.
In the book “Shango” is referred to as the “Zulu god of thunder.” There is no Zulu god of thunder named Shango. However, Shango is a deity featured in Haitian Vodou, he originates from the pantheon of the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria.
The Egyptian goddess Isis is described as “the goddess of the dead.” The powers of her mortal incarnation in the story involved raising the dead and sucking life out of the living. This shows a profound misunderstanding not only of the goddess Isis, but of Egyptian religion and their view of death. While Isis is a guardian of the dead, and children, she is primarily known as the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic. Isis is a figure of wisdom and symbol of life, not a zombie making life sucker.
Then there is Pele, a central figure in this book, who is completely misrepresented as a “harbinger of chaos” because she is associated with a volcano. Polynesian people do not view volcanoes the way that many Western Europeans do. Pele, not unlike Isis, is a guardian figure. She is not feared, but revered and loved by the Hawaiian people. In fact, it was once a tradition to offer the bodies of the dead to Mt Kilauea in the hope they would live on with Pele in her beautiful home inside the volcano.
It was white explorers who arrived in Hawaii who judged the people to be primitive savages and cast their revered goddess into the roll of a shallow, Disney villain. Karsten Knight is continuing that racist legacy of rebranding a powerful female figure as sexist cliche. While Knight’s ignorance is understandable, it is still unforgivable.
Diversity isn’t simply the presence of marginalized people in a story, but rather it should be the respectful representation of them and their cultures. After all, there are a lot of black people in Gone with the Wind, but it will never be listed as a diverse book and neither should Wildefire.