In “A. Malcolm,” the sixth episode of the Starz show Outlander’s third season which aired Sunday night, viewers get their first glimpse of the controversial character Yi Tien Cho. Played by Gary Young, Cho, an exiled Chinese scholar in Scotland, is brawling inside a pub with a tavern wench who claims he stiffed her. The woman wallops Cho, who falls to the ground. James Fraser (Sam Heughan), better known as Jamie, pulls Cho to his feet.
“He licked my elbow,” the woman angrily exclaims after Jamie asks what happened. “He said he just wanted to rub it. I told him it cost a penny a minute. Then he just up and licked it. And without paying additionally.” Jamie pays the woman and as she smiles and walks away, the pub band plays some jaunty music, as if to say, “Aye, that was no big deal.”
But to fans of the book series upon which the show is based, this scene is significant, the departure from the novel instantly recognizable. In Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series written by historical fiction author Diana Gabaldon, Cho or Mr. Willoughby (the name he’s given in Scotland) is described as having a deviant foot fetish. “Well, it's the feet, ye ken,” Jamie says in the novel version of this scene. “So far it's only been whores … but ye canna tell what he may try. ... He’s a heathen.” This character detail is just one of many changes the TV show has made to both Yi Tien Cho and Dr. Joe Abernathy (portrayed by Wil Johnson), the first characters of color to appear in the series.
Voyager, published in 1993, is an epic novel of over a thousand pages that takes its main characters, the Scottish Highlander James Fraser and his English wife, Claire, on an actual voyage — not only in time, but across the globe. We first find Claire living (in her own era) in Boston, and eventually follow the characters as they swashbuckle their way from Scotland to the West Indies. Voyager is the first book in the series to introduce nonwhite characters, finally broadening the story's historical worldview to include a wider range of cultures. Gabaldon who identifies as half Hispanic, is explicit in her depictions of the cruelty of slavery and the outright hatred of minorities displayed by white people during both the 1760s and the 1960s. She skillfully shows readers the complex moral ambiguity of good-natured white people during both time periods.
Her depictions of characters of color, however, are problematic. Claire meets Abernathy when they are both students at Harvard Medical School. Claire’s lens as the only first-person narrator presents him as a self-hating black man, shucking and jiving in his educated way. Cho, meanwhile, is a drunk with a seemingly amoral sexual fetish who can magically do all things Chinese people from the 18th century were known to do — acrobatics, acupuncture, bird fishing, just to name a few. Claire calls Cho “the little Chinese” almost every time she refers to him.
Although Gabaldon, in an email interview with BuzzFeed News last week, and some readers have said that these portrayals express the racial attitudes of white people during the time depicted Gabaldon’s characterizations of people of color are exaggerated and offensive to some readers. According to Outlander executive producer Matthew B. Roberts, who spoke with BuzzFeed News last month, the showrunners were aware of criticisms of Voyager when drafting this season’s episodes. And for a show that has rarely deviated from its source material, Outlander takes a markedly different approach to introducing Joe Abernathy and Yi Tien Cho than the books.
The challenge for showrunners adapting this material — in 2017, when the stakes feel especially high for American viewers in conversations about race — was to figure out how to stay true to the heart of the story without resorting to the same cultural and racial characterizations that offended some of Gabaldon’s readers. For fans of the show, the good news is that Outlander manages exactly that.
In Gabaldon’s book, Abernathy feels familiar, reassuring, poised, and educated — a little like a literary version of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As Joe and Claire are pushed to the margins by their all-white, all-male classmates at Harvard Medical School, they bond with each other in their mutual isolation.
“Joe was there basically because I saw him there, being Claire’s friend,” Gabaldon said in an email interview with BuzzFeed News last week. “Claire needed somebody who could be a friend, to give her emotional support through those twenty years alone. I knew Joe was black — as I said, I saw him.”
Claire describes Joe as having a voice “like a deep golden lullaby.” Joe claims to have learned how to use this voice by listening to Walter Cronkite as a young man. This admission, seemingly innocuous, belies a pernicious though widely held sentiment: that a black man cannot speak articulately without mimicking the example of a white man.
When Joe’s son, an amalgamation of a young black “radical” involved with the Black Power movement and, apparently, the Nation of Islam, changes his name to Muhammad Ishmael Shabazz III, Claire and Joe laugh at his expense. In Voyager, Joe says:
“He’s going to reclaim his African heritage … I say; I ask him, you gonna go round with a bone through your nose next thing? It’s not enough he’s got his hair out to here” – he gestured, fluffing his hands on either side of his own close-cropped head – “and he’s going round in a thing down to his knees, looks like his sister made it in Home Ec class.”
Claire and Joe turn black pride into a joke, a ridiculous costume that more reasonable black folks consider funny. When asked about Joe’s statement, Gabaldon said, “As for Joe’s response to his son’s new-found enthusiasm for his African heritage — I’m 65; I was there in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And a good many parents who had taken on the system, found a way in, and worked their way to good middle-class success, were both taken aback and inclined to roll their eyes at the passionate excesses — as they saw them — of their offspring. The ‘bone through his nose’ line is an actual quote from one of my father’s [black] friends.”
But even if Joe’s fictional attitude aligns with some real black parents during this era, a scene in which he belittles his son and jokes about it with Claire, a white woman, doesn’t have any direct bearing on the plot of Gabaldon’s book and feels more for the benefit of Gabaldon’s white readers than anything else. Consider writer Margo Jefferson, whose memoir Negroland is about elite black society during this era, and who said in an interview with The Guardian published last year, “You were not supposed to show off in Negroland because you are supposed to be perfectly decorous and well behaved. You were also not supposed to tell any stories that reflected badly on the group because that reflected badly on the race.”
In the book, Joe takes the leap from character to caricature during a scene in which he and Claire examine bones found at a slave burial site. While singing the spiritual “Dem Bones,” Joe investigates the remains and claims that they are not from a slave, but from a white woman. He says, “If you want to think blacks and whites are equal under the skin, be my guest, but it ain’t scientifically so.”
Gabaldon’s response to this last point was that, “Joe, like me, is a scientist [Gabaldon has degrees in zoology, marine biology, and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology], and likewise familiar with the fact that there are noticeable, measurable differences in the skeletal systems of different racial groups. You can tell a lot of things from bones, and the race of a person is one of them. This is not an esoteric secret, believe me.”
But there is not a clear consensus among scientists on this point. Virginia Tech paleonathropologist Matthew Goodrum told BuzzFeed News, “While biologists and other scientists (such as sociologists) very correctly state that there is no scientific basis for the identification of human ‘races’ in the way that anthropologists used to do in the 19th and early 20th century, it is also true that there are clearly geographical variations in human populations. Ethnicity does not mean race, but it could allow one to distinguish a skeleton of European descent from a skeleton of a Native American, or an east Asian, or an African. Not in every case and with caveats.” American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, on the other hand, said via email: “I’d say that the very best you might get from a skull is a probability statement, severely undermined by the fact that the whole notion of discrete races is flawed. Joe’s reference to ‘equality’ is totally nonsensical.”
In any case, it’s not merely Joe’s claim about the bones. It is the way in which he delivers his verdict: in between lines from a spiritual, during a period when segregation was the law in most of the country. In this historical context, Joe becomes ingratiating and antiblack, a self-loathing Harvard-educated black man spouting the kind of pseudo-scientific babble that was used for centuries to justify the enslavement of his people.
This scene is one of the few involving Joe that appears in both the book and the Starz show. But on the show, Joe isn’t humming a black spiritual. He isn’t speaking in some combo of “jive” and Walter Cronkite. Most importantly, the line explaining the race of the deceased is cut, boiled down to a vague reference to the “cruel index” and that “bones don’t lie.”
When asked about why the show removed scenes or details that involved more conspicuous references to race, Roberts, the executive producer, said that it wasn’t due to any character’s racial background, but rather to prioritize time and plot. “We may film a lot more. We may write a lot more for a lot of different story arcs. But when it falls back to editing, it comes back to Jamie and Claire. That has nothing to do with the race of any character.” Their removal of the extraneous racial content in the books shows that none of that material was needed in order to give Jamie and Claire a compelling story.
It may not have been intentional, but because of this paring down, the characters of color in the show are much less like stereotypes and more like actual people. When Claire and Joe first make eye contact in a room full of disapproving white men in the second episode of this season, Joe offers his hand; no joking, no nicknames, no shucking and jiving to make Claire feel comfortable. Both characters simply seem relieved to have met someone kind. In this context, the narrative efficiency of television erases the discomfort of reading the original material.
Another noticeable change in the TV adaptation involves an argument between Claire and Frank, her husband in the 20th century. Frank wants to divorce Claire and take their daughter Brianna with him to England. In the book, Frank’s concerns about Brianna dating a black man and his suspicions that Claire is having an affair with Abernathy are a major part of his reasoning for wanting to take Brianna out of the country. Claire says, “You can’t keep her swaddled in cotton wool all her life.” Frank replies, “Better swaddled than fucking a black man! … Like mother, like daughter, eh?”
Gabaldon explained Frank’s position last June on the message board CompuServe. Although she wrote the character, she said, “I don't think Frank ever says one word about disliking black people, let alone anything he dislikes about them. What he says is that he doesn't want his daughter dating or marrying one. Granted, that could be because he perceives black people as being in some way universally inferior — but more likely (especially given the circumstances in which he's speaking) it has to do with the social circumstances of the time and the particularly uncertain circumstances as racial tension began to bubble to the top and be specifically addressed.”
On the TV show, in the third episode of this season, this argument occurs without reference to Dr. Abernathy at all. “We didn’t want to imply that Claire may have been having a romantic involvement with Joe,” Roberts said when asked why they did not include the line. “We really wanted to show their friendship and how that friendship was something that really carried Claire through those 20 years as her marriage to Frank disintegrated to a place where they were not even friends or civil towards each other.”
In regards to how the show has streamlined the book’s plot, Gabaldon echoed Roberts: “The show is the show. They don’t have room even to deal with all aspects of the main plot, let alone with subplots, subtleties, underlying themes and long-running patterns.”
Gabaldon was clear about the historical context of her work and the characters within it, and as she sees it, that’s explanation enough for the way characters of color are described in her book. “Time-travel stories offer a writer a lot of scope to make social commentary — but very few such books are making commentary on the (always modern) time-traveler; it’s very one-sided. Mine kind of aren’t,” she wrote via email. “The main point here is that Claire is not (emphatically not) ‘a modern woman.’ She was born in 1918 and became an adult on the eve of World War II. The point here is that Claire’s attitudes and perceptions are those of a woman with her background, experiences and perceptions. They aren’t much like the attitudes of an American 30-something of today.”
Gabaldon born and raised in Arizona has a fierce fandom, and can be found communicating with them on Facebook, Twitter and CompuServe, never shying away from a discussion over problematic depictions in her books — including the character Yi Tien Cho.
“Yi Tien Cho was essentially a plot necessity — I needed some way to get Jamie Fraser (who suffers from major seasickness) across the Atlantic without killing him, and the only thing available in the 18th century that might be effective was acupuncture,” Gabaldon told BuzzFeed News.
Unfortunately, although Gabaldon says she based the character on a historical account of a real Chinese man in Edinburgh, she did not locate any personal accounts from that man (a Mr. Hu) or other Chinese immigrants from that era. Instead, as she explains on a page dedicated to characterization on her website, she utilized cultural archetypes to further develop Cho’s character. “If a character comes from a different culture or society than you do, or than your main characters do, you can sometimes understand them or round them out by reading a bit about social customs, fairy tales … or other cultural attributes from the culture they come from” — like the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding: "Having a Chinese man, I couldn’t resist the notion of letting Mr. Willoughby be a foot-fetishist,” Gabaldon explained.
She told Scotland’s The Herald in January that the only negative feedback she has ever received about Cho was about describing him as short, adding that she meant no cultural offense by this depiction. “Mr. Willoughby just was short — as most people were in the 18th century,” Gabaldon told BuzzFeed News. But even if she did not intend to offend, Claire’s constant references to Cho as the “little Chinese” who is always crouching, squatting, kneeling, or crawling play into stereotypes about the emasculated Asian man.
Many fans and bloggers hoped that the Starz show would not write in the character, but Roberts said that he never considered not including him. “His story is necessary to tell our story,” he said of Cho. “Claire bonds with his being thrown out of time and out of place.”
On the show, Claire is respectful toward Cho. “She calls him by his Chinese name,” said Roberts. “She knows what it’s like to be an outsider in this word and she is very happy when she finds out in the story that Jaime was taking care of him. That’s Claire. She usually bonds with the outsider, the underdog. One reason she’s a likable character.”
Cho even looks different onscreen than imagined in the books. In Voyager, he shaves his scalp and wears a queue and dresses in blue silk robes and soft-soled shoes. Claire describes him as a little blue-clad figure,” who “promptly sagged into limpness, looking like a bag of laundry resting on the step.”
On the show, he is dressed much more inconspicuously, wearing 18th-century European clothing. His hair is long and pulled back into a ponytail like the other men at the pub. His introduction feels like any other character with a large personality and a penchant for trouble — like a new Angus, one of Jamie’s associates and a fan favorite — but less wily.
Roberts said that Gabaldon is aware of these changes and has signed off on them. “We don’t dumb down characters. We just try to be as authentic as possible,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We didn’t just go to books. [We] read as many diaries of people in the time to depict what it was like in the time as accurately as possible. And then we let the audience come to their own conclusion about things. For us, that’s the best way to do it.” Roberts mentioned that the show has a majority female staff with two Asian writers. Gary Young, the actor who plays Cho, was also essential in the redrafting of his character, changing his dialect from Mandarin to Cantonese, Young’s native language. In future episodes, the characters will be leaving Scotland and heading to the West Indies, delving into slavery and the historical legacy of people of color in the Caribbean. The show has hired historians and other experts to help bring the past to life as accurately as possible.
As Roberts said, “The books are the books, but we don’t just take it on face value. We dig into the history... We try to do the best we can to get it accurate. And then let our audience make up their own minds. And whether they agree with us or with each other, there’s nothing we can really do about that. They keep coming back and watching the show, so we must be doing something right.”
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor. She is also an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction. An essayist and fiction writer, her prose has appeared in several publications, including Amazon's Day One, Catapult, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and forthcoming at the Kenyon Review. She is an alumni of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, the Tin House and Virginia Quarterly Review writer's workshops, and a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Reach her at tyresecoleman.com.