On Innocence and Ignorance

When I first read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ article (more of an op. ed.), “Darkness Too Visible”, there was so much clamor that I didn’t bother responding to it. From the initial belief-straining anecdote about a bookstore with no YA books that weren’t about “dark, dark stuff” on, there was so much to take issue with. And thousands did (e.g., #YAsaves), many more eloquently than I ever could, approaching the matter from every possible angle. Sherman Alexie, author of Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one of the books Gurdon cites in her article, wrote a particularly moving response, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.”

Anyway, that was weeks ago, but yesterday Jen Robinson shared a link on Facebook to Gurdon’s response to the kerfuffle, “My ‘Reprehensible’ Take on Teen Literature”, in which she defends her original viewpoint. Which is fine—she is entitled to her opinion, though I feel it is in many ways misguided—but in reading it, I felt even more strongly that she just Does Not Get It. I believe that she is genuinely interested in “protecting” young people, but she seems to be coming from such a place of privilege that she sincerely (but falsely) believes that keeping dark content out of books will somehow keep dark content from young people’s lives.

In the outpouring of response to my essay, I’ve been told that I fail to understand the brutal realities faced by modern teens. Adolescence, I’ve been instructed, is a prolonged period of racism, homophobia, bullying, eating disorders, abusive sexual episodes, and every other manner of unpleasantness… I also don’t believe that the vast majority of American teenagers live in anything like hell. Adolescence can be a turbulent time, but it doesn’t last forever and often—leaving aside the saddest cases—it feels more dramatic at the time than it will in retrospect.

“A turbulent time” that “doesn’t last forever”? I get the impression that Gurdon believes most adolescents’ biggest worry is a zit, a chemistry test, and who’s going with them to the prom. If things are really heavy, maybe their parents are getting divorced.

A counterexample (or ten): I grew up in a largely white, working and middle class community. My friends and I were “normal” kids. I personally had a fairly sheltered life within a loving, nuclear family. Yet within my social sphere, there were kids dealing with just the things Gurdon seems to believe are rare “manners of unpleasantness.” One of my friends self-injured by rubbing at her arm with a pencil eraser until it wore spots off her skin. One had an eating disorder. I had friends who got pregnant, had abortions, gave the baby up for adoption. I had a friend who was raped by her older brother. Friends (and I) struggled with sexual and gender identity in a homophobic climate. Friends watched their parents die or helped care for disabled parents. Friends dealt with suicidal feelings. Friends dealt with racist remarks from classmates. Friends had alcoholic parents.

And those were just some of the things I knew about. I don’t know anyone whose biggest problem was whether they could borrow the car Friday night.

Yet would any of us have said we lived in hell? I doubt it. As I said, I think we considered ourselves to be more or less normal kids. Yet nor were these merely anecdotes from a “turbulent time.” These events were formative. They’ll affect us the rest of our lives.

It wasn’t hard for me to think of people who faced these “brutal realities,” either, which is what makes me believe so strongly that Gurdon is living in her own protective bubble, to think that the “vast majority of American teenagers” are actually living happy-go-lucky lives (even if they won’t appreciate it until a few years down the road). Her argument smacks of all kinds of privilege—the privilege of someone who has not faced “brutal realities” and believes that, aside from “the saddest cases,” everyone has had the same experience as she has. That or she wears some awfully rosy glasses when looking at her past.

She’s right that her article did continue to be discussed at last week’s ALA conference. At one of my sessions, UIUC professor Christine Jenkins made a comment, with regard to adults who want to “protect children’s innocence,” “What’s the difference between innocence and ignorance?” And the answer is, I’ve decided, nothing but the age of the person in question. What we call innocence in children, we call ignorance in adults. At some point, young people have to make that transition. Adolescence, when children mature not only physically but develop formal reasoning skills—the ability to “think abstractly, reason logically and draw conclusions from the information available”—seems like as good a time as any to do it.

Meanwhile, in Gurdon’s plea for the preservation of innocence, I think she’s demonstrated her own ignorance about both young adult literature and the lives of young people in America.

Yes, there are many “dark” books out there, or at least books with mature themes. But there are also many non-“dark” books out there, at least by my measuring stick. (Let’s face it, there has to be some “darkness,” or you’ve got a story without a conflict.) As someone who does collection development in my library’s junior high section as well as voraciously reading tween and teen literature, I absolutely don’t buy that anecdote about the mother in the bookstore—unless it was a really crappy store.

Books entertain. They educate. They provide means of escape. And, to use two more E-words, they encourage empathy.

When my friends told me about what they were going through—or when they didn’t, but I could see it with my own eyes—it didn’t “normalize” the experience for me. It didn’t make me want to starve or mutilate myself or run out and have unprotected sex. Instead it made me feel helpless. I wished I knew what to say or do to make things better. Perhaps if I’d read books about characters with these same problems, I would have known. I might have better understood what they were going through. At least, I know, it wouldn’t have hurt.

On the Blindness of Privilege and Writing the Other

At Chasing Ray, Colleen has a fascinating post (and subsequent discussion in the comments) about writing diversity. She invited a number of YA/children’s authors of varying cultural groups to share their views on writing the Other. Should it be done? Under what circumstances? It’s a long but worthwhile read for the diverse stances and insights—diverse enough that I will not attempt to summarize them here. Check it out for yourself.

This particular comment from Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller particularly grabbed me:

It’s not enough for an author to put African American or Black in front of the characters name. I need more. And I am sorry I can’t tell you what it is, because there is no write by numbers create a Black characters guide because we are not all the same. But still I expect a White writers to make me believe in the Black characters they’ve created. If I don’t I consider those characters Barbie Black. Under all the color of Black Barbie, she still has the facial characteristics of White Barbie.

It’s an interesting and fuzzy question, this issue of getting the Other “right.” In our society, we are so very fond of boxes in which to put people. On some dimensions, I’m in the privileged box (Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage), in others the oppressed (female, queer). As a WASP reader, I readily admit that I don’t know when authors (of whatever ethnic group) get a non-WASP experience “wrong.” As a WASP writer, how could I expect not to get it “wrong” myself?

Because I know what Doret means. As a female reader, I have read books by men with female protagonists that just don’t feel “right.” Sometimes I can articulate the reasons, sometimes I can’t. For example, I recently read Magic and Misery, by Peter Mareno, whose narrator is a teen girl. She quickly enters into a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, but there’s virtually no discussion of emotional impact. It’s just something she does. How can she not be thinking about this? I kept asking myself—really asking, How could any girl not be thinking about this? Meanwhile, I never could articulate what felt “wrong” about the female protagonist of Edward Bloor’s Taken, except that she struck me as sounding too much like the male protagonists of Tangerine and London Calling.

Likewise, as a queer reader, I’ve read queer teen fiction by apparently straight authors that doesn’t feel “right.” There’s one book in particular whose reliance on stereotypes, even jokingly, made me cringe upon reading it: The Bermudez Triangle, by Maureen Johnson. I hesitate to mention it because it was written by a bestselling author, and I think that kind of exposure is so important in normalizing queerness for teen readers. And it wasn’t a bad book; it just struck me as inauthentic. It left me wondering, Why are we getting this when we could have more books by authors who have actually lived a queer experience?

(I would like to throw in here that Ellen Wittlinger is one apparently straight author who, for my money, consistently gets it “right.” I don’t know how she does it, but she’s proof that it can be done!)

This is where it gets dicey, however. Unlike ethnicity or cultural heritage, ability differences, or even biological sex (intersex, genderqueer, and transgender persons being potential exceptions), sexual orientation is fluid and frequently invisible. That’s why I used the word “apparently” above. I know Maureen Johnson isn’t Chinese-American. I know she’s not deaf. I’m pretty sure she’s not Muslim. But how am I to know that she isn’t actually bisexual? Maybe, because she’s apparently straight, I’m wrongly projecting my assumption of Otherness onto The Bermudez Triangle and, as a result, sensing inauthenticity.

How do you define authenticity, anyway? It’s as nebulous as Doret says in the same comment: “I can’t explain was right is, like the always popluar adult industry, I just know it when I see it.” Yet we agree that there’s no one “white experience” or “black experience” or “female experience.” I know darn well my experiences as a queer woman aren’t universal, so is it possible that a story and characters I find inauthentic would ring perfectly true to another queer woman? Honestly, I do think it’s possible. I am, at the very least, willing to entertain the idea that it is possible.

I have far too many thoughts and questions about this stuff to squash into one humble blog post, but I’d like to conclude with this: both readers and writers need to understand that “writing the Other” is not a balanced, two-way street. We are all immersed in the dominant culture(s) of our time and place. In America right now, that means European-American, Christian, male, straight, able-bodied, affluent… It’s far easier for a member of an oppressed group to write a story of privileged characters than vice versa. It’s easier for women to write authentic boy characters than men to write authentic girl characters, for non-whites to write white characters than vice versa, for queer authors to write straight characters, and so on, and so forth.

Does that mean I don’t think privileged (in whatever way) authors should “write the Other”? No. But I do think that we need to recognize that privilege blinds us. You can’t know what you don’t know. I believe it’s essential that books be vetted by individuals of the oppressed group represented—preferably multiple individuals, whose diverse experiences can help authors identify inauthenticity and stereotyping that privileged readers would not recognize.

ETA, 7/15/09:
On Facebook, someone commented on this post, “I wish you would rethink your use of the ‘The Other’ to describe people who are not of the dominant culture.” Just in case there’s any further confusion, I’ll clarify: in this post, I’m not using “Other” to describe people of the nondominant culture; I’m using it to describe any Other — anyone who is of a group one does not belong to. As I try to explain at the end of my post, it’s easier to write the Other when the Other *is* the dominant culture, because we’re all immersed in it, whereas it’s more difficult to write the Other when the Other is an oppressed group whose challenges we have not experienced. But while I’m focusing on the latter (because that’s when authors are more likely to get things “wrong”), I’m not saying some people are Other and some aren’t. We’re all Other to each other on many dimensions.