When I first ran across an upcoming graphic novel called A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library by Jack Gantos and Dave McKean my first thought was “Dear god, no.” As I saw some promo for the book begin I could only see the disaster coming slowly but surely down the road. As someone who grew up in a world where nearly all of my entertainment was soaked in colonialist attitudes (at best) this kind of “If only this poor ignorant brown child knew about LITERACY AND JOY!” attitude was all too clear, even while soaked in Noble White Empathy. At the very least, two white men, no matter now well intentioned, trying to tell a story about a Suicide Bomber Who Learns Better was doomed to get a well deserved dragging.

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I first saw this brewing on Twitter with publisher Zainab Akhtar, who wrote about it most succinctly in this thread.

https://twitter.com/comicsandcola/status/1064574767498432512

McKean offered some pushback on Twitter, but you could see his enthusiasm for the book waning as the troubling nature of the premise was discussed. The outcry grew, and soon a petition was launched to entreat publisher Abrams Comic Arts not to publish the book.

This book depicts an illiterate child suicide bomber, apparently of vague Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, who is deterred from his terrorist “mission” when he sees other children reading in the library. According to text on the back of the book, the young suicide bomber has an “unquestionable duty to his beliefs”— as if it is his faith that compels him to be a terrorist, as if he must act in opposition to his faith to show humanity. The premise alone is steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance.

Further, though the text refers to the characters as boys, the illustrations of brown-skinned individuals with receding hairlines and dark circles under their squinting, villainous eyes are dehumanizing and do not seem in any way child-like. Is this how Abrams believes Muslim/Middle Eastern/Arab/Pakistani children should see themselves? Or, adults for that matter? Is this the mirror you hold up to them? Is this the window that you think creates empathy?

And so, earlier this week, Abrams did the only thing they could, and announced the book was being withdrawn from publication:

ABRAMS has decided to withdraw publication of the adult graphic novel, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, which was to be published on its Abrams ComicArts list in May 2019.

While the intention of the book was to help broaden a discussion about the power of literature to change lives for the better, we recognize the harm and offense felt by many at a time when stereotypes breed division, rather than discourse. Therefore, together with the book’s creators, we have chosen to withdraw its release.

Although he stopped tweeting about it, McKean told the Guardian that he was no longer behind the project:

On Monday, McKean told the Guardian he felt it was “absolutely the right decision to bin the book”. “A few factors changed from the initiation of the project until now, and I’m sure we all have our own thoughts to take away from all this. I already had my doubts that a story like this should come from outside the community involved, and the arguments on Twitter convinced me that it shouldn’t,” he said. “I’ve listened and learned a hard but valuable lesson.”

G. Willow Wilson offered a lot of insight in a thread which guessed that the book originated as part of a CVE (countering violent extremism) program.

And perhaps the most obvious part again:

In other words, a book like Suicide Bomber will have no relevance to making potential terrorists rethink dangerous beliefs, but will do everything to make white people feel better about themselves because they have libraries and stuff. It’s missionaries converting the heathens all over again.

The Abrams statement has gotten some pushback – the claim that the book is for adults is not bourne out by earlier markting campaigns that sugegsted it was for kids  – and it doesn’t sound completely remorseful…but at least some lessons have been learned. But as Wilson suggests, when dealing with a topic this fraught and easily mishandled, maybe seeking voices from within the community is the best way to reach it. I don’t doubt that there were some good intentions behind this book, but the execution seems ham handed at best and dangerously flawed at worst.

 

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. “I don’t doubt that there were some good intentions behind this book…” but the publisher must be properly remoseful while suppressing it, and the whole matter should be written about in a borderline abusive tone.

  2. I looked it up a few days ago, and the original story by Jack Gantos was originally published in the 2016 anthology “Here I Stand: Stories That Speak For Freedom”, edited and/or published by Amnesty International UK. I can’t find any free previews of the whole book or the story itself online, though, and I don’t feel like paying $11 for the paperback. Not to mention that eBook copies are only available in the UK for some reason.

    In any case, that’s a detail that wasn’t mentioned in the above article. I assume that this graphic novelization would have been the story’s American debut.

  3. “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
    ― Ray Bradbury

    The lack of self-awareness in the line “will do everything to make white people feel better about themselves” is so powerful it could send Mankind to the stars and back again.

    The lesson for us all, of course, is about the flawed nature of humanity. It’s people on Heidi’s side of the aisle who have historically had to worry about their perspective and ideas being suppressed. So what do they do THE INSTANT they think they’ve got the power on their side?

    Mike

  4. There’s only one side of this story which keeps using the terms “brown kids” and “white dudes.” I guess to be politically correct, Gantos and McKean could have made a comic where a white kid sat in a library and decided not to blow other white people up.

  5. I think “Nick” is on to something (“a comic where a white kid sat in a library and decided not to blow other white people up”)!
    But don’t you just HATE when people-of-color are “erased”?!? That is just as BAD as when “white dudes” create portrayals of non-whites or non-dudes!

    How about: Shorten the narrative to 8-10 pages. Print the narrative a bunch of times in one book. In each repetition change the color/ethnicity/whatever of the characters: a black kid sat in a library and decided not to blow other black people up, a Chinese kid sat in a library and decided not to blow other Chinese people up, an Arab kid sat in a library and decided not to blow other Arab people up, etc, ad nausium…
    “representation” and a message of commonality and equality!
    But which comes first?
    Uh-oh.
    Shrink each page small enough to fit ALL the “page 1″s on one page, all the “page 2s” on one page, etc?
    Yes!
    Back to the presses!

    Actually, I do see that the story probably should have avoided the usage of a non-same-ethnicity character as the would-be terrorist. There are reasons why the choice to go “brown Muslim” may be viewed as valid, but the choice begs the reaction it got and doesn’t enhance the narrative IMO while alienating many potential readers. A Dylan Roof analog as the character would have probably met with zero derailment of the project.

    I’m not familiar with the author, but I mourn the loss of any Dave McKean publication and I hope he is guilty only of oversight. I admire his work very much.

  6. “Actually, I do see that the story probably should have avoided the usage of a non-same-ethnicity character as the would-be terrorist.”

    I’m sure female writers are thrilled to learn they won’t be allowed to write male characters any more. Just like Muslim authors will love only being allowed to write Muslims, Jews for Jews, etc.

    Mike

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