The news of Chinua Achebe’s death brings tears to my eyes. He was a great writer and a great man and a big influence on me as a writer and as a person who loves Africa.
The news of Chinua Achebe’s death brings tears to my eyes. He was a great writer and a great man and a big influence on me as a writer and as a person who loves Africa.
Recently, my 2 ½ year old son became very attached to a certain pair of pajamas. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that we always asked him, “Are you a racing champion?” whenever he wore them. The front bears a legend claiming “Race Champ” and a number, and the entire pajama outfit mimics a racing car driver’s uniform.
We had several tearful nights when these pajamas were too dirty to wear (admittedly, we sprayed them with Febreeze and let him wear them, smelly and stained) until my husband figured out that he would wear any pair of pajamas as long as we created a story around them.
“Do you want to be a Soldier Man?” we ask now, pulling out a pair of camouflage pajamas.
“Do you want to be a Zookeeper?” (pulling out a pair of pajamas with pictures of penguins on it).
“You want to be Rocket Man?” (pulling out a pair of pajamas with spaceships and aliens on it).
“You want to be a Rock Star?”
You get the picture. He still prefers to be a Racing Champion but he’s willing to be something else if he knows his Racing Champion pajamas are dirty and as long as there’s a story attached to the pajamas he’s forced to wear instead.
Two weeks ago, we were visiting my brother. One night, we came into his 4-year-old daughter’s room at bedtime, and my brother said, “Hey! Look at the Snow Princess!” His daughter came out preening, showing off her pajamas. In an aside, he told me, “I took a page out of your book. She never wants to wear those pajamas!” She was thrilled to wear them when they made her the Snow Princess!
I told my mom about my strategy and she laughed and told me we were mentoring our kids in narrative and storytelling. And I realized she’s right. I’m a writer—it’s only natural that I’ll use story to inspire my son. And I hope that narrative is a lifelong gift I give him, not just to wear his pajamas every night but to understand the way the world works and the people around him. He’ll be better off if he sees the world through the prism of story.
A few weeks ago, I tried to join a conversation at a party. One of the participants had recently married somebody I’ve known for a long time and I was anxious to connect with him. After about ten minutes, I realized that these two men just wanted to talk to each other. So I got up to leave. That’s when the new acquaintance said, in a half-hearted tone, “Oh, we can talk about books eventually….”
The statement stopped me short.
Up to that point, we’d had maybe fifteen minutes of interaction, not including the ten minutes I’d sat there while he and the other man ignored me to continue their conversation. So his comment, which suggested the only thing I was interested in was books, was clearly something he’d heard from his new wife—someone who has known me for years and should know me a little better than that.
I’d been reduced to one interest: “books.”
Now, I love books, I’m not going to lie. I devour books the way chocoholics devour chocolate. From our limited interaction, it is clear that this man is not interested in books, a fact made blatantly obvious not only by him but by his son, who told me books were “boooorrrrrring.”
Sadly, this man doesn’t realize that because I’m interested in books, I can talk about lots of things besides books.
The reason I’m interested in books is because I’m interested in people. I’m interested in ideas. I’m interested in other cultures, in history, in politics, in religion, in scandal, in current events, in people’s pasts, in people’s current situations, in people’s futures. I’m interested in truth. I’m interested in problems that plague humanity. I’m interested in solutions to the problems that plague humanity. I’m interested in illness and disease, science and technology, literature and history, and even (yes!) sports.
In short, I’m interested in books because I’m interested in everything and everybody.
We could have talked about a lot of things. We could have even continued to talk about what he was talking about with the other person present, if they’d been willing to include me.
I went away saddened, not just because I’d been misrepresented by someone who has known me for close to a decade (although I’m not going to lie, that burned). But the main reason I felt sad was because it was another reminder of how many people aren’t interested in ideas. They aren’t interested in other cultures, other places, other time periods, the world. Books are only one place you can find out about those things, of course. But most people who are fascinated with the world like to read. And they can and do engage with another person who is likewise fascinated with the world.
I read to my 2-year-old son every day. Some days, we only read a few books. Some days, we read thirty or forty books (I’m not kidding). This past week, he’s been fascinated with a large, practically ancient (published in 1982) anthropological book I have, Ways of the Animal Powers by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell.
“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to a map of the world showing the migration patterns of ancient peoples. So we discuss how American Indians migrated across the Bering Strait to come to the U.S.
“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to a graph that shows the evolution of primates. So we discuss how man is closely related to the chimpanzee. We look at pictures of human skulls and chimpanzee skulls, at Neanderthal skulls, at Gorilla skulls. We talk about the differences in jaw shapes, in brain shapes, as well as similarities.
No, I do not think my 2-year-old is too young to talk about these things or to be interested in history or science. He’s asking about it, after all. He’s curious. He wants to know.
“That’s Africa,” he’ll say now when he sees a map, pointing to Australia. “We live there.”
“No,” I gently correct. “We live in North America.” And I’ll point to it. “That’s where we live. But this is Africa.” I’ll point to the continent of Africa. “We’re going to visit Africa this summer. We’ll see zebras, and giraffes, and lions. We’ll visit friends. Now that’s Australia.” I’ll point to the continent of Australia. “That’s where Bec and Pete and Matthew (friends of ours) are from.”
“What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to photographs of ancient pictographs of the female form, made 15,000 years ago.
“That’s the figure of a woman,” I’ll say. “Don’t you see her stomach? And her nipples? And her thighs? What about her hair?”
Yes, we’re looking at the nude female form, carved into rock some 15,000 years ago. And talking about it.
We look at photos of modern Bushmen and their hunting practices. We look at the pictures of the Tasaday stone-age cave dwellers “discovered” in the Philippines in 1971 (which shows just how old this book is, as it was published before the controversy over whether they were a hoax or not). We look at statues and rock carvings and masks from tribal peoples around the world. We talk about what they are.
It’s a book, yes. And I’m glad he loves that book and all the many books we read together. But the reason I’m doing it is to open up the world for my son. We’ll go to some of those places together. He’ll travel to some of those places without me.
I feel sorry for children whose parents are only opening up the world of pop culture by only introducing their kids to video games, television, movies, social media, and ipads.
The riches I’m sharing with him are immeasurable. And it’s only one book. It happens to be the book he’s interested in this week. But next week, it’ll be something else. And I’ll get to explore something else with him.
A book is more than a book. What is wrong with our culture that so many people don’t realize that?
A couple weeks ago, I was on several panels in Las Vegas, first for NCTE (National Councile of Teachers of English), then for the Children’s Literature Assembly, and last for ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents). Over a few blog posts, I thought I’d offer some of my answers to the questions that panel organizers posed. These were my written answers, in advance of the actual session, so my live answers would have differed in part from these answers as I did not read my answers. But some of what appears here actually came out of my mouth, but maybe not sounding quite so smart.
This first question was from a session that seemed to have several different titles. This is the title I remember: The Place of Race: Where ‘Black Books’ Fit in a ‘White Curriculum’ . Rita Williams-Garcia and Sharon G. Flake were my co-conspirators er, um, I mean co-panelists. Lynne Alvine chaired.
Question: Although many very well-written books for young readers have been published during the past 4-5 decades, research by Arthur Appleby and others has shown that the English language arts curriculum in many American middle and high schools still relies on traditional canonized works of literature for students’ classroom reading and discussion. That means students are reading classic works from mostly male and mostly American or British writers.
And my response?
I’m an educator so I always want to know, Who are we benefitting when we ignore the many thoughtful books that don’t emerge out of the American or British canon? Are we benefiting our white students? Are we benefiting our students of color? On a purely practical level, the answer to both questions is no. If our students exclusively or primarily read books and engage in ideas that emerge from the United States or Great Britain, or from the predominantly white culture in those countries, we are not benefitting our students and we are not benefitting our country as a whole. Instead, we are deliberately cultivating a parochial outlook that will hurt us in all areas—business, science, politics, and the arts.
Recently, I heard an interview on NPR with a telecommunications businessman who said, “Look, we Europeans and Americans missed the boat. The Chinese saw the continent of Africa as a business opportunity and we didn’t. Now there are hundreds of millions of cell phone users across the continent of Africa and they are predominantly using Chinese cell phone technology.”
Why didn’t American businessmen see the continent of Africa as an opportunity? I think it’s because by and large, U.S. media presents Africa as a failure. We hear only about famine, war, and disease. And educators aren’t combating this in the classroom by introducing students to African literature, art, music, and history. At a party recently, I ended up talking with a fairly well-educated man who works in the medical field. He couldn’t understand why I would be interested in Africa. “But why?” he kept saying. “Africans are so backward! What have they ever done?” Among other things, I asked him if he knew that Africans had pioneered the technology for mobile banking. No. Nor did he care. He was more interested in reinforcing his negative perceptions about the continent.
We live in a global society. American kids can no longer afford to assume that knowledge of American culture, history, politics, and business practice is the end all be in terms of knowledge that they need to absorb in order to succeed when they finish their education and begin their careers. And the arts—books, music, theatre, and art—are the easiest way to introduce students to other ideas, other ways of life, and alternative ways of understanding the world and being in the world. So despite budget cuts suggesting that the arts are the least important aspect of education, we are still one of the most important aspects of education. The arts introduce children to cultural, political, and, yes, moral concerns that we can’t afford to neglect.
But beyond the practical reasons to expose students to the ideas, experiences, and beliefs outside of western civilization, there are compelling humanistic reasons as well.
In the early 17th century, almost four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote his famous poem, “No Man is an Island.”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Students need to be exposed to people outside of their small circles of culture, family, and friends in order to create empathy and the ability to transcend difference. Our society is diverse—we have to educate students to welcome an increasingly diverse world, whether that diverse world includes Africans, Asians, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, or others outside of the dominant cultural paradigm in the U.S.
A number of years ago, I was interviewing Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. I was writing an article about its then 30th anniversary. Now in its 37th year, Annunciation House has provided hospitality for almost four decades to immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico. Ruben was describing the changes he had seen in immigration patterns as well as American attitudes towards immigrants. In the 1980s, he said, there was a lot of sympathy toward the Salvadorans and Guatamalans who were fleeing war in their countries. Though officially, the U.S. didn’t offer these immigrants sanctuary, we did turn a blind eye, recognizing that they were political refugees. But in 1993, the Zapatista movement erupted in Chiapas, Mexico—and that changed everything. Mexican authorities worried about what it might mean if hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans joined the Zapatistas in rebellion against the government. So they started to police their southern border. As Mexico patrolled its southern border, and the refugees stopped trickling in to the U.S., the migrant worker situation in the U.S. changed as well. Mexicans, who had always crossed looking for seasonal work, began to dominate the scene. Support for the Sanctuary Movement slowly trickled away: the new immigrants weren’t fleeing war—they were fleeing hunger. So politicians in the United States created new policies to police the border. When Mexican migrants were first coming through, Garcia told me, they would come up and work for ten months and then return home for Christmas, to see the family, to make repairs on their house. As security initiatives like Operation Hold the Line made that more difficult, migrant workers made the decision to send for their families.
So starting in the 1990s, Mexican migrant workers stopped being “migrant” workers and became permanent residents, though undocumented. And with their wives and children, settlements of Latinos soon also became permanent fixtures across the southern U.S. and the Midwest. Suddenly, it wasn’t just urban areas on the coasts or border states like Texas that were faced with how to educate non-native English speakers, and people from diverse backgrounds. Now it was folks in Georgia, and Tennessee, and Michigan, and Iowa, and even as far north as Alaska, where many Mexican immigrants work the oil fields. The influx of Latino families in the United States, the ones who have settled here permanently, are due in large part to the new border policies we put in place.
This is just one example of how American demographics have changed in the last twenty years. Latinos are influencing American culture in enormous ways, notably, just recently, by voting for President Obama. Latinos are now shaping the way our country will look ten years from now, twenty years from now. This influence will only increase. The cultural paradigm which dominates the books that we tend to teach in our classroom no longer fit the current reality. We educators need to catch up. During the 20th century colonization of Africa, France transported French education in its entirety to its colonies. This meant that teachers often led their Senegalese or Algerian school children in discussions about “our forefathers” who embarked on the French Revolution. If we don’t recognize the changing cultural paradigm in the U.S., our own educational efforts may become as absurd.
Literature shows students the truth found in John Donne’s poem: No man is an island. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe (or America) is the less. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.
Some of you know that I’m currently working on a novel set in Mogadishu, Somalia. Trying to connect with the Somali immigrant community here in the U.S. has been harder than I expected. Understandably, due to privacy concerns, Somali immigrants and the organizations that service them are careful, protecting people who are vulnerable. Furthermore, the media spotlight on the Somali immigrants who have secretly left the U.S. to fight for radical Islamist army al-Shabaab (which has ties to al-Qaeda) may have contributed to the unease related to writers who have an interest in Somalis.
Thankfully, there have been two organizations that have leapt up with waving hands and said, “I’ll help! I’ll help!” One of those organizations is the Somali-run Somali Youth League of San Diego. They were great–and continue to be great! I’m planning another trip to San Diego to meet with Somali families there, perhaps in December.
The other organization that leapt up to help is based here in the Bay Area: Refugee Transitions. Because Refugee Transitions was so kind with their offer to help, I sat up and paid some attention to what they’re doing and why. I like to promote organizations doing good in the world. And Refugee Transitions is right up my alley. Instead of perpetuating dependence (all too often a problem with non-profit organizations), Refugee Transitions offers resources that help refugee families become self-sufficient in the U.S. So they focus efforts by offering classes in the English language, ways for immigrants to learn job skills, support for academics. and imparting critical cultural knowledge about life in the U.S. They provide tutoring, ESL classes, citizenship classes, summer camps for kids, and support for families–connecting them to community resources while preparing them to do it on their own.
Having spent a number of years in my life working full-time and/or volunteering in both religious and non-profit charitable organizations, let me tell you that the goal of self-sufficiency is the gold standard, a goal I completely support.
Refugee Transitions serves more than a thousand people from 43 different countries, all of this with a limited staff and a backbone of volunteers. Understandably, they are always in need of volunteers. One of their biggest needs right now is home-based and after-school tutors. They provide tutoring in Oakland, San Francisco, and the South Bay, so its likely you can help out without traveling too far.
So I want to appeal to my fellow Stanford alums and other Bay Area friends who might be willing to sacrifice a few hours a month, or one afternoon a week, to tutor. If you can’t do it, but know somebody who can, please spread the word! Click here to find out more.
I had an email from Amazon today about their new feature for authors, author ranking. While I’m not in love with being ranked (maybe I’d love it more if I were higher in the list!), I *love* *love* *love* their new geographic feature, which lets you know how many books have sold by region. I love knowing that I have a little following in Houston, Texas, for example, or that my highest sales records are in the Bay Area. (Thank you, friends in the Bay Area, and also my beloved students!)
But I’m sort of curious what other writers think about this new feature and how they plan to use it (if at all)?
Proud to have the first Spanish-language book review of That Mad Game on MSN. Now let’s hope for a review in the languages of many other nations represented in the book, such as Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, Bosnia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Chinese, and many more.
Hey, JL! When writing a novel, have you ever had a character go rogue on you and do something you didn’t expect? –Cynthia
Cynthia, great question.
One time, in the middle of writing a novel, I realized that a character was trying to poison her sister and it was a total surprise to me. However, in general, this doesn’t happen. I like the fact that there is at least one facet of my life—that is, my writing—where I can control what happens.
This is certainly not true of my real life.
For example, I recently thought I would try to control the non-existent spider and ant problem in my house. We (my husband and I) decided to take a visiting pesticides control company up on their “great deal” to eliminate spiders and ants in a quarterly non-toxic spraying program around the perimeter of our house. They sold us on their product because we have a 2-year-old and the idea of combining “poisonous spiders” with “young, curious son who likes small moving bugs especially if they have eight-legs” didn’t sit well with me.
Four months into the spraying program, we have a humongous spider and ant problem that didn’t exist before we started spraying. It’s almost as though the spraying has contributed to the problem, not that I’m accusing anybody of false advertising or of creating a bug problem or anything.
Or maybe I might be.
In fact, part of the appeal of writing, to be honest, is the fact that I decide what happens when—even if that means things get more and more awful for the hero or the heroine, at least I’m the one deciding how far to let things go. That is, I’m the God of my novels.
It is perhaps predictable, but arguably positive, that I have to admit that I am not the God of my own life.
Speaking of surprises: I am currently writing a novel that feels completely different than any other novel I’ve ever written. The publisher, who requested the book from me for a series, asked me to write a chapter by chapter outline. If you can believe it, I’ve never done that before. The great thing about writing this way is that you know what happens in each chapter—you just have to make the writing effective. The surprises in that novel are small and few, but they do add up. It’s part of what makes writing fun.