Tag Archives: Darren Chetty

Interplanetary Women’s Day: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Next week I am going to be in Antwerp, lecturing to a Twentieth Century British Women’s Writers course.  Because the instructor for the course is the gifted and insightful Vanessa Joosen, the overall book list for the course is varied, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Kate Atkinson, Doris Lessing to Andrea Levy, and covering a wide variety of genres, including poetry, realism and fantasy for both adults and children.  I’ll be speaking about the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, Malorie Blackman, and specifically about her novel Noughts and Crosses (Corgi 2001).  Blackman is the only writer on Joosen’s list who has written in so many different styles; she has picture books about talking animals (I Want a Cuddle! Scholastic 2001) and imaginary play (Marty Monster Tamarind 1999), early chapter books including the Girl Wonder and Betsey Biggalow series, poetry (Cloud Busting Doubleday 2004), fiction dealing with the effects of technological advances (most famously, Pig-Heart Boy, Transworld 1999, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal—one of the only books by Black British writers to be so honored) and historical fiction (Blackman edited and contributed to the collection Unheard Voices, Corgi 2007).

noughts_and_crosses_landscape

Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicts a dystopian world where the racial power hierarchy is flipped but racism still abounds.

But Blackman is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which again spans various types, from technological futurism (Robot Girl Barrington Stoke 2015) to horror (The Stuff of Nightmares Corgi 2012), ghost stories (the gentle Grandma Gertie’s Haunted Handbag, Heinemann 1996, is for younger readers, but she does ghost stories for older readers as well), magical creature fantasy (Whizziwig Galaxy 1998), and transformation fantasy (the human characters in Animal Avengers, Mammoth 1999, can turn into any animal they want).  She has interplanetary science fiction with her Chasing the Stars (Doubleday 2016) and, her most famous series, the dystopian Noughts and Crosses.  Most of her main characters are Black (British).  She has spent much of her career trying to write Black children into books, but unlike some writers, she doesn’t usually focus on race as the main aspect of the book: “I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  Why shouldn’t Black boys have alien friends from another planet, and why shouldn’t Black girls pilot a spaceship, when white children did these things in books all the time?

leo-and-diane-dillon_justice-and-her-brothers_ny-avon-1981_56119

The first book in Virginia Hamilton’s series, with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Blackman is definitely the most voluminous producer of Black British science fiction and fantasy for children, but she is not the first to write protagonists of African descent into children’s non-realistic literature.  The American author Virginia Hamilton, who is today perhaps best known for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf 1986) with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, published a science fiction series beginning in 1978 with Justice and her Brothers.  Hamilton’s series, which includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981) was “the first science fiction series written with African American protagonists by an African American” (Back in the Spaceship Again, Sands and Frank, 115) for young people.  Hamilton’s protagonist, Justice, travels into the future and uses extrasensory perception to communicate with her brothers.  Like Blackman, Hamilton felt it was important that young people see themselves in books; according to her website, she viewed her writing as “Liberation Literature” (http://www.virginiahamilton.com/biography/) for young people.  The label recalls the Black Panther party, whose Liberation Schools tried to free the minds of young African Americans from the oppressive domination of white/European institutions.  Both Hamilton and Blackman provide readers, through their fantasy and science fiction, with alternative ways of seeing the world around them—ways of seeing themselves as active agents in that world, and even leaders.

9781540357588-uk-300

Zetta Elliott’s fantasy for middle grade readers about American children meeting ghosts in the UK.

Hamilton and Blackman aren’t the only writers of African descent producing science fiction and fantasy for children; as Zetta Elliott pointed out in her School Library Journal article from 2011, “Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere” (“A Storied Past” https://www.slj.com/2011/01/industry-news/a-storied-past-the-best-tales-are-often-found-right-inside-your-own-front-door/#_). Her recently updated list of speculative fiction by US-based authors can be found on her blog (http://www.zettaelliott.com/african-american-speculative-fiction-for-kids/), and it shows that the numbers of writers focusing on characters of African descent is increasing in science fiction and fantasy. Zetta herself writes fantasy with African-American characters, including the transatlantic The Ghosts in the Castle (CreateSpace 2017) which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the numbers are still small, especially outside of the US.  In Britain, science fiction and fantasy is still largely dominated by white characters.  Caribbean children’s literature is still a growth area, and although much early post-independence literature was either realistic fiction or folktales, there has been an increase in fantasy and (especially environmentally-based) science fiction; Diane Browne’s time travel fiction (A Tumbling World, A Time of Fire Arawak 2002) and Hazel Campbell’s Juice Box and Scandal LMH 1992) are two examples of books that paved the way for more recent authors such as Tracy Baptiste (The Jumbies 2015).  Nigerian American award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction fantasy for all ages based in Nigeria (Akata Witch, Speak 2017, is about a twelve-year-old girl).

akatawitch

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor expands the world of fantasy to include Africa.

Often, however, science fiction and fantasy with Black characters is seen as being only pertinent to Black readers.  As Darren Chetty and I wrote in our Books for Keeps article in January of this year, “While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity” (http://content.yudu.com/web/1mjdv/0A1mjdx/BFK228Jan2018/html/print/BfK%20228%20hi%20res%20single%20pages-rgb%20DPDF.pdf).  That article discusses the ways that Black authors often use canonical fantasy by white authors to broaden their audience.  In similar fashion, tomorrow also marks the opening of a film based on a canonical American science fiction fantasy novel, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1960).  The novel, written by a white author, is being produced as a film by Ava DuVernay with a multiracial cast including Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid playing Meg Murry. Reviews so far have been mixed—I’ll see it this weekend—but DuVernay’s efforts in opening up the universe to children of color in such a high profile effort may help publishers to be less reluctant about publishing authors who want to do the same.  So if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day today, why not make it Interplanetary Women’s Day, and open up your own universe to one of these authors.

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

a-change-is-gonna-come

The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

IMG_0105[1]

Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

tall-story-by-candy-gourlay

Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

varjak-paw-cover-varjak-paw-8173069-406-596

Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

IMG_0104[1]

S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

0140562222

Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

9781781126950

We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

Questioning Normal: Children’s Literature that reminds you what is, and should be, ordinary

cover

Blackman has long played with the idea of “normal” for Black British children’s books, partly through embracing the genre of science fiction.

Have you ever read a book and had to remind yourself about some aspect of a character because they seemed so “normal”? Oftentimes, though not always, this idea of the normal simply means “this character seemed so much like me that I forgot about *insert attribute that is not like you*”. If the attribute that you insert is about the color of the color of the character’s skin or their ethnicity, the idea of “normal” becomes more than just a curiosity. Often in books (at least those published in the UK and the US), characters are presumed to be white until proven otherwise. Child readers, and many adult readers as well, do not always question the consequences of presuming that characters in books will be white. But assuming whiteness as normal has an effect on individual readers, as well as what gets published, particularly for children.

img_2896

How do readers define normal? Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, pictures by Elaine Mills, offers one definition.

My own interest in Black British children’s literature came from a discussion with a Black British friend (now my husband) who said he didn’t read any kids’ books growing up because he wasn’t in them. This is a story that I have come across in my research more than once, not only in terms of what kids read, but what kids write. Both the philosopher Darren Chetty (in multiple articles, which you can find listed here: https://www.tes.com/news/author/darren-chetty) and the publisher Verna Wilkins, have discussed how children’s literature is perceived by child readers to be a “whites only” world. In an article in the Guardian, Wilkins links this realization to her decision to become a publisher: she “explained that she was moved to launch the publisher when her son came home from school with a booklet, on which he had coloured a picture of himself in pink. She offered him a brown crayon to fix it. “It has to be that colour. It’s for a book!” he told her.”I had no choice. I had to become a publisher,” said Wilkins” (article by Alison Flood, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/diversity-children-books-colour-young-people). Wilkins wanted to normalize the Black British experience in her books for all readers.

That desire to make the Black British experience normal occasionally brought Wilkins in for some criticism, however. In a review of Wilkins’ first book, Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book (1987), Ama Gueye worries about “the lack of “reference pointers . . . which make any strong statement about Kay’s Afro-Caribbean cultural background” (“Review: Tamarind” Dragon’s Teeth Summer 1987: 22). Wilkins, however, did not want to write/publish books that highlighted otherness; for her, writing Black British characters in situations that readers from many backgrounds (including the dominant one) would also identify with and understand was the best way to make Black British children’s literature “normal”.

chalk-doll-charlotte-pomerantz-paperback-cover-art

Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Chalk Doll tells the story of a Caribbean birthday–different, but still “normal”? Pictures by Frane Lessac.

Another, almost opposite, way to approach the same question is by introducing experiences of people from outside the dominant (racial/gender/ability/ethnic) group as normal too. Author Chitra Soundar, for example, blogged about the idea of the birthday in children’s picture books, and her search for books that would show birthday experiences that go beyond the British birthday party (http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-birthdays-from-many-cultures.html; if you know of any that she may have missed, I know she would love for you to comment on the site!). She makes the point in her blog that too many picture books show only one version of normal, and this can alienate children from their cultural background. The downside of this approach is not in the books themselves, but in the way that publishers and booksellers often “exoticize” these alternative normalities, marketing them as only interesting to particular groups or teachers wanting a culturally diverse book collection. The result, as Soundar’s blog points out, is that these books often go out of print quickly, because they are not seen as books for “all” or “normal” (both adjectives which generally are code words for “white”) readers.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

Nina is Not OK–but she’s not “ethnic” either.

For authors who are not white, the idea of “normal” can have an effect on how they think about their own work. Last week, I was very excited to see the longlist for the Jhalak Prize, a new prize exclusively for writers of color in the UK. It follows in the tradition of other prizes, particularly for children’s literature such as the Collins/Fontana Award for Multi-Ethnic Literature (awarded in the 1970s) and the Other Award (from the 1970s to the 1980s), which highlight the achievements of writers and books about characters from outside the dominant group. The Jhalak Prize is not exclusively for children’s books, but their judging panel includes two authors who have written for young people, and considers children’s literature as well as adult literature. Most of the authors longlisted, including YA authors Malorie Blackman (Chasing the Stars), Patrice Lawrence (Orangeboy) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) expressed their pleasure at being nominated, but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina is Not OK, asked that her book be withdrawn from consideration. She explained on Twitter that she was flattered, but “my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity” (for more, see Katherine Cowdrey’s article in The Bookseller, http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shappi-khorsandi-withdraws-book-jhalak-prize-long-list-463586 or listen to Khorsandi’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme from Saturday 7th January). So if a book is about non-ethnic—or normal?—topics, then it cannot, in Khorsandi’s mind, be considered for an award for authors of color. This suggests that the “ethnic” experience is definable, and different, than the experience of the dominant majority. And sometimes it is, as Chitra Soundar’s experience attests—but sometimes it isn’t, as Verna Wilkins tries to show in her books. When I made my list of “50 Books to Diversify your Classroom” for the Times Educational Supplement in October (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499), I tried to consider multiple types of experiences. Because normal is not a single point on the continuum of children’s literature and experiences, but a range—and as readers, and selectors of books for children, we need to expand our own definition of what constitutes normal.