I don’t want my characters to serve as symbols. I want them to feel like people. I want them to feel like you, and your family, and your friends, and your enemies. And I don’t want them to feel real ‘in spite of’ their challenges. I want those challenges to be part of what makes them real.
After all, they’re part of what makes us real.
Here’s the thing about fiction. It’s one of the ways we understand the world. We tell ourselves stories to work out who we are, and to make sense of reality. Stories are incredibly powerful – and incredibly dangerous. By making things up you can tell the truth; or you can create, perpetuate and reinforce a lie. Simplistic, tokenistic ‘uses’ of disability in fiction – as though it’s a thing to be ‘used’ and not an intrinsic facet of the human condition – are a way of not telling the truth. And by not telling ourselves the truth in our stories, we make it easier to avoid the truth in our daily lives.
The truth is, every one of us is differently abled. Every single one.”
There was more than a little contempt in the name we gave her. “Hair & Nails” was a code signalling what we thought of where she placed value, what we thought of her priorities. She hadn’t read great books, she hadn’t had great thoughts, but she had a fiercely claw-like manicure and went to a shop to see to a tinted/braided/straightened/shellacked coiffure at least once a week. We – my intellectual sisters and I – were better than that.
In my quiet heart of hearts, I also looked askance at my gnawed down nails and fuzzy caterpillar brows, and knew that I wasn’t polished, wasn’t well put-together, and didn’t have it within me to care – as maybe I should have? – about externals. I looked at my frumpy outfits, my run-down flats, and my pudgy figure, compared them with her pricey Louboutins, her big Chanel bag, her firmly Spanxed thighs. I resented her, a little, and she, me. I excused myself my inability to compete, and told myself she looked like a pricey streetwalker. She seemed to look at me pityingly, as if my frizzy frumptitude was inexplicably disappointing, as if I were letting down the race.
Gah. The silent conversations we have, where our looks and our clothes shout. The silent competitions, and the signalling we do, with our clothes, our hair, our selves. I mentioned earlier this month that my writing group was exploring this topic. We argued the point (boy, do I disagree), and talked about whether or not a lack of emphasis on clothing meant that different people – of varying classes – were now the speakers for the culture, and the writers. (This is what we miss, when we deny diversity in literature, by the way — the deeper shadings of a life that most people of color live, but don’t talk about. This, too, is cultural diversity, this exploration of class and clothes…) We came to few conclusions, until a more recent news cycle.
Like others, I was wearied by the tale (and its subsequent iterations) of the nineteen year old Barney’s shopper who went after a $350 belt, bought it, and was subsequently led away in handcuffs, because surely it was a scam, and he couldn’t afford it. The clerk who made the value judgment of the boy’s prospects took his race into account – and nothing more. Black people cannot afford to spend large sums of money on mere belts, ergo…scam. I am sure his bosses are even now quietly patting him on the back. “Okay, you screwed up this time, but…” The bottom line is, stores don’t want to lose money on assuming that everyone can afford their wares. Everyone, meaning, people of color, who may not speak Standard American English, whom they may not really want to be buying their wares. There’s a lot of subtext there.
And, then, there’s the matter of the belt. Did you, like I did, wonder, “Dude?! $350 for a belt?! What else did it do, organize your closet???” I thought that briefly, yes, but I also thought, “Well, it’s your money, to spend for whatever ridiculousness you’d like – good for you for having the discipline to save up.” It’s too bad that bigotry and institutionalized corporate nastiness also played a part in this growing-up, learning experience.
U Penn’s Wharton School of Business reported on a paper a couple of its students did called “Conspicuous Consumption and Race.” It talked about the fact that ethnic minorities often spend more on high profile, high ticket purchases – the SUV in the run down neighborhood with the gold grille, the big-ticket basketball shoes, pristine in their boxes, the iPhone/iPad/Xbox, the showy Chanel bag – but it talked about reasons. It’s not just about “keeping up with the Joneses” – unless the Jones’ are of the Price-Jones’ and of the dominant culture. It’s cultural signalling – “We’re okay. We’re not poor ghetto people you have to fear. We have money; we aren’t trying to hustle yours.” Status signalling, not necessarily fashion. Mutual funds vs. Manolo’s. One’s a lot harder to show off than the other.
That begins to shine a different spotlight on Hair & Nails.
A much-linked piece by Emory PhD sociology candidate and Graduate Fellow at the Center for Poverty Research at UC-Davis, Tressie McMillan Cottom, takes this even further. She speaks candidly about her own experiences in The Logic of Stupid Poor People, talks about a family who gets ahead by lump sums of insurance when someone dies, and disability payments. We could be cousins; much of what she says makes me flinch in recognition. She talks about a family which encouraged especially its female members to do well in school, to go further, making the females the keepers of the educational flame, the ones who could “talk like White people” and help the community out. My family exactly, a generation removed. I hope you read her entire essay — it has much to say on signalling and privilege, and what we trade on, unknowingly, to make our way through the world.
Thinking back to Hair & Nails, the differences between us were starkest in what we thought we had to trade on. She, her aggressive beauty, her polish and her purchases, I, my academic standing, and effortless Standard American English, a quiet manner in school, the acceptability of being a “good” girl, from a “deserving” family. This carried me far further than any actual true intellect – I’m not as smart as I could have been, because I wasn’t pushed, and didn’t receive extra help. I wasn’t a squeaky wheel. Quiet and compliant was “good enough;” sounding like I belonged was sufficient to pretend.
Something else I read in Hair & Nails’ condolence glances was pity for my perceived inability to rise to the challenge of beauty. Sociologists assure us that we all signal, that, to a certain extent, we all perform cultural respectability in return for whatever intangible rewards. But, what about us slobs? What am I signaling, with my refusal to spend salon time, by turning up my nose at the claw-tipped manicure and the bling and the Hilfiger? Certainly, that I am possibly a snob who thinks I can trade higher on my perceived intellect, on my ability to ape the dominant culture well enough to not just fit, but to thrive – I’ve certainly been told that one often enough. But, now I wonder if it’s not something more.
Candidly, I have this… figure. When I was younger, I buried it in baggy sweaters and shapeless trou, and about a hundred pounds of concealing pudge. I wrapped it in duffel coats and knee-length cardigans, and didn’t acknowledge it, past middle school, really, for various reasons. I was wildly signaling to the judging, cultural gatekeepers that I was a sexless, marginally unattractive, smart, safe individual. I wasn’t slutty. I wasn’t man-bait. I was neat and scrupulous and conservative — and really, middle-aged, in my dress, even in college. Regardless of my signaling, my parents scrutinized and micromanaged my every male friendship, and I got used to my father glowering and scouring my journals if I so much as spoke to a member of the opposite sex. My mother graduated from high school pregnant, and her failure was imputed to be my own – despite my just being “one of the boys” for most of high school. And, in spite of the baggy clothing and the frumpiness, I still captured negative attention. I signed myself jokingly “Vivanna, Temptress of the Night,” because when they found out we were even casually friends, my future in-laws offered their son a vasectomy, told him when he was done “dipping his wick” with me, or whatever truly classy phrase his father used, that they would help him disentangle himself from my succubus tentacles. “Those people” entrap you with children, he was told. Regardless of signals, in spite of the performance of acceptability, I was repeatedly judged as oversexed and dangerously distracting – the more drab I became, the more of the life of the mind I tried to cultivate, the worse it seemed to get.
Try harder. Work harder. Be more. Do more. These are the messages young people of color receive from the older generation, with a continued pressure to perform. Dress for the job you want tomorrow, not for the paycheck you have today. Dress up. Look up. Aim higher. Dress for success. Send the right message. Perhaps these are some of the ideas behind student loan debt – behind a willingness to pay for the next thirty years for the dream of the upwardly mobile…
Maybe Hair & Nails’s pitying looks weren’t mere contempt for differences. Maybe she, with her rhinestone nail tips and extensions, knew something that I did not – that it’s useless to think that our appearance doesn’t tell a tale of us. And, that maybe it’s not a $350 belt or $2500 purse we’re after, but we’re all trying to find out some way to belong…
As I sit at my desk in my ponytail and plain cardigan, it’s something to think about.
by Tanya Davis ©2009, all rights reserved
Time again for a favorite poem…
I honestly do not always love a meme, and I don’t often forward things that other people are blogging or tweeting or passing around, simply because there’s a contrariness within me, and if I’ve seen it once — you’ve seen it four times by now. This piece of wonder went ’round the blogosphere months and months back, but I honestly think it’s worth repeating. Frequently. And to go with it, this semi tongue-in-cheek piece on introversion from The Atlantic, which also bears repeating.
Walk away from the crowd of people around you, and listen to your head.
I’m getting better! Thanks for everyone’s good wishes; I’m left with just a few coughs from my brush with Incandescence, just in time to attend a dance party with Eisha and Jules of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and Adrienne of What Adrienne Thinks About That (I had to write that out — I love the name of her blog, and while everyone knows the “7-Imps” we just don’t often say Adrienne’s whole blog name).
The guests at the party are all of you, of course, and Sara Lewis Holmes and I have the honor of being lead dancers. Sara talks about her new and awesome book, OPERATION YES and all the bits she stole from her real life, and her kids’ life, while doing some free form pirouettes. I talk about the road-tripping in my life, and the bad karma that is Houston while I do The Swim. We have a few laughs, learn about each other’s books, and overall have a good time. Drop by!
Something to entertain all of you while you’re tying the bows on Mom’s gift this morning…
It’s apparently Artist & Illustrator Week. First, via Fuse @SLJ, illustrator Davide Hyde Costello draws the cutest janitor/monster. Next, Bookshelves of Doom links to an excellent ten minutes with Quentin Blake where he illustrates the cover of one of his latest books. His watercolors sometimes flow out of the lines, but the overall effect is astonishing, and makes me think I should really take a class. Someday. In my copious spare time.
[email protected]GuysLitWire posts what the funny and snarky Max, age 13, thinks boys really want to read. Publishers, take note, right? Meanwhile, Mitali knows how to relate to boys — they LOVE her. She gets the best fan mail.
Meanwhile, while teachers and librarians and children’s book aficionados are working toward pulling together a children’s inauguration, to promote reading and literacy, the Irish are wholesale deciding that since they can’t be American, they can just make President-Elect Obama… Irish.
What’s funnier is that Scottish newspapers are also saying that the President-elect is Scottish. But where’s their wee catchy song, I ask you??
“I hate being labelled,” she says today, ensconced in the chic café at the top of Waterstone’s Piccadilly, where she’s requested hot water to mix with the cold remedy she’s determinedly sipping on. “Through my whole writing career it seems people have always been criticising me for not tackling racism. But things like even having black characters on covers when I first started was a bit of a political statement, because I’ve had more than one bookseller say to me ‘that book would sell better if you didn’t put black people on the cover’.”
Malorie Blackman is interviewed by Allison Flood at the Guardian about her book, Noughts and Crosses, which can perhaps be described kind of like Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes (the sociology classroom experiment) meets Romeo and Juliet. The Crosses have all the power and influence, and are brown; the Noughts have nothing, and aren’t. An interesting series, and a fascinating interview with an author who didn’t really want to write about racism, because, since she is black, it was kind of…expected.
The Guardian had a piece today on Angry Arthur, by Hiawyn Oram, and the illustrations of Satoshi Kitamura. This book is part of “Get Glasgow Reading” this year for the 0-5 set, and it’s all about tantrums. The illustration really matches the fury of Arthur. Speaking of illustrations, via Chicken Spaghetti, the NYT has already chosen their 2008 Best Illustrated book list. A whole ton of them are Cybils picks. Yay, us.
The pink-tressed Laini (whose name I’m rather partial to!) is holding grudges in a way that totally makes me laugh — I have to admit that even three years on, I’d go in and FIND that waiter — which is probably a really bad use for a time machine).
Ooh, ick… Bookmoot’s been sick! She’s had an –ectomy or an –oscopy. Yikes! Go and wish her well while she’s on drugs and won’t remember! She might spill something good…
Book Evangelist Jen Robinson is guest blogging at ShelfSpace, which is part of ForeWord magazine. She talks about giving the gift of reading, and her number two suggestion in how to give kids the gift of reading really resonated with me:
2. Let the children in your life see that reading is important to you. Mention it when you encounter something interesting in a book or a newspaper. Turn off the TV, and let kids see you reading for relaxation. Bring books for everyone when you travel on planes. Listen to audiobooks in your car on road trips. Clutter up your house with books and magazines and newspapers. Demonstrate a culture that values reading, all types of reading.
I know too many people who only read TV Guide and don’t understand why their kids don’t just pick up the reading habit — and a habit of excellence in their schoolwork — just by osmosis. Go, Jen. Well said.
Like me, Sara’s always a little leery of books with big buzz, thus her enthused review of Graceling has gotten me on tenterhooks to come HOME and get some BOOKS already. This is killing me!
And on a personal writing note: Just got word from Secret Agent Man that my next book, MARE’S WAR, is being shopped to the UK, and is being offered to fifteen (!) houses. That seems… a bit… extreme to me, but here’s hoping something good comes out of it.
And now for something completely different…
This is a historic moment. The reason is twofold (or should that be “the reasons ARE twofold”?). Firstly, though I’ve been writing like crazy this week, apparently the toon part of my brain was watching way too much CNN, so for the first time ever, here’s a political cartoon on Finding Wonderland. I hope it is an entertaining diversion. Secondly, this is a historic moment because this cartoon occupies the very last page in my sketchbook. Said sketchbook is mostly cartoons, too, which made me realize just how dang many of these I’ve posted. But now I’ll have to either start using the giant sketchbook, which is unwieldy but has many blank pages left; or buy a new one. Hmm…
I’ve been meaning to post a few of these links for almost three weeks now, which is very sad. Firstly, thanks to the GoodReads newsletter, I ran across interviews with two authors whom I really like–Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson. Definitely two iconoclastic people.
Okay, I guess I wasn’t done with politics for today. Back on a political note, visit ArtsVote2008, a program of Americans for the Arts, to find out both presidential candidates’ positions on arts policy.
Right. Back to lit stuff. I was informed by Gina R. that FW is featured on an aggregator site called Alltop – Top Children’s Literature News–above the fold, no less! Readers’ Rants is on there, too, along with a host of other familiar faces from the kidlitosphere. Lastly, speaking of the kidlitosphere, don’t forget to nominate your favorite books for the Cybils! Now you can also help spread the word–and the love–with a downloadable and printable flyer that includes a list of all 2007 shortlisted titles.
Reminds me I’ve gotta sit right down and come up with MY nominees…
Ahh, another gem for the introvert writer: Slate’s Interviews: 50 Cents. The tagline says, “Interviews come along all the time… all you have to do, is wait.” NPR’s Alex Chadwick is laid back and funny, just letting people approach him and …talk. And people are wonderful, in their difference — sad, tipsy, poignant, thoughtful, pathetic, amusing — as different as fingerprints and autumn leaves. I love to observe them and hear their stories. Check it out!
Via Original Content — a gorgeous new edition of Our Anne!