This was a tough one. After I stopped reading Wallflower I had to take a break to gather my thoughts. I wanted to explain my issues with it without just writing off as a huge offensive mess, because it isn't a bad book. However it does have some big problems. I'm going to do my best to tackle my issues with the book, while still giving it credit for trying.
To be fair, I went into reading Wallflower with the expectation that it was about an open/out trans/genderqueer character finding love, which it is not. That expectation in combination with how the issues of gender and ethnic identity, as well as racism, were mishandled ruined the book for me.
This isn't a bad book. In fact, I really enjoyed parts of it, like the main character and the authentic feel of the dialogue. The writing and characterizations are very strong. Rob's story is refreshing and compelling in that it deals with how gender identity, sexuality and culture affects how people views themselves, other people and navigate through life in general. I think we need more books that tackle how all these things are interconnected.
It was also wonderful to see a non-white character not only at the center of the story, but to see their romantic partner be person of color too. That is so rare even in mainstream romance novels. It also doesn't make their ethnicity a footnote, but instead puts both Rob and Dylan’s ethnicity at the forefront of the narrative. Even though I have issues with how their ethnicity is handled, I still appreciate the effort at representation was made. Rob's experience of being Asian is an integral part of his point of view. Societies' view of Asian women is especially influential in how Rob constructs a female persona to expresses his sexuality, and why that persona and Rob's view of women are so problematic, but I'll go into that a little later.
Wallflower provides a narrative for that quiet person in the background who people see, but may never truly notice. It places that soft spoken, complex person at the center of their own story. For that, I think it is a wonderful book.
Unfortunately, there were some big problems that took away from my enjoyment of this story and left me so frustrated I couldn't finish. While I feel the intention of this book came from a good place the impact wasn't so great. Let me be clear, I think this book tried to be inclusive, and fair in its representation of gender fluidity, homosexuality and ethnicity, but I think it failed more often than it succeeded, especially when it came to handling racism.
There is also a lot of casual transphobia, misgendering and general ignorance about gender indignity in Rob's internal monologue, which is understandable given his character's ignorance about these issues and his own struggle with own identity. Unfortunately since Rob is the primary POV in story there isn't a lot, if any facts presented to counter the misinformation (at least up to the point I stopped reading).
Now, it's important to clarify that I did stop reading at 30%, though I did skim through the rest and found even more disturbing issues in the later parts of the book. Many of the issue may have been resolved later in the book, but I think it is really important to understand that if a book like this starts out with these issues it might trigger or just frustrate readers so intensely they will never make it through the rest of the book. Such was the case with me.
I was able to deal with Rob transphobic remarks, and the fact that I thought I was reading a book about a trans or gender fluid person, but in fact was told repeatedly in Rob's own narrative that he was a gay man, who only occasionally tried on the persona of a woman online. What began to wear on me was Rob's distorted view of female sexuality and femininity, specifically his perspective on Asian women.
It was really jarring to see an Chinese character's view of Asian women being based on very ignorant, arguably racist, ideas that were closer to the "Kawaii Cutie" fetish porn mention in the book, than anything closest to reality. Rob even comments on these distorted, cartoony objectifying fantasies of Asian women in porn and media, but then he himself looks at Asian women in his daily life and even constructs his female persona using that same racist lens. Rob even notes, with envy, these women's "stereotypical" clothing, petite bodies, and docile mannerism.
While this is a prime example of how internalized racism and sexism can influence someone’s perception of femininity, female sexuality, and especially women of color, I’m not sure that it was done so intentionally in this book. As far as I read, Rob is never called out on or educated about his distorted views, namely to explain that being sexually objectified by white men isn't a privilege or something to envy. It is dehumanizing, and often feeds into sexual violence against women of color. This trend of mishandled issues of racism only continues throughout the story.
It is especially off putting because the narrative is so aware of racism, and the differences in how both Rob and Dylan (who is Inuit) are treated. I felt like there was a very legitimate attempt to be true to the experiences of a person of color in the world. There are moments in the book that hit a home run in that regard, but there are also many huge missteps. Some were so bad, so offensive I wanted to throw my Kindle across the room.
Two people, especially people of color, trading racist insults like affectionate pet names while in a romantic relationships is not okay, especially cracking racist jokes in the middle of sex. Let me say that again: CRACKING RACIST JOKES IN THE MIDDLE OF SEX! Oh yeah, it happened.
There is nothing okay about a Native American man's lover making a horribly racist joke about his culture while he is a physically and emotionally vulnerable position. The lover being Chinese doesn't make it okay either. Telling a reader that a relationship where this kind of behavior is healthy, balanced and loving is an offensive lie.
No matter how you slice this kind of disgusting behavior, it is always offensive and an attempt to normalize it, especially doing so in the context of a loving romantic relationship is problematic to say the least.
Imagine a heterosexual man is about to have sex with a woman he loves for the first time and he jokes about her being a stupid slut who probably has an STD. Or a white gay man who is about to have sex with a black man, who calls him a dirty n-word. How is this love? How is it even funny?
The book is littered with racist jokes and stereotyping, often delivered under the guise of ironic humor, and the assumption that because they’re spoke by characters of color is that it is “okay.” IT IS NOT OKAY!
Not to mention, it is especially problematic when a white author uses a fictional character of color as an avatar to tell racist jokes and racist comments in a fictional context that normalizes racism. Which is exactly what is happening here.
Racism is racism, racist jokes are not some how better or less dehumanizing or less offense because they come from the mouth of a person of color. Despite the fact that there are many people of color who do this in real life, it’s important to understand the reason they do it is they’ve internalized racism to the point that they don’t even realize they are perpetuating it.
This treatment of racism normalizes it, allowing readers to see it as “not that bad” or “okay” under certain circumstances. It even frames dehumanizing, racist humor in a way that makes readers who are adamantly against racism laugh at racist jokes and to even find casual racism endearing. That's a big fucking problem.
People need to stop buying into the lie that we can defeat, or overcome racism by regurgitating it through humor and media. All it does is make people more comfortable with racism and perpetuates the misguided belief that it isn’t as much of a problem as it still is. Racism is still a very real problem, and the fact that people of color have to deal with it being used as causal humor (during a sex scene) in a romance novel featuring two characters of color as the leads is proof of that!
I would not recommend this book to any person of color, and trans/genderqueer/gender fluid readers. I would especially warn away anyone sensitive to racism, transphobia or sexism. This may be a book featuring gay people of color, but it isn’t friendly for any of us.
PS If you're going to comment to explain to me that people of color can be racist, and/or how this kind of humor is "different" because [insert incredibly ignorant reason here] don't bother. You're only going to embarrass yourself and annoy me.