November 20, 2007

In Which She Espouses Dissenting Opinions

A fellow blogger once jokingly (I think?) compared my commentary to the dulcet tones of an NPR correspondent when referencing the fact that I try to disagree... nicely. Well, for all that I'm trying to still be pleasant, I think I am about to prise open a dirt-encrusted can of worms here.

I have read about the Brown Bookshelf and 28 Days Later at many, MANY blogs, and thus we have not reissued that information here. However, that's not just because everyone else is linking to the project, and not because, overall, the project isn't a good idea. As this is the brainchild of authors and illustrators interested in highlighting some of the 'flying under the radar' best in children's literature written by African Americans, what's not to like? I'm definitely behind that. It's just the euphonious euphemism of the name The Brown Bookshelf that has left a little niggling feeling of discomfort.

It's partially because I am on a quest for names. I had a discussion recently with another blogger who professed a great dislike for the word multicultural -- and while I wholeheartedly took her point about the word usually being substituted for 'a nonspecific racial or ethnic book' and packaged as something of a requirement which people are happy to fill with any old book in order to check it off their reading list, I asked what she wanted books about peoples of the non-dominant culture living their normal lives to be called -- noting that that is far too long a description to put on library shelves. We still haven't come to a firm conclusion on that, but admit that it's the semantics that bother us. Names are words that claim things. Maybe I'm just feeling odd about the claim on the word 'brown.'

Admittedly, that might simply be a California sensibility. Where I'm from, "brown" people are all people of color, in our own peculiar tribe. I am brown with my Chicas and my Pinays, my Desi and my Native friends, and "it's all good," to use the colloquialism. I want to be clear: I am not coming out against this worthy project or the people who are involved and in support of it. (DON'T bother sending me comments on that topic, I will just delete them without giving you the courtesy of a response.) All I am saying is that to ME brown is a bigger word.

I blame Colleen. (Mainly because that's fun, but also because) I credit her with this train of thought, since her post today really struck a chord. Brown people are a part of my tribe. They're African Americans, though they're only part of the circle. My tribe is not just women, certainly, or minorities even. My tribe is vast -- and is represented for me by the word brown. When we talk about promoting the Brown Bookshelf, I think of books for every child who is outside of the dominant culture. We so very much need to be promoting that, to be wary of further splintering and other-ing and marginalizing, even for the best of reasons.

So, I need my tribe of brown people to be bigger than only African Americans.

Those are my two centavos. Despite the post-apocalyptic viral pandemic zombie movie title, 28 Days Later is a great way to extend the traditional five minutes of Black History Month into something a bit more meaningful. Bravo. You know we can only be all for that.

This is, officially, My Two Cents and a Writing Tip, (which, put together, won't even get you a cup of coffee, but what are you going to do?)

"Just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting."

That is one of my favorite writing quotes and apparently comes from a mid-90's movie about a writer trying to make a book into a film. It was frequently said during my undergraduate days as my English 102 professor tried to explain to us the delicate art of the narrative essay. After I finished laughing (at myself and my ludicrous grade), I wrote the phrase down in the margin of my paper, and I've tried to apply it ever since.

There are some writers who inject a bit of biography into every single work. I can think of a prominent author whose novels are her own life constantly repopulated with different names, towns and outfits -- and with a new cover slapped on -- voilĂ ! a new story. This author's political and spiritual essays sell better than her novels, which tend to be the same song over and over again.

In writing groups I've been in, I've seen writers project themselves so much into their stories (and sometimes the stories of others) that their characters don't have any choice but to act exactly as the author might have acted. That's not really great in terms of letting the creativity flow -- and it begs the question of whether or not the writer is writing fiction. It's a hard lesson to learn, but "just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting." The key to writing good fiction, I think, is to prune yourself OUT of it.

Does this seem to totally go against the "write what you know" school of thought we all were forced to accept in school? Well... admittedly it does. But I think "write what you know" is one useful as far as writing what you know emotionally. I think the best writers are great big fakes who do a lot of research and immerse themselves into these deeply complex tapestries of a life outside their own experience and then find an emotional truth and write that against the big backdrop of Other. They are then IN the story -- just, not as themselves, no so easily recognizable and didactic and intrusive. To me, just writing what you know can be very, very limiting... maybe that phrase needs to be updated to "write what you imagine you'd like to know."

I love the Albert Camus quote, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." As long as the elemental core of truth is in the story, it doesn't matter how unlike you or your ideal self the characters behave. Fiction isn't really about you after all, is it?


Anonymous said...

If we're thinking about the same author whose novels are all alike, her essays now sound the same, too. I heard her speak, and realized that her anecdotes all relate to travelling and/or being paid to speak somewhere...because that's all she did any more. It was kind of weird.

Paula said...

What's interesting about your post is that, I don't disagree. But sometimes the act of including everyone who falls under a definition ends up diluting the overall effort.

I agree, there's a need for an increase of the focus on and the availability of multi-cultural books. I came into publishing attempting to fill that void.

I wrote my book and pitched it as multi-cultural. I pitched my covers as non-racial to support that. And yet, at the end of the day my publishers and booksellers box it as a "black" book because "multi-cultural" is too hard to market (their perspective, not mine).

If you put the Brown Bookshelf into the context of publishing, it's about creating a venture that works to overcome some of the current industry standards.

For a true multi-cultural initiative to be successful or at the very least legitimate, a multi-cultural group would have to claim it and attempt to resolve it.

It would be pleasing to see the Brown Bookshelf expand to that. Though that's assuming that all who consider themselves "brown" would want to be a part.

Full disclosure, one thing that bothers me within the discussion of inclusion is that, if publishing were more inclusive in the first place, such an initiative wouldn't be necessary at all.

The BBS initiative could be (and has to some) looked at as exclusionary, but I choose to see it as tackling one small part of a larger problem. All the better if it expands its focus in the future.

Brown Bookshelf Member

tanita✿davis said...

"...if publishing were more inclusive in the first place, such an initiative wouldn't be necessary at all."


From the point of view of a publishing venture, to band together African American authors and promote them is a perfectly legitimate idea, and a great one. I think I'm not articulating well my concern (annoyance? surprise?) that so many people are gung ho about BBS doing all the work they could have been doing themselves... it's not as if only BBS is the ultimate authority in African American children's books, and the only ones who are the repository of this kind of knowledge. It certainly shouldn't just be BBS finding gems and promoting them; everyone who alleges to care about children's literature should be on the look out for underrepresented books of all stripes...

But I realize that once again I'm sort of touting my 'Ideal World' theory... on one hand, if we don't fight for the Ideal World, it never exists. On the other hand, I sincerely appreciate what BBS is doing, has the potential to do and become, and thanks for stopping by to comment.

Sarah Stevenson said...

My God, great post today (I'm so happy to be getting caught up, now that I'm back (-ish) and will post something myself soon, I promise). Thanks for putting up your Brown Bookshelf thoughts--we'd been discussing it a bit off-blog and I still hadn't articulated my feelings about it, but as someone who lies elsewhere on the brown spectrum it's definitely a topic of interest. (In fact, did you know my original book title was going to be The Brown Rebellion? I'm kind of glad I moved away from that...)

Great writing tip, too. I think it's worth a few cups of coffee! ;)

Paula said...

Thank you for bringing up the issue. I think healthy discussion is the first step to solutions. Glad to offer my .02 cents.

I wish your Ideal World theory was actually a practice! But as you said, only way to get there is to start setting things in place.

Anonymous said...

One of my first thoughts on seeing the Brown Bookshelf project (other than "Thank God!") was that my brother is brown.

My brother was born brown - there are baby pictures of each of us around a year old side by side on my mother's wall and I am as white as you would expect a half Irish/half French Canadian baby to be. My brother is brown. He has always been brown - from day 1. We attribute it to some latent Native American blood on the Canadian side that finally showed up - we're talking blood from more than four generations ago - but we have no idea why or how it happened. He is just brown while I might have been tan when I was younger, but have always been basically white.

When we were in FL a month ago my son asked me how a brother and sister could be two different colors. It is that obvious.

So the brown bookshelf idea would technically apply to him - if you were only going by color. Of course it's not about physical color but about ethnicity and I get that, but color is a limiting factor when determining ethnicity. We are all so blurred now - it's like that moment with Tiger Woods when he said that defining himself solely as African American was a not so subtle slap in the face of his Filipino mother. And he was right - but we don't seem to have the language yet for such complex ethnic backgrounds.

Or for a European descended man who has browner skin than the average Native American (and many African Americans).

I don't know the answer to this discussion but I'm glad we are having it. It makes me think.


PS. Don't you just love Sherman Alexie??!!!

Saints and Spinners said...

It's Anne Lamott, isn't it? If it's Anne Lamott, then you might be interested to know that her first rejected novel came with the note along the lines of "Not everything that happened to you is interesting."

I'm glad to read this post, by the way. Names are important.

tanita✿davis said...

Alkelda! For shame! I'll never tell...

mbpbooks said...

Thanks for these great thoughts and for the hospitality to share the label. We desis freely call ourselves "brown," but when I call myself that on my blog I've had some objections to using a "color" word. Interestingly, the objections usually come from people who aren't brown. With all the biracial mixing and melding going on in America, labels are in flux. In the publishing world we non-white writers are caught between wanting to celebrate our differences and yet be treated as though we weren't different at all. Quite confusing.

Anonymous said...

As an editor who works on materials produced for schools, I am a big proponent of the focus on and availability of multicultural books. There is clearly not enough representation of the diversity of American authors in the current texts, and publishers are beginning to recognize this. However, a mistake that is often made is that of pigeonholing multicultural authors so that we use works that are about topics such as identity, race, history - and don't spend too much time looking for works by multicultural authors about a "mainstream" topics, say for example, a Korean American author writing about sports. There is also a dearth of multicultural representation on the editorial side, which is thankfully being recognized. Part of the problem, of course, is the mainstream media coverage (or lack thereof) of 'multicultural' texts, unless they're "hot" or "award-winning" or "speak about the condition of a particular group." An interesting perspective on the struggle to become "an American writer" is offered in talks this essay by Julia Alvarez .

Paula said...

we non-white writers are caught between wanting to celebrate our differences and yet be treated as though we weren't different at all.

So true!!! Some days my head spins from deciding what side of that issue to be on. But the truth is, it changes based on the circumstance of the time.

When I'm speaking to a library group with a diverse mix, I ignore the fact that I'm an author of color. But when I'm speaking to a group of mostly African-American and Latino teens, I emphasize it. I think they call that playing both sides of the fence. LOL

and don't spend too much time looking for works by multicultural authors about a "mainstream" topics

This fact serves to frustrate me on a regular basis. And yet, when I speak out about it I feel as if I'm diluting the value of the issue-based books. More schizophrenia!

tanita✿davis said...

Yeah, I feel ya on the "playing both sides of the fence," thing, Paula. It's a bit crazy-making and it feels like I am constantly shifting one way and the other. Issue-based books are important, but I sometimes feel like they're used to pigenhole, too...

I so appreciate you all entering into this dialogue with me. I don't have a anything approaching a conclusion or answers, but I just wanted to think with you.

The Julia Alvarez piece discusses this beautifully - thank you for that as well, S.!

Anonymous said...

I love this thoughtful post, so sorry to make a dumb-ass comment, but: Yeah, the name "28 Days Later" just makes me want to run from the zombies who were in that movie.

mbpbooks said...

Another thought ... I worry about affixing labels to books limited to the race of the author as the Brown Bookshelf has decided to do. How African-American do you have to be to be featured during those 28 days? What if you're biracial? Or 1/4 black? Or 1/8th? (Note: On the Fire Escape, we discussed this problem of being limited by the author's race in a post about ethnic book awards.)

The entire nation is having a difficult time with the classification of race. Check out this discussion about Tiger Woods' refusal to identify himself as African American. If you want to get rid of the divisions and say it's all good, we're all one, that's fine if you're in the majority but to some minorities it feels like yet another genocide attempt.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, Mitali. I will never forget writing a biracial character and having someone (in publishing) say, "Why do you need to write that kind of character? You're only black, right?"

What if your biracial status isn't visible on your skin?

Sarah Stevenson said...

Arrgh! And this is why I really want my book to get published!! ;)

Anonymous said...

At the risk of getting pounced on, I'm going to ask this question:

What is white?

I used to ask this of my students when I was teaching (GIs at an army base) and it was always a very interesting discussion. The classes were very ethnically diverse but many of the black or brown kids were not African American - they were from the Caribbean or even direct from Africa and didn't apprecicate getting sucked into a debate about African American history as if it was theirs - which sparked lots more debate. But asking my white skinned students what they were was the most interesting. A lot of them had no idea what their ethnic background was and were a loss at how to explain themselves.

They were just defined by the color of their skin which really, is a sad way to define anyone.

(And as for my brother - when he was in the military he was mistaken for Native American so many times that he finally stopped denying it. It was just easier to let people assume what he was based on his skin color.)

As to books in the Brown Bookshelf - I also wonder why there aren't just more books out there with African American sidekicks, buddies, girl detectives, etc. I just read Richard Scrimger's buddy novel "Into the Ravine" about three boys doing a day long raft trips - two white, one black. It's a very fun and thoughtful book that is about friendship and not earthshattering racial issues. I'd like to see more books like that so kids could just read about characters who look like them instead of having to always learn something. (which really has to get tedious after awhile I would think.)


Andromeda Jazmon said...

Really interesting discussion here. I don't like the "multicultural" term either. I started using it out of frustration in not being able to identify a better way to describe the books I am interested in. I'm listening for terminology I can like better and use with more confidence and precision. Of course, as you all point out, it's such a complex world there isn't just one right way to say it...

tanita✿davis said...

I've gotten email from people afraid to post their comments on this discussion... so now I'm wondering if I should venture an answer to the question "What is white?"

I remember being about six and substituting the words to the little song which includes "Red and yellow, black and white," because I was a very literal child. I called my friend 'pink,' which she disagreed with. We never could really work out what she was.

I asked a Caucasian friend this question, and he said, "It's two things: raise as, and 'can pass for.' 'Raised as' means having a sense of access to resources, unapologetic uses of power in your favor, and the expectation of the culture to give you what you require. No one questions your role in society during your formative years. You aren't as pigeonholed.

'Can pass for' is different. There are certainly minorities who are raised well within the dominant culture, but they're always aware of it. Being raised within the dominant culture isn't as uncomfortable -- you just don't see or think of things like that, when you're a kid, anyway... it's just the way it is. You're steeped in this expectation that things will go a certain way, whereas I think a minority or 'raised as' is always aware."

He asks if I know what he means... I think so. Do you?

David T. Macknet said...

...and don't spend too much time looking for works by multicultural authors about a "mainstream" topic....

It seems that the only time Race becomes an issue in the publishing world is when it's involved with sales or marketing. Thus, it becomes important to have non-white authors write about things which are marketable: race as a sales-feature.

So - BBS is ... making money off of race? Yes, something needs to be done to expand the publishing world ... but is it best done this way?

I don't know ... but it makes me distinctly uncomfortable, and I think that if I were a non-white author who'd managed to succeed, I'd be a bit uncomfortable as well. What does it say, really? It brings up issues of quality, access, and of money. Can't forget the money, because I think BBS would be the easy choice for those purchasing for libraries or schools, and that's downright scary. Does BBS represent the mainstream non-white authors? Are they now subject to being squeezed out because they're not easily identified as such? Are they given a choice, now, between two markets: publish in the "white" world, or in the Brown one?

Paula said...

BBS isn't making any money at all. The authors running it are volunteering our time to manage it. We don't have advertising on our website and haven't taken any dollars from anyone.

What's frustrating is that because we've stepped out as authors who would like to see the profile of our own books and others we're suddenly "divisive." I don't know that I understand or agree.

All of us have been very active in the circles of children's lit prior to this venture. And most of us were among the few only African Americans within those circles.

Those circles get lonely when no one else shares the same barriers - like Varian and I trying to get non-racial covers on our books so that they would appeal to all young adult readers and not only African American readers.

Once you realize that won't happen and that you're stuck in a marketing paradigm dedicated to focusing on your race or that of a main character in your book - you live within that system.

The Brown Bookshelf was born of that system and the frustration that comes with it.

How "brown" do you have to be to be featured by the initiative? Well, that's where others are making it far more complicated than us.

We've had authors submitted who are of latino descent and who are bi-racial. None of those authors are going to be denied consideration because they aren't borne of two African American parents. We're hardly going that hardcore.

Yet, I feel like there are others determined to make a negative out of the fact that we chose to focus primarily on African American authors, instead of giving the initiative a chance to grow.

Every initiative has to start out with a small step -especially one without a stitch of funding.

The only authors who aren't being considered are those who are not at all African American.

Does that anger some people? Probably. Just as it angers and frustrates me that my color comes into play after taking the time to write a book that was inclusive of several races as my main players.

But we work within the system we're dealt until we can change that system. One step at a time.

BBS isn't trying to be the ultimate say in books by black authors. Nor is AACBWI or NCTE Black Caucus or ALA Black Caucus - but if those groups work together then these books will find their way to the primary audiences that the publisher seem sworn to target.

Paula said...

Does BBS represent the mainstream non-white authors? Are they now subject to being squeezed out because they're not easily identified as such? Are they given a choice, now, between two markets: publish in the "white" world, or in the Brown one?

Truth is, non-white authors - all of us - have to get in where we fit in. And I know that sounds blunt and hard, but it's the truth.

Publishing already makes non-white authors choose. Wait..I mean, they choose for you!

I can honestly say that from experience. And if there are non-white authors who haven't been presented with that "choice" in one form or another during the publishing process, I'd say they were lucky...but not the norm.

I fought being put in a racial box every single day until my editor basically broke it down in plain english - Look, we tried the non-racial covers and the bookstores have said they're reluctant to buy them because they're not black enough. We have to move to black models in a photo - it will sell better.

Once you're told straight up that you better get with the program, you do. Because at the end of the day, you want your book to sell.

All BBS is doing is trying to bring attention to authors who may not be on the radars of most librarians or booksellers. Again, I fail to see the negative in that.

These are books that are already published traditionally, have a distribution outlet, are likely in bookstores and libraries but could use the boost in awareness.

Sarah Stevenson said...

This discussion just keeps getting more and more interesting! I see your point, Paula, about being obliged to "choose" which box to fit into by the publishing (or, probably more specifically, the marketing) world, and I've definitely watched that sort of thing happen with published writer friends.

It made me think--from the perspective of an unpublished/trying-to-be-published writer--that writers are at a disadvantage from day one. It seems to me that upon initial publication you'd be so overjoyed and relieved to have your manuscript accepted that it would be difficult to take a stand against an editor or agent who felt that it would be better for the marketing or sales of your book if you pigeonholed it into a certain race or ethnicity category. And if it's been more difficult to get published simply due to being an author of color, then further demands from the publisher because you're an author of color would surely lead to internal struggles, resentment, etc. etc.

This is a fascinating discussion to me, because my current book that I'm "shopping around" is about (among other things) mixed ethnicity and identity, and how ambiguous those categories can seem when you only consider outward appearance. I'll be interested to see what happens when the publishing world starts dealing with more and more authors who are like the characters in my book...people who aren't easily or willingly categorized.

Anonymous said...

I do like what you say about whiteness TadMack - "passed as or raised as". What was interesting in the classroom was that white students had so little concept of their ethnicity. For example, nonwhite students would say they were Af American or Guatamalen or Jamaican or Sioux or on and on. White students when asked the same question (ie. "What are you?") would say white.

End of story.

Reading most YA or MG (or even picture books) seems to reinforce that nonwhite readers are more involved in their ethnicity - more aware of it. You have Grace Lin or Sherman Alexie or Walter Dean Myers or Christopher Paul Curtis or Justina Chen Headley or Mitali Perkins and on and on and on. When they write about nonwhite kids, their ethnicity is a major player in who their characters are. When white kids take the stage, it usually doesn't even factor in (unless the kids are Jewish). I'm not saying which is right or wrong or good or bad (and I don't even think there is a right/wrong here) but don't you think it is interesting?

Why is one group so tied to ethnicity and another so devoid of it?

Colleen aka chasing ray

Sarah Stevenson said...

What you said is fascinating, Colleen, when you think that it wasn't so long ago that "Irish need not apply" or "Italians need not apply" could actually be seen and heard around the U.S. Now, Irish and Italian are considered mainstream and white...

Paula said...

Why is one group so tied to ethnicity and another so devoid of it?

Probably many answers to this, but one thing is simply the way publishing works and how long it takes things to change.

Books revolved around non-white characters have usually been "expected" to follow a traditional path, which involved them being very closely tied to the character's ethnicity.

In 2005, Dana Davidson came along with Jason & Kyra, a simple love story, proving that the story did not have to be so focused on the characters skin color or on edutaining.

Two years later, there are a good handful of authors writing stories like Jason & Kyra. But there's yet to be a true flood of stories like it.

I think that's the pace of publishing.

I've heard quite a few non-white authors talking about the barriers they're facing as they attempt to sell paranormal, vamp, fantasy and sci fi type stories featuring a non-white character.

Eventually, one will break through and others will follow. But change comes so slowly to publishing.

My guess is, another five years from now we'll be looking at a very different literary landscape, where this topic is concerned.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I like your definition of "white". I would add that a white person gets the benefit of the doubt in most situations and takes it for granted to the point of not even noticing.

If you are white there is no need to identify race further. You are just "normal". If you have any mixture of non-white in you, it's identified, acknowledged and accommodated for.

So in publishing, if the book is just about white characters there is no need to mention race at all. It just us. If there is "diversity", that needs to be played up, used and explained. I have noticed in the past 5 or ten years there are tons more books with non-white characters in the illustrations of picture books. Not as part of the story, just black and brown kids in the classroom, etc. It seems to be a bit of a trend and I am glad of it. For the youngest kids it's possible to frame a world-view that includes all skin tones as normal. They probably don't live in that world yet, but they can imagine it since it's in their story books.

Sara said...

I'm reading The True Meaning of Smekday now, and the main character is black, and her mom is white. And there's a Native American character who messes with "white" people on purpose, as well as several Hispanic boys who are plotting a resistance movement. None of this seems, at least at first, to be what the story is about, except that the main plot deals with aliens who take over the earth, so the more you read, the more it becomes a commentary on the conquering race by the conquered. Anybody else read this?

tanita✿davis said...

"... We have to move to black models in a photo - it will sell better."

I have had several people tell me that the character on my cover is "not Black enough," and so I am just cringing over this, Paula. Wow.

Cloudscome, I had to learn what you're saying -- in grad school, I would write stories and they'd get torn apart by the critique group because I wasn't perceived by some very serious types as correctly writing about my race. I wasn't "representing." I preferred not to delineate and create my characters as definitively African American because I didn't want to be responsible for depicting The Black YA Experience, yet when I wrote characters with neutral racial information, I was perceived to be writing about Caucasian characters. It really is a really hard line to straddle... I am learning - slowly - to just do what I'm going to do. I am learning to write the world in which I live, which is populated with all kinds. You're right, Paula, at the end of the day, we do all just want our books to sell... and I am grateful for BBS and its efforts to promote those people who are writing excellence in spite of the difficulties.

Sara, I have read the Smekday book. There's definitely an underlying story there about the true meaning of the day when someone else looked through someone ...well, another being's eyes and realized that they had some similarities, that not everything about the Evil Overlords was entirely evil. It's definitely a story about understanding, taking baby-steps away from prejudice and xenophobia and toward species harmony. I love that it's for middle-grade readers; can't start THAT too early...

Anonymous said...

If you are white there is no need to identify race further. You are just "normal". If you have any mixture of non-white in you, it's identified, acknowledged and accommodated for.

That is how it is in most books but I don't think it is right. There is a blandness to white characters that is stressed and conversely a whole necessary exploration of nonwhite characters that seems required. What's interesting to me is that in historical fiction the white and nonwhite characters seem to be much more explained - who they are, why they feel the way they do, why they act the way they do, etc. (I'm primarily thinking of Tony Johnson's Bone by Bone by Bone right now which is excellent.) I don't know why this plays into historical fiction so much more, but it does.

Richard Scrimger's contemporary novel Into the Ravine, (I mentioned it earlier - I just reviewed it in my current column so I'm thinking about it a lot) which follows the friendship of three boys largely over the course of one eventful river rafting day, is one of the first books I've read where race plays a very small part of the friendship. The story is who they are to each other and how they cope with the events of the day and it's really wonderful - I wish there were more books out there like this one. (Justine Larbalestier's Magic trilogy would be another one - the main character is biracial and it is just who she is, not what the book is about.)

It seems there is generally too much baggage associated with books with nonwhite characters and not enough with white characters. And what that says about us - society - is really quite interesting.