Friday, April 4, 2014

Who Gets To Write What?

I tuned into ESPN the other night, clicking away at my laptop as I waited for the Stanford-North Carolina women’s basketball game to begin. The end of the Louisville-Maryland contest was on. There was about a minute left, and Louisville was losing by 10 points, which pretty much guaranteed Maryland the win. But wait. A Louisville player, number 23, floated in a terrific three-point shot with 30 seconds left. Then the same player hit another three-pointer with 18 seconds left. And yet another with five seconds left. Maryland had made two foul shots during the Louisville run, and the score was now 76-73. But it was Louisville’s ball. One more three-pointer would send the game into overtime.

I’m a sucker for an athlete who performs well under pressure, so I put down my laptop and stared at the screen. The announcers were full of praise for the Louisville player, a senior named Shoni Schimmel. I have rarely seen anyone with a smoother, more poetic stroke. When Maryland took a timeout before the game's last play, I went back to my computer and Googled her.

I admit I don’t follow college basketball as much as I should. If I did, I would have known that Shoni, and her sister Jude, who also plays for the University of Louisville, are a genuine phenomenon. Their games attract thousands of people who drive from all over the U.S. and Canada to see them. The sisters are Native Americans who grew up on the Umatilla reservation in Pendleton, Oregon. Their success has galvanized Native fans and even attracted a filmmaker, who made a documentary about them titled Off the Rez.

As I read about the Schimmel sisters, I thought, “This is a great story. I should write it.” You probably know that I’ve made a career bringing the true tales of athletes and other bold and brilliant women to the mainstream. As first Shoni and then Jude graduate from college and enter the WNBA, their journeys should have the makings of a great book.

But then I wondered, “Should I write it?” In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion about the underrepresentation of people of color in children’s books. The postings on multicultural literature on the listserv of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were coming fast and furious the entire month of February. A few weeks later, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote companion essays in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times under the title, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

One of the strands on the CCBC listserv focused on who actually writes books with characters or subjects of color, and as a corollary, who should write those books. A number of posters were pretty adamant that they thought books were more authentic—and by extension more acceptable—when they were written by members of the groups they portrayed. By that logic, a book about the Schimmel sisters would be best by a Native person. But why should authors be limited by their backgrounds? I’ve written more than a dozen books, including three biographies, and I’ve never written one with a main character who shares my Jewish heritage. For me, part of the joy of writing nonfiction is getting to explore new worlds while developing the context to tell the story.

That’s what I was thinking as I read many of the CCBC posts. And now I’m finally putting it into words. People expressed a valid concern about getting a more diverse pool of authors (and editors) producing children’s books, but I don’t feel that any authors should be dissuaded from tackling any topics that ignite their passions. Every voice is valid and every perspective is worth considering as we inspire kids' curiosity about and understanding of the world around them.
For the record, Louisville didn’t win the game, despite an inspired play that put the ball in Schimmel’s hands for one more three-point attempt. She shot, and the ball hit the rim and ricocheted away as time ran out. It was Shoni’s last college game, but hopefully the prelude to an exciting professional career. Perhaps someone will write a book about Shoni and her sister one day. Perhaps it will be me.


It's a little skewed, that's for sure. said...

Exactly. A writer's job is 100% about getting into the skin of her character, whether that character is an 8-year-old-boy, a 65 year old civil rights activist, or a flying toaster. Judge the book on how well it does the job of making you see and feel that character, not on the author's color or background. The latter, in my opinion, is simple racism. And a bit bullying too.

So yes, more diversity in who writes books is certainly a good thing. But we shouldn't consider shutting down some writers as the method for achieving that goal.

Anonymous said...

You said what I'd say: "I don’t feel that any authors should be dissuaded from tackling any topics that ignite their passions." Your writing about the Schimmel sisters wouldn't preclude anyone else from doing it—including any Native American authors out there who may have the same desire. Besides, it isn't who writes the books but who decides to publish what that determines whether or not there are people of color in children's books.

Ann Bausum said...

Excellent post, Sue. As an author who has crossed boundaries before and will again, I heartily endorse your assertion that our passions have to guide us, not pigeonholes. Then let us be judged on our professionalism.

Sue Macy said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I had another conversation on Twitter where the other person clearly didn't agree with me. (She had no qualms about telling me she hadn't read the I.N.K. blog. She was just reacting to a Tweet about it.) She was appalled that a non-Native would write a book about these Native American basketball players. I think the assumption was that there would be only one book, and it wouldn't be by a Native. We have so many labels that define us. I think I would bring something to a book about the Schimmels that a Native American male writer wouldn't, for example. At any rate, it's all hypothetical at this point. But it seemed like an interesting way to think about who can/should write about different topics.