silenced voices


A very wise librarian friend remarked that it was a shame ALA didn’t care more about this issue; raising awareness about banned books is extremely important, but it’s also important to acknowledge the silenced voices of writers of color who continue to be marginalized within the publishing world…–Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight and of the blog Fledgling.

I have followed Zetta Elliott’s blog, Fledgling, off and on for a little while now. I tend to be more of an onlooker than a participant; a learner and observer. Elliott is a very eloquent and passionate Reader, Writer, and Activist. The issues she explores cause her readers to think and at some point hopefully act.

I am fairly naive when it comes to the Publishing World in that I assume the manuscript submission is blind and does not come with a form that reads like an Equal Opportunities Act survey. I assume that if the work is exceptional or marketable (though not necessarily meaning good) then the manuscript is pursued. I want to believe in the assumption that submissions are blind and are chosen based on brilliance. Even so, skimming the YA shelves, what is Marketable is the better bet.

Besides those writing wonderful, original, imaginative stories that do not involve vampires, werewolves, or high society dramatists (whether contemporary or historical) who are not being published right now, is there another facet missing to the unpublished author? Is there a theme, a setting, a protagonist, a voice left silence because it is not Marketable?–and what about it exactly isn’t Marketable?

We are aware, aren’t we, of times when writers have to assume another name to be published, one that signals another gender?  Of Writer’s writing in a style or voice marketable, or worse acceptable, instead of the language/culture into which they were born?

The daughter is bilingual, having attended Spanish-English Immersion programs in school since 1st grade. Needless to say, a requirement to her continued study of Language/Culture is perusing the Spanish shelves at the Library and reading something in Spanish daily. Do you know how many of the Children’s books are translations of English texts? Many are great books and I’m glad that a Spanish Reader has access to those stories. But you see the problem, don’t you? The daughter is not supposed to read only the Vocabulary Words, but learn of a Culture as well. She reads mythology encyclopedias, and Poems from all over the World collections–in English. The greatest number available bilingual or Spanish are picture books (which are great, but she is in 5th grade). And forget Natalya who would only be allowed glimpses at best, right? What about the children who are looking for a sense of the familiar in the pages of a book–if not in physical setting, in voice, themes, preoccupations…Who would be most successful in telling those stories? Who could provide the most compelling translation?

Would I have noticed the number of Translated from English texts if the necessity to browse that section hadn’t been a necessity at all? The shelves of the English Written works in the Juvenile and Teen sections have a fairly satisfying selection. As hard as my daughter tries, I doubt she’ll get to reading the majority of the texts on the shelves. Though I would never label the daughter as White, she would appear unlimited. Or is she? Because even if she were White with the noticeable capital letter, would she still have what she would desire or require on the Library or Book Store Shelf?

A fear in Censorship is in the limiting of access to a Work’s potential and by doing so, limiting access to our potential. In what other ways are we limiting our potential as a country that would espouse the values of Tolerance and Diversity? In what other ways are we limiting our children’s potential to realize more of themselves than what they see in the mirror and in their households, schools, or neighborhoods? How about our children who do not even see themselves mirrored or contextualized in a book? (Can I use ‘contextualized’ there, does it make sense?)

The majority of a protagonist’s appeal is either in their familiarity or in our aspiration. Sure, we can enjoy and find books accessible via universal themes, human conditions, cultural ideologies (whether greater or sub-)… But if you’ve ever had to be the one looking-in, you’d recognize the longing to have a voice that shares your language, and in a form that is concrete enough to wrap your arms around and call it home. The validation doesn’t hurt either. It is good to know that you are worthwhile.  The voices that are being marginalized are worthwhile voices, just as those who are challenged or banned. What if we hadn’t heard Sherman Alexie’s voice, his perspective, hell–his levity. Do you know who Sandra Cisneros is? –She’s marvelous.

In her post “The Grim Reality”  (Sept. 23), Elliott decided to compile a list of novels for young readers (Middle-Grade & Young Adult) that were published this year with authors who are US-based and of African descent. With assistance from friends in the Comments she collected 50 titles out/expected this year. Of the 50 Fiction Novels, there are 40 authors.

I needn’t have the actual numbers of published Fiction Novels in MG or YA to note that 50 is a minuscule number. Elliott calculates less than 2 percent. I don’t know how many “US-based and of African descent” authors are submitting work, but would it be far-fetched to guess that in playing the game of averages there more than enough for Publishers to release more than 50 works a year? And good novels, too. While we talk about why the hell that is, we can do a few things.

Elliott, fortunately, does not only inform, and inspires–she acts. After compiling the list, and considering how the list breaks-down publisher-wise, she offers “Next Steps” (Sept 26):

When you’re agitating for change you’ve got to walk with suggestions.  So we made our list; we now know that about 50 MG/YA novels by black authors were published in the US this year.  Here’s what I’d like you to do NEXT:

  1. READ THESE BOOKS!  I had a lot of help putting together this list and there were many titles I’d never heard of, which is precisely the problem:  publishers don’t put much marketing money behind books by writers of color.  So now that we know about these books, we need to give them a chance—and if you find a title you like, recommend it!  See what else that author may have written.  Shine some light on books that are too often left in the dark…
  2. Go through the list of MG/YA titles and see how many of these are available at your local and/or school library.  If these titles aren’t in the system, consider asking your library to acquire them.
  3. Take the list to your local bookseller—indie or big chain—and see how many of these titles are (or were ever) in stock.  Many books by black authors don’t sell well because they never even make it onto the shelf…
  4. Print out the list and visit your ten favorite book blogs.  Scan the archives and see how many MG/YA novels by black authors were featured, mentioned, or reviewed on your favorite blogs.  Another challenge black authors face is invisibility in the blogosphere; consider asking your favorite book blogger to add (more) writers of color to their review list.
  5. The next time you attend a book festival or reading at your local library/bookstore, check to see how many authors of color are included.  In 2010, it’s not acceptable for a literary event to exclude authors of color—especially when the exposure could help sales, which would then strip publishers of their excuse that “black books don’t sell.”  If you’re a parent, make sure your child’s teachers use a diverse selection of books in the classroom (and not only during various heritage months).

If you have other suggestions, please share them by leaving a comment or taking up this issue on your own blog.  Maybe we need our own designated week/month…what I’d really like to see is sustained support for MARGINALIZED WRITERS!

A suggestion in the Comments was to nominate the books for the Cybils (awards), which means if you’ve not read one of the offered titles, you may try more than a few that appeal (soonest) and see if you’d nominate them. Maybe write an encouraging note to an author, or to the editor or publisher.

I may take Natalya on a scavenger hunt. Regardless, plan on seeing some of these titles again on future “review” posts.

The list Elliott compiled:

(I alphabetized them for my convenience)

  1. Artist Arthur, MANIFEST (August; Kimani)
  2. LA Banks, SHADOW WALKER (November; Sea Lion Books)
  3. Derrick Barnes, WE COULD BE BROTHERS (November; Scholastic)
  4. ReShonda Tate Billingsley, CAUGHT UP IN THE DRAMA (April; Gallery)
  5. ReShonda Tate Billingsley, DRAMA QUEENS (November; Gallery)
  6. BA Binns, PULL (October; Westside)
  7. Tonya Bolden, FINDING FAMILY (August; Bloomsbury)
  8. Victoria Bond & TR Simon, ZORA & ME (October; Candlewick)
  9. Claudia Mair Burney, THE EXORSISTAH: X RETURNS (November; Pocket Star)
  10. Nikki Carter, ALL THE WRONG MOVES (December; Dafina)
  11. Nikki Carter, NOT A GOOD LOOK (September; Dafina)
  12. Noni Carter, GOOD FORTUNE (January; Simon & Schuster)
  13. Veronica Chambers, AMIGAS #1: FIFTEEN CANDLES (May; Hyperion)
  14. Veronica Chambers, AMIGAS #2: LIGHTS, CAMERA, QUINCE (August; Hyperion)
  15. Veronica Chambers, PLUS (August; Razorbill)
  16. L. Divine, DRAMA HIGH: COLD AS ICE (June; Dafina)
  17. L. Divine, DRAMA HIGH: CULTURE CLASH (February; Dafina)
  18. L. Divine, DRAMA HIGH: PUSHIN’ (September; Dafina)
  19. Sharon Draper, OUT OF MY MIND  (March; Atheneum)
  20. Zetta Elliott, A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT (February; AmazonEncore)
  21. Sharon Flake, YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME (February; Hyperion)
  22. Sundee Frazier, THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEART (June; Delacorte)
  23. Christopher Grant, TEENIE (December; Knopf)
  24. Nikki Grimes, A GIRL NAMED MISTER (August; Zondervan)
  25. Ernest Hill, FAMILY TIES (September; Dafina)
  26. Travis Hunter, AT THE CROSSROADS (November; Dafina)
  27. Travis Hunter, TWO THE HARD WAY (July; Dafina)
  28. Angela Johnson, SWEET, HEREAFTER (January; Simon & Schuster)
  29. Varian Johnson, SAVING MADDIE (March; Delacorte)
  30. Traci L. Jones, FINDING MY PLACE (May; FSG)
  31. Lyah LeFlore, CAN’T HOLD ME DOWN (June; Simon Pulse)
  32. Monica McKayhan, STEP UP (June; Kimani)
  33. Patricia C. McKissack, et al., THE CLONE CODES (February; Scholastic)
  34. Denene Milner, MISS YOU, MINA (July; Scholastic)
  35. Stephanie Perry Moore, ENJOYING TRUE PEACE (January; Lift Every Voice)
  36. Stephanie Perry Moore, GET WHAT YOU GIVE (May; Dafina)
  37. Walter Dean Myers, THE CRUISERS (August; Scholastic)
  38. Walter Dean Myers, LOCKDOWN (February; Amistad)
  39. Sofia Quintero, EFRAIN’S SECRET (April; Knopf)
  40. Dia Reeves, BLEEDING VIOLET (January; Simon Pulse)
  41. Jewell Parker Rhodes, NINTH WARD (August; Little, Brown)
  42. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO (January; Arthur Levine)
  43. Rachel Renee Russell, DORK DIARIES 2 (June; Aladdin)
  44. Earl Sewell, MYSELF AND I (September; Kimani)
  45. Ni-Ni Simone, TEENAGE LOVE AFFAIR (April; Dafina)
  46. Renee Watson, WHAT MOMMA LEFT ME (July; Bloomsbury)
  47. Allison Whittenberg, TUTORED (December, Delacorte)
  48. Rita Williams-Garcia, ONE CRAZY SUMMER  (January; Harper)
  49. Ebony Joy Wilkins, SELLOUT (July; Scholastic)
  50. Sherri Winston, PRESIDENT OF THE WHOLE FIFTH GRADE (October; Little, Brown)

–if you know of a list similar to the above for any other marginalized group, do link in comments, thanks.

30*Sept–adding 8 more to the list:

  1. Monica S. Baker, FREESTYLE (July; Schiffer)
  2. Simone Bryant, FABULOUS (February; Kimani)
  3. AJ Byrd, LOSING ROMEO (November; Kimani)
  4. Nikki Carter, COOL LIKE THAT (March; Dafina)
  5. Cecil R. Cross II, NEXT SEMESTER (January; Kimani)
  6. Earl Sewell, DECISION TIME (December; Kimani)
  7. Jacquelin Thomas, SPLIT ENDS (March; Pocket)
  8. Lori Aurelia Williams, MAXINE BANKS IS GETTING MARRIED (September; Roaring Brook Press)

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Randy says:

    So great to hear of the language pursuits. Our children attended Spanish Immersion schools in Virginia and what a blessing that has been. Being fully bilingual myself it makes it rather nice to converse in a different language once in a while. Our girl plans to major in Spanish and pursue the degrees necessary to teach Spanish at the university level.

    Now on to the book recommendations. Do a google search for Side By Side Bilingual Books. They are collections of stories from different Spanish regions (Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Latin America, etc) and each book contains approx 13 or so cultural fables / stories that are translated into English. One side of the page is Spanish the other side is English. Great stories to give cultural insight and appreciation and the English translation keeps you updated as to the content.

    1. L says:

      thanks for the Google advice. will check it out.

      Your daughter’s ambitions sound great. Love that she’s so passionate about Spanish and sharing it with others. And it is wonderful you can converse with her. My German is rusty, as is that one year of High School Spanish, I have a lot of catching up to do…

  2. Marie says:

    Wow, what a great post! I love the book list and will take a look for some of these books. I was fortunate to serve on a panel with Zetta at this year’s Book Blogger Con and found her just as articulate and smart in person as in her writing.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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