#IMWAYR (12/7/2020): Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky
For #IMWAYR, I am writing my post about the graphic novel Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky in an unusual format: as a letter to the author of the book herself (not necessarily for her to read, but just because it makes sense). I hope you will soon see why.
Before we get to that, I should mention that this book is appropriate for MG readers, but since it is a romance story, I classified it as YA.
Dear Jessi Zabarsky,
Hello. I am a book blogger "named" Completely Full Bookshelf. You might know me as—OK, never mind, there is no chance you know me. That is fine. Normally, I am an overenthusiastic book reviewer, but I have had a tendency in the past to, well, skewer the books that have flaws that upset me. I have realized now that doing this is immature, and I want to do better. So here I am. (I'm sure you're not thrilled to keep reading, but I promise I will try to be kind.)
I am writing this letter because Witchlight evoked very strong feelings in me. Your story, of Sanja (the top character on the cover, to my readers) meeting the witch Lelek and of them slowly falling in love through sword practice, travels through beautiful villages, and the search for something that Lelek is missing, is one that I truly enjoyed. And I wish everyone could enjoy it. Unfortunately, as I read this story, I noticed elements within it that I would argue are racist and that I believe will upset some readers, particularly Black readers. As such, I want to praise the elements of this story that I loved and bring to your attention the ones that could be improved in your future graphic novels or in a potential second edition (hint, hint, Random House Graphic).
I am always—always—on board for more same-sex romance stories, and Witchlight does not just give readers like me such a romance, it gives readers like me a romance that is truly delightful. Sanja and Lelek start out as many lovers do: with one completely disliking the other! And yet, they slowly start to find that spark between them. But then you did something rare: you chose to go further. You created a relationship where the characters are not just superficial passionate lovers, but characters who truly care about one another. Sanja and Lelek learn about each other, and support each other, and make sacrifices for each other, and work together to create a new life for themselves. YA romance loves to sit around in the dreamy "aren't-they-so-hot-and-look-they're-mine!" phase of romance, but your story chooses to depict a truly healthy relationship that blooms over time and has lasting power. That is impressive.
I often read books that lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Everything that is in them is well-executed, but they lack something that really pulls readers in. I am pleased to say that your book does not lack that. Watching Sanja and Lelek travel through countless villages, discovering their beauty, getting caught up in a bit of fun violence along the way, and meeting a diverse bunch of characters who we get to know impressively well in a short amount of time, is almost meditative. Your emotional gut-punches are well-placed, but they also never ruin the beauty and joy, both quiet and loud, of this story. It helps that your art is absolutely gorgeous. It occurred to me that this is the sort of art you would see on laptop stickers or a cute reusable cup in a hipster shop in my local historic district, which is in every way a compliment—that is an impressive vibe to evoke so well! Your art style is almost chibi-cute, but nevertheless expressive and emotive, with plenty of motion and action to be found. And the colors! I have never seen such vivid and expressive colors, from the seafoam greens of the forest to the golden hues of campfires and magic to the deep blues of Lelek's memories, in any graphic novel. The art of Witchlight is truly marvelous.
Now, I must get to my criticisms. There are a number of points in this story that felt at least somewhat racist to me. Some of them I think were wholly unnecessary, and others could have served an interesting purpose if they had been more properly expanded upon and dealt with than they were in the story. First of all, I was displeased to see Lelek, who appears to be Black, being depicted as a con artist and then essentially kidnapping Sanja. Both of these characterizations play into negative and false stereotypes of Black people, and although you might argue that Lelek's combative nature is part of her character, I would say that such a nature could be preserved while toning down these problematic characterizations. Next, Sanja's conduct toward Lelek is quite concerning at times. At one point, after Lelek attacks her with her hands and feet instead of a sword during sword practice, Sanja yells at her, "Were you raised by animals?" There is a disturbing and long history of Black people being referred to as animals, savages, subhuman, etc. as a justification for prejudice, discrimination, and even slavery, so Sanja throwing this insult around like it is nothing was quite concerning to me. As another example, there is a place in the story where Sanja assumes that Lelek has stolen something (again, another harmful stereotype), and though I was pleased to see Lelek call her out on it, I was not pleased to see that Sanja never apologized. Within the story, you make it clear both that Sanja tends to obey her family and that her family holds some strong prejudices, thus laying the groundwork for Sanja to learn how she, like so many other people in the real world, has been socialized by her family to hold prejudices herself that she must learn to overcome. However, you never allow Sanja to have this realization, and her cruelties are simply dropped as though they never happened. At one other point in the story, Sanja says to Lelek that her long hair must be getting in her way and asks if she wants Sanja to cut it, and considering the history of White people commenting on/touching/rejecting the hairstyles of Black people in the United States, I thought this moment was completely unnecessary.
There is one other element of your story, which occurs at the end, that I think merits a particularly nuanced (read: lengthy) discussion. It seems to me that the end of your story is attempting to be an allegory for real-life racism, considering that similarly irrational prejudice (also toward Lelek, but not because of her skin color) results in truly awful things occurring. After said awful things occur, Lelek and Sanja discuss what has happened, and Lelek essentially states the main theme of the story. She says that, though she does not forgive the aggressor for what has happened, she now tries to remember that most people are kind at heart. She then essentially posits that the fear and distrust Lelek has previously had of other people is the same kind of fear that the aggressor has toward Lelek. I have considered this idea, and, as I have realized so many times in the last few days of my own life, I do not think anything is ever this black-or-white (unfortunate terminology, I know). It is hard to grapple with the idea that kind people can be horribly unkind for the most ridiculous reasons, and it is hard to draw the line of where a person moves from a kind person making mistakes/doing bad things to a bad person themselves. Some might argue that line does not exist at all—thinking about the classwork I have been recently working on regarding the United States's history of systemic racism, I would be hesitant to classify anyone involved in it, from the politicians who created Jim Crow for their own political benefit to the people who committed horrible and public hate crimes and lynchings, as kind people making mistakes or doing bad things. Honestly, I would be somewhat hesitant to use that classification toward the aggressor in your own story. I think we must recognize that there is a difference between Lelek's distrust, which (assuming it is an allegory for real life) comes from decades and centuries of horrific treatment, and the aggressor's distrust, which comes from irrational societal norms and no real-life experiences. However, there is something in your theme that I do appreciate. While I believe Lelek, like any Black person, has every right to be angry if not livid toward their continued mistreatment in our world, the idea that Witchlight posits, that there may be more to it than a person automatically being horrible, is not incorrect. In some situations, particularly ones that do not involve violence, enslavement, or other atrocities, I do feel inclined to look further. And that brings me to my next point.
I do not know why these racist elements are present in your story. There are enough of them that I did have to ask myself if they were intentionally hidden in the book. However, I simply do not believe that is the case. I was not present for the writing and revising of Witchlight, so as much as I would like to assume that I know how much these elements were thought about or what ignorance or malice caused them to pop up in your book, I simply do not know. And so it is not fair of me to use the anger that is present in me, as a White person horrified by how much racism remains in our society, as a weapon against you and your story. Lelek's idea is not something I agree with in most cases, but I think it applies here. I am choosing to assume that you are a kind person who made a mistake. As I learned from my own recent experience, the world is not either/or. I can choose to be upset with the lack of care in some of this story's elements while acknowledging that you intended to create a meaningful story about prejudice. I can value the contribution you have made to the world with many aspects of Witchlight while pushing you to do better in your future work. I can stand up for the Black readers who will be hurt that your story does not adequately represent them while not rejecting you, your own humanity, and your own hard work. And so here I am. I loved Witchlight, and it makes it clear to me that you have quite a bit of talent as an author/illustrator. I simply want everyone, of any race, to be able to enjoy this story in the way that I did. I ask you to be more careful in the stories that you put into the world in the future, and I look forward to seeing what you can do with more sensitive depictions of all of your characters. I imagine it will be something great indeed.
Completely Full Bookshelf
Update (2/6/2021): My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!