Where is Love?

 

Valentine’s Day. Eighteen instances of shootings on school properties in the first 45 days of 2018has probably sunk us all in the US today. And we all feel desperate for solutions, for answers to why this is happening so epidemically in our country. Several years ago I was onstage with a father of a young boy killed in the Sandyhook shooting. No matter where the teenage and adult audience and those of us about to speak sat on our political affiliations, we shed tears. Talk about the needless death of a six-year-old, and empathy overwhelms a place.

A dear friend at a recent conference for writers heard a panel of agents saying that a quality missing enormously in the books submitted this past year was love. There were books on anger on revenge, on sorrow, on hopelessness, but few on love.

A touching song in the musical Oliver is “Where is Love.” People feel it’s an angry time, a time to pop off at will. “Pugilistic,” commentators say, which is a fun word, but an ugly one, too.

A person told me recently that he’d accused someone of being an “ablest.” Now that was a surprisingly new label for me, who would qualify as someone being discriminated against in that terminology. I found myself thinking (ah, and not saying), “why would you feel you had to speak out and enlighten the person in that manner?” I think it’s okay to question someone if you feel he’s being unfair or prejudiced, but isn’t there a more productive way to do it?

So how do we find the love in these days of negativity and upheaval, where people think that there’s no human-made climate change, but there are usable nuclear weapons, where people can get their hands on AR15s, where on a mini scale people are bullied or subjected to put-downs? Spouses, kids, grandkids, books, music, coffee?

I find it also helps to establish some answer to a huge mystery for me—why am I here? Part of the answer for me came from an elderly priest who helped with my sister’s renewal of wedding vows. “Just do the small good you can in your circle.”

And finding people who are motivated to improve the world in some small ways for future generations—fuels and inspires me, and, on days like today, gives the love.

 

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The heart against itself

 

I think it was Lord Byron who spoke about the “heart against itself,” a phenomenon that is one of the most painful, yet profound experiences a person can undergo. That phrase captures the emotional tangle I’ve felt the past 10 days involving confronting oneself, one’s failings, one’s blind spots (a phrase I’d like to find a synonym for). The first reaction is defense, then recognition and chagrin, finally gratitude for the insight.

In the first instance I made someone mad, and she rightfully let me know it, then (wrongfully) rolled her eyes to the others in the group. “Foul!” Can’t hear those eyes rolling, unless a friend “rats” to me. So, though I wronged, I felt vindicated because of her low blow…until I felt the same impulse in me in another situation to “sin” again. Aha! Sally, face it. You’re rude.

The second instance of Sally’s heart against itself came in a manuscript review. Many know I’ve been writing (for years) a biography about a blind man who also happened to be African-American. It’s changed genres several times, and finally I thought I’d found the genre that best captures the man. Now I’ve recently cast myself as a sensitivity reader for topics and characters who are blind and Deaf-blind. Reason: so many mistakes even in award-winning books. So, though I think anyone can write about anybody, empathy doesn’t come without a lot of work. So a lovely African-American friend read the ms and forthrightly pointed out possible erroneous conclusions that could be drawn in a few situations in the book. Ah, heart against itself— “but that’s not what I meant,” and “that’s exactly what the 6 volumes of research by the African-American who devoted her life’s work to the subject said…”

How I hate to feel stupid or worse, insensitive! How 13 I still am despite all the mistakes I make! But these are the growing pains I heard about in 8th grade, but these are emotional. I just didn’t expect them to last this long!

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“Nothing But the Truth” by Avi

My husband is an adulterous reader, always having a number one book going with many runners-ups, a wife and many mistresses. As he devoured a biography of Sir Walter Scott, for instance, he had frequent sessions with a history of the gun powder plot, a children’s book from the ‘50s that told the story of the human body through the metaphor of a city and its services, and eight to ten more. He came to the end of them all with full appreciation and recall, often introducing me to brief glimpses of their more interesting parts. One of the more recent mistresses Bob had was with award-winning children’s author, Avi’s 1992 book, Nothing but the Truth. During prep for my Y.A. class, I went to bed with this wonderful book more than a few times myself. This “documentary novel” is sooooo apt for our time, though text messages would replace memos, I suppose. The book captures the penchant for so many to fail to accept personal responsibility, blame others, and welcome all authority figures around the protagonist to follow their own selfish motives. Result: failure to find positive solutions. Oh Avi, I wish everyone would read your remarkable book!

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Delightful Book Recommendation

Yesterday I ordered the newst book from one of my favorite authros, Kate Dopirak, called “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Car.”  In fact, I ordered two books, one for my grandkids and one for me.  Kate is the author of two previous picture books, every bit as delicious, “You’re My Boo” and “Snuggle Bunny.”  Both books sold quickly, so I suggest ordering ahead, and often, and in multiples.  Yay, Kate!

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Timely Art

 

All week I’ve tuned into the headlines whether consciously or unconsciously. Probably another sign of being cheap, but we claim that streaming would plant us in front of the TV every night. Our queue is 99% Academy Award nominees, and we really don’t pay attention to what’s coming. This week “Deepwater Horizon” arrived. Since the destruction of the globe is my worst nightmare, this movie in concert with the administration’s desire to open the oceans again to oil drilling made me want to climb on a rig and block drilling with my cane and vicious dog! Especially since I’d heard a radio commentary by a marine biologist who was saved from a shark by a beautiful humped-back whale.   How many blowholes have already been clogged from spills?

And then the mailbox presented the audio tape Asking for It, a YA novel by Louise O’Neill, British and ALA award-winner. The protagonist, 18-year-old Emma, the queen of the mean bees in her Irish private school, goes to a party, typical of her every weekend, but after this one, her life is never the same. Immediately I was inside the#Metoo posts, the sexual harassment stories of present-day, and sinking back into my own experiences 30-40 years ago. This very difficult book reminds us that the famous aren’t the only perpetrators, and that there is a major victim, but lots of mini ones as well. Emma says, “They are considered innocent until proven guilty; I am a liar until proven honest.”

 

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One More Thing about Sensitivity Readers

One of the tricky issues in the new phenomenon, the sensitivity reader for pre-published books, which I heartily support, is that every minority group has a multitude of opinions, just as the members of majority groups have. When my first book, Mom Can’t See Me, came out to very good reviews, 2 that were starred, my editor received a letter from a member of the National Federation of the Blind, trashing it. The letter objected to my daughter (narrator of the book) saying that “Mom probably makes more mistakes than other mothers.”

This raised holy hell with the letter-writer, despite the examples in the book of me showing competence. He denied that blind people were more mistake-prone than sighted folks. But when I was sighted, I didn’t gesture and hit penises. I didn’t hug a pilot, thinking he was my brother. So my experience suggests that seeing can result in goofs.

But only in the first few months of blindness did I worry that I wasn’t an equal citizen. As soon as I learned to be independent, I didn’t entertain any thoughts of inferiority.

I never joined the NFb or its competitor, the ACB, American Council for the Blind, though I did attend an NFB meeting once. It was the group “of” the blind, and it barred sighties. I am a sort of militant type and a couple of blind friends were NFB members, so I thought it would be the right fit for me. But as a swamped mother, I found the meeting agendaless and very social, so I didn’t think I had the time to join.

Then I learned that I did hold some different opinions from the NFB membership. For instance, at one time members claimed that though the blind can’t read print, the sighted cannot read Braille. Their point, I guess: both groups are equal. My problem, though, was that sighted people could learn to read Braille, but I could never read print again. And what was the beef anyway? We didn’t have to justify our equal place in the world.

Over the years I’ve found other small disagreements, different preferences. Some of us, yikes, even voted differently. But I’ve always valued the work of the NFB, as well as the ACB.

This is a long way to get to my recommendation that authors writing about characters with experiences other than their own do a lot of diligent work. We need to research what details can be offensive or stereotypic. We must interview a variety of people and weigh the contradictory opinions carefully.

Those of us in minority groups do have innumerable common experiences—i.e., blind people being snubbed by clerks, for instance, who ask their sighted companion, “what does she want?”

But we mustn’t forget that all groups have individual differences, varied values, and locate the commonalities. Authors may be wise to interview many voices and not just one sensitivity reader.

 

 

 

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Cultural Appropriation

 

 

 

Many people, whether in the publishing world or not, hav strong opinions about the oft-used term cultural appropriation, where members of a majority group freely express views of those in a minority group. Many feel that anyone should be able to write about anyone that interests them and that publishers are over correcting now in finding authors from particular minority groups to write their own stories. Others think publishers haven’t gone far enough.

I’ve run into this subject from both sides. As a White author, I’ve been obsessed with a project about an African-american blind musician. People on the “anyone can write about anyone” side argue that this character wasn’t just African-american and blind, he was also autistic. “So try finding a Black, blind, autistic, male author, Sally,” they joke.

In their efforts to support me, they carry the concern to the extreme and, I think, diminish the issue. At times I also find myself in the only minorities should write about their experience side.

You see, I also read books by sighted people who do not do justice to their blind subjects. And I actually don’t think agents, editors, or publishing houses are as concerned about accuracy and authenticity in their books about disability, though I can’t back this up.

Years ago, Russell Freedman, ahighly-awarded author, wrote a biography of Louis Braille called Out of the Darkness. If Russell had done even a few interviews with adventitiously blind people (those of us who lost our sight) or academics in the blindness field, he’d know that blindness is not darkness. If one experiences total sight loss, he lives in mist, not midnight. In the text Russell had a line that I would have hoped any editor would have cut, “Even though Louis lived in a world of darkness, he had a sunny disposition.” As one of my editors once wrote in a margin of my book, “Oh gag, Sally.” Guess you can’t say that to a Newbery-winner.

This year Jen Bryant just received one of the three Schneider Family Book Awards for Six Dots: The Story of Young Louis Braille. Bryant’s book is beautifully-written, beautifully-researched, with one exception. She, too, reinforces the stereotype of the darkness metaphor, saying something like, “Louis sat in the dark. “Where is the sun?’”

Obviously, Jen Bryant did meticulous research and wrote a book for children up to age 10 that is otherwise stunning. But Knopf and Bryant should have given the book to a variety of blindness experts to catch the stereotypes. Publishers are using sensitivity readers now, as are authors.  Sufficient research is usually a pretty time-consuming, daunting task, but so necessary.

 

 

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