Tuesday, June 14, 2016

An open letter to Patrick Jones and VOYA Magazine

Dear Patrick,
Image credit: Lisa Nowlain

Back in November, you contacted me to offer feedback on an article you would be submitting to VOYA. That article, in which you “think out loud” on the subject of writing characters of color as a White man, was included in the excellent June issue of the magazine (featuring pieces from a veritable who’s who of bloggers, authors and activists, including Debbie Reese, Edi Campbell, and Sarah Park Dahlen). Months later, after looking at your contribution with fresh eyes and with the help of guidance and education from my friends and allies, I can see that I utterly failed you. In retrospect, here are things I wish I’d thought to say to you then:

  • Truly Listen to the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations (POC/FNN)--that part happens with the brain--reflection and thinking--not the ears. Start by reading the other articles in this issue, especially those by Debbie Reese and Edi Campbell, with an open mind to what you can learn rather than through the framework of what you already know.  For a limited time, anyone can read the entire issue for free here.
  • Thank the people who gave you feedback, as it is hard work, and don’t disregard them.  The woman who asked why you didn't put fried chicken and watermelon in one of your books was asking you to consider that perhaps, rather than writing Black people’s humanity, you were only writing--and hoping to capitalize on--the stereotypes.  Be open to criticism as an opportunity to learn something, not a reason to defend yourself.
  • Don’t turn to White people, including Reading While White (RWW), for approval or justification. That’s the easy way out and reinforces systemic, institutional racism. (For my part, I lost sight of the fact that the RWW bloggers are a team and I should have run your early drafts by the other contributors before responding to you.)
  • Don’t reduce complex arguments to either/or. That certainly isn’t what Allie Jane Bruce did in the blog post you reference. It’s not about whether or not you have the “right” to write about POC/FNN; it’s about the responsibility that goes with writing what you choose (and it’s possible that if you take that responsibility seriously, you may discover you’ll choose to write about something different).
  • Yes, we need more books about POC/FNN, but if that’s your reason for writing them, you are positioning yourself as White savior, no matter how genuinely well-intentioned you are.
  • You write, “Teens will read accessible lit fic when they see their lives reflected in it” and go on to reference your own books as mirrors reflecting reality. But you, as a White writer, are not the person who can best reflect their reality, as your pre-readers’ feedback makes clear.
  • I understand your struggle is genuine, yet yours is not the struggle that matters here. What matters are the struggles and the lives of readers hungry to see their truths authentically reflected in books. The very fact that you think of this as an issue that can be “settled” (when you conclude that, moving forward, “I’ll try to write the best book I can, reflecting the diversity around me, but it won’t have a POC as the main character until I’ve settled the issue in my mind”) tells me you are missing this point. And none of us should miss this point. As a White person, if at any point I decide I’ve figured things out when it comes to race and racism, that’s a pretty sure sign I’ve stopped listening. I want to listen, and learn, and be useful as we all struggle with these issues. I hope and trust that you do, too.

As I look at the above list above I see that these are things that I need to do, too. Because while I didn’t make you write this piece, Patrick, I saw it, read it, and told you it was good to go. I am trying to stay quiet and listen to others and learn as much as I can from this experience so that I don’t make these same mistakes again. I feel absolutely sick knowing that something I did led to the publicity your article has created overshadowing the other contributors to this issue of VOYA. How can I now go forward to be a better “Ally for Diversity in Children’s Books,” as the RWW banner reads? By shutting my mouth and re-reading the Twitter commentary generated by this and especially those pieces in VOYA that are so worth celebrating. I didn’t come up with this list on my own, Patrick--this is really a list of things that I learned from reading and really listening to people of color, First/Native Nations people, and my co-bloggers at RWW.  I am grateful to them for educating me, and I thank them for their patience and generosity. I hope that you will join me in doing more and more real listening, Patrick.  Start by reading this excellent piece in Fusion, which cites Justina Ireland, Ellen Oh, and Hannah Gomez, among others.

Speaking of the Fusion piece, I was pretty shocked at the reaction from VOYA Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold. According to the article, Honnold wrote that those critical of your piece “need to read [your] article in the context of the entire issue.” I fail to see how this would suddenly make everything better, how it would make the inherent racism of your contribution more palatable. She spoke of your “many admirers and colleagues” and how you are “a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” apparently implying that this places you above criticism.

I have a really hard time with this type of response to criticism; it shows a remarkable lack of empathy from someone in a place of power. I hope that Honnold has since read the many, many responses on social media, such as:



So, Patrick and the VOYA editorial staff: are you listening? From one who played a part in this, I highly encourage you to open yourself up to the criticism that is rightfully coming your way, and own up to your mistakes.


Sam Bloom


Jamalia Higgins said...

Hmmm. I completely understand where you are coming from, Sam. But on the topic of either/or, it seems there is little space for anything but the "RWW party line" and deviation from it results in shaming, self-flaggelation, and terms like "problematic" quickly tweeted out. Is there no longer any room for multiple points of view? Or has what is right been settled? I don't think so, or we wouldn't be having these conversations.

I have never been a huge fan of Honnold, Jones, or VOYA in general, so I want to be clear this is not a defense of any of them or their writing. It's more of a general concern that there has become only One True Opinion.

Stephanie Theban said...
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Debbie Reese said...

I think it may be useful to share White Women's Tears and the Men Who Love Them in this discussion.

There is, and will be, a desire to defend Patrick or RoseMary because they are being critiqued. This sort of thing happens a lot. Someone is criticized and the tendency is to flock to sooth that person, which I understand, but it shifts the focus from the issue to that person, and that becomes THE focus. The issue gets lost. This happens over and over and over, and I think it is partially responsible for little progress in these difficult conversations.


Stephanie Theban said...
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Sam Bloom said...

Thanks for the reminder (and link), Debbie. That is an extremely helpful resource to revisit often.