In 2008, the Neopian Times, the in-game newspaper of virtual pet site Neopets, published a serialized story called “Pride, Prose, and Princes” by a user who went by dancingpetal. The story chronicles the travails of Lindsey the Zafara (a kangaroo-like Neopet), an aspiring writer who is invited to join the Neopian Prose Writer’s Society. As Lindsey learns to navigate the upper-crust Society, she must put up with Prince Stormington II, a Lupe (wolf Neopet) with standoffish manners. Banquets are attended. Lawn games are played. Manuscripts are stolen. And Lindsey and Prince Stormington, obvious analogues to Pride & Prejudice's Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy, learn to get along.
The person who’d written all that Regency England-infused prose was Jordan Ifueko, a bookish teenager who lived in Oregon. She’d been an avid fan of Neopets since she was ten, drawn by the site’s roleplaying forums. Ifueko, who was homeschooled until high school, used the forums to co-create fantastical stories with other users. “Because it was pre-social media, [the forums] were really populated,” said Ifueko in an interview. “This was the only outlet people had to make friends with those with like interests. There was no following each other on Twitter.”
Last month, Jordan Ifueko, now a YA author, tweeted about her Austenite and Neopets obsessions, which collided in 2008. That year, Ifueko was fourteen, but she’d been using Neopets since she was ten. Neopets was a beloved online bastion of the early and mid-aughts. Since 1999, teenagers from all over the world logged on not just to tend to their pets, but to play flash games, trade virtual stocks, and read the Neopian Times.
Much of “Pride, Prose, and Princes” details Lindsey’s astute observations of the social dynamics around her. In that way, Lindsey is surprisingly like Austen’s own heroines, who watch the people around them with keen eyes. And though dancingpetal’s characters are talking mice, tigers, monkeys, and foxes, their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place at a ball thrown by the Bingleys.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think Lord Wenslor was to blame for any of it,” an elderly Blumaroo sniffed. “The fault lies completely with those Noki sisters, that’s what. Although, not much more can be expected from those who possess... Island breeding.” The table buzzed with murmurs of agreement.
“I say, it’s a surprise those girls even showed up today, what-what, after their open insult to cuisine, and all that,” snorted a monocled Kacheek, with a “harrumph” for emphasis.
Ifueko had always loved storytelling. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, a nation inhabited by indigenous groups like the Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, Bini, and Hausa. Britain colonized the land in the 1800s, and Nigeria became independent in 1960. Ifueko’s mother is Yoruba and her father is Bini, and they shared with her a variety of West African stories that she grew to love. Some of Ifueko’s favorites were those of Anansi, the spider god adept at spinning tall tales; and those that involved sound effects, singing, and repetition, which are traditional West African storytelling techniques. Ifueko’s parents also shared with her the English novels they had first read in British-style schools. The works of Jane Austen were particular favorites. One of the few DVDs that the family kept in the house was the BBC Pride and Prejudice, which, said Ifueko, “became my shit.”
Ifueko liked to imagine herself in Lizzy Bennet’s world, but she was keenly aware of the racism she would have faced. “I loved stories that never loved me back,” she said. “For me to play pretend was very different than for a white girl to play pretend. I came up with elaborate backstories to explain why my character was brown.” Unlike her parents, who seemed to accept the colonialism of British stories, Ifueko felt a keen disappointment every time she searched for—and failed to find—heroines that looked like her. “[My parents] still got to grow up in a country and which black people were the majority,” she said. “In contrast, I grew up in a majority white country, and so I felt way more desperate for representation.”
But in Neopia, racism didn’t exist in the same way, and that was liberating. When Ifueko was thirteen, she sat down to write a story with characters she could identify with – characters who didn’t have to navigate the racism of Austen’s England. “I think the heightened reality of Neopets and the Neopian Times in particular was a natural fit for me,” Ifueko said. “I could let the baggage of colonialism and slavery and oppression go. Color didn’t matter as much because the characters were animals. I could just treat them like humans.”
Lindsey may have looked like a cartoon kangaroo, but she was an aspiring writer, just like Ifueko. In “Pride, Prose, and Princes,” it was Lindsey’s creativity and ambition, not her race, that mattered.
In 2008, Ifueko finished her story and submitted it to the Neopian Times. She’d written two previous articles for the newspaper, but they were much shorter. She had no idea if the editors would want something so out-of-the-box. Fortunately, they did, and Ifueko got word that they’d accepted “Pride, Prose, and Princes” for serialized publication.
The editorial staff of the Neopian Times weren’t the only ones who liked the story. Soon, Lindsey and Prince Stormington had fans. “People would message me, presumably other kids, to say they loved [the story] and they couldn’t wait to see what happened next,” said Ifueko. “And there would be some kids who messaged me just to say what they thought didn’t make sense.” She laughed. “A taste of the future.”
It’s been twelve years since “Pride, Prose, and Princes” was published, but it’s still available on the Neopian Times. Because Neopets posted the story, Ifueko can’t remove it herself. Other now-adult fanfiction writers might consider that a nightmare, but Ifueko says she doesn’t want her early work taken down. “I look back on how fearless my child self was. There are so many inhibitions I have now that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind then,” Ifueko said. “But back then you did art just because it makes you happy.”
“Pride, Prose, and Princes” was a key part of Ifueko’s journey towards writing the kinds of stories in which she could actually see herself. Today, Ifueko writes full-time, and her debut novel, Raybearer, will come out in 2020. In Raybearer, the most powerful people are part of a West African-inspired monarchy rather than white colonialists. The book is directly inspired by Ifueko’s realization that she didn’t have to create characters within the framework of a default white world, like that of Pride and Prejudice.
The Internet may tend towards trash fires, but Ifueko’s experience is proof that certain online communities can allow players to express their most heartfelt creative impulses. Neopets filters out violent or sexual content and requires users younger than thirteen to get signed waivers before posting, so at the peak of its popularity in the mid-2000s, it was a soft landing place for kids and teens just starting to experiment with storytelling.
Today, fanfiction-specific communities like Archive of Our Own (which has been nominated for a Hugo award) fill the same kind of role. Ifueko says she believes that a fourteen-year-old writing today could still publish a story like “Pride, Prose, and Princes” on a fanfiction site and have an equally positive experience. “Fanfiction is much, much less niche now then it was when I was a teen,” she said.
What is more niche today is Neopets, which no longer has nearly the same cultural cache as it did twelve years ago. According to Google Trends, the word “Neopets” had a search score of 100 (the maximum) in 2005. Today, it has a score of 1. But as long as the site continues to run, the Neopian Times will host “Pride, Prose, and Princes.”
The story stands as an unlikely testament to a young writer’s early attempts at establishing both her identity and the identities of the characters she wanted to write about. “I never got to be the princess, the lady looking over her empire,” Ifueko said, “until I got old enough to be like, ‘Screw that. I’m going to make up my own world.’”