Wednesday, March 28, 2018

I is for Inclusion

We're celebrating Women's History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community.
Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen.
Thanks to Grace Lin for welcoming me to contribute on gender equity in kidlit. My contribution to the conversation: seven suggestions that I hope will help create a more inclusive and comfortable atmosphere before, during, and after author visits/events:

1. Invite diverse speakers because you believe in them, not because others have decided they're stars.

Not long ago, I was uninvited to give a keynote. Yes, you read right - uninvited.

Writing about this terrifies me, because although I'm speaking in general terms, I fear someone will get upset or angry and then I'll be made to pay for mentioning it. But others have had the courage to speak out this month, and though I'm afraid of what may happen, I've decided it's important to share this incident, especially because many people assume that thanks to the marvelous work done by We Need Diverse Books, this sort of thing no longer happens.

Sometime back, I received an email saying 'our conference theme is diversity, are you free to give a keynote address'?  Yes, I said and planned my travel. Much later, I got another email that said, 'Sorry, but the committee decided instead to invite XXX' (a straight white male who does not, I believe, have a disability). Although I'd been demoted I was asked if I might do a workshop, and I decided to attend, especially as I'd by then arranged for other events in the area. When I arrived, I discovered that, like a log afloat on foam, I was the only brown face in a sea of white. Did I say the conference theme was diversity?

I fully admit there was a misunderstanding. I assumed the first email was an invitation (because usually when someone asks if I'm free to give a keynote, it means they want me to do it). The author who did give the keynote address is someone whose work I respect, he is extremely well known, has won several of "the most important" awards etc. So I was expected to understand and accept the uninvitation with grace, which I like to think I did. But the incident left me thinking.

I've been invited to give keynotes by people who believed in my work, and didn't care about the level of success I had or hadn't achieved. I've also been told, by others, that they "wished" they could someday invite me, by which they mean, if you achieve this or that, then, (and only then), you'll be invited.

As anyone who has followed the posts published this month will acknowledge, there are several inequities in our kidlit world. And, in my opinion, there are plenty of brilliant authors who are also marvelous speakers; who, for one reason or another haven't yet - and may never - get "the" sales/fame/awards. Why not go ahead and invite, highlight, celebrate and showcase dedicated authors whose work you love,admire and respect, but who haven't necessarily received "the" level of attention? This won't give conference attendees and organizers the same level of bragging rights (no guess-whom-I-rubbed-shoulders-with-last-night post-conference blog posts). But if you love a famous author as much as an unknown, why not treat them equally well?

After all, money is often tight. But maybe instead of withholding income from "lesser" names, or, as is unfortunately too often the case asking brilliant non-male authors to contribute time pro-bono because they haven't received immense material success, conference organizers might consider inviting fewer celebrities and spreading the wealth more evenly, by shining the spotlight on some authors who've written wonderful books for years but whose names are not immediately recognized?

2. Involve us initially as well as finally.

It's one thing to invite a "diverse" speaker (or, better still, many such speakers). It's another - and equally important thing  - to involve diverse people when planning an event.

3. Introduce us the way we'd like, please?

Before a talk, teachers usually introduce me as Padma. Although, for the most part, I don't care about titles, when I'm visiting schools, I like to have students address me as 'Dr. Venkatraman' - and yes, they can pronounce my name, it's not that hard!

Why 'doctor'? Because then, they're acknowledging that a woman of color could be a scientist as well as an author. And unfortunately, even today, students generally assume that a "scientist" or a "Dr." must be a white male.  Often, we make assumptions about gender and so much else, as soon as we're introduced to someone. It might help a little if, when an author visits, you ask what they feel is important to emphasize (or de-emphasize) when you introduce them, as well as how they'd like to be addressed (titles and pronouns)?

4. Inquire (without condescension, if possible).

After a talk, ask questions. Ask plenty of questions. But do try, and encourage students to try, to word questions thoughtfully.

I love to help people understand my background, even when adults ask questions like "Is it true Hindus burn widows?" or "Why is your culture so primitive that it treats women like dirt?" I'd rather be asked questions than have someone remain silent because they're scared they'll say something inadvertently insensitive. 

But of course, I prefer questions that aren't phrased offensively. One way to avoid this, especially when preparing students to meet authors from a 'different' cultural/ethnic background, is to try and avoid other-ing them. For example, if you are studying a book that shows gender violence in another country, rather than focus merely on this 'strange' culture in which such cruelty is perpetrated, spend at least a wee bit of time reflecting on gender inequities that remain/continue in our own time and place. And, spend time researching, to show that this culture has, as indeed every culture has, led the world in some way, at some point.

It might also be worth pointing out the obvious: within every culture, at every time, there are instances of power abuse; there are also, always, everywhere, people who are inclusive and compassionate. Understanding and acceptance aren't 'modern' values, although they do wax and wane, and are more obvious or blatant, perhaps, during certain periods in certain cultures. And if your students do end up asking awkward questions - that's fine. We're here for them. Any question is better than no question.

5. Include as many as possible in conversation.

Usually, we (author colleagues) gather together in happy clutches at events. But I've also witnessed (and probably sometimes caused) exclusion. Try not to shut out anyone, either through body language or through conversation topics that they can't relate to.

Our conversations reflect our assumptions; our assumptions reflect our privileges. Once, a group of authors (of whom I was part), discussed labor and having a biological child in the presence of a mother who'd adopted a child and statements were made that suggested that biological mothers were "real mothers." I'm not saying you mustn't converse about religion or politics or your private life or your successes and failures. Just, if you see someone feeling left out, try and reach out?

6. Indulge yourself less, and have the courage to shut up sometimes so others can talk.  

Recently, author Jacqueline Davies offered to step down from a panel to create a space for a more diverse voice. I'm not advocating that one should or shouldn't do this or that based on who you feel you are - but I'd like to say that I hope I have it in me to be as generous as Davies when I'm in a position of privilege (because we are all, at one point or another, in positions of privilege).

7. Individuals come together to form groups; please respect and recognize our unique voices.

I've been mistaken for other Indian-American authors. We do all have black hair (or mostly black, I've spotted a couple of not-so-black ones sprouting on my head recently). If you're one of those who called me Jhumpa Lahiri, don't worry, I love pretending I won the Pulitzer. But I don't think we look alike.

Nor do we all, within a given group, share the same views. Not having grown up in this country, having an accent that clearly delineates me as 'alien' and being a first-generation immigrant - all this gives rise to barriers  - and so my experience differs from authors who grew up in the United States but who're also South Asian.  

Adding diversity to your conference (or bookshelf) doesn't mean just having one author from each "category" you can think of. It means listening to - and learning about - and loving - individual voices, which differ within race, within gender, within every label that can be used to group people.


Pam said...

Wow! I mean, WOW!! This so on the nose. It is what so many think, but have never said outloud. In public. To our own kidlit community. Proud of your bravery. Grateful for your service. I love this!

Pat Collins said...

This is such an important and sensible post, Padma. You make such excellent points.

Padma Venkatraman said...

Thanks so much, Pam and Pat!