This year’s annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference also was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the literary organization’s founding in 1967. As 12,000 writers descended upon Washington, D.C., a few weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the conversation at this year’s conference, from the formal presentations to the informal interactions between attendees, perhaps inevitably focused upon current events, including the airing of issues that have roiled the organization and the publishing industry in recent years: diversity in children’s book publishing.
Partisan politics infused the entire conference, even a panel where one might not expect it, “Celebrating Children’s Literature,” moderated by Ellen Oh, executive director of We Need Diverse Books, which included authors Dhonielle Clayton, Aisha Saeed, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and Heidi Heilig.
“I’m so angry, but I feel that I have a sense of purpose. But I like writing violent beheading scenes a little too much these days,” Oh said, describing how, since November 8, she has channeled her rage and sense of betrayal into writing the YA fantasy fiction based on Korean myths and tales that she is known for. Clayton said she stopped watching television news since the election and is writing much more than she used to. “That’s how I protect myself.”
Writer Jacqueline Woodson and poet Rita Dove, the two featured authors at AWP’s 50th anniversary ticketed gala last Wednesday evening, who are both African-American, and author Azar Nafisi, the conference’s keynoter and an immigrant from Iran, who spoke the following evening, set the tone for the entire conference, which many described as the most high-energy literary gathering they had ever attended.
After reading an excerpt from her novel for young readers, Brown Girl Dreaming, which was inspired by her own childhood, Woodson spoke of being born just a few years before AWP was founded in 1967, and of her life in the “segregated South” before moving to New York City during the Great Migration. The world has changed so much since then, she noted: “Fifty years ago, a black woman like me could not have walked through the front door of this hotel,” much less speak to such a large gathering of literary luminaries. Dove thanked AWP for its “broad multicultural outlook from the very beginning,” and spoke of how she bucked the odds stacked against her to become a poet. As a child, she had never met a poet, much less an African-American woman who made a living as a poet.
Addressing the need for more diversity among writers and in what they write about, Nafisi argued, “The great novelist is the one who gives voice to everyone: even the villain. Literature doesn’t just belong to one nation, one people. Literature belongs to everyone.” The “worst sin,” she said, is “to be blind towards others, not seeing others, not hearing others.” Referring to the book club for girls that she explored in her bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, she stated that reading books about “the other” helps one come to understand the world and other people.
Discussing the Politics of Writing YA
Diversifying the industry was a hot topic in panels, whether it was the discussion with established children’s book authors,“Coming of Age: The Blurry Line Between Adult and YA Literature,” with Jason Reynolds, Katherine Howe, and Daniel Jose Older and moderated by Brendan Kiely, or the panel of debut novelists moderated by I.W. Gregorio: “Young Adult Authors Tackle Social Justice and Activism,” with Lilliam Rivera, Ibi Zoboi, Nic Stone, and Leah Henderson.
When Older criticized the dearth of YA novels about “people of color, just living their lives,” Howe ascribed this lack to the “intersection of culture and money” in acquiring and positioning books in a genre that was invented, she said, “to sell more books.” Reynolds added that it’s the fault of “old hands” who “are the gatekeepers,” in the industry, such as, he contended, “one middle-aged guy [at Barnes & Noble’s corporate headquarters] who’s been buying books since he was seven,” who isn’t buying multicultural books, due to a lack of imagination. “He’s got too much power,” Reynolds said. Older criticized people in publishing circles who previously responded to demands for more diverse lists by claiming that books about people of color do not sell. “And then what happened? Hamilton.”
Older framed the call for diverse books in terms of honest representation: “We are asking for books about telling the truth, even if there are dragons and magic in them,” he said. “It’s not about diversity: it’s about honesty.” The speakers also advocated for authenticity and condemned censorship for “content,” citing the controversy over Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because of a character’s joke about masturbation. “If a kid is reading a book about someone who looks like them but doesn’t talk like them, we stunt their growth by dissing them,” Reynolds said, “They already know this shit. Stop holding these babies’ hands, because they already know what is happening.” And, Kiely pointed out, “Teens: their bullshit meter is pretty high.”
Authenticity was a central theme of the panel of debut YA novelists as well, which began with Gregorio noting that it is up to writers “to create change” through writing novels with multicultural characters for a multicultural society. Zoboi, author of American Street (Balzer + Bray, Feb.), which is set in both Haiti and Detroit, spoke of the importance for her as a Haitian-American writing about the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” to depict the country, its people, and its culture as accurately as possible—without her characters “cussing too much.” Rather than using profanity to make her characters sound authentic so that readers would, in Stone’s words, “hear themselves,” Zoboi said she relied upon “rhythm and tone.”
To write a “false narrative” about a culture is to “dehumanize” its people, Zoboi argued, criticizing In Darkness, the 2013 Printz Honor Book winner by Nick Lake, for perpetuating the “most dehumanizing notions of Haitian culture I’ve ever read.” Simply by having American Street published by a major imprint like Balzer + Bray , she pointed out, “in itself is social justice.” Zoboi even gave a shout-out to the editors and copy editors there, who “went out of their way to get it right,” by asking her “questions about her own culture.”
Henderson disclosed that a visit to Senegal inspired her to write a short story about an orphaned boy who joins a street gang. Her MFA program advisor urged her to expand it into a novel, One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum, June): “I wasn’t thinking about social justice in the beginning. I just wanted to write a story,” she said. As an African-American woman writing about an underclass in a third-world country, she was especially conscientious about making sure that the characters and setting were respectfully treated yet accurate. “You can’t write a book about Senegal and not include [the beggar children]; it’s about making sure you understand [the characters] in the story, that they are human beings.”
Rivera said that she had been inspired to write The Education of Margot Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, Feb.) after witnessing the rapid transformation of her parents’ South Bronx neighborhood in recent years. Explaining that she wanted to emphasize the “beauty” of an evolving South Bronx, Rivera found that she could not formally interview Puerto Ricans who work on sugar plantations, because they would “shut down.” Instead, she informally talked to people as part of her research, and did a lot of “watching and listening” to make sure she “got it right,” because if she didn’t, “someone would call me out.”
Stone was inspired to write her novel, Dear Martin (Crown, Oct.) because, rather than simply “getting it right,” she wanted to set the record straight regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. After repeatedly hearing from BLM critics that “Dr. King would have gone about it in a different way,” she said, “This did not ring true to me. I wanted to know: what would Dr. King have done?” In Dear Martin, a contemporary 17-year-old African-American male, reacts to being repeatedly racially profiled by writing letters to Martin Luther King Jr.
Stone stated that writers can easily inject social justice themes into their novels, no matter what they are writing about. After all, she said, “You control your characters; you control your world.” Henderson emphasized that simply writing a novel about Sengalese street children was in itself a political act. “It’s about writing stories so that children have empathy for others,” she noted. “If we want to have a different future, we’ve got to start now.”