Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Writing Diversity While White

Megan: In the call for diverse literature, books by people of color and First/Native Nations are essential. But that doesn’t mean White writers are necessarily absolved from responsibility to reflect the diverse world of children and teens. Yet it’s thorny--we know it’s thorny--when it comes to representing characters and cultural experiences that are not one’s own. It’s can be a challenge to evaluate them, too, when you are an outsider to the experience being represented.

Recently Nina and I were talking about two middle grade novels by White authors who brought diversity into the stories by establishing the main characters as biracial (both were Latino/White girls): Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb, and Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. We appreciated both of these books, but in our discussions, found we had completely opposite reactions to which book we thought was more successful in terms of how it established and developed the diversity.

Nina: Yes! I read Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer first. I was impressed at how Jones incorporated aspects of Sophie/Sofecita’s culture and race into the story, but sometimes pieces felt inserted for expressly that purpose. For instance, when Sofecita goes into a “you must have had a hard time when you were young” aside to her Abuelita on page 75, we can tell this is where we’re supposed to learn something.  To me, Sophie’s biculturality never quite felt intrinsic to her as a character except to emphasize her situation as an outsider. It felt like an embellishment.

So when I read Moonpenny Island, I was wowed at how Springstubb uses biculturality to actually move the story.  It feel less explicit, yet more present, as it is the wedge between Flor’s parents, and her own divided feelings about island life.  

Megan:  And I had almost the exact opposite response.  I read Moonpenny Island first and appreciated Springstubb’s choice to make Flor biracial, but while we are told her mother is Latina, and there is a reference to Flor thinking about how it must feel for her mom to be the only Latino person on the island where they live, I didn’t find there was any deep development of the cultural dimension of their identity. There is an occasional Spanish word or phrase her mother uses, and the reference to Flor’s Dad once trying to learn Spanish. Her mom leaves to take care of her mother, Flor’s grandmother, and is staying with “the aunts.”

None of this was unrealistic to me but it felt a little bare bones. And interestingly I saw the wedge between Flor’s parents as being more about money and economics--they’re struggling financially and it creates a lot of stress and tension--and I thought this dimension of the story was marvelously developed and fully integrated.  

I agree, Nina, that Unusual Chickens… is more explicit but it also felt more authentic in the way Sophie’s bicultural identity and Mexican American heritage is part of who she is--deep down rather than surface. This is in part because a good portion of the story is told through letters to her Abuelita, and she is referencing family stories she’s been told, but it’s also in things like her awareness of being a brown-skinned child in a predominantly White community. Of seeing the boy riding past on his bike and noting that he is a “white boy.”

Nina: You are right that Sophie’s biculturality is much more a part of her character than is Flor’s.  But while Flor’s family’s culture is not deeply developed, I found it to be very firmly interwoven through the book, more than just the references you mention.  I think the first time we understand it is on page 17 when Flor thinks about the way her mother says her name. “No one else pronounces her name that exact way … it’s the way her name is meant to sound.”  We also understand that her mother’s family represents something she’s had to give up by moving to the island, there’s that bit on page 64-65 about how her mother behaves when they ride home to the island from a family visit that was very telling, and spoke to me of culture more than economics.

These are much more subtly presented than in Unusual Chickens, and ultimately I think both are valid; each book has such a different overall style, I think both presentations are warranted.  But because I was looking at these, when I read them, from a “Mock Newbery” frame of mind in which one might be pitted against the other, I did think about whether one presentation was better than the other.   I think, for instance, that many young White readers (especially those unfamiliar with Latino culture) may gloss over the passages in Moonpenny Island that I thought said so much about culture, because there’s nothing explicit. And from the opposite point of view, I wondered if Latino or bicultural readers would feel that Unusual Chickens was written towards a White readership, rather than towards them.  This is the point in my inquiry where I have to say, truly, I don’t know. The opposite read might also be true: that a bicultural reader might see through Moonpenny Island as a White writer’s good but ultimately limited attempt, and Unusual Chickens as refreshingly out there.  I appreciated Cindy Rodriguez’s take on it at Latin@s in Kid Lit.

Megan: I also wondered how the two books would read for cultural insiders. It’s interesting that you point to that scene in Moonpenny Island in which Flor describes how her mother says her name. Overall, it felt to me like Flor spoke about Latino identity in terms of her mom, rather than in terms of herself. But that scene did stand out to me as a vivid moment where Flor is really connected to something specific regarding their Latino identity as it impacts her.  But you are right that this may be an issue of subtlely, and also of not needing to narrate something that is so deeply ingrained for her.

By contrast, Sophie’s Latino identity is something she really owns and claims in Unusual Chickens. She is very aware not only of how it impacts her understanding of herself, but also how others may see her. For example, on page 133 when she goes to her first 4-H meeting: “...I took a deep breath and got ready to answer all kinds of questions as soon as I went in--who I was, when I came here, that I speak English just fine….” (Something I think the author did well are these occasional, small moments where stereotypes and racism are directly acknowledged and challenged.)

But your question of what bicultural or Latino readers would make of this versus me as a White reader is important to think about. So, too, are differences in family culture and individual personalities reflected in these stories. Sophie’s is a family where culture and identity and racism have been talked about--clearly. We see examples of it in the letters. We do not get as much evidence of that in Flor’s family, and yet Flor’s awareness of her mother’s unhappiness as being perhaps about more than money clearly came from somewhere.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that these two books are different in every way except what we are discussing--that Flor and Sophie are both bicultural. The plots, the settings, the characters, the tone, and the modes of telling are completely distinct. Nothing about Unusual Chickens is subtle; everything about Moonpenny Island is, and this discussion has helped me appreciate how that subtlety can be seen as extending to the way Flor’s cultural identity is revealed and explored.

Nina: And this back and forth has also made me remember that there shouldn’t be one “best” way of writing this. Taking it back to the responsibility of White writers in general, I was curious to check in on how Springstubb and Jones present themselves on the issue.

Tricia Springstubb quotes her character Flor on the front page of her website: “I’ve never liked when people say, There’s more than meets the eye. Everything is visible, if we just know how to look. That’s why we’re here on this earth--to see as much as we can.” Then Springstubb goes on to say: “I’m a writer, so looking is my business. I try to see what’s in front of me, but what’s behind and underneath too. I try to work the hardest trick of all--seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s where I discover the stories most worth telling.”

Kelly Jones includes this at the end of her “About” section of her website:

Curious about Kelly’s heritage?
Kelly is a white writer of Irish/Scottish/Welsh-American heritage. “Kelly” is a Gaelic name from her mother’s family; it means “warrior”. “Jones” is a very common Welsh name, and comes from her father’s family.
To respectfully write people who are not just like her, Kelly uses resources like Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, and asks cultural consultants for assistance. This assistance has been critical to writing good stories; a million, bazillion thanks to everyone who so generously helped her out!
I appreciate that both deliberately state their responsibility to write diversity, in ways as different as they’ve done it in their books.  

1 comment:

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Wonderful conversation, you two; thanks for sharing it!

My favorite thing about UNUSUAL CHICKENS is that every time a White character comes along, Sophie names his/her whiteness. Given that the norm right now is to name a character's race only for people of color and First/Native Nations people, I found that a refreshing change. I love that it does not position "White" as default.