Saturday, June 30, 2007

Interview with Author Ellen Levine About Authenticity

René Colato Laínez

Ellen Levine is the author of several picture books including I HATE ENGLISH!, HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX, and IF YOUR NAME WAS CHANGED AT ELLIS ISLAND.

What does a picture book need to have in order to be multicultural?

Multiculturalism is by the cleanest definition the recognition of multiple cultures/ethnicities/races in a society. This, to my way of thinking, can only be a good thing: first, it recognizes reality; second, it reminds the dominant culture's institutions to work to reflect that reality.

When the term multiculturalism is invoked here (USA) about a piece of literature, it usually refers to a book centered around a world and characters who are not of the dominant white protestant world, although white protestants can certainly be part of the story. Although I haven't thought a great deal about this, I'd say off the top of my head that such a book generally has a viewpoint character who's not of the dominant culture/ethnicity/ race of the country in which the book is published. I'd be careful how much further I'd go in defining the category.

The problems arise to my way of thinking when rules are set forth and arbitrary standards mandated. Have you looked at Hazel Rochman's book AGAINST BORDERS: PROMOTING BOOKS FOR A MULTICULTURAL WORLD? In her introduction she writes about moving "beyond political correctness" both because it's stifling in itself and because it often provokes a backlash of reactionaries. Usually I myself avoid the term "political correctness" because it is used most often as a weapon by the right wing to stifle discussion. Call something "pc" and we all smile uncomfortably and don't discuss the substantive issues. But I acknowledge there are legitimate issues to discuss -- who can write about what. Actually for me, there's not much discussion when the question is phrased that way.

Can an author write books outside his/ her culture?

My answer is anyone can write anything. And we all reserve the right to critique a work based not on the skin color or ethnic origin of the author, but on the accuracy, power, and beauty of the story.

What do these authors need to do in order to write an authentic multicultural picture book?

Most important, and this applies to whoever writes the book: the same criteria exist that make any book good (or by contrast, unsuccessful or poor)-- no stereotypes and no socio-political-cultural errors. My point is if you think about it, we use these criteria even when we don't call a book "multicultural." To be sure, these criteria do take on meaning contoured in slightly different ways when we talk about nondominant cultures. Prejudice is often deeply embedded in socially-accepted images that are really reflections of the dominant culture's values and not accurate reflections of the culture portrayed. And so we get "lazy" Blacks or "chattering" and "noisy" Hispanics, or "stingy" and "inscrutable" Asians, etc. The reverse danger is that we romanticize or sentimentalize and keep "pure" and make "perfect" our minority protagonists and their stories. Both are to my way of thinking equally unacceptable.

We're often quick to question the motivation of the writer who's not a member of the group depicted if he or she has written of the characters with open eyes, that is, the ugly along with the beautiful. We should demand the same (rounded characters, real stories) of writers who are of the group they're writing about. The imperative is for accuracy, and this applies to fiction or nonfiction. There are many Hispanic, Black, Asian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc., sub-societies. No one person ever can speak for all. If writers are of the group they're writing about, then they start out with some bona fides, but they must recognize that notwithstanding their "insiderness," they still can't automatically count on being accurate, i.e., there are too many variations in any large social/ethnic/racial group.

If writers are not of the group they're writing about, they must have explored it deeply enough to reflect and reproduce it with accuracy and understanding. I don't know about the market in general; I tend to think about books one at a time, so I'm not much good to you there.

What inspired you to write I HATE ENGLISH!?

I can tell you a few things about I HATE ENGLISH! I spent several years working first on a television documentary about Chinatown in New York (we covered a little of San Francisco, but were really focused on NYC) and then tutoring Chinese immigrant kids at a Chinese community center. I even served a term on the board of the organization. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with Chinese immigrant young people, tutoring, counseling, sharing cups of tea and coffee, celebrating triumphs, sharing sadness, etc. When years later I sat down to write I HATE ENGLISH!, I was able to travel back in my mind and heart to those days.

And here's an interesting twist. The publisher decided to run the manuscript by a Chinese-American editor on staff. Her comments, as I told my editor, made little or no sense. And this wasn't surprising. She was born here to upper middle class parents and lived in that world, not the world of Chinatown with its immigrants and first generation kids. And so she didn't know the world I was writing about, even though she was of Asian background and I wasn't.

Another story: a Danish-born American I know (caucasian) wrote a children's book about the Hopi Indians. The first fan letter she got was from a Hopi couple who loved her book and, as they said in their letter, assumed she was Hopi. What she was in fact was a good researcher and writer.

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