Race, reviews and children’s literature: some reflections on recent developments in the US
There’s been a conversation happening in the US in relation to a YA book titled When We Was Fierce (author: e.E Charlton-Trujillo). When We Was Fierce (WWWF) is a verse novel that tells the story of a group of Black teenagers, written from the perspective of one of the youths – Theodore (aka ‘T’) – in a vernacular invented by the author, who is not Black. Advance copies received glowing praise from White reviewers, and starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. But African American critics and commentators (including Jennifer Baker, Edith Campbell, and Zetta Elliott) have challenged the narrative as presenting an inaccurate, stereotypical and harmful view of Black realities. Publication of the book has now been put on hold by agreement between the author and publisher, making this the second time in 2016 that a kids lit book has been withdrawn due to concerns over (mis)representation.
What is the relevance of all this to the Australian literary industry? First, conversations surrounding WWWF are part of the larger dialogue taking place across kids lit in the US that I’ve previously described as the twenty first century diversity conversation. This conversation should not be ignored by any Australian writer with aspirations to being published in the US, especially since we do not – yet – have the dedicated cyber-spaces in Australia that will critically examine representation issues. This means books that are not challenged (at least not in publicly available discussions) in an Australian context may well be challenged in the States. Second, I believe that many Australian authors who write to experiences of exclusion not their own are doing so out of a genuine desire to support marginalised peoples. But I also believe that most authors lack the necessary knowledge to manifest that intent into reality – and in the absence of such knowledge, authors are all too likely to produce narratives that do the exact opposite of what they intended to achieve. Thus, an understanding of the twenty first century diversity conversation is essential knowledge for any author seeking to write of others with integrity and respect.
What, then, were the issues identified with WWWF? For starters, the invented vernacular in which it was written, which both Library Journal and Kirkus found to be Shakespearean, although the Kirkus reviewer also sounded a note of doubt: “only the free verse’s frequent apostrophes connoting a dropped letter are stereotypical and distancing.” One of the reasons the language matters is because, as White commentator and kids lit expert KT Horning pointed out, it formed part of the overall reality created by the narrative that was being so highly praised. But who was judging whose reality? Jennifer Baker, founder of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, characterised the invented language as not only inconsistent but “abhorrent without much understanding or even consideration for the structure of Ebonics (aka African American Vernacular English, AAVE).” Librarian Edith Campbell similarly found the language to be inconsistent with her lived experience: “Typically, when I read black vernacular, I can hear it in my head as spoken by someone in my life and it resonates as a home to me. The language in this book jolted me, caused me to pause, re-read and wonder what meaning was being conveyed.”
Related to the language in which the story was told was the overall picture the text painted of Black realities, which Edith Campbell summarised as “a monolithic urban African American neighborhood where everyone is low income and everyone is broken or damaged. Single homes, abusive parents, criminal records combine with neighbors who have little more than bad history between them.” It is a depiction which read as ‘truth’ to the initial reviewers – but whose truth? Campbell noted that: “e.E Charlton-Trujillo levels condemnation on this space that so many African Americans call home. Outsiders writing about a community often do this … rather than seeing through to the ebb and flow of life that make the city blocks a vibrant community.” Stories told about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost. When such stories are measured solely through their perceived value to cultural outsiders, it can be forgotten that this weight is not one that outsiders carry, and this cost is not one that they pay. As Jennifer Baker wrote: “I’d like someone to sit back and consider work created by so many marginalized artists that seeks to show an alternative while also showing truth and tell me if you would actually feel comfortable showing When We Was Fierce to a group of Black children and saying, “This is how I see you.”
Nor, of course, do experiences of marginalisation equate. WWWF was written by a Mexican-American author. The same structures that consistently work to privilege white voices over those of Indigenous peoples or people of colour also work to some degree to privilege outsider voices over insider ones. Outsider voices will often be easier to read; certainly less challenging than the insider ones that seek to express the complexities and contradictions of existence within any marginalised community. I’ve written before in relation to Indigenous books that one of the things reviewers must be wary of is judging our worlds against the ‘one story’ they know about us or by reference to a Western literary canon that has historically excluded and stereotyped non-white peoples. Zetta Elliott, responding to WWWF, gave voice to the frustration experienced by many: “There’s the actual annihilation of Black bodies that’s reported on the nightly news, and then there’s the symbolic annihilation where White editors and agents show preference for non-Black writers and their narratives that distort our image/voice. When I spoke to the TYWLS [The Young Women’s Leadership School] teens last week, I wrapped up with a warning: “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” But the truth is, even when you DO tell your story, there’s a good chance it will be dismissed while an outsider’s story is celebrated for its ‘authenticity’.” The Publisher’s Weekly review of WWWF characterized it as giving “voice to the unheard.” The problematic nature of that comment was not lost on White librarian Angie Manfredi, who wrote: “It is wrong to assume that this book is an authentic representation of the voices of African-American teens. And it is wrong to assume that these voices are not part of YA and children’s lit – they are and always have been...Are these voices “unheard” because they don’t exist or because the majority culture simply refuses to listen?”
Representation issues are magnified by the make-up of the literary industry. As KT Horning commented, “the majority of children’s book reviewers are White, as are most members of book evaluation and awards committees. Our experiences as White people are limited. How can we discern if a book about a child of colour is authentic?” The literary industry in Australia also (largely) white. In conversation with Zetta Elliott, I’ve said that one of the problems of being a minority writer is not being able to rely upon the people whom writers are supposed to be able to rely, because most agents, editors, and reviewers don’t know enough about us to be able to give us meaningful feedback on the ways in which we are representing our worlds. I would add to that nor can we rely on those to whose opinions we are supposed to aspire. An assessment by a reviewer (or awards judge) that expressly or by implication criticizes as insider story for failing to comply with outsider expectations is probably a testament to a book’s value rather than the reverse. Except of course that books with poor reviews and no award nominations won’t sell, while the outsider stories lauded for their ‘authenticity’ will appear on every shelf. One of the things the WWWF dialogues demonstrate is a lack of process that is common to both the US and Australia. As Jennifer Baker wrote: “throughout the whole creation and production process not one person recognised, or sought counsel/feedback potentially, from Black people to see how this would make members of the community feel.” And process includes an ability to interrogate one’s own position and privilege. White American-Australian Justine Larbalestier author has recently posted a frank account of her own journey, from believing she was making YA more diverse (by writing from the perspectives of people of colour) to seeing herself as part of the problem after one of her books was criticised by a Black blogger. She now takes a different approach: “To help diversify YA, we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents…These are by far the most important things we can do personally to increase diversity. However, I keep seeing white authors getting hung up on whether white people are allowed to write from points of view not our own. Spoiler: we're allowed. No one is stopping us. Will doing so make YA more diverse? No, it won't.”
In 2015, Corinne Duyvis (a writer with a disability and one of the founders of Disability in Kidlit) invented the hashtag #OwnVoices to reference books about marginalised peoples written by authors of the same background. I myself believe that the first and most fundamental question any outsider author should ask themselves is this: should this story be told by you at all (which includes asking whether it should be told by you alone). I see many lost opportunities for equitable collaborations between outsiders and insiders (and by equitable, I mean that royalties, copyright and credit are shared). And for anyone who believes that it is important to give voice to the unheard: start listening to, and supporting, the Own Voices of the unheard.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.