{pushing back the finish line}

It’s been an EXHAUSTING month in the children’s lit field – really, in the literary industry in general. Between the current administration wanting to gut federal support for libraries, to the continued firestorm of authors naming industry insiders and other high profile movers and shakers as serial abusers, it’s been… hard to focus on actually writing. That’s been par for the course for the last year, of course, but lately it’s become harder to imagine this industry in two years, or five years time. With all of the turmoil finished, who will we be then? (Or, will we ever finish?)

It’s Women’s History Month, and across the internet, children’s lit folk have committed to 31 days of posts focused on “improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ industry.” Children’s lit people have an open invitation to join in the conversation in various places, using the Twitter hashtag #kidlitwomen or to access all the #KidlitWomen posts this month on the FaceBook page https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/

While I haven’t participated, I’ve quietly been reading industry professionals’ essays (and ironic poems) about the issues of being overlooked and undervalued, and how to address those issues. Through these writings, we observe where power and representation in terms of who receives professional acclaim, and who does not receive it, intersect. Edi Campbell has continued to do her good work in interpreting data to come up with a rough outline of the facts on diversity within the larger picture (which you’ll find here and more here.) As usual, she is spot-on, and timely.

I am collecting these links here as a place for me to come back to them – because I think they will, in time, be proof — that we’ve been talking about some of these inequities for ages. The numbers won’t lie when it comes to looking back and seeing if a change has been made. The revelatory Ripped Bodice Diversity Report for 2017 dropped in a PERFECTLY timed space with its message of “we have to do better, and we’re doing worse than last year.” Honestly, it’s hard to see where “better” is going to come from, when right now a lot of powerbrokers within the industry seem content with virtue signaling to make sure everyone knows they’re “committed” to being better… but these claims will have to be seen to be believed. Women struggle as a whole within the writing industry, and in the children’s lit world, it continues to be woman-heavy in staffing, but sustain a culture which awards and prioritizes men, as if the business savvy act of writing for children and teens – the largest industry IN publishing just now – is equal to giving birth and nurturing an infant to childhood with one’s own body. Not to mention how women of color are left with not even the few perquisites offered to women in the industry as a whole. And let’s not talk about disabled women, or queer women, or older women, or…

How do we move from desire to action? How do we get ourselves out of conversation and across the room to… act?

If we were writing this scene in a novel, what would happen next?

{december lights: it’s what we’re here for}

Many people find the idea of divinity, of a separate Entity in this universe, of spirit… frankly terrifying. I remember my parents talking about growing up watching people in the throes of religious…somethings, and despite growing up with that, feeling dismayed and betrayed by the adults around them, and eager to escape. As soon as they were of age, they both decamped for more comprehensible experiences, less ecstatic and chaotic, and confusing. I know some would be critical of them for that, but your faith isn’t supposed to scare you.

And yet:

There is something to be said for those in the light of Divinity, who act in pursuit of understanding, instead of relaxing in the presumption of its possession. There is something to be said for the Mystery, and the Enigma, and for uncertainty. We ought to be less comfortable in our beliefs than we are, always questioning our assumptions, always querying our conclusions, critically adjusting them, becoming comfortable in our doubts and in our uncertainties and yes, our fear. We aren’t here to settle complacently into one way of being, but to be led, turned, and moved…to where we ought to be.

We Have Come to Be Danced

We have come to be danced
not the pretty dance
not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance
but the claw our way back into the belly
of the sacred, sensual animal dance
the unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance
the holding the precious moment in the palms
of our hands and feet dance

We have come to be danced
not the jiffy booby, shake your booty for him dance
but the wring the sadness from our skin dance
the blow the chip off our shoulder dance
the slap the apology from our posture dance

We have come to be danced
not the monkey see, monkey do dance
one, two dance like you
one two three, dance like me dance
but the grave robber, tomb stalker
tearing scabs & scars open dance
the rub the rhythm raw against our souls dance

WE have come to be danced
not the nice invisible, self conscious shuffle
but the matted hair flying, voodoo mama
shaman shakin’ ancient bones dance
the strip us from our casings, return our wings
sharpen our claws & tongues dance
the shed dead cells and slip into
the luminous skin of love dance

We have come to be danced
not the hold our breath and wallow in the shallow end of the floor dance
but the meeting of the trinity: the body, breath & beat dance
the shout hallelujah from the top of our thighs dance
the mother may I?
yes you may take 10 giant leaps dance
the Olly Olly Oxen Free Free Free dance
the everyone can come to our heaven dance

We have come to be danced
where the kingdom’s collide
in the cathedral of flesh
to burn back into the light
to unravel, to play, to fly, to pray
to root in skin sanctuary
We have come to be danced
WE HAVE COME

by Jewel Mathieson, ©2004

Treasure Island 35

A dance that slaps the apology from our postures. A dance that refuses a self-conscious shuffle. A dance to strip us from our casings, and return our wings. What if we were to truly let go of ourselves, and leave the steps to Divinity? Then, we wouldn’t just dance. We’d rise and shine – and possibly fly.

And wouldn’t that just ring in a new year?


Hat tip to Tricia for sending me this poem after hearing it in a yoga class the other day. I might have to rethink my aversion to yoga! Or, at least find one where they read you poetry while you’re holding your pose. What a fine thing, to ignore your discomfort and open your heart to “eat and drink the precious words,” as our Em might have put it.

{responsibility, guilt & forgiveness: a 1970 rap on race between james baldwin & margaret mead}

BALDWIN: We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.

In reading a piece on a new book of essays by the inestimable Ursula K. LeGuin, I ran across this brilliant recounting of a conversation between eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead and eminent poet James Baldwin. An older white lady and a middle-aged black man, in 1970 New York, having a public conversation about ideas and personal philosophies and faith – this conversation is just filled with some stunning ideas. I always recognize that linking to things means you read the first sentence and then pass it on without reading it, so I’ve waited until I read it all to post this, but there are just some gems too good not to share. Read, and pass it along. Read it, even if you think you’re too busy for Deep Thoughts (TM). No, you’re not.


BALDWIN: “For whom the bell tolls.” … It means everybody’s suffering is mine.

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia. But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.

MEAD: But you see, I think there is a difference. I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm.

BALDWIN: In the eye of the hurricane.

MEAD: In the eye of the hurricane, because I think I may be able to do more good there.


Like Mr. Baldwin, sometimes our disappointment with humanity and American culture in specific is so great because we expect a lot from such a capable species, such privileged people in a privileged place — and we expect a lot from ourselves. We need to demand a lot of ourselves… and we need to keep looking with expectation at ourselves collectively, as a culture, as well as individually. We will improve, if only because we must.


BALDWIN: …Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.

MEAD: That’s right.

BALDWIN: What shall we do? How shall we begin it? How can it be accomplished? How can one invest others with some hope?

MEAD: Then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.


Read this whole piece, and I encourage you, as you have time, to read the associated pieces on the problematic concept of a “melting pot” in America, the reimagining of democracy for a post-consumerist culture, and an affably contentious one on on religion. If you enjoy reading like this as I do, you could bump the website a donation – these treasures do need to be unearthed and shared in contemporary times, and the work of educating a culture – work like painstaking – certainly takes a lot of hours and labor (and no, nobody paid me to say that, and I don’t even know who runs the site).

{but, what did you do?}

Ninth grade, in a small and conservative Christian school. One of a count-’em-on-one-hand number of black students, I had been a poor fit with my mostly white, affluent peer group since the end of 7th grade. I was ostracized, cut from the herd for reasons I didn’t understand (but looking back, it had everything to do with my bra size). Freshman year found me lingering on the fringes, since few of the girls would speak to me; craving friendship, but fearing — well, everything, including my suddenly overwhelming body being the focus of attention from curious little boys to grown men, and being accused of “stealing” the boys by my former friends. Add to that my deeply authoritarian, don’t-spare-the-rod-old-school disciplinarian parent employed at my school who skulked around corners, watching to find me out of compliance and in rebellion, just once… I was in an increasingly constrictive straitjacket that squeezed tighter and tighter and tighter.

It is no surprise that I was at times a little difficult. A lot of times I was sullen. Sometimes I was flippant, or snarky, or dismissive. Sometimes I muttered under my breath and rolled my eyes. Sometimes, I wept silently, all through class. This is freshman year for a lot of people. This is… school.

Even then, my salvation was a pen on paper. I wrote. I drew. I scribbled furiously over sentences, pressed down and cut the words black until the pen bit and the paper tore and still I wrote. I was angry, angry, angry all. the. time. And the day our earnest young Bible teacher found it within his heart to lecture us once again about respecting him, when he showed so little respect for us, I. Had. Had. It.

Poor Mr. D… He’s a dentist now, having discovered after dealing with our class that he was much better off outside of the classroom. (Would that any number of others had made this brave and self-actualized choice.) In his early twenties, in his first teaching gig, Mr. D had apparently no idea about classroom management. He was …whining at us, glowering at individuals, calling them out, and wasting our entire class’ time for the infractions of a few. We’ve all sat through scenes like this. I hadn’t given him any grief – I hadn’t been the problem child he’d been going on about – but I was being forced to sit through his increasingly impassioned self-pity for how we just didn’t give him the honor he deserved. And then, his eye fell on me, hunched over, head down, pen scribbling madly as I wrote or drew myself out of the room —

I landed back in my head to hear my name. Some garbled demands in rising tones, “– when I’m talking. Put down your pen, sit up, and pay attention.”

My whole body jerked, like I’d been electrocuted. My pen skidded as everything went tight. I hated the attention of the whole room on me, hated that with a few words that I honestly didn’t really hear, he’d narrowed the focus of his little diatribe onto me. I remember feeling an electric prickle down my face, like all the follicles were squeezing closed. And from the chained and chastened inner me escaped one infuriated little word…

“NO.”

Again, poor Mr. D — he didn’t expect that. He didn’t expect any pushback from ME at all, which is possibly why he’d turned on me. I was — honestly, guys — A Good Girl. For all my side-eye, I was made of good grades and no backtalk, all assignments in on time all the time — I didn’t have any choice. There wasn’t room in my life, run like the tightest of ships, thanks to my father, for anything else. And yet, that word …so surprising, so out-of-control terrifying — that word I couldn’t take it back.

“No.” It dropped onto the floor of the suddenly silent room like a lead weight.

“Then you’re out of here. Right now. Get out.”

Head down, I continued to scribble — the words not making sense anymore – harder. My shoulders climbed toward my ears as I felt the metaphoric ice I was on grow thinner. What the heck was I doing!?

“I said GET OUT,” he repeated, standing, trying to loom from across the room. “You’re out of here.”

And the little voice – irrepressible and terrifying – spoke from a body with eyes downcast, “I didn’t do anything. I’m not going anywhere. You. Will. Have. To. Drag. Me.

Lord have mercy, yes. Those words came out of my mouth.

And …nothing happened.

Oh, I’m sure I got a talking-to about respect, yadda, yadda, yadda, but nothing happened. Nothing that included me being dragged and thrown. Nothing that included violence in anything other than the feelings I had, of negation. Nothing. I did not obey, and the world did not end.

That whole story could have ended so badly, fast-forward twenty-plus years to this week in North Carolina. Nobody, no brown girl is going to dare a person of authority from the dominant culture to lay a hand on her, not if she values her life. I was privileged to be in a safe – though annoying – space known as school, even if it was painful and constricting, it was safe, for a given value of safety. All unknowing, I was rolling in my privilege.

Today I am hearing a lot of “what did she do?” from reporters and people in passing on Twitter, and I’ve gotta say, folks, “What did you do” is the wrong question. It never puts the right weight of responsibility on the right people, and it doesn’t even cut it when a child is just grizzling after having a tongue stuck out at them on the playground. When someone is hurt, the first response is not to make the person injured – even with something as overwrought as a stuck-out tongue – at fault. This I know, not because I have children, but because I am a human being who has had this happen before and it does not feel good, nor does it make me suddenly mindful of my behavior, and yearn to do better. No. Trying to place the blame on the black female student whom the North Carolina police officer assaulted the other day, saying she should be “held accountable” when her torqued neck, broken arm, and bruised body today has been punished far more than holding onto a phone in class could have ever warranted — these are statements that suggest that the child deserves her criminal mistreatment. And she, like any abused child or assaulted person, does not.

And neither would I have deserved to be dragged and dropped by Mr. D. — even though I dared him to.

{non verbis sed operis}

“An enormous conflict between words and deeds is prevalent today: everyone talks about freedom, democracy, justice, human rights, about peace and saving the world from nuclear apocalypse; and at the same time, everyone, more or less, consciously or unconsciously, serves those values and ideals only to the extent necessary to serve himself and his “worldly” interests, personal interests, group interests, power interests, property interests, and state or great-power interests…So the power structures apparently have no other choice than to sink deeper into this vicious maelstrom, and contemporary people apparently have no other choice than to wait around until the final inhibition drops away.

But who should begin? Who should break this vicious circle? Responsibility cannot be preached but only borne, and the only possible place to begin is with oneself.”

– Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga, 1988

{new directions, with thanks to the circle of word lovers}

Vallejo 199

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with my good brainiac friends, and it’s been helpful – to helping me sleep better at night, and to actually work smarter in finishing my revision (Oh, yes – I am still working, and the deadline HAS MOVED UP, even. But, I digress.)

I find that when I’m stressed, the more brains I have with mine, the better. Also, the more books, so I can disappear into a place with only maybe werewolves and vampires to fight. Something more manageable and concrete than institutional, systemic racism, anyway.

Not every conversation with my brainiac friends has been easy – we’ve all got to get past our own biases to actually converse with intelligence and understanding. I’ve had people say, in essence, “well, what is it you people want?” And when I’ve cocked a querying brow, they backtrack and say, “Okay – what I meant to say was, “what can we work together collectively to achieve?” Sometimes, we’ve all had to think, It’s a good thing I love you guys. Not everyone has this luxury – to stop and remember that we’re all friends.

Sometimes, our relationships don’t survive our truths.

So, as a note to my friends who are of the dominant culture: please don’t feel like I’m attacking you when I talk about recent racial incidents, when I talk about identity and privilege. Please don’t feel like just because I object to, for instance, the Huron Carol, and say that the English translation of the original Wyandot-language carol (itself written by a French Canadian priest in 1643, not a person of the Wyandot tribe), as “translated” by a Canadian is problematic, that I’m seeing all white people and all missionaries as bad. Please don’t flinch when I say that I feel conflicted wearing the tiny silver police badge necklace my uncle left me – because it’s positive associations with the police, not with white people, with which I am struggling – I don’t want to hurt anyone by wearing something that maybe symbolizes… something it should never have symbolized, which is absolute power.

My point? Please don’t jump to conclusions. We should walk and look at holiday lights for exercise instead.

One of my smarter librarian/ educator friends passed along this quote:

“That the myths of the Protestant Work Ethic, and mythic identity racism, are embedded in the American power structure does not make them less religious in nature or origin, simply more troubling, because they have been used for all time to abuse those not wanted in that power structure…..[they] have been carried forward for almost four centuries because they made those born to wealth and power feel good about themselves. How much better to describe your ancestors as having struggled alone against a brutal wilderness and wild savages than saying that your ancestors were “illegal immigrants” who stole a remarkably resource-rich continent from its inhabitants. How much better to embrace Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Theory” (see Turner, Frontier) than to worry about slaves and underpaid immigrants who built the early national roads, dug the Erie Canal, and built the railroads. How much better to celebrate “American Invention” than to discuss the wholesale intellectual property theft – ranging from woolen mills to those railroads to the telephone debuting across those 1876 fairgrounds – which had enriched the American Republic’s first hundred years. …. Myth matters in the struggle for power. And understanding mythic belief matters even more. And as I have said on more than one occasion, education is the most political thing a society does because it is a struggle for our future.” – by Ira Socol, Taking A Closer Look at the Grit Narratives, Knowledge Quest, v43 n1 p8-12 Sep-Oct 2014.

This was a response to Paul Tough’s book – How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which has gotten a LOT of press in the education sector, so much so that even I, who haven’t taught for years, have heard about it. I’m grateful that people are thinking about it, and thinking about the impact of the way we think about each other. My smart friend says that one of the best things we can do for each other now is to begin to create new myths and new ways of understanding our past, and creating our future.

Writers are creators. We are the myth-makers. This gives me so much to consider… and I will, once my deadline is no longer prodding me in the backside. Back to work with me.

{one more step = privilege}

Privilege

By now, you’ve run across the illustration found the other day in Buzzfeed on privilege, and man, it’s a good one. Hands on, three-dimensional illustrations for esoteric sociological concepts are THE BEST thing to help people understand concepts, as the great and marvelous Lady Jane Elliott taught all of us ages ago. I love the work that went into this one.

But, may I suggest it go one step further?

Privilege is when the kids at the back of the room gets only one shot at the recycling bin. The kids in front of them get five shots.

{an exchange on art}

JustinChanda-podium-voice-v2flatweb

Photo credit: Debbie Ridpath Ohi, from her blog Inky Girl, ©2014

Today, I sent Debbie’s inspirational photograph to my writing group, and added the following words:

RESIST THE TRENDS. Resist the frigid breath of the publishing industry, breathing down your neck, trying to get you to focus on The Market and What Editors Want. WHO CARES. Write the best story you know how. Write you heart out, all over the page. Look into the convex lens of your imaginary audience and tell the true – the REAL true that makes you dig down and get personal and a little afraid and maybe weep a little. Write what you’re finding a glimmer of, but fear maybe others won’t understand. Write what scares you, what hurts you, what disgusts you, what seduces you.

…and THEN worry about the stupid industry.

As is often the case, the quotation shared started a dialogue with a friend. Her response (appropriately anonymized):

The problem is I did write the story that came to me, and now I’m worrying about the market, because my story won’t sell.

Not to be a naysayer and a downer, but I listened to Justin Chanda, and his speech was inspirational, BUT…

They (and by they, I mean editors and agents and publishers) say to not worry about the market and write your own story, and then in the next breath, they say, “We’re not taking ______, ________, _________, because those trends are over.” Fill in the blanks with your story idea(s).

They want the next big thing, but they also want the current hot trend. He’s right that we cannot predict the trends or write to them, but on the other hand, the trends exist and if you happen to have something that doesn’t match what they’re looking for–even if it’s well written–the answer will still be tough luck, Charlie.

I sat through that conference depressed and disheartened, despite Justin’s smiling face. Many of the agents there were closed to submissions, including conference goers. (I kept wondering, “Then why are you here?”) And all of them were pretty down on YA–especially speculative fiction. The ones who were taking submissions wanted realistic, please, something like John Green, only not a cancer book (aka trend over).

Right.

I walked away with the decision that I’m just going to write for me and not worry about publication or querying. No pressure. No what if. No fear if it’s good enough. No second-guessing the critiques I’ll receive and wondering what everyone won’t like, what I need to fix, etc. Just me and my own joy in making up a story.

…Right now, I just want to finish [my] manuscript and enjoy the ride.

Trying to experience the journey and not worry about the end…

I tried to choose my words carefully – because I know it’s easy for me to say “Oh, don’t give up! Don’t let the market rule you!” when I’ve already been published, and my friend hasn’t yet, but I believe so strongly that she will be that “yet” is the only word I can use. I replied:

And that is what I mean about not worrying about the trend.
I don’t at all belittle what was said at conference, what you heard, or what you found inspirational —
What I have a problem with is PERPETUATING. If we keep writing books that are what people want? We’re keeping the world – this dominant culture, youth worshiping, lucre-loving, hypocritically class conscious, culturally clueless, mean (girl/guy) enabling, tech obsessed – this disappointing, shallow world exactly the way it is.

Okay, so astronauts get to grow up and change the world. People expect that of the hard sciences – they’re researching, they’re making discoveries – right? People don’t expect that from art. We’re just… making pretty pictures. Scribbling words. It’s not like we’re curing cancer. We don’t change the world… or, so you’d think.

ART IS POWERFUL. The act of creation — the experience of seeing yourself reflected in a creation — we can’t possibly ignore that thrill. Art – and our place in it – has the potential to be transformative. We cannot possibly content ourselves with just regurgitating something made up by talking heads in publishing firms whose ego and paycheque is tied to perpetuating the status quo. Another-John-Green-But-Not-Cancer realistic fiction novel – my square backside; we can do better than that. We CAN do better than that. OUR stories are real – for a given value of “real” in fiction – not contrived and cobbled to meet some trend. YES, marketing and money rule supreme in the industry, but the industry doesn’t move without us. I truly believe that the best stories — and a disturbing number of outright craptacular ones and generic “meh” ones — will continue to be told.

You’re right: it’s not important to be THE best in the industry, especially because that is totally subjective. Being your best is what’s going to make creating your stories satisfying – it’s what’s going to make your words fly, and your story arc and your big-picture metaphors sing like the tapped edge of a crystal goblet – that tiny chime that says ‘real.’

Here’s to being the genuine article.

The conversation on literature and breaking into the market isn’t over, of course – this was just a piece of it. There’s a lot of hope, and a lot of despair in publishing; a lot of unrealized dreams and normalizing the status quo, but it’s still my hope that things will change. Here’s to that day.