Meg Rosoff

The Privilege of Colour, the Prejudice of White

Like most controversial stories, this one began with a Once Upon a Time that lasted for approximately five seconds, before all Hell broke loose. As my response to this particular Once upon a time is quite long I will post it without further preamble.

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Inside the Underbelly of a Facebook Whale

I posted the original Facebook link that sparked the whole controversy to my wall a few days ago.

Yesterday a post in the Guardian–Meg Rosoff sparks diversity row over books for marginalised children–appeared.

A post the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog regarding author Meg Rosoff’s comments on the Facebook link above was (as I learned) a response of Call-out Culture. *

* Briarpatch Magazine defines Call-out Culture as follows. “Callout culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on.”

I confess, as I read the list on Briarpatch, I felt as though I was reading a list from the House Un-American Activities Committee…the particular line of that feeling being brought on by, “and the list goes on.” None of which is to say that bigotry or prejudice in any of its nefarious forms should not be called out. But, in all progress towards a greater humanity, should  we not remember our humanity above all else,  and not allow it to be overshadowed by political rectitude?

Here is my response to the post on the American Indians in Children’s Literature post linked above, which the moderator and owner of the blog permitted to publish.

Hello Everyone,

Let me begin by saying I am not white. My parents were from Goa, India, my father emigrated to London in 1949, my mother followed in 1950. I was born a year later, lived there until I was thirty. I have since lived in the United States. I was an extreme minority during my growing years in England. Central London had so few Indians, that from the age of three until eleven, I was the only brown-skinned child in first my day nursery and later the two primary schools I attended.

I happened to read the thread that has generated this blog response because Laura Atkins (whom I do not know) appeared on my Facebook home page. She had mentioned Meg Rosoff and because Meg is a Facebook friend (and a personal friend), I suppose Facebook decided I should also get to know “a Laura Atkins” (as Jane Austen might have written it).

Although Laura’s posting of Edith Edi Campbell’s post and the ensuing thread appeared on my home page, and I was able to read all of it, I was not able to comment. Therefore, I hope, since the comments are moderated, you will permit my observations; which will be at variance with many of those who have already commented here, and possibly be in disagreement with that of the blogpost writer.

First, I would like to quote what was actually said because that seems to have been like touchpaper to dynamite. And, second, I would like to share my own very definite experience of growing up a minority in London where racism is always simmering under the polite veneer of British pleases and thank yous. (As an American friend once said, “The British are born saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’”)

Here is what Edith Edi Campbell said:
I would say there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are just too few books for all our marginalized young people.

Here is what Meg Rosoff wrote in reply:
There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented. You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the “job” of being a mirror.

Anyone who knows Meg Rosoff, who has met her, has spent time with her, who has read her books, will understand that she speaks first and foremost for the freedom of a writer to write what speaks most personally to them, and strongly advocates against writers being forced to meet marketplace demands and agendas. With her “The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented” she was not saying anything against anyone; she was merely stating the obvious that every writer battles against—the marketplace demands that stifle real creativity.

If her first comment is read without imputing to it any malice towards Edith Edi Campbell, or anything against the author whose book Ms. Campbell seemed happy to be promoting; if one had given Meg Rosoff as much the benefit of the doubt of good intentions as many on the thread seem to have given themselves, and accorded to Ms. Campbell, perhaps a great deal of the emotionality—and, frankly, unnecessary ad hominem attacks and vitriol against Meg Rosoff—might have been avoided. And, instead, a truly thoughtful discussion on diversity in children’s books could have ensued.

Meg Rosoff is in a position, as an esteemed children’s writer—her debut novel, “How I Live Now” having won the Guardian Children’s Fiction and the Michael L. Printz Awards—to speak knowledgeably about children’s publishers, the marketplace, diversity in children’s books, and more. Her own several books are diverse in subject matter and characters and have won numerous awards. But such a fruitful discussion would be predicated on giving her first comment to Ms. Campbell’s post the benefit of the doubt.

As for myself, growing up in London I was both subjected to racism and privileged because of my parents’ ethnicity. Countless times, as I walked down the streets of central London where I lived, people would spit on the pavement just where I was about to step and tell me to go back to where I came from. Racism came my way often in the form of an interrogation at a party, where the polite “interrogation” would proceed thus. “Where are you from?” London. “No, where were you born?” London. “No, I mean, where are your parents from?” India. “Ah, so you’re not from here.”

On the side of privilege, my father, F.N. Souza, pioneered post-independence modern art in India. He is considered one of India’s leading modern painters and he was considered an important British artist during his tenure in England. His work is on display and in permanent collections of major museums around the world. My mother was an haute couturiere who dressed among other women of privilege the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. In this respect I grew up privileged in spite of the colour of my skin and the prevalent racism in England.

I read everything when I was child, every book I could get my hands on, including many books written for boys. I loved every single one. I really cannot think of a single book that didn’t leave me awestruck. And, yet, I never read a single book about an Indian girl growing up in London who faced racism. Granted, it probably didn’t exist, but I didn’t need to read such a book in order to discover who I was, and I don’t think it would have taught me about who *I* was. Because unless the little brown-skinned girl in that book also had my very unusual parents, I am not certain how I could have identified with her.

This is not an argument against writing such a book, but it does exemplify that while a black male child who believes he is queer might be lit up by coming across a book that has a protagonist who “mirrors” his inner life, it is equally possible that such a child will find himself without ever reading such a book. Or will not identify with that protagonist at all. But if that same child reads as many great books as he can—“The Silver Sword,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Compleet Molesworth,” “Treasure Island,” any number of contemporary books for boys (or for girls if he prefers, or both)—he will find himself.

Isn’t that the purpose of all the “mirroring” that was so passionately defended on Ms. Campbell’s thread—for a child to “find” him- or herself?

Reading transported me to worlds I would never otherwise have known. They were filled with characters who were silly, or snooty, or bad-tempered, or kind, but ultimately they were brave. And they prevailed against evil. I didn’t care what colour their skin was. What I understood was this: Regardless of my skin colour I too could prevail against evil, just as my favourite characters did, if I discovered how to be brave.

And, finally, it is not as if we still live in an age where little black boys who believe they may be queer have no role models of male black queers in society at large these days.

No writer has a single narrative within them, as their life. We are all deeply influenced by our ethnicity, our culture, our socio-economic status, our religion, or dismissal of it, and so on. As writers we have entire universes at our disposal; and so many more dimensions that make up who we are. This depth and complexity of being an individual, and of being simultaneously part of a familial as well as a social culture is what allows great writers to mine material for their greatest works—the whole of that living diversity within themselves.

If they are then Black and Queer and decide to write a children’s book for queer black boys, they’ll do it because they want to (which was the author’s point of the book in question and not because “diversity is a trend”). This, by the way, was also Meg’s point, but she was shouted down. She listed the subject matters and types of young people she’s interested and passionate in writing about, all of whom are vastly different from her own sexual preference and ethnicity. But that comment was entirely glossed over.

What she tried to say, and eventually gave up, was that the marketplace cannot create an agenda for writers and then expect a great book to be the result.

Isn’t that the subject we should be discussing, and doing something about, instead of wasting our limited and precious time in vilifying a fellow writer?

The measurement of Light

I realized I was overwhelmed by the number of ideas I have for writing about different things and consequently wasn’t writing at all. So I got out my trusty notebook and began writing the list. Lo and behold an epiphany (I was going to say great revelation but I realized you can’t measure infinity, and likewise can’t measure the light in an epiphany) about my fantasy story. I love it so much I think I’m going to use it! Then I came to a kind of full stop. I didn’t know what happened next–the juice, so to speak, stopped, as if the power had suddenly been turned off. So I went away and ate my baked pear and when I came back I thought, “It’s all right that I don’t know what happens next. This is that moment Meg Rosoff talked about in Salem, where you can put your character into the car and have them drive the road home. But when they get there, whoever’s waiting at the door should surprise you as well as your character. So I am going to leave my moment at the point at which it has arrived for now and see what happens when I come to write it up as an actual scene.

One of the other pieces of writing that’s been on my mind since talking with my friend Seth’s friend, Jeremy, at the surprise birthday party is my roman a clef. And whether I want it still to be a roman a clef or a memoir. I was so surprised at how fascinated Jeremy was to hear about my parents, and that I want to set it in London, during the swinging sixties because that’s my strongest memory of everything to do with my parents, I came away from the conversation with a very different sense of how I might want to write it. What I was most struck by after that conversation was the “voice” in which I recounted various stories about my parents, and his partner’s reactions to  some of my mother’s dresses and designs that I have in my Facebook photograph albums. (Jeremy’s partner, Tim, has just finished learning how to make patterns because he wants to be a couture designer.) I realized that in many ways the voice in which I recounted these stories to a relative stranger was the same voice that appeared naturally in the tribute to my parents…a more objective voice when I’m talking about my parents as artists, than when I’m talking about them as my parents.

The third thing I’ve been thinking about are my blog posts. I began writing them again at the beginning of the year because I needed to become agile again after almost a year away from writing, in how I think about and produce it. What I have observed is that I begin with one point and then somehow other things intersect as I’m writing, and I see them merge with the original idea in ways that are interesting to me. They become non-conventional mini-essays on things that intersect in my mind. Meaning, I don’t have a thesis that I then proceed to expand or defend. So I want to keep developing this place of where things intersect, as I was never particularly good at writing conventional essays; and perhaps as I go along with this project I may become better at both. Also Where Things Intersect will become the new subtitle for my personal writing space because I’m going to take my real writer made up worlds and use it for my work site.

The fourth thing is my work website that’s being designed and that I am now very excited about. I am finally certain about how I want it to look and why. I was deeply inspired by Patrick Corbin’s website which I came across when I was searching for information about him to add to a post I began last week, and which I will get back to, hopefully, this week. What I absolutely loved about Patrick’s website was the space and power of the image within this space, which drew me in and voluntarily forced my thoughts to recede into the background, and allow the stark simplicity of his page and portrait to flood my mind. It creates in me a kind of wonder of how something so simple can simultaneously be so powerful.

My web designer Lori Whiston has already built a prototype of the home page, which riffs off of Patrick’s website aesthetic. The first layer looks promising. I’ve been running everything by my coterie of secret writing friends–not that they’re actually secret: they are known to many on Facebook and in real life.

Now that I’ve written it all out in my notebook I feel the way Dumbledore must have felt whenever he poured his thoughts into the pensieve–more room in the brain to think about the present moment and what to wear to BAM tonight (that’s me, not Dumbledore. I’m certain his only dilemma would have been, which pair of socks).

 

 

Theory is all well and good

Frank Porcu
 

I was going to write about the colander effect–a term coined by Meg Rosoff, which I heard her speak about in Salem last November. In fact, I began a post with that title and how the effect manifested in my January 1 post with the unexpected appearance of Miss Barbara Wace, a renowned journalist and travel writer who was one of my mother’s clients. But then the phone rang and it was my friend Seth Michael Donsky with whom I became acquainted during my graduate years at U.C. Irvine in the MFA directing programme for theatre, under the mentorship of Keith Fowler. Seth was an undergraduate at the time. I admired him for his perseverance, his tenacity, his will power, and his desire to do something different, to experiment with creativity. We lost touch after I left New York in 1994 and did not reconnect until he found me again through my website, in 2013.

He called this morning to talk about a play he saw last night, largely, because it wrestles with many of the themes he is exploring in his own play in progress, Irregardless. We covered a lot of ground in our short conversation, most of which is hard to replicate in a post, but three things stay with me.

The first is the death of our own creativity every time we compare ourselves to other people’s successes. So much of what makes creativity successful is having confidence in the truth of our own instincts and work.

Zuli Souza sleeping-at-lamp
Zuli Souza

Last night I went to drawing class with Frank Porcu for the first time in two months. First, I missed class in October because I was ill with bronchitis. Then I was away in Salem, the first week of November. As soon as I returned I had to pack up my apartment on the west side and move myself into the apartment I bought last summer on the east side. After which I had to unpack everything and get Zuli Souza settled. As a result of so much extra activity, so soon after my illness, I didn’t regain enough strength to do more than sit on my sofa and catch up with myself. I decided to wait until the New Year before returning to class. As always, being in class with Frank was inspiring and gave me much to think about, including some of what I’m writing about today.

As Frank went around the class, he told a student who had over-corrected her first instinct–what she had actually seen on the model–that she must trust herself, even if the initial line she had put down looked wrong to her brain. Her instinct, he told her, had shown her the truth.

He spoke of how hard it was for him as a teacher when he started out to have that kind of confidence when he was trying to show students how to see the truth that was in front of them. Because the brain, through the eye, was telling him–and them–something else. “Of course,” he said, “after you’ve gone home and drawn it four hundred times you feel confident in telling students, ‘this is how to see the truth of the model.’ But for a long time I couldn’t call what I was teaching a method, because I couldn’t prove it.”

There will always be people infinitely more talented than we are who go unrecognized. (I feel that way about Frank Porcu’s genius at the Art Students League. So few recognize him as a direct succesor of Bridgeman. Or, to take it farther back, as Frank himself has, to Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael.) There will equally be many people who are not as talented as we are and who will garner successes beyond measure.

The most important thing is to trust the truth we instinctively see.

And to let go of everything else.

The goal of all theories is to prove their veracity. But the theory itself can only go so far. This was the starting point of this post. It was inspired by something Frank said to an advanced student in yesterday’s class. But I think it must wait until another day, in order to be explored in more depth, and in a way that captures the essence of what Frank was trying to convey.

Of the third thing I wanted to write about today–hidden motive–it too must wait.