What with Sonia Sotomayor’s recent grilling by certain senators about her “wise Latina” statements and INK’s Ask the Author question about writing outside your culture (see June 29 post,) I’ve been reminded of a wonderful workshop I attended with Ellen Levine during a Vermont College residency some years back. Since it was a while ago, I can only report my memory of it and I’m sorry, Ellen, if I leave something out or don’t get it all right.
In my response to Ask the Author, I said that I thought authors could write about anything if they got it right: facts accurate, writing skillful, and sensitivity proper to subject matter and readers. Ellen’s workshop showed me just how difficult and subtle achieving this sensitivity can be. None of us are racist or sexist or homophobic, but sensitivity goes far beyond non-hostility toward a particular group.
Ellen began by asking us each to list all the groups we were part of. I scribbled down about a dozen: white, woman, mother, writer, and a few more. Then we went around the room and read our lists. As others read, I realize what I had left out. I didn’t put “straight” on the list. But the lesbians certainly listed “gay.” I didn’t put “sighted” on the list, though a blind participant would certainly have listed that. An immigrant would have included that group, but I didn’t think to add “native-born citizen” as one of mine.
As we went around the table, I realized that to be in the “dominant” group – and here I’m defining dominant in terms of numbers and power – means that the minority/subordinate groups are often invisible, or not considered – unless they take to the streets, or you’ve got one for a friend or neighbor or work colleague. I realized that I’ve got all sorts of blind spots I didn’t know I had.
Some groups today face discrimination from institutions and individuals. With gays and lesbians it may be as blatant as marriage and job benefits for partners. Or it may be as subtle as that expressed by a friend of mine. He said that no matter how long he lives with his partner, people don’t view them as a family and their families don’t see the partner as a relative. This sort of sensitivity is hard to perceive from outside a group.
Back to the workshop. After the participants had named their “groups,” we talked about children’s books that deal with minority cultures. We talked about a picture book in which an immigrant girl named Maria is called Mary at school. (Sorry, here is where memory fails me. I can’t remember the title or author, or if the teacher or the girl makes the choice to change her name.) Two Hispanic participants took opposing views on this story. One was deeply offended – seeing it as the dominant culture erasing the girl’s subordinate culture. Another loved it – seeing it as a realistic and positive way for the girl to begin to interact with her new culture.
An author outside the culture writing about the process of assimilation had better learn many, many facets of the process – from social to linguistic to generational and more. And even then there are no guarantees you won’t alienate some readers.
One of my colleagues spent a lot of time researching Native American history and folktales from her region. In the end she decided not to pursue publication. Instead she returned to her own culture – Irish American – which she knew from birth.
Others, including Ellen Levine, have chosen to write about worlds outside their own, and children’s literature is the richer for it. As I cautiously enter the field of African American history, I’m grateful for Ellen’s workshop that showed me that it takes more than passion and goodwill toward the subject matter for an author to get it right.
This is a huge subject and I’d love to hear others’ experiences/mistakes/successes.