This past Saturday, October 17, BookFest @ Bank Street featured a full lineup of authors of color for its second panel, “Middle Grade Authors: Putting Yourself on the Page.” Veera Hiranandani (The Night Diary, Kokila), Aida Salazar (Land of the Cranes, Scholastic Press), Jasmine Warga (Other Words for Home, Balzer + Bray), and Alicia D. Williams (Genesis Begins Again, Atheneum/Dlouhy) were in conversation.
Kelly Yang (Front Desk series, Scholastic Press), winner of the 2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature, took up the mantle of moderator, starting off with introductions before invoking the panel’s title in the first question: what is it like putting yourself on the page, and why is it so difficult?
“I don’t have that problem,” International Latino Book Award winner Salazar admitted. “I write from a very intimate place. I always write from as close to my experience as I possibly can, because I think about myself when I was a child, and my own children, and other children like them who haven’t had the opportunity to see themselves and to experience their lives mirrored on the page. So I try really hard to bring as much authenticity, and to create very vivid feelings and scenarios and circumstances, so the kids can experience that.”
“For me it was a little difficult to get started because I felt so invisible as a child in books,” Newbery Honoree Warga revealed. “And when you feel invisible, you don’t think of yourself as having a story or people like you being main characters. There’s something inherently scary about putting your heart and your blood on the page.” Warga said she was also concerned about the book’s reception among people close to her.
Newbery Honoree Williams considered her process in putting herself on the page. “There were two parts: it wasn’t hard to do it, but going through it was a little bit of a challenge for me,” she said. “When you conjure up those moments that cause pain or even trauma, it was hard to release that—releasing it on the paper is one [thing], but releasing it in real life [is another]. The colorism issue, I carry that as an adult and I experienced it while I wrote it, so it was hard to not become even more sensitive to it when it occurred. And then after it came out, I felt so exposed.” As a teacher, Williams especially did not want students believing that Genesis’s experiences were exactly her own.
Newbery Honoree Hiranandani said that bringing herself into the story wasn’t easy this time around. “My first book was very much based on my own experiences growing up, but for this one [which drew from her paternal family’s past during the Partition of India in 1947], I felt deeply connected to the history, but obviously I didn’t experience it myself. So it was definitely a lot of ‘Am I allowed to do this?,’ giving myself that permission, and then allowing myself to become these characters walking through a period of time, trying to imagine what that felt like.”
Yang followed up, asking how Hiranandani dealt with sifting through the responsibility of portraying a seldom-told time period while still giving herself creative permission.
“It was a step-by-step process, doing the research, and then just letting myself experience the story,” Hiranandani replied, though she did struggle with wondering, “Am I going to do this piece of history justice?” After sharing her challenges with her mother, her mother sent her an E.L. Doctorow quote: “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”
Yang then asked whether any of the other authors had experienced similar balancing acts in being both writers and historians.
“I think any conscientious writer carries that burden of representation,” Salazar said, “especially authors of color. Making sure we get it right is critical because we don’t want to harm children.” She explained that when she wrote Land of the Cranes [which follows nine-year-old Betita and her pregnant mother in a detention camp after Betita’s father is deported by ICE], she drafted the text first and then did research afterward to flesh it out. “I really relied on journalism [and the historians of the time] because I did not feel qualified to interview children who had experienced this level of trauma. I didn’t want to further traumatize them with my questions. The political implications of what we’re writing is what people feel. Because it does become this monolithic, separated construct—we have people in detention, there are kids in cages, oh, how unfathomable—but what does it feel like? How does this child process what they’re feeling? I was hoping to do it through [Betita’s] poetry. And if there is no greater witness to pain and tragedy than the voice of a child, and we don’t respond, then we’ve lost all hope, I think.”
Getting Personal and Protecting Oneself
Yang next queried how each author protects herself from the process when so much of her personal experience is in it.
“You know, I didn’t realize I needed protection at first,” Williams responded. “In writing the story, it’s a universal story. I do recall being a victim of colorism, but as an adult, we tend to push whatever trauma and bad experiences behind, and we keep it moving—life happens. But writing the story is an abrasive reminder that no, you haven’t dealt with this.” She relayed a memory in which colorism made her feel “so invisible—undatable—unlovable.” As Williams began feeling too close to her book, she decided that Genesis had to have completely dissimilar character traits and choices. She also infused others’ experiences with colorism into the novel instead of just her personal memories, which served to create a kind of “protective cocoon.”
Hiranandani identified the ways in which her process was both similar and different from Williams’s. Since she was not telling her own story, she began writing from the perspective of the character inspired by her Hindu father. But she wanted to add other elements from her research, to explore how it would feel to have connections on both sides of the religious divide, so she created Nisha, the daughter of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother, and decentered her father; unlike Williams, Hiranandani had to make the main character “more like her.”
Yang mentioned that she found Hiranandani’s answer particularly resonant; one of the perspectives she originally attempted to write Front Desk from was her father’s, since she was telling stories based on her own family. Eventually, she settled on Mia’s more age-appropriate point-of-view.
Warga was up next, answering, “Alicia really touched on something that I relate to: this fear of people not feeling like they saw their exact story in it, because I think all of us feel this pressure to get the story right, but we’re also writing a singular story.” She combats that anxiety by boosting other authors of color in order to broaden the horizon of diverse narratives available. In Other Words from Home, Jude has a specific refugee story because Warga felt it was the only one she could do justice. “I thought a lot about how we narrow stories in order to make them feel universal.” While Warga didn’t share Jude’s confidence, she wrote Jude that way because it’s what she would’ve needed to see as a young person.
“My book is an immigrant story that came after American Dirt,” Salazar said, the consequence of which is that she had to “armor herself to defend it” by revealing her own undocumented background: being brought over to the U.S. at nine months old and living as an undocumented child. “Instead of backing away and distancing myself from the character, I had to qualify why I was the person to write this story.” She agreed with Warga about the importance of amplifying other voices, citing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
“How has the story changed you, and how has it changed your life? Or has it?” Yang inquired.
“I had to come to terms with my own complicated feelings about my identity and traumas from my childhood,” Warga said. In presentations to middle schoolers during pre-Covid school visits, she had stumbled upon her emotions vis-à-vis post-9/11 messaging, since she had been in eighth grade at the time: “I felt that all the messaging was telling me, ‘You could either be American, or you could be Arab, and you could be American or you could be Muslim.’” Warga continued, “It’s changed me in having to more actively think about how I consider issues of my own faith.” She added that the book has also taught her not to underestimate herself and her identity, and that she hopes it has taught others the same.
Hiranandani emphasized that the process has changed her “in so many ways,” and said that she’s “so grateful for the reception.” She said she’d heard stories of Southeast Asian families reading her book together, which often led to the grandparent, a Partition survivor, having an easier time talking about their experiences. “It was also healing for me,” she said. Since she is a biracial woman with a white Jewish mother, the “multigenerational embrace” of her novel makes her feel accepted and like she “can be both things.”
Salazar answered by observing that her book has increased her own activism. “In this political moment, I really feel like the book is kind of my call to action. It’s meant for people to not only see a mirror or a window, but really to have agency.” Though her novel has not been out long enough for her to gauge its reception, she hopes that readers are “going to activate and find the agency in themselves.”
In responding to the question, Williams laughed, sharing the fact that her students don’t even acknowledge that she’s a writer. “Outside of my day job, it has given me hope—to have this story in the hands of people that I would’ve never dreamed of has given me hope, because colorism is the story we don’t talk about; internalized racism, we don’t talk about; where it comes from, we don’t discuss.”
Yang empathized with Williams, as her mother had also asked her what if only girls of their race read her book. The two briefly exchanged experiences, acknowledging how communities of color often strive for white acceptance.
Yang then asked, “How do you find hope and how do you put it in your writing, even during these challenging times?”
“Well, it’s getting harder by the day,” Hiranandani quipped. She reminisced about her childhood, saying that she had always loved stories in a multitude of forms and media; for her, they served as a way to confront her questions and curiosities but then have the ending she wanted. “I’ve always naturally been attracted to the idea of hope.”
Salazar replied, “I always go back to what Toni Morrison said: ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ I really hold onto that and use it as sort of a mantra. The moment we give up hope is the moment they succeed in fully oppressing us, in fully silencing us, marginalizing us, disenfranchising us. I always lean on my writing as a tool for liberation.”
“It’s young people for me,” Warga answered, sharing the hope she gleaned from students’ feedback letters after school visits and from comments by her own children. “Young people are a source of hope, and they are going to reshape our world.”
“I have to be honest: I struggle with it,” Williams said, referencing the recent police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. Dealing with depression and anxiety, she had to step back, stay off social media, and reassess, realizing that “it’s the writing, it’s the saving and telling the stories that’s going to impact lives and impact the future. So I protect myself, I stay quiet, and I write.”
Yang agreed, sharing that what got her through the hopeless times in her childhood were stories, so writing those stories for young people gives her hope. She finally asked each author to share a message for the next U.S. president.
“Don’t let us down,” Salazar said. “You have a power to sway the nation in a way that is positive, benevolent, and that can bring about justice. Don’t let the children down.”
“Love all of our children,” Warga said, “because all of our kids are worthy of love.”
Williams said she’d show the president the state of the country. “In a hopeless country, how are you going to instill hope? When you’re gone, our children will have to deal with it. So what are you going to do?”
“Respect the power of the office,” Hiranandani said. “The more respect you show that power, the more respect you show all of us.”
“I hope the new president reads all our books,” Yang concluded, “because you can’t read these books without having some empathy instilled in you by the end.”