On TJ Klune, being good allies and cancel culture

CW: I will be discussing Canadian residential schools in this post. I won’t be going into any great detail – frankly they’re a part of North American history I still need to educate myself on – but I wanted to mention it straight away in case any of you don’t feel up to reading about the recent news in Canada yet again. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain that Canada’s Indigenous communities are going through right now, and the pain they’ve been going through for centuries.

So at the end of May the news broke that the remains of 215 children had been discovered at The Kamloops Indian residential school in Canada, a Roman Catholic school established in 1890 and closed in 1978. These residential schools were set up to separate Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures and ‘civilise’ them, and they’re a product of European colonialism. The horror that so many children experienced at these schools is despicable. It wasn’t enough to completely remove these children from their families, many of them were subjected to abuse, including sexual abuse, torture and murder. It’s a horrendous part of history, and that so many of us can turn away from it is a privilege when there are Indigenous communities continuing to live with that trauma. In fact the last of these schools closed in 1996. I was five years old. In the realm of history, this practically happened yesterday.

In the wake of this news, when many Indigenous people were brave enough to share their experiences or their family’s experiences online, and petitions were being shared across the internet, a couple of interviews with TJ Klune on The House in the Cerulean Sea resurfaced and some readers across Twitter began their cancelling campaign. In two interviews (here and here) Klune talked about how he had an idea for The House in the Cerulean Sea which was further inspired when he came across the ‘Sixties Scoop’ and learned about Canada’s residential schools which, as an American man, he hadn’t been taught about in school himself.

Many readers immediately took to Goodreads to change their rating to 1 star – that’ll show ’em! – or to remove the book from their TBR, and I have a lot of complicated feelings about the whole thing.

I am disappointed in Klune because I haven’t seen him sharing any of the petitions or talking about the recent discovery of the 215 bodies. If you are influenced by a trauma that didn’t happen to your people, I do think the decent thing to do is to devote some of your time and your platform to helping them in the wake of such news. I felt the same way when authors such as Jay Kristoff and Marissa Meyer, who have both written books influenced by Japan and China respectively, were completely silent in the wake of the attacks against Asian women in the US earlier this year. He did recently share something on Twitter about not being in a good mental health space, and everyone deserves time to take care of their mental health, but it has been over two weeks since the news broke and it’s a shame he’s said nothing.

That said, I feel very uncomfortable with the amount of white voices I’ve seen declaring they’re no longer going to support the book or they’re removing it from their TBR. Frankly, unless you are from one of the communities directly hurt by this horrendous news, I don’t care what you think, and you’re taking up space that we should be giving to Indigenous voices right now. What is removing TJ Klune from your TBR going to do, unless you’re replacing that slot with an Indigenous author?

I guess that’s what I find most uncomfortable about this. There was so much discussion around TJ Klune over on book Twitter, which is such a toxic place anyway, that could have been taken up with recommendations of educational books or books by Indigenous authors that have nothing to do with residential schools, because we shouldn’t only be interested in what these communities have to say when they’re discussing generational trauma. We should be reading their happy stories, too, and reading them because they’re good authors, not so we can say we’ve ticked an Indigenous box.

It was also frustrating to see people sharing the interviews with ‘Why is no one talking about this?’ – well, because barely anyone had seen the interviews. I know I hadn’t and I never would have made the connection between The House in the Cerulean Sea and Canadian residential schools if I hadn’t seen it, and I don’t think most other people would have either. Also Indigenous people have been talking about this – this being the actual residential schools that really existed, and not a fictional orphanage in a fantasy book – for years. Can we please stop acting like we’re discovering information as though it’s the first time it’s ever been discovered?

Ultimately reading books, or choosing not to read them, isn’t going to help the communities these people on Twitter are trying to defend, at least not right now. Wanting to educate ourselves is fantastic, but putting together a book list so we can feel like better allies isn’t going to do anything for the communities who are hurting. Cool, so you removed TJ Klune from your TBR – now what? Are you going to donate money to a charity? Sign and share a petition? Participate in activism?

What are you going to do now?

6 thoughts on “On TJ Klune, being good allies and cancel culture

  1. Pingback: February Reads
  2. dinipandareads says:

    Really great post, Jess (and I love what you’ve written in the comment, too)! I took a step away from the interwebs (especially Twitter!) recently so I must’ve missed this about TJ Klune so thanks for putting this info on my radar! How disappointing that he hasn’t said anything especially since he was inspired by what he learned about the residential schools! It now makes me feel weird to say it was my favourite book last year but I also would’ve never made that connection myself nor had I ever taken the time to look up interviews TJ Klune has done about the book. The internet, especially Twitter, can be quite the scary and intimidating space where if you don’t ‘hop on the bandwagon’ to immediately condemn or cancel someone you’re automatically just as bad as they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

      Thanks Dini! I don’t think you need to feel weird – as much he gained some inspiration from the residential schools, and therefore should definitely be using his platform to spread awareness and support Canada’s Indigenous communities, I don’t think the book as a whole is some kind of residential school retelling. It’s a lovely book full of a lot of hope, which is what so many of us needed after the hellfire year that was 2020. I guess this is the kind of thing I mean – we can love things and people while still also being critical, it doesn’t need to be a black and white situation where TJ Klune is either an angel or the devil incarnate because that’s not how the world is.


  3. JonBob says:

    So relieving to see some nuance about this. I only saw bits and pieces cos I’m actively trying to stop paying attention to the psychopathic twitter mob, but the bits I did see were just off the charts absurd. I always find it strange when people say cancel culture isn’t real, I see twitter trying to cancel someone every other day, usually for the most banal reasons. Remember a few months ago when that author was mean to reviewers and people review bombed her book and tried to get it pulled by the publisher haha.

    We can and should be critical of the things we like (and the things we don’t), but a lot of people have no concept of nuanced critical thought. It’s either ‘everything is grand’ or ‘this person is the incarnation of evil and needs to be ground into dust’. It’s very reasonable to be disappointed in Klune for not saying anything about what happened given the subject matter of his book, but it hardly warrants the kind of cancellation campaign mounted against him. You mention it yourself, it’s all just performative nonsense; it’s simply easier for people to go after someone for not being perfect enough online than to do the hard work of doing anything actually meaningful in the real world (or anything genuinely helpful online for that matter). It’s just optics, it makes them appear to other people like they’re doing something, like ‘they’re on the right side’ with minimal effort or work. Right wingers use the term ‘virtue signalling’ and honestly, they’re right. So many people just want to signal to everyone else that they’re an ‘ally’ without actually doing anything.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

      I do think a hell of a lot of people online, and offline tbh, have completely lost the ability to debate. There will always be people who say and do things that are unforgiveable, but at the same time people also make mistakes all the time and now those mistakes can live forever if they’re made on the internet. I must admit I do think that author you mentioned was not a great person – at one point she equated getting a bad review to being sexually assaulted, which is gross – but I also didn’t see the point in people who hadn’t even read or even heard of the good heading over to Goodreads to give it a 1 star review. Should her agent or publisher have a word with her about the way she treats reviewers? Absolutely, but giving her book a bunch of 1 star ratings does sod all in the grand scheme of things.

      Yeah, and it makes everyone who does read things critically look bad when other people take it to mean ‘this author wrote this one questionable thing, therefore I hate everything they’ve ever done or will do’. Lately I’ve been getting frustrated with the amount of people who don’t seem to get that just because a character believes something it doesn’t mean the author does, and I think trying to ‘cancel’ an author for what they write is not it. If an author is a known racist/sexist/ableist/homophobe/transphobe etc. then I have no problem people mentioning that so that I can avoid giving that author money – authors like Orson Scott Card, who is a raging homophobe, is someone I never want to support – but we have to work towards the world we want to see while also acknowledging that making mistakes is part of the human condition, and we need to give people the opportunity to grow, and we can’t step in and speak over the communities that are harmed if they’re not communities we’re part of.

      Liked by 1 person

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