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Current Issue: Winter 2014
A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away. I learned about his death by accident. While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami. Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).
The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance. The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter. And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago. Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.
When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age. I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud. And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication. Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.
But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name. The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.
But Lester, too, was a pen name. I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester. I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro. He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro. He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course. Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction. Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self. And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand. From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.
“This is not so good,” he might say.
“Eh,” he might say about another.
I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work. But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro. Then he read my essay out loud. Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:
Angienetro, you should keep writing.
Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.
Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.
There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you. A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working. Start over. A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.
In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times. One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published. Back then, I remember thinking: I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now. Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out. It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself. I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication. This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore. But I will try.
A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died. On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.” Then she corrected herself: “I am. I am so proud of you.” My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible. I know my mother was proud of me. Of that I have no doubt. But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago. A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers. She never got the chance to go to college; I did. She never really fell in love; I did. She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer? I’m still unsure about that. And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated. Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called. After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.” In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.
On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office. I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening. Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing. Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV. He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under. He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain. Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself. When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation. When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.
Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid. I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct. It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it. His comment did not reference intelligence, but character. He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me. He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself. He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.
And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been. How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits. All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t. All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me. One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it. Because of shame. Because of fear. Because I wasn’t writing. Because I wasn’t being published. How incredibly stupid.
Professor Goran, I get it now. Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it? The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.
Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood? Me too.
Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some? Me too.
I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves. I imagine his voice, its soft tenor. I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:
Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself. Stop it. Stop it right now. Do you see what it’s done? Do you? Do you finally see?
Yes, Professor Goran. I do.
Last week, I went to the 2015 AWP Conference (along with 12,000 others, right?) to represent the Missouri Review in a range of different programs. Along with doing my best to meet with writers, editors, and publishers, I also was a part of several programs. On Friday night, TMR was one of six Missouri literary journals that hosted a reading at Segue Cafe, showcasing the diversity of our region and our magazines. On Saturday, I was a panelist not once but twice: the first was on literary podcasts, and the second was on teaching literary magazines in the classroom. Both went really, really well.
But what has really stuck with me was my Wednesday night event.
“Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration” was a reading, free and open to the public, in downtown Minneapolis at the Central Library. There were ten readers, all of whom (except for me) instructors and teachers and mentors in prison writing programs from throughout the country. Each of us read a brief piece, five to seven minutes at the most, on behalf of incarcerated writers. After, ten of us were on a panel to answer questions about how to support these programs, how to get involved, what challenges we face, and so forth.
I was invited by Jennifer Bowen Hicks from the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. TMR was the only strict “publisher” at the event, though several of these organizations have created and sold chapbooks and/or books of their students’ work. The other participating programs were Hennepin County Outreach Services (based in Minnesota), the Women’s Writing Program (also in Minnesota), Words Without Walls (Pittsburgh), and Revised Sentences (North Carolina). Several other organizations helped to support the event: Hennepin County Library, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, Carleton College, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Red Bird Chapbooks, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Basically, lots of people got involved.
Our role has always been, I thought, pretty simple: TMR showcases nonfiction from inmates and instructors. That’s it. I didn’t realize how important our Literature on Lockdown series has been to both groups. But that’s what I heard over and over again last week: that what we publish matters, that the writers published in our series are proud to get their voices heard, that we are needed outlet for a group of writers very rarely represented in the small press and literary magazine community.
The AWP conference is a wonderful thing. Readers of this space know how much I enjoy the conference, and over the years, I’ve written blog posts leading up to the event and post-event roundups. There are plenty of those from a wide-range of writers, and they go up every year at the same time, regular as Christmas decorations. And they are all well and good, just like the conference itself, which, for whatever complaints people might have about it, really is a good and amazing conference.
And, yet, despite all the best efforts, it can feel a bit homogenized. You know?
When our previous social media editor, Alison Balaskovits, came up with Literature on Lockdown and the Working Writers series, what she was responding to was the palpable sense that there is a world of writers that is often left out of our culture. We needed to do something, no matter how big or small, to be an outlet for those writers. And this past week has shown me that Alison’s vision has taken shape into something critical and unique, thanks to the many writers and teachers who have answered our call for their work.
So here is our reminder: we want to read more.
If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com.
If you feel you fit our Working Writers Series — no major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing — get in touch. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. Please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
At the beginning of next semester it will be two years since my hometown high school went completely digital. All students received a school-issued Mac, virtually all textbooks shelved for inexpensive, downloadable files, and paper homework is nearly nonexistent. Every student would be apart of the network and use web apps to complete assignments, much like Blackboard in college. When I was told this educational “evolution” was going to take place the year following my graduation, I, with the rest of my graduating class, felt slighted. We had to hand-write most of our work and lug around old, outdated textbooks. Who doesn’t want a “free” Mac-book to listen to music, play MMORPGs (massively-multiplayer, online role-playing games), and sometimes do homework?
I feel quite differently now.
On this, The Missouri Review’s slick, sleek website, it is fairly easy to find and accomplish any task a reasonable Internet surfer might imagine they need to perform, whether or not they are familiar with the literary magazine. That is good. I’d like to think the straightforward nature of our website might lead to an increase of submissions from authors that otherwise wouldn’t think to submit—authors who, for whatever reason, have no familiarity with literary magazines, entirely. It is always my goal to listen for voices that might otherwise go unheard, and what better way to do that than with the exposure and access the Internet gives to residents and users? It’s the democratization of the voice, itself, right?
This hopeful, progressive sentiment is doubtful. Visitors to our site are likely to be subscribers or prior submitters—a smaller, insular group with specific, literary interest. Though it is disheartening to see that population continue to shrink, it doesn’t make literature and the literary world any less valuable.
Quite true, inversely, just because something is popular doesn’t make it good. Unfortunately, that is the mechanic of the Internet. In fact, the route through which I’m sure many of you came to this post, Google, has a business model that runs as cool as a perpetual-motion machine thanks to its ingenious algorithms and marketing scheme. Roughly, AdWords presents sites with high-traffic and high ad-space bids. But content filtered by traffic is not truly representative. The obvious implication is that, first, our choice of search engine will have at least some effect on our results, but also it will be those on the Internet the most who will determine what the rest of us see. Don’t believe me? Just open up a new tab to Youtube, pick a video about or involving a woman (but really, this would work with truly any video), and scroll down to the comments. Notice that they shrilly screech with a distinctly masculine tone. There are those or any of the other organized, anti-feminist outbursts that erupt with seeming regularity. Beyond that, as stated before, those sites that are going to get the most traffic not only must be seen, they must be quick and easy to use—they must be “intuitive.”
Such is TMR’s great website: economic use of space, cohesive design, blocks of text only where completely necessary, such as submission instructions and blog posts. Even with the latter, brevity is key. Reading on the Internet is characterized by text that can be skimmed, and, Wikipedia-like, peppered with hyperlinks that lead off and away down an information rabbit-hole. Telling is the fact that on any of Wikipedia’s millions of pages, clicking on the first link in the text and then repeating the process for subsequent articles will inevitably lead you to the page for “philosophy.” I’m definitely not the first to illustrate how antithetical such superficial reading practices are to understanding any philosophy; as any meme will tell you, the Internet loves irony.
So how does this relate to the digital curriculum my younger brother uses as a high school sophomore and my youngest brother will use as a sixth grader? If the type of interface that makes our experiences on the Internet good requires reading to be skimmed and skipped through, if intuitive technology relies on our inability to sustain an interest in one piece of reading, then maybe good technology doesn’t make for good reading and education? Additionally, maybe the simple nature of Internet use engenders antisocial behavior and gives a louder mic to those who would give in to the messages of terror, exploitation, and hatred?
We should definitely take these arguments into consideration as we continue to move quickly into the future. There is no use in attempting to revert back to what we had before; the Internet has been fully uploaded into our lives. I will choose to echo such writers as Nicholas Carr when I advocate the pursuit of moderation. While computers are great for making tasks easier, such as facilitating submissions, we should always remember that some things are difficult for a reason.
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s writer is Sandra Gould Ford.
When authors teach creative writing to the incarcerated, prisons are usually chosen. Other facilities should be considered. Once upon a time, I didn’t know that there were differences.
For three reasons, I asked the warden of the Allegheny County Jail if I could teach inmates how to write fiction, poetry, essays and memoir. First, because I’d heard a young man from my low-income, black neighborhood say that good employment was hopeless because of “the box” on job applications. When marking that he had a felony conviction, his employment consideration ended. In that moment, I believed that writing could provide income based on the quality of the manuscripts rather than problems in the past. I was also inspired by Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and other authors who taught in correctional institutions. Thirdly, a grant maker asked me to propose an arts project.
When Warden Rustin granted me permission to teach, I completed the grant application. The jail also advised that they would provide no funds. While I awaited the major grant, start-up funding was received from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council as well as support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Arts in Education program. All I needed was money from the grant maker who asked for my proposal. When they did not fund the project, the jail provided the remaining support.
The Bureau of Corrections exists to, “protect the citizens of Allegheny County from criminal offenders.” For that purpose, two facilities are maintained. The prison was first built in 1826 and influenced Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol. The State Correctional Institution that was rebuilt in 1882 houses about 1,500 convicts. Jails are different.
About eighty new arrestees arrive at the Allegheny County Jail each day. There, they await formal identification and the pre-arraignment hearings that will decide if arrest was warranted. When cause is found, the arrestee is either released on bail or held until trial. Jails “lock up” parole or probation violators, fugitives, persons whose bonds are revoked and people sentenced to Jail by the Court. Most of the 2,000 people in my county’s jail are accused of crimes, but have not been convicted.
In prisons, the length of stay is prescribed and can be lengthy, lasting years or lifetimes, without the possibility of parole. In jails, the accused – unlike the convicted – could leave at any point. Thus, class and program planning must be flexible.
The Allegheny County Jail has eight floors for housing inmates. Each level has thirty-five units (pods) designed to hold 56 inmates. Women are on one floor. Of the 35 pods on the fourth floor, the women occupy just four units. My first classes were drawn from that female population.
For the first few weeks, the women were open, cooperative and enthusiastic. They loved the idea that their writing would be published in a special book. But, in the fourth week, the ladies dragged into the classroom. After slumping into their chairs, they asked why they should bother. They’d become convinced that no one would want to read anything they wrote. That’s when we discussed diamonds and how those gems began as coal. They became rare and precious when great pressures transformed them. From that understanding, the title for our first book was enthusiastically born, Diamonds in The Rough.
At first, I refused male students. I’d just seen a program about ruthless male gangs. Although jail officials counseled that their populations – unlike in prisons – were too transient for gangs to stabilize, I wanted no problems. But after months of “Good morning” and “How are you?” and doors held open by males in red jumpsuits in the hallways and offices, in accepting that a momentary lapse could land anyone behind bars, in remembering one young man’s employment plight, I agreed to teach men … if the jail let me return.
Year after year, my swipe card kept opening the jail’s entrance. Along the way, the students produced beautiful, illustrated anthologies and a spoken-word poetry contest, men vs. women. Students learned about publishing contracts, copyright and how to create personalized chapbooks. One student wobbled to class – slightly dazed but determined – fresh from 60 days in ‘the hole.’ Several were ‘sentenced’ to the class because of suspected talent or because the chance to write prevented disruptive behavior. The writing also offered opportunities to vent, as with one student who finally expressed childhood abuse and another released pent-up anger about a betrayal. Two students won PEN Prison Writing Contests, a stellar achievement under any circumstance, but special because of the short learning experience that is the nature of jails.
I had promised ‘Da County’ five residencies. As my fourth ended, I searched for a replacement. The Graduate Writing Program at Chatham University was approaching prisons about teaching the incarcerated. Chatham eagerly stepped in and is growing the program, now called Words Without Walls, expanding to a half way house and Pittsburgh’s prison. They’re also producing a book that will guide others in establishing writing programs for the incarcerated.
Two major films have been located at the Allegheny County Jail. In 1984, Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton starred in “Mrs. Soffel,” a true story about an incident at the older jail. In 2009, Russell Crowe starred in the vigilante thriller “The Next Three Days” at the new facility. I think I spotted him once. For me, the stars were the accused and the convicted who tried writing poetry and flash fiction, novels and Op-Ed pieces and reflections on their lives via memoir.
Authors can make meaningful differences by teaching the incarcerated the craftsmanship, discipline and insightfulness required to produce literary art. For many of my students, I suspect that the classes changed – even if just a little – how they experienced jail and how they view life. Best of all, some students continue to write. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, artist and activist Grady Hillman said “creating a piece of art, whether it’s dance or music or creative writing, is an act of critical thinking.”
It requires considering the needs of the audience, which means (the incarcerated) have to look at what they’ve done from the point of view of others. That’s one of the fundamental premises of corrections — to be penitent, think about what you’ve done to others, try not to be totally in the moment but think about the consequences of your actions and how what you do affects the lives of others.
In the May, 2014, the Prison Arts Resource Project survey showed how the arts in general and writing in particular helps the incarcerated; therefore society. Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the project’s report includes:
• As a result of the Prison English Program, the New Mexico Corrections Department receives program savings of $27,000-$40,500 per semester.
• Participation enabled offenders in the Northeastern Correction Center, Concord, Massachusettes to begin (or continue) the process of changing their self-identities from procriminal to prosocial.
• Participants in California’s Arts In Corrections programs reported increased self discipline, self-esteem, self-respect, sense of purpose, and reconnection with family as a result of the program. Participants also reported reduced racial tension in the correctional facility. The evaluation follows up on ex-offenders 25 years after participation in the Arts-in-Corrections program.
I appreciate the incentive created by the invitation to apply for that arts project grant; even though my jail proposal was not funded. I’m thankful that Wally Lamb, Sonia Sanchez and others have established models for other authors. I’m grateful for the Polaris that is the PEN Prison Writing Program. And I endlessly value the efforts of Austin-based poet and translator Grady Hillman who’s spent 25 years teaching creative writing and helping to design and implement arts-in-the-prisons programs around the world. Other programs exist and deserve support.
My thoughts are bittersweet about the young man who spoke so passionately about the employment challenges people face after serving their time. I regret his challenges and send him blessings because, without him, the path to Allegheny County Jail’s Words Without Walls would not have begun. Because of him, I hope more writing programs are developed for the incarcerated, the convicted as well as the accused.
Sandra Gould Ford is an author, artist and educator who presents writing and arts experiences that encourage, refresh, enrich creative thinking and inspire. She founded a writing program at a 3,000-inmate jail, published an international quarterly and produced two writer conferences. Sandra now enjoys exploring the human experience through the arts. Visit her online at www.sandragouldford.com
photo via natello-universe.tumblr.com
I’ve convinced myself that if Buzzfeed was a real, living person, that person would be me. Their posts are funny, they put these sticker like things on their best articles that just say “YASS”, and there’s a plethora of cat memes. I am Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed is me.
But, all humor aside, I came across a post a few weeks ago called, “What a ‘racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”. Quick disclaimer: I’ve never actually read the series (I know I know, shame on me. I’m getting around to it, don’t worry). But I am a fan of the movies, and of writing in general, and of Buzzfeed. In the article, biracial Buzzfeed community member Alanna Bennet pulls from Tumblr artistry in an effort to imagine Hermione as African American, and even goes on to say: “As I grew up I stopped comparing myself as much to Hollywood actors and tried to train myself out of seeing white as the default for fictional characters.”
At the time, I thought it was just an interesting take on a topic I hadn’t known much about. This was, afterall, my first exposure to “racebent” characterization, and it led me down a winding internet path of all sorts of things- Disney princesses as races other than what had been originally depicted, book characters, movie characters. It was fascinating, interesting, and just kind of neat to think about because, to be honest, I hadn’t thought of it at all before.
It should be known that I spent my childhood in a southern Alaskan suburb where racism and discrimination seemed virtually nonexistent. I was lucky enough to be raised in a safety net of equality, and those values will be with me for the entirety of my life. Of course, I noticed that the African American girl that lived across the street from me, whom I rode bikes with frequently, looked different than me. But do you know who else looked different than me? My tall friend. And my blonde friend. And my friend with blue eyes and my friend with brown eyes and basically every other friend that I’ve ever had because (shocker!) I don’t have a twin. My neighbors’ skin color, while yes, different than mine, was not a trait that differentiated them from me any more than any other physical trait, be it eye color or hair color, would differentiate me from anybody else. People are people. It really is that simple.
So imagine my surprise when we moved to a small(ish) town in Virginia which might as well have been the state’s very own Mason-Dixon line. Go to ten minutes south of my old house and there are cowboy hats and confederate flags. Go ten minutes north and everyone has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on their car. Calling my experience in the lower-forty-eight a culture shock would be quite the understatement.
Then, at the ripe age of eighteen, I packed my bags and came out to Missouri. For the most part, I went my entire freshman year without discrimination ever really coming up. I was (falsely) under the impression that my generation was smarter, better, and kinder than that of our grandparents and great-grandparents; that the confederate flags waving from the truck beds of high-schoolers in my county had been an abnormality. The rest of the world couldn’t really be that bad, right?
Then, Ferguson happened. And, more recently, the infamous SAE video hit the internet. As a human being, I was appalled. As a member of the Greek community, I was ashamed.
Not long after, two officers were shot in Ferguson. Then, an African American student was arrested and beat outside a bar near UVA.
Suddenly, the Buzzfeed post about a “racebent” Hermione seemed less like a fun display of Tumblr art and more like a call to action. I re-read it again, and, as someone who wants to be a writer, I was empowered.
In her Buzzfeed post, Bennet, multiple times, includes quotes from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz. The most powerful, taken from a lengthy passage in her post, is this: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
So I did some digging, and I found out just how much that reflection is denied thanks to a phenomenon called whitewashing. Turns out, there are a plethora of Caucasian models on the covers of books that actually have racially ambiguous characters. Now, maybe there is a theoretical advantage to writing racially ambiguous characters- if the author never identifies a race, then, in theory, everyone should be able to see themselves as that character, right? But thanks to the cover art, media, film adaptations, and unfortunately, society, racially ambiguous characters are often assumedly white. Which is a problem for so many reasons.
More disturbingly, much of this whitewashing occurs in children’s and young-adult literature. Just last year, The New York Times published an article about this very issue, and cited research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found only 93 children’s books to be about African American characters out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013.
This got me thinking about my own characters. More often than not, the characters I write about are young and female. Is it because I am young and female? Probably. But I am also white. And while I can’t think of an instance where I’ve explicitly stated the race of one of my characters, it’s fair to say than anyone reading my work could make the assumption that they are Caucasian as well.
So then I asked myself- why don’t I state the race of my characters? And am I doing something wrong by not explicitly including a diverse cast of characters? Could I be doing something better?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is this: African Americans, along with every other race and demographic, shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to find “racebent” characters in order to identify with literature. The creators of such literature should be creating characters that are vivid not only in their emotional grit but in their representation of the world and of people. People, who are vivid and beautiful and inspiring no matter the color of the skin or their cultural identity.
So, moving forward, I am making it my mission to diversify my writing. I am saying goodbye to assumedly white and racially ambiguous characters. There will be characters who are vivid and real and who have stories that are vivid and real. Because I do want to be published. I do want to be an author, and it pains me to picture a little girl like Bennet once was, reading my book and not being able to see herself in a character that I created.
And, I hope, I’m not the only one.
On my laptop, there are approximately one hundred and sixty three poems, three (sort of) finished drafts of manuscripts, six(ish) definitely unfinished manuscripts, and twelve document folders jam-picked with half finished scenes, assorted chapters, and hopeless outlines.
Oh, did I mention that I’m nineteen-going-on-twenty?
My passion for creative writing began as soon as I could read. I have a blue plastic bin in my bedroom closet filled with wide-ruled spiral notebooks full of very awful (but equally adorable, if I do say so myself) stories that I used to write in kindergarten while the other kids were coloring or stealing each others crayons or, much to the dismay of my even then germ-a-phobic self, picking their noses as all kindergartners seem to do. Creating characters and plotlines wasn’t a hobby that my peers seemed to share in.
Now, as I’ve matured (a little bit), persevered through high school, and have almost completed my first two years of college, I can say that writing isn’t a hobby frequently prized amongst most of the teenage demographic, either. Sure, in high school even the “cool kids” were up to date on their cult-fiction titles (mainly the ones that were turned into movies). Yet very few were interested in actually contributing to the content of the bookshelves they found themselves browsing. Then, there was me. I didn’t just read books while I should’ve been taking notes in class, I dreamt up books. The majority of my notebooks were filled halfway with actual notes and halfway with sporadic scenes that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was a regular attendee of my high-school’s creative writing club, and our attendance peaked at ten and bottomed out at three.
Writing, no matter how much people love to read, doesn’t seem to be the “hip” or “in” thing for teens to talk about doing. This may be due, in part, to the public education system (I’m talking k-12 here) and how it seems to place a great emphasis on reading creative works, but not much emphasis on the importance of fostering that creativity in its students. Walk into any high school English class and the first question the teacher will ask is, “Read anything good lately?” when really a more introspective question might be “Written anything good lately?”.
We’re taught English by reading literature, but very rarely taught it by learning how to write it. Whoever decided this was the best way to teach clearly wasn’t a “learn-by-doing” kind of pal. Then, of course, teachers are aggravated when their students’ essays come out all too mechanic and scripted, and claim they need to be more fluid and thoughtful in their writing. But if all they’re taught is to churn out topic sentences and five paragraph essays, what do we really expect them to turn in?
Only in my sophomore year of high school did my then-English teacher encourage us to write creatively and give us a forum on which to discuss our work with other students. This experience stands out to me as a highlight not only because I enjoyed it at the time, but because I can look back on it now and see its value. One of my favorite research papers I’ve ever written, I wrote in her class. I can say with fair certainty that it has to do with how she made writing more than just something we did for a grade. Granted, all good things must come to an end, and by the end of the term we all shuffled back into SOL-taking mode and gone were the days of writers-group-Fridays. But I’m distanced enough from my then-fifteen year old self to appreciate the method behind the madness.
Compare it to cooking. You can either give someone a box noodles and a jar of sauce and tell them to follow the instructions, or you can give them the ingredients and let them figure out how to make it all by themselves. Now, I’m a college student, and I love boxed food just as much as the next girl, but there’s nothing about boiling a pot of water and pouring in some dry noodles that makes me a better cook. What does make me a better cook is when I experiment with different seasonings and flavors and make it up as I go. For example, did you know you could make alfredo sauce with butter, cream cheese, and that grated parmesan that comes in the green tube? Neither did I, until I did it. Granted, I’ve made some pretty horrendous things. But have I made some pretty great things, too? Absolutely.
I was lucky enough in high school to have several teachers who helped foster my passion and creativity, who gave me the ingredients I needed and encouraged me to create, who applauded me when I succeeded and encouraged me when I was struggled. I consider myself to be a continuing beneficiary of such luck now that I am in college and am still surrounded by wonderful people and instructors who are doing the same. My writing is continually being pushed, poked, and prodded by people who see something worthwhile in me, and I’m grateful for those people. But it shouldn’t be up to a select few teachers who want to spice up their lesson plan by adding in some creative flare. I think that if we’re going to change the landscape, if we’re going to get more young people like myself writing quality work and openly talking about it, then we need to encourage not just the people who ask for encouragement but also the people who don’t even know they could use it. I think, also, that this starts with breaking down the barriers of what defines a good writer or reader.
There is no specific box you have to fit yourself into to be writer. You can love reading Cosmopolitan and the New Yorker with equal measure. You can love classic literature and young-adult fiction (Divergent, I’m lookin’ at you). Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes and styles, and the first step in overhauling the way writing is taught in public schools is by changing the perception of who should be encouraged to, well, write. Then, and only then, maybe writing will be a “hip” and “cool” thing for teens to do.
Or, maybe, I’m just too hopeful for my own good.