Monday, November 2, 2015

Chatting with Author and Activist Zetta Elliott presenting her last book Dayshaun's Gift.

Imagine to be in Brooklyn, imagine to be 9 years old, imagine that you're going to spend saturday morning with your mum in a community garden,  imagine that for some reason you're sent back in time  and find youself in your city but 150 years earlier... do you think this is impossible? Well it's what happened to Dayshaun  in Brooklyn.  If you think magic doesn't happen in city kid's life... well you haven't read Zetta Elliott's  Daysahun's Gift, the second of a 6 serie's of city kids books. It's time to get your own copy!

When Zetta Elliott sent me Daysahaun's Gift I immediately entered the story and surprisingly found that I could read it on many levels.
First of all I too travelled in time, exactly to a small province town in north Eastern part of Italy called Ferrara where I lived for almost one year where community gardens are a vivid reality. Within the magnificent Medieval walls that surrounds the city, community garden is a urban project that promotes community allowing people to care about the environment. Acknowledging that this is happening in super modern New York City is quiet amazing and somehow comforting.

Secondly, as a parent I always tried to find ways to tell History in a more narrative way which sometimes is the only way you have to access to wider and more inclusive perspectives on events that happened in the past since History books tend to be written  just by one point of view.  Growing up as a white girl  in a country (South Africa) where racism had a legal status, I didn't know much about the History I was living from the point of view of the oppressed. But luckily I had my nanny, Sera. She was a second mother to me, who didn't just care for my daily needs entertaining me or feeding me, she made sure that I would know how was the life of black people in the country, she cared more than my biological mother making her own preoccupation to let me understand how many injustices people like her were suffering on a dialy basis. Sera used to tell me stories of her people and how they have been struggling for centuries because of their skin color (colonialism and nationalism). And hers were not just folktales, they were true stories of real people.  So I grew up knowing a part of history I was denied to know in details because I could not find it in books, not history books nor fiction.  Somehow I owe her the debt of being a storyteller myself.
Zetta's book made me think about my nanny Sera, who made me travel all the way back to the past of South Africa through stories.

Imagination. Going back in time is a wonderful excercise of the imagination. Allowing our kids how to wear wings and fly back in time and space is a great opportunity to let them grow aware that the world is multiple and that the past is where we all come from, so better know it also to try and avoid mistakes.

Magic. As a young reader I never had a particular yearning for magic, maybe because all the books of magic were set in out of space worlds where you had to meet weird creatures. But authors like Zetta Elliott made me like magic because her stories are set in the cities we live, in our exhisting world, encountering real people, something we can easily relate to and identify with. If you add that magic is paired with History, I personally find it a perfect match along with the fact that Daysahaun is a black kid and it's quiet rare to find black characters in magic stories.
I believe not only parents but educators too will have a great time sharing this story with their students thinking at how to talk about history in an appealing way.

What else should I say? That Dayshaun's Gift is definetly a transcultural book, a special quality of stories. Through his time travel he touches on many actual subjects: immigration, racial violence, refugee crisis, solidarity, empathy.

Zetta Elliott is an award winning author, educator and feminist founder of Rosetta Press, an independent publishing company which publishes books that reveal, explore and foster a black feminist vision of the world.
Zetta has published, among others, three books for young adults: A Wish after Midnight, Ship of Souls, and The Deep and sixteen books for children, three of which will be released between the end of this year and 2016.

She is a prolific blogger and co founder of the Birthday Party Pledge which encourages people to give books to children as a birthday gift chosing from a list that provides multicultural titles.  It also inspires parents to help children building their own bookshelf.

KABILIANA - Zetta, why do you feel the urgency to write city books for children? Do you find a lack of this kind of book in the traditional publishing industry in the USA?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Definitely—I don’t think there’s really anything like the City Kids series here in the US. I write about the city largely because I live in the city. I write specifically about Brooklyn because that’s my home, and there’s so much history and magic to be found in my borough. I also write about the city because in most fantasy fiction, cities are places to be avoided or escaped from—you travel through time and land someplace far away. I grew up loving stories about dragons and castles, which means I was almost always dreaming about England; the kids in those books never looked like me, their families weren’t like mine, and I was left feeling like my experience, my world just wasn’t good enough. I write about the city now so that urban kids—the kids that I work with—know that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere.

KABILIANA - Speculative fiction allows, for the wider imagination, to navigate the line of time and space without limits. What makes it so attractive to young readers?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Speculative fiction allows us to ask, “What if?” And when you are marginalized within society, and when you feel relatively powerless as a child, spec fic can create a realm where you feel empowered—for once. When a child travels through time or encounters aliens or befriends a ghost, s/he feels special—and too many kids of color don’t get to feel that way on a regular basis. Or they’re told they’re special for but negative reasons (“special ed”). Every child wants to be the hero, to save the day, to find the key that opens the magic portal. But kids of color generally have to live vicariously through the adventures of white children because that’s all they see in popular culture. In a society where a Black child can be shot dead in a park just for using his imagination (Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun—who knows what adventure he was dreaming up), spec fic can offer a safe space to test or even shatter the limits imposed on children.

KABILIANA - Magic is also one of the themes that attracts you, you wrote about magic in many of your YA and children’s books portraying black characters which is unusual in magic /fantasy genre. Your use of magic it’s used in a non-magic world. Characters and places are real and the magic element pops up to shift in time and space. Characters exist equal to others, they don’t meet super heroes or weird creatures and this makes it easy to identify with the whole story. Where does this fascination with magic come from? 

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I grew up reading books like Narnia Chronicles and The Phoenix and the Carpet, and those books left a strong impression on my imagination. I love the idea of moving between worlds, opening a portal and stepping into a realm that’s full of wonder. But I am a realist and I find it challenging to build worlds that are completely different than the one we live in now. I’m also an immigrant, so it’s easy for me to write about my own border-crossing experience; I tend to see NYC with “fresh eyes” even though I’ve been here for over 20 years. Since I love historical fiction, I prefer to recreate worlds that have already existed—and focusing on NYC history lets me educate a little while I entertain my young readers. History is often taught in a way that bores children, but adding a touch of magic can make the past exciting. I find it easier to attract young readers when they open the book and see their contemporary world reflected on the pages. Then you can ease them into a world that’s both foreign and familiar.

KABILIANA - How did Dayshaun popped up in your imagination?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Dayshaun came to me after I completed my first residency at the Weeksville Heritage Center in the spring of 2015. I wrote a picture book for them about the historic 19th-century African American community in Brooklyn, and I was finishing up The Door at the Crossroads, which is the sequel to my YA time-travel novel A Wish After Midnight. So I had a book for 4-6 year olds and I had a book for teens, but I didn’t have anything for kids in that middle age range. I already had a book for 7-10 year olds, The Phoenix on Barkley Street, and decided that Dayshaun’s Gift could fit in the City Kids series. I write about boys quite often because we know that boys of color start to fall behind in reading around Grade 3, and once they fall behind it’s very hard to catch up. I see how boys gravitate towards books that are colorful with cartoon illustrations, so I knew I wanted Dayshaun to be a quirky kid who’s thoughtful but also into zombies; he’s someone most boys can relate to, I think. Book #1 in the City Kids series involves a garden so I thought there’d be continuity with Dayshaun joining his mother at the community garden at Weeksville.

KABILIANA - I found your work transcultural in many ways. I imagine an immigrant child of nowadays who comes from difficult circumstances and finds refuge in a place like Weeksville (like the African Americans found in Weeksville during the riots in 1860s ).The refugee camp in Weeksville resembles a refugee camp of nowadays in many countries where people flee wars and droughts to find a better life. Here Dayshaun learns, through Susan and her friend Teddy, what is empathy, feeling connected with other human being who have a different experience. This made me think about the brutality which black American boys and girls are subjected on a daily basis and how important is the whole process of identification. How do educators and parents can discuss with their younger kids about social injustice without being rhetoric and with raising empathy in them?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - That was a real concern for me. I focused on racial violence and trauma in my dissertation but at the same time, I was teaching urban kids on a part-time basis. I wanted to make my research relevant to them, but I didn’t want to traumatize them further and much of the material was simply too graphic. I tend to think of Dayshaun’s Gift as a way for me to bring kids close enough to the fire for them to feel the heat and see the illumination—but they’re never at risk of getting burned. I didn’t want to put Dayshaun in the middle of a race riot; I wanted him to feel empowered, and so Susan and Teddy show him how even kids can support those in need. I don’t have children but I have nieces and nephews, and I do wonder how their parents talk to them about Black Lives Matter, or the Syrian refugee crisis, or the Central American child migrants detained here in the US. I don’t want to make children depressed or bitter, but I do want to change the understanding of terrorism here in the US  didn’t start on 9/11. Domestic terrorism has been and continues to be a major factor that shapes the lives of people of color in the US. We have to say, “Black Lives Matter” today because saying it for 400 years hasn’t changed the brutality Black people face in a white supremacist country. I hope the story resonates with kids elsewhere in the world, and I hope the book can help facilitate a conversation with kids about the conditions that create refugees and other displaced people.

KABILIANA - Susan is referred to Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African woman to earn a medical doctorate. Why did you chose Susan Steward? According to you, how many kids in NY city or in the USA know about her?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I tried teaching once—I didn’t last a week, but the middle school where I was placed was the Susan McKinney Middle School in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. I suspect that the kids who attend that school know about her, but I doubt that other children in NYC know about this amazing woman. Writing her into the book created gender balance and allowed me to talk about the specific challenges faced by Black girls and women. Susan came from a very accomplished family and her older sister was already principal of a local school, so she probably didn’t believe there were any limits she couldn’t overcome. Yet when she earned the highest grades at medical school and was named valedictorian, the school administrators asked her not to speak at graduation because of her race. She refused to step down, gave the valedictory address, and went on to do a lot for her community. Writing historical fantasy allows me to use magic to uncover buried heroines who deserve to be known and celebrated.

KABILIANA - We know that often history books are written only from one point of view and what is needed in this circular moving world is perspectives, space for the multiplicity of visions, how much fiction can contribute in filling the many gaps that history books have?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - Unfortunately, school textbooks are still viewed as the “official” record when it comes to the teaching of history. But recent controversies have shown just how biased school textbooks can be, and parents are pushing back (as in the case of enslaved Africans being referred to as “laborers”). I think multiple perspectives are crucial to destabilizing the dominant narrative. My novels won’t circulate the way textbooks do, but if a child reads my novel and questions something taught in class, then that’s enough for me. Parents can also supplement their child’s education with novels and films and websites. The main thing is to create critical thinkers who will challenge every idea placed before them.

KABILIANA - Dayshaun comes back to the present enriched and with questions he probably wouldn’t have if not for what he experienced going back to 1860s. When we talk about connecting with the past we rarely imagine it referred to a city kid living in super modern NY. How much is important for urban kids to connect with their past?  And how much a city like NY or other cities around the world could be ideal places to set a magic/fantasy story? How could they use this link in their daily life?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - NYC is FULL of history—it’s everywhere. I grew up in a city (Toronto) where I felt I couldn’t see any signs of the past, and I never believed anything magical would happen to me there. Then I came to Brooklyn and fell in love with the old brownstones and churches and massive oak trees. I could see and touch history every day! Now, as an adult, I know that there’s history—and magic—everywhere. If I went back to Toronto now, I could find what seemed invisible to me as a child. I don’t want the kids in my community to miss out on the chance to learn from the past—I want them to see themselves as shapers of and participants in history. I recently went to London for 4 days and started a new City Kids book—The Ghosts in the Castle. I don’t live in London but the story sends Zaria (from Book #1) overseas to visit family; that lets me talk about the diaspora and Caribbean migration. Everything about England seems strange to Zaria but what she wants most is to visit a castle like the ones she has read about in fairy tales. So her aunt takes her to Windsor Castle and there she encounters the ghosts of Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Prince Alemayehu who were both given as “gifts” to Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Through her encounter with them, Zaria learns about imperialism and colonization and hybridity. I’d love to write a City Kids book for every city I visit!

KABILIANA - Mr. Williams, the old man who lives in the camp, leaves Dayshaun a gift: seeds from Virginia to grow. Seeds in this story have also a metaphorical meaning. Passing a seed from an older to a younger generation means also passing the memory of the ancestor’s past. As parents, educators, writers, readers, how can we allow the past to inhabit the present of our children in an attractive way?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I think we have to make the past present—speak the names of our ancestors, talk about the places and practices that shaped us when we were young. My parents rarely talked about the past but my grandparents were avid storytellers. I love talking to elders and we need to keep seniors at the center of our communities—not on the margins. Kids can do oral histories on their own or as part of a national project like Story Corps. Community mapping allows families to look for clues in their neighborhood—cornerstones that reveal a building’s age, architectural details from another era. We have to teach our kids to think about legacy—they stand on a foundation laid by others, and others will benefit from whatever gifts they bestow upon future generations.

KABILIANA - Imagining a reader from India, South Africa, or New Zealand, how can Dayshaun’s Gift resonates with him/her?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - I identify as a Commonwealth writer so I hope my books do resonate with children in other formerly colonized countries. I think The Ghosts in the Castle will more explicitly deal with imperialism but Dayshaun’s Gift also addresses issues like divorce and urban farms, the importance of creating self-sufficient communities.

KABILIANA - What is/are your next book/s about and when will it/they be released?

ZETTA ELLIOTT - My next book is a Christmas narrative called Let the Faithful Come, which highlights the desperate yet hopeful journey of so many migrants in our contemporary world. That will be available by mid-November. Billie’s Blues is also about migration; a little girl spends time listening to blues music with her elderly neighbor and learns about the conditions that pushed so many African Americans out of the rural South and into the big cities of the North. I hope to have The Ghosts in the Castle finished in time for the winter holidays!

We hope too Zetta!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Young Readers Books on Female Genital Mutilation - Conversation with author Pat Lowery Collins

This is the second of a series of three interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Pat Lowery Collins

This week's guest is Pat Lowery Collins author of The Fattening Hut , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005

Pat Lowery Collins has been teaching Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is a writer, painter and illustrator.

Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon—and gorge on rich meals for months, until she’s heavy and round, like a good bride? Like her mother and sister before her, like all the women of her tribe. When she learns the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, Helen becomes even more defiant and confused. Lonely, scared, and feeling confined by her family, culture, and tradition, she fights for a chance to be educated, young, and free.

VALENTINA MMAKA -  When did you first encountered FGM in your life and what made you decide to write a novel for young readers?

PATO LOWERY COLLINS - I first heard of FGM from my daughter when she was a young physician.  She worked in an area where there were Somalians and other immigrants who came to her to be treated for complications from the procedure.  She also told me how in America it was grandmothers who continued the practice, often performing the cutting themselves on their grandchildren when the parents were absent.  I did not have an urgency to write about this then but only later when I learned about the fattening rooms. Some of my adult friends had teenaged children at that time who were anorexic.  I wanted to write a story about the dichotomy between our Western idea of beauty and the ideals of beauty in other cultures.  When I found that the fattening practice also included FMG, I knew I needed to address this issue as well.

VALENTINA MMAKA - FGM among other forms of child abuse and violations of human rights, is not so much seen in literature. There is a long list of anthropological/ sociological essays and memoirs, but in terms of novels, short stories and poems or plays, there's very little on a global scale. Can you reflect on the reasons of this?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It has been my experience that young adults do not want to read about this.  My book has been assigned in schools, but I don’t believe a young woman would pick it up of her own accord.  Most have not heard of FGM and do not want to think about it.

VALENTINA MMAKA - What was the feedback like from your young readership? Did you ever confronted with readers from FGM practicing communities?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I’ve had very little feedback from a young readership.  The book received wonderful reviews, and a number of adult readers have told me that it is a beautiful book and they felt the subject was handled with sensitivity.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Why according to your view Young readers do not feel like reading a story about FGM? What do you think is the idea behind not picking a certain kind of book? And would this choice be different if the reader comes from a FGM practicing country or for example from the US?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It's been my observation that young women in this country are just exploring their own sexuality and are uncomfortable with the subject of FGM.  They are not personally threatened by it and don't think any concerns about it apply to them or their world.  Perhaps FGM information should be included in their sex education classes. 

VALENTINA MMAKA - What would you like to say to our fellow writers across the world to encourage them to write about FGM to sensitize readers?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It seems to me that the subject needs to be handled delicately and presented to a young person in the presence of a trusted adult who is capable of answering their questions.  The story itself must be gripping enough to encourage someone to read it all the way through.  Perhaps it would profit from the immediacy of a more contemporary setting.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Against those who assume that we cannot write about FGM because no other than a survivor, understand what is it, what would you say? (it's just a provocative question as there are some "radical" activists who oppose people who are not from a certain culture to  speak  out about FGM). 
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I have seen a few remarks and reviews about The Fattening Hut that would suggest I don't understand the cultural context.  As far as not being able to write about it because I haven't experienced FGM, there are many things I haven't experienced such as slavery and rape, but I can be outraged by them.

VALENTINA MMAKA - As an artist, what kind of researches did you do for Fattening Hut? What did you keep in mind while writing? Did you want to convey a specific feeling towards the issue?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I read whatever I could on the subject.  Some books were very graphic and alarming; others were personal stories of living with the disfigurement.  For the setting I invented a multi-ethnic tribe that lived on an island. This was primarily because I didn’t know enough about any particular area where FGM is practiced and because I didn’t want to offend any specific race or people.  Because I saw that the island of Anguilla had the topography I needed for my story, I spent time there learning about its flora and fauna and history, which included a history of shipwrecks and the absorption of survivors into the tribal population. Although I knew FGM was accepted in many societies as a necessary rite of passage, I felt its roots were firmly set in paternalism and ignorance.  Naturally, my intent was to convey it as a highly negative practice and to show how the women of a society were often the ones who performed it and caused the practice to continue.

VALENTINA MMAKA - In your novel Helen, the main character, fights to receive and education to free herself, how much is important education in allowing children and teens to stand against bad cultural practices?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I think education is essential in teaching girls to value their bodies and themselves.  That’s why I introduced a renegade, Helen’s Aunt Margaret, to show how mentoring and support from a trusted adult is an important key. 

The Fattening Hut is another YA novel to read in schools and to add to any teen's bookshelf. 
You can find Pat Lowery Collins here

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Young Readers Books on Female Genital Mutilation - Conversation with Rita Williams Garcia #1

This is the  first  of a series of 3 interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This week's guest is Rita Williams Garcia author of No Laughter here (Amistad 2004).

No Laughter here sees  Akilah and Victoria who is from Nigeria, who happen to be best friends and whose friendship seems suddenly lost forever after a summer vacation. When school closes Victoria goes back to Nigeria to spend her holidays , this is what Akilha thinks. But the reality is different. Only after some time Akilah will know the real reason why Victoria went home that summer and why she had lost her laughter. Moving, inspiring.  It is also a courageous book because Rita Williams Garcia gives voice also to those who supports FGM or at least justify within cultural relativism. This has surely been a challenging book to write, backing the outrage for the practice and providing a space of confrontation. 

VALENTINA MMAKA - Rita you’ve wrote No laughter here, a YA novel which is about teens entering womanhood and FGM. How did you think about this story? Why Female Genital Mutilation?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Even though technically No Laughter Here is labeled as YA, it is at its heart a younger story.  I couldn’t imagine writing Akilah and Victoria as older characters once I learned most females are cut as children.  When I learned of the rite as a young woman long before No Laughter Here, I always knew I’d write about FGM.  I also knew I wasn’t ready to write it as a young twenty-something.  About a dozen years later, I attended a forum at the Sheraton in New York City on the subject.  It was hosted by author Alice Walker, who had recently written Possessing the Secret of Joy. The chapter in NLH titled “Ayodele,” meaning “joy has come home” in Yoruba, is a small shout out to Walker’s novel.  Gloria Steinem also spoken at that conference, as had a woman from South Africa, women’s health professionals and numerous activists.  I listened to them speak on the abuses and rights of women, but I heard no mention of circumcised girls or babies.  If someone spoke on those realities, I missed it.  I wanted to know more about young girls and FGM, however with a full-time job, grad school, two small children and a husband frequently away for work, the timing was wrong for me to delve deeper—and this would need time and devotion.  Maybe two or three years later I was at a baby shower where my then 8 year-old daughter developed a fast friendship with another 8 year-old who was half Nigerian.  I watched the two whisper and giggle like they’d known each other all their lives.  I remember enjoying this sight of what makes girls truly girls and just like that, it occurred to me: Not all eight year-old girls are laughing and sharing fun secrets.  I’d found my way into Akilah and Victoria’s story and I set out to tell it. The protagonists of the story are two girls friends, Akhila and Victoria. Victoria comes from a country where FGM is practiced. The time Victoria returns from holiday, spent in her own country, Nigeria,  things change between the two friends and this because Victoria underwent the ritual cut. You say she has lost her laughter.  How did you empathize with the fact that a similar experience occurred to Victoria would have brought a change in her relationship with her best friend?
True friendship between girls is a unique bond.  Friendship between two truly connected friends is long-lasting.  You share everything and constantly pour your likes, loves, hates, fears, and secrets back and forth into each other to confirm your likeness and trust.  I imagined these girls teased each other about everything and found the same things funny.  Conversely, I knew the two would rally for one another and find the same things horrific.  When Victoria no longer brings herself completely to their friendship, her one true friend, Akilah, can only feel confusion, anger, and loss.  Friendship bereavement can be profound for children, especially when coupled with confusion and unexpected change.  Although Akilah didn’t undergo the cut, she, like Victoria loses her laughter because she is missing Victoria, who has become a part of own herself.  Akilah cannot help but feel empathy for Victoria.

VALENTINA MMAKA - I found very interesting and compelling that you brought to the reader also the other side of the issue, the side of who practice FGM. So Mrs Saunders, the girls’ teacher, is sympathetic towards Victoria ‘s experience. Actually she is the only audible voice that sympathize with her experience. What was you real intention on portraying such a character? 
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Even a practice as inhumane as FGM must be understood.  We don’t have to agree but we should understand what is behind it.  To just say, “No More” or “No” doesn’t work effectively if we don’t understand why it exists on cultural, gender identity, psychological, and economic levels.  We must understand the thoughts and feelings of the people before we can suggest alternatives or even move to eradicate.  To truly be effective, teaching or mandating alternatives should align with the psychology and culture of the practicing people.   For the record, I am against the cut or any other form of ritual mutilation.  It is important to not just push my own agenda or beliefs, but to also show the reader the other point of view, or in this case, to at least strongly hint at it.  While I was writing, I didn’t believe Victoria’s family would sit down and explain it to her or to Akilah; custom trumps children’s rights and it was too personal and none of Akilah’s business (from the family’s perspective). I made use of her teacher, who’d asked the students earlier in the story how far did they travel over the summer?  In other words, “What did you see or experience that was different from your familiar?  What did you learn about the world?”  I felt Ms. Saunders would have the experience, world view and sensitivity to talk to an angry Akilah about FGM.  I also knew she’d understand that Akilah wouldn’t keep an open mind because FGM wasn’t an abstract or foreign ritual—it had profoundly and permanently harmed her friend.  Still, I had to put it out there for Akilah and the reader to consider.  If not now, perhaps later when the subject, or a similar subject appeared.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Don’t you think that FGM should be discussed out of cultural relativism and if so, how would it be the best way to do so?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - It’s hard for me to separate FGM from culture, gender and psychology.  They’re all entangled.    But as subject matter, yes, I believe FGM can be discussed beyond culture.  A willingness to have the discussion must come first, and is without a doubt, the greatest obstacle.  If there’s a gathering of interested parties, then any thoughtful and open discussion can be had.  I usually start by breaking down the terms: female, genital, and mutilation and go from there.

VALENTINA MMAKA - When the book came out did you have difficulties in being on media, in libraries, in school visits because of the topic?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Forgive me if I laugh.  The only media coverage for NLH included a few book reviews and an online discussion of whether the book was appropriate for school aged children.  One book review deemed this book about fifth graders appropriate for juniors in high school.  (Had they read the book?)  The publisher sent the book to a known feminist and anti-FGM advocate who then sent a scathing letter about how the book was filled with lies and that they (Harpercollins/Amistad) should not publish it.  Was there trouble in schools and bookstores?  You can’t have trouble if the book isn’t on the shelf.   There were order cancellations once decision-makers learned the subject matter of the book.  I’ve had a few school invitations rescinded.  If I was invited to a school to do a workshop, upon occasion I was told I could not use NLH as a basis for the workshop.  This wasn’t always the case, but I was never shocked or outraged when it happened. I knew there would be pushback and forms of censorship.  I didn’t care at the time.  The book found its allies primarily available through libraries and many librarians made displays so readers could find the book. 
What was the feedback from your young readers?
Thank goodness for young readers.  They handled the subject matter well and many were stirred to activism. My first reader was my friend’s twelve year-old daughter who went on to make FGM her seventh grade school project.  My first letter was from another twelve year-old who, after having read the book, told her mother to stop what she was doing and to read the book, so they could talk.  I’ve had letters from boys who talked about their own circumcisions.  A lot of these letters relayed personal stories that I was entrusted with.  It was huge!  They wanted more information.  At the time I kept a text file with titles of books (The Fattening Hut, No Condition is Permanent, Desert Flower, Who Fears Death), films like Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget, and web sites like Waris Dirie’s foundation.  The young readers I heard from connected with a human struggle and not with the sexually taboo subject that adults immediately associate with FGM.  I received an email from an 8th grade student who invited me to her class to talk about NLH.  I said I would come if it was all right with her teacher.  Shortly, thereafter, I was in her classroom where she shared that she had been circumcised as a baby.  She didn’t quite put the pieces together until she read NLH.  Her classroom applauded her.  A few of the boys shared stories—one, whose family was from a practicing country that fled to the US to escape FGM for his sisters.  I’ve received many letters for this book, and made a few appearances to speak about NLH, but this was the experience that had made writing No Laughter Here worth every book return.  Let me also note that I did get letters from readers who didn’t understand what the book was about.  These included a letter from a 16 year-old female, and one from two eighth grade girls. 

VALENTINA MMAKA - Why do you think publisher are not open to publish YA novels on FGM?
RITA WILLIAMS AFRICA - Publishers are reticent to publish a book on this subject for young people—teen or younger—because the market won’t bear it.  Well, so far.  I’m hoping a writer will come along and compel the market with a story on this subject that can’t be denied.  I’m hoping we can keep an open mind and care to know about the plight of people who might seem distant from us, but are not at all.  We all want the right to our own bodies, don’t we?

VALENTINA MMAKA - Sometimes authors and teachers   fear to “touch” topics like sexuality though sexuality is often misrepresented on media, tv etc…what could be the relevance of books in providing “spaces” to raise an equal dialogue?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA -Remember that for adults, FGM is an impossible subject to broach.  I am used to being met with blinders, pained faces, and covered ears, whereas children will ask questions.  Children make faces and noises, but once we start talking, they find the subject relatable in many ways.  I gauge the audience and tend to not give more than I think they can handle.  That goes for adults as well, although, adults are harder to talk to. And mention “clitoris?” Young people who might know the term will snicker or turn red, but adults flee.
A few things must be in place for schools to have a safe space to have dialogues about topics with sexual content.  The school must have the support of the community—not so easily won, but well worth it.  The discussion leader or teacher must feel comfortable in leading or guiding the discussion.  Just as people in FGM practicing countries deal with issues of shame if they try to circumvent the brutality of the ritual, people who are charged to talk about it must also deal with issues of shame and discomfort.  I believe it also boils down to consent.  No one should be forced to read my book or any other book with sensitive or sexual content.  Safe space must be a safe space, free of judgement.  By the same token, no one should be barred from reading the content or exploring it.

VALENTINA MMAKA - I spoke to many educators in different parts of the world and some told me that talking about FGM in school would raise a new form of discrimination. How would you reply to this?
I’m not sure which form of discrimination these educators refer to.  Is that if we speak on female genital mutilation, then we must also speak on foreskin circumcision performed on males?  If a discussion on male circumcision arises as a result of reading books about FGM, then let the discussion commence!  Or are they mean who can participate in the readings and discussion?  If that’s the case, make participation elective.  Offer a selection of books that speak on human rights issues to choose from.  I always knew my book was special and that it would have to find its reader.  I didn’t expect it to have meaning for everyone.  My point is that the reader who shows interest and seeks this book and wants to know about its subject matter should not be denied access.

VALENTINA MMAKA  - What can we authors do to encourage parents teachers, publishers to open their schedule  to more diverse books and topics so that young readers might be able to find mirrors and windows to quote Zetta Elliott?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - We have to recognize what our roles are.  Everyone has one or two roles to play in fostering a society that expects and includes diverse books.  Authors must do what we are primarily charged to do.  We must write good books.  Books so compelling their stories cannot be denied or hidden from view.  Publishers must stop underestimating the marketplace.  My dear friend and colleague, Coe Booth, was met with pushback from book buyers in different parts of the country because they felt their primarily white teens wouldn’t read fiction about a young black kid growing up in the Bronx (Tyrell).  Her editor from Scholastic got on the phone with these book buyers and convinced them otherwise.  Her books are doing quite well in these markets.  So, publishers must not only publish, they must push.  Parents and grandparents should simply mix it up a bit when they’re stocking their children’s home libraries.  At the heart of a book is always a story and a reader waiting to read it.  Schools are under siege.  Teachers are always digging in their own pockets to bring books in the classroom.  If schools aren’t up against financial hardships, they are dealing with time and testing.  Arts and music are scrapped from the budget and/or the schedule.  If books are next, then what are we preparing our children for?  How will they experience the inner lives of people who don’t live in their neighborhoods?  How will they experience commonality that can only come from stepping into the consciousness of another?  No solutions or suggestions here.  We just need books.  Diverse books.  Good books.

VALENTINA MMAKA - Being an activist and a writer not coming from FGM practicing communities, sometimes I had the feeling that I had to justify myself because we touch topics that do not relate to our live directly. Did you ever had a similar feeling, perception from outside?   
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Good question!  How can I not feel this?  I knew I was stepping into this territory uninvited.  I had to do it anyway.  I knew I couldn’t simply represent my own sense of outrage.  I had to know more before I began.  Not merely the factual information, but the point of view that makes such a practice vital to a people.  For this small story, I listened to women across the spectrum to try to grasp why women would perpetuate a practice that would end in death, hospitalization—if available, irreparable psychological trauma, the inability to reproduce, urinate, menstruate or to fully engage her sexuality.  Whether I agreed or not, I felt I had the responsibility to present the possibility of a different point of view.  I also thought it would be helpful and necessary to deal with attitudes between Africans and African-Americans just to have that discussion of perceptions and realities.  I grew up during a time when claiming your African heritage was vital to our struggle for identity period.  People renamed themselves, wore African prints and learned Swahili.  And then I befriended a few Africans in college and learned that I was an American.  Rude awakening, for sure, but enlightening.  But on the subject of entering this subject uninvited, an outsider with no direct personal stake in this plight, I entered as I’ve been taught to enter a place.  With respect.

No Laughter here was published first in 2004 and I believe that 11 years later it should be read and taught, now that even young readers might know more about FGM and human rights issues. 

Rita Williams Garcia is the author of several award winning novels. Known for her realistic  portrayal of teen of color, Williams Garcia's work has been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Award, Pen Norma Klein, Americal Library Association among others. 

You can find Rita Williams Garcia here

Sunday, August 18, 2013

FGM in children-YA literature

It's been three years now since I'm working intensively on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In 2011 I founded a collective of women in Cape Town where we worked at a writing project focused on human rights. It was a great experience, not only professionally but also humanly. Some of the women were immigrant from other African countries and while we were working on our schedule, one of them came to me and opened her heart sharing with me her experience of being mutilated when she was just 12. She asked me weather FGM was an issue we could eventually work on, but surely there was an obstacle: how to sare this with all the other women fo the group? She just did it, if she had shared this with me she could do it also with the others, and  after her revelation other five women (also immigrants) told their own story of mutilation. It was done! They managed to break a huge wall, the wall of fear, of prejudice. I'm sure they recognised the power of word, how imagination can lead you to unexplored places inside you and how this can generate an immense sense of consciousness which is exremely important to start making a change on something. Their change was to say NO to FGM, if not anumore for themselves but at least for their children and the future generations.
In march 2013 I came in Italy where I toured all over presenting the project and the performance which was the result of the work I've done in South Africa on FGM. It was an amazing adventure which will continue with a film documentary next year. During my stay in Italy I was automatically interested in finding a well compiled bibliography of books dedicated to chidlren and YA on this theme. Guess what? I found in Italian only one book:Il gatto dagli occhi d'oro by Silvana de Mari, a gynecologist who is also a children's book writer who wrote this book out of her experience working in Ethiopia. So I had to go around and search for other books  and found these ones.

Thank's to author Mitali Perkins I found: "No Laughter here" by Rita Williams Garcia and "The fattening hut" by Pat Lowery Collins. Then I found "Me, the Bud" by Margaret Nyarango.

No laughter  is the story  of a friendship. American Akhila and Nigerian Victoria who hold on their relationship through pain and sufference. Victoria belongs to a traditional Nigerian family which culture requires that teen girls undergo female circumcision, an horrible practice that more than 2 millions of girls in the world undergo every year.
The story is set in the USA and this reflects a very important point about how the immigrant communities  bring their customs all over the world.
Female Genital Mutilation is a tabu. According to the traditional  cultures where it is practiced, FGM is a secret no one can share with others. But once Victoria shares with Akhila what she has undergone during the summer school holidays back in her own country, beeing ill, having lost her laughter, feeling tremendous pain (in her body and in her soul),  even though it will remain a secret between the two of them, something changes in Victoria's life. On one hand she feels ashame, on the other hand someone, a part from her family, can "understand" why she can't laugh anymore. The story turns up with the two friends  who join together writing a "letter" to  raise awareness  on FGM for the  World Wide Web, so that other girls around the world who happens to have access to a computer can  reflect and start saying NO to FGM fighting for their rights.

For Educators and Parents, to know more about FGM here some books to read:

However Long The Night... by Aimee Molloy
Possessing the secret Joy by Alice Walker
Warrior mask by Alice Walker
Female Circumcision... by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf
Beyond the dance by Violet Barungi & Hilda Twongyeirve

About FGM in the past adopted in the Western as a custom

The Rape of Innocence by Patricia Robinett

In ITALIAN I can address children and parents to read this story:

Silvana de Mari - Il gatto dagli occhi d'oro - Edizioni Fanucci 2009

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


How is it possible that six children with five different faiths become friends and share their life experience in peace and harmony? Author Rukhsana Khan respond to this important question through her last book for young readers Many Windows published by Napoleon and co-written with authors Uma Krishnaswami and Elisa Carbone. The story introduces us to six linked stories of six kids who share a classroom, a teacher and a love of basketball. TJ, Natalie, Jameel, Deepa, Benjamin and Stephanie, each comes from a different faith, but in sharing their stories, they open windows into their world. What is really remarkable of this book is that each child's faith instead of being a barrier in social relationship and understanding becomes an open window on their interesting and different cultures promoting friendship, sharing and tolerance.

KABILIANA - When did you start knowing that you wanted to tell/write stories?
RUKHSANA - When I was about 13 I had a teacher who told me I should be a writer. I had never even considered it up till then, but after that I began to dream about it.

KABILIANA - How was your childhood? Did you use to read books? Which were your favorites?
RUKHSANA -My childhood was lonely and isolated. I grew up in a small town with few friends. We were the only Pakistani Muslim family in town. I loved books! I liked all kinds of books from picture books like Ping, to Nancy Drew mysteries and then historical fiction like Geoffrey Trease and Maia Wojcheschowska to action adventure and fantasy like Tolkien. I also loved the classics like Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

KABILIANA - Did you grow in a family where somebodye was telling you stories?
RUKHSANA- My father is a storyteller, although he doesn’t do so professionally. He also read to us every night from the Quran (our holy book).

KABILIANA - How did you think about writing a book whith characters of different faiths like those of Many Windows?
RUKHSANA - This was actually Elisa Carbone’s idea to write a set of stories about kids from different faiths who were friends, like the three of us.

KABILIANA - How did you involve Uma Krishnaswami and Elisa Carbone?
RUKHSANA - Uma and Elisa were on board with the project from the very beginning. It was originally going to be a much more balanced piece with each of us writing two stories. We each wrote one story of our respective religious celebrations and shopped the project around but got no interest. Then when I approached Napoleon, she agreed to publish it but being Canadian and relying on Canadian grants, she needed me to write 80% of the book because I was the only Canadian on the panel, so I took charge of the project.

KABILIANA - You are from Pakistan and raised in Canada where you currently live, how did you grow in a non muslim country? Did your faith ever caused you difficulties in friend's or other social relationships or as a writer?
RUKHSANA - Yes, many times my faith seemed like an obstacle. In fact when I wanted to become a published author I had family members tell me I’d never make it because of the way I dressed. I’ve often felt that it has closed some doors for me. And yet in other ways people have been able to see past the superficial differences and accept my stories too.

KABILIANA - Nowadays we live in multicultural societies where children of different cultures meet and attend the same school. What do you think about those countries where religion (we intend the main religion of that country for expamle Catholicism in Italy) is taught at school?
RUKHSANA -I grew up during a time when Bible stories were taught and Christmas was established as the ‘norm’. I know the feelings of alienation and imposition that some kids feel as a result of this. But we were always taught to respect them and yet maintain our own faith. I think religion can be taught in schools as long as it’s taught in a respectful but not imposing kind of way. Where children who don’t share the same religious values are not looked down upon for being different. That didn’t happen when I was growing up. I was often looked down upon for not eating pork and for having different values even though when I was very young I didn’t dress that differently. I think it’s right that schools try to accommodate the religious practices of their students of all faiths.

KABILIANA - How did your children, differently from you, live their cultural heritage in a foreign country? How is Canada nowadays in terms of understanding, tolerance and confrontation among different culturess?
RUKHSANA - All three of my daughters are grown and have decided to not only wear the Islamic head scarf but also cover their faces. They did this of course as a result of their own choice. They are even more strict in some ways, in terms of religious observance, than I am. I think Canada is pretty understanding and tolerant. I have travelled all across the country and seldom felt any sort of confrontation from other people. People tend to be very warm and friendly, although my daughters with the way they dress find it much less accommodating.

KABILIANA - Rukshana how in daily life faith can become a bridge of connection instead of being a barrier in human understanding and tolerance?
RUKHSANA -That’s easy. Most of the religions share similar values. Generosity, hospitality, honesty, etc. If people apply their religious principles in dealing with others, respect them, treating them as they would want to be treated, it’s really not very hard to get along at all. I constantly remind myself that God has given everyone freedom of choice, and He is the ultimate judge, and we will all return to Him. All I need to do is live my life to the best of my ability.

KABILIANA - In many countries around the world still millions of children don't have access to books, in some other countries fundamentalists regimes don't allow female to attend school... what can a writer do to encourage and promote literacy in those difficult realities?
RUKHSANA -I don’t think there’s much other people from other cultures can do to change literacy among females in other cultures. What needs to be done is for people from that culture to make the change. For example, the approach I would use in dealing with Muslims who don’t want to allow their girls to be educated is bring forward the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) from religious scriptures and show how this is not part of our faith. Show that all Muslims, including girls, are encouraged to become educated, and point out the historical fact that many early Muslim women were scholars of the faith, so education is encouraged.

KABILIANA - If you would have raised in Pakistan do you think you would have become a writer as well?
RUKHSANA -I doubt very much that I would have been a writer in Pakistan. My extended family circumstances are not very ‘literary’. They’re mostly tradesmen. That’s one of the reasons my father took us away from Pakistan, so he could explore educational opportunities for us in Canada.

KABILIANA - In your writings, Islam seems to be your wallpaper, how is it possible to write about universal values through a specific background without influencing the reader or without imposing the reader a specific point of view?
RUKHSANA - It hasn’t been hard at all. In writing about Muslim characters I recall my own feelings of being Muslim. Being Muslim is something I take for granted, and then I write the story, tell the story within that parameter and I often try to use aspects of being Muslim to create a bit of humour or suspense. For example, with my book Muslim Child (also published by Napoleon) when writing about the prayer I wrote about a boy who has to fart during the prayer. That’s a big deal because before we pray we have to make an ablution and if we fart or go the bathroom, it nullifies the ablution and we have to go back and wash again. So in the middle of his prayer this boy has to fart but he doesn’t want to wash up and pray again so he just squeezes and hopes nothing slips out. It’s very funny. Any kid can relate to such a dilemma, so I accomplish two tasks. I educate the reader about a major aspect of Islam and I tell a funny story at the same time. I’m not imposing anything. I’m just relating this child’s circumstances.

KABILIANA - What will you suggest to who is thinking to get involved in children's writing?
RUKHSANA -I would tell anyone thinking of being a children’s author that in some ways perseverance is more important than talent. When I was beginning there were other authors who were better than I was, but they couldn’t take the rejection. I outlasted them and now I have almost eleven books published. But after a while, talent is what separates your work from the mundane, so don’t forget to keep trying new things and working at your craft.

KABILIANA - Can you tell us at least three illustrated books or children's stories you liked in the last year?
RUKHSANA - Oh I’ve read so many, it’s hard. I really liked Mo Willem’s “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus”, Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton, and The Tale of Despereaux. By Kate di Camillo.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Living Between Cultures

This week our special guest is author Mitali Perkins who talked about her writing life and her last novel Rickshaw Girl published by Charlesbridge. Mitali attracts our attention to important issues related to life between cultures. Born in Kolkata from a Bengali family and raised in New York since she was seven, Mitali used to borrow books from the local library every week spending her time reading and reading, feeding her fantasy and creativity. At eleven she moved to California with her family and that time she was the only kid at school not born in America and the only kid who was not "white". This background inspired Mitali's writing life, her books explore and focus on the "strange place" called life between cultures.
We love her vision of stories saving lives... Mitali says that "stories have a mysterious power to help us process hard experiences and believes that "giving your kids stories, sitting side by side with them , reading them stories sometimes is a lot more effective than a face to face conversation." We believe in these words. Thank's Mitali for sharing with us.

KABILIANA - Mitali, you were born in Kolkata and raised since the age of six in the USA. What did it mean to you living in a different place from yours?
MITALI - I have learned how to make myself at home in many places, but sometimes, on harder days, no place feels like home.

KABILIANA - What did you family do to maintain your original traditions and culture alive far from home? Did they leave you a strong Bengali cultural heritage?
MITALI - Yes, we were a very traditional household, and my parents brought Bengali art, music, dance, and poetry into our home.

KABILIANA - Can you choose five adjectives to define your childhood far from India?
MITALI - Lonely, creative, rootless, inventive, private

KABILIANA - How did you start writing? And why did you chose to write for children and young readers?
Because I was lonely, I started writing as a child. And because I started writing as a child, and books helped me so much in this strange new world, I decided to write for young readers.

KABILIANA - You have a blog “Mitali’S Fire Escape”. It’s a virtual place where you discuss on multiculturalism and related issues. This name suggests that “ discussing, confronting each other, dialoguing means avoiding ignorance, misunderstanding” , is that what you intended for this space?
MITALI - I see my blog as a safe place where anyone, teens and adults alike, is welcome to chat about cultures and books and writing. It’s not a place to run away, it’s stepping out of the heat for a bit to sit and reflect and learn through good conversation and congenial company.

KABILIANA - Many migrants face big difficulties in living in a new place, job, housing, schooling etc… As identity is a process of metamorphosis, how is it possible according to your experience to create a connection between one’s original culture and the new adoptive one, dealing with daily practical issues?
MITALI - Children can creatively fuse cultures when they have a community of people nearby who are also living between cultures, and also by expanding their imagination through stories. Traveling to the culture of origin, if possible, can be a big help, as are connections with grandparents and other members of the child’s extended family.

KABILIANA - You have written several books for young readers, let’s talk about Rickshaw Girl. What inspired you setting a story in small traditional village in Bangladesh?
MITALI - My parents grew up in Bangladeshi villages.

KABILIANA - Naima, the main character, is a 12 years girl living in a traditional Bengali village with her family. She is the best alpana's painter in her village and wants to use her artistic talent to help earn money for her family. Her father is a rickshaw driver and is getting sick and tired, she wonder if she was a boy she could have helped her father. She believe she can do something, she doesn’t know how but her faith in her talent will make her succeed in her purpose. Naima it’s a strong, ambitious girl and the beginner of a new change in her family . Does this story represents what is really happening in countries like Bangladesh or India? What are the main big changes in this direction?
MITALI - Yes! This is beginning to happen in Bangladesh and India, starting in the cities in India, and in the villages of Bangladesh, thanks to organizations like Grameen.

KABILIANA - Your novel introduces us to another important theme: microfinance. We remind our readers that the founder of Microfinance , Muhammad Yunus, was awarded the Nobel Prize. From your report at the end of the book and general statistics, microfinance has more success with women in developing with success their socio economical status. How do you explain this success?
MITALI - Generally, when women earn money they are more likely to invest it into the household for the children’s sake. Also, if a woman is educated, it is more likely that her children will be educated.
KABILIANA - You frequently meet children in schools and libraries. What are their most frequent questions about diversity, living between cultures, understanding the other?
MITALI - Children are quite open to learning about different cultures. They really connect to the feeling of not fitting in — that’s what they tend to focus on. And when they get a bit older, they ask about dating and marriage since I grew up in a really strict, traditional home.

KABILIANA - What would you say to parents of mixed culture's kids and teachers to encourage their children to build a solid identity made of their full multicultural background?
MITALI - Travel if you can afford it. Invite friends in your home from many cultures. AND READ THEM STORIES!
KABILIANA - Can you list some children’s books you read in the last year you enjoyed?
MITALI - "North of Beautiful"by Justina Chen Headley (YA novel), "Amadi's Snowman" by Katia Novet Saint-Lot (picture book), "Lady Liberty"by Doreen Rappaport and Matt Tavares (nonfiction story of the Statue of Liberty, which was built by many immigrants).

KABILIANA- As a writer what would you say to a beginner writer who means to write about diversity? What to avoid and what to deepen in order to break common stereotypes?
MITALI - I would send them to browse around my blog, and to these posts in particular: “Straight Talk on Writing Race” and “Six Critical Questions To Ask About A Story”.

Mitali's new novel Secret Keeper will be issued on January by Random House .