Sera Reycraft was an ordinary child growing up in South Korea until her mother married an American government official. The family picked up and moved to New Jersey, where Reycraft, now in the sixth grade, suddenly was thrust into a new culture. “I can remember the sense of alienation during those early days in my new country, in a new school. I remember turning to books, searching for characters that looked like me,” she later recalled. The experience inspired her to create Reycraft Books, whose inaugural #OwnBooks line features authors who channel the “feelings and experiences” of children from different backgrounds.
As part of this project, Reycraft collaborated with Ana Sanfelippo, an Argentinian illustrator whose lively creations perfectly suit the children’s book market. This year, Sanfelippo’s work appeared in Reycraft’s new release, The Most Awesome Character in the World, a heartwarming story about a hearing-impaired girl called Philomena, who lives in a world of her own imagination. The author is Adam Pottle, a Saskatchewan author whose work, in his own words, “explores the fiery beauty of deafness and disability.” What could more faithfully capture the #OwnBooks ethos than this collective creative act by people emerging from three continents? I mean, seriously, how could this — this — end in tears?
For those who want to order The Most Awesome Character in the World from the Reycraft website, don’t bother. I tried on Thursday, but all I found was that tell-tale calling card from the cancel-culture fairy: “Server Error 404-File or directory not found.”
He’s furiously cancelling himself in front of the whole world
If I wrote a column every time someone’s book or column got spiked for idiotic reasons these days, I’d have multiple daily bylines. But every once in a while, an episode stands out as particularly absurd, and I really do need to let the world know. And this is one of them. You see, the campaign against Pottle isn’t being led by an angry ex-girlfriend. He didn’t use the wrong pronoun, say that all lives matter, or Toobin his colleagues on a Zoom call. In fact, the only person coming after Pottle’s book is Pottle himself. This Canadian artist has become the world’s first cancel-culture soloist. He’s furiously cancelling himself in front of the whole world.
The problem began when Pottle received an advanced copy of his book a few weeks ago. The proud author flipped to a page on which the illustrator had drawn what a Huffington Post reporter who’d seen the book describes as “an Asian girl in a wheelchair wearing a kimono with her hair styled in two buns.” Naturally, Pottle “consulted with a sensitivity reader, who” — quelle surprise — ”also agreed the artwork was culturally insensitive,” HuffPo informs us. “When he asked the publisher to remove or edit the character, Pottle claimed that the publisher rejected his request on the grounds that they didn’t find the Asian girl’s depiction offensive, as it was based on two wrestlers’ outfits and ‘Princess Leia’s hair buns.’ They also denied his requests for a deaf illustrator, (Pottle) said.”
Imagine that. An Asian girl who likes Star Wars — drawn by someone who can hear. It’s as if Joseph Goebbels still walks among us.
On Twitter, where Pottle writes about his disability and describes himself as a “settler,” the Saskatchewan white dude proceeded to raise the hue and cry against the anti-Asian racism being inflicted on Asians by the inclusion of an Asian character in a book published by an Asian-owned publisher and illustrated by a Latin-American woman. And when the publisher properly told him to dry his white man’s tears, he began with the passive aggressive tweeting that now has become the trite King’s Pawn opening in every cancel-culture melodrama. “Your silence is quite revealing,” he tweeted at @ReycraftBooks. “It saddens me deeply that you will not include me in the conversation.” Again: this is over a drawing of an Asian kid dressed like a space princess.
We talk a lot about privilege. Who has it, and who doesn’t. One mark of privilege is that you either don’t care about — or don’t need — the money you earn from a book that took you months or years to create. This children’s book was a side-project for Pottle. Over the past few years, he’s written poetry, authored earnest non-fiction tracts about deafness, taught at the University of Regina, and staged theatrical productions at high-concept regional theatres. In other words, the whole wide swathe of government-funded arts and letters. In this sort of milieu, the idea that a book might be pulped because of a nonsense complaint — or reprinted in altered form, at great expense — has a weird kind of logic. Everyone is playing with house money, and what matters most to an artist-scholar is his or her record of ideological puritanism. But Reycraft Books, a New York-based company that actually has budgets and payrolls to meet without a lot of help from, say, the Ontario Arts Council or the Saskatchewan Arts Board, is a different story. They don’t have Pottle’s privilege.
I have a certain amount of grudging respect for these art-house onanists and government teat-milkers. It takes a lot of chutzpah to spend all day on Twitter calling racism and genocide on the same governments that fund your poetry chapbooks and angry friends-and-family theatre shows. Indeed, for all I know, Pottle’s hissy fit was actually some kind of elaborate, publicly funded performance-art sketch intended to call attention to the invisible systems of oppression embedded within our neo-colonial something or other. Like every baby looking for a bottle, he should be able to act out as he pleases. I just don’t want my tax dollars used to mop up the mess.
As I’ve noted in the past, the current wave of cancel-culture censorship isn’t really censorship per se, because there’s no government involvement. These are basically crowdsourced cancel-culture performances that are staged within subcultural silos. Adam Pottle has admittedly broken new ground with his one-man show. But in other regards, he is a perfect specimen of the genre: under the false flag of social justice, he’s seeking to undermine two women — one Asian, the other Latin American — so he can protect readers from a fictional thoughtcrime. It’s performative masculine vanity masquerading as virtue.
But even if such displays are rooted in private hubris, public policy does play an enabling role. The reason these cancel-culture enforcers are free to act as they do is that they know they’ll be applauded for their spectacles by the faculty committees and arts-funding councils that control their real income. More generally, they receive a steady stream of hearts and likes and hand-clap emojis from a Canadian arts community that tends to scorn its few true successes while celebrating the misanthropes and obscurities who prowl Twitter seeking to cancel one another. It’s basically Tall Poppy Syndrome in social-justice cosplay.
Last year, to take one of many examples, Gwen Benaway was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. Benaway’s maudlin, X-rated verse reads like something out of a Vogon spaceship. But having identified as both trans and Indigenous, Benaway presented the awards committee with a hashtag twofer. (Plus, the CBC found Benaway useful as someone to put on the radio any time they needed to bash around Meghan Murphy and other “TERFs.” And I need scarcely mention that the CBC has already done at least one puff piece on Pottle, too.) In recent months, however, it was revealed — by Benaway’s former friend, and CanLit troll par excellence Alicia Elliott, no less — that Benaway isn’t actually Indigenous, but is in fact as white as me and my dude Adam Pottle. But by that time, no one cared, because the Toronto arts crowd had moved on to newer, angrier and (if possible) more obscure Trans Indigenous twofers. Just this week, in fact, the white-shoe Rosedale-funded Writers’ Trust conferred its annual honours upon Arielle Twist, a “Halifax-based transgender poet, sex educator and visual artist.” Poems in Twist’s new book include Dear White, Cis Men and Cum Etiquette, and the title page bears the funding symbols of the British Columbia Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Book Publishing Tax Credit Program. This is the only country in the world where our most lauded artists have more awards and grants than actual readers.