It is an honor to host Irene Latham today. I first met her through her wonderful novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend, a book I coincidentally read after seeing some quilts made in that community. Her thoughts today really spoke to my writer’s heart, a heart that feels a bit wobbly in these times. I cannot wait to read Meet Miss Fancy, illustrated by John Holyfield (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers).
On Writing Across Culture
Nothing in my writing journey has been more frightening – or more fulfilling – than writing stories that carry me across culture lines. My first cross-cultural novel LEAVING GEE’S BEND was released from G.P. Putnam’s Sons back in 2010 – before the #weneeddiversevoices and #ownvoices movements began to revolutionize publishing. Still in print, it features a 10 year old African American girl in 1932 Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the story is told from her perspective. When the contract arrived on my desk, I kind of had a crisis. I wasn’t sure if I could sign it – I wasn’t sure if I wanted to face the scrutiny that I knew was coming. Had I done enough research? Had I gotten it “right”? What if people didn’t like it? As with so many crises in my life, I turned to books for help. When I found the following words in WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER PEOPLE by Julius Lester, my course was set:
“To equate identity with race and culture is to deny the power of the imagination which can be the empathic bridge between nations, cultures, and individuals. Instead of placing barriers around a culture and denying others permission to enter, we should be thankful that people from outside our group are interested, curious, want to learn, want to feel a sense of belonging with us. Cultures are not private reserves but humble offerings.”
I signed the dotted line. What followed was baptism by fire. I’ll never forget the first big presentation I gave to a group of teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, shortly after the book’s release. During the Q&A session an African American teacher I didn’t know slammed me with this question: “You’re not from Gee’s Bend. You’re not black. What gives you the right to tell this story?”
I fumbled through some sort of answer, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to say. And that taught me: be ready. Not only be ready, LEAD with the difficult thing. Put it out there front and center. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t make everyone happy. Not everyone will agree with my choices. But that’s not a reason to NOT write the stories I feel called to write.
Later, after I’d given over a hundred presentations about LEAVING GEE’S BEND, I visited a town in south Florida, where the president of the local NAACP was in attendance. After my talk, he came up to tell me he enjoyed my presentation, but he just wished, “one of our people had written it.” I honestly don’t remember what I said to him because it was such a kick in the gut. If I could go back, I’d say, “I AM one of your people.” I may not be black, I may not have experienced the exact same challenges as my main character, but I know what it feels like to want something, and not get it. To love, to hope, to feel pain and disappointment… we are all human beings, whatever the color our our skin or the country to which we were born or the religion we do or do not practice.
For those writers out there contemplating writing across culture, I encourage you to be bold, to do your research, utilize sensitivity readers, and most of all, examine your own motives. If your urge is coming from that place in your heart that won’t be denied, then proceed with your eyes wide open. No one is going to give you permission to write the story. There will always be people who disagree. But you CAN do it. My most recent book MEET MISS FANCY was released this past January, and it, too crosses cultures. Whenever I autograph that book, I write the words, “DREAM BIG.” That’s what protagonist Frank does, and that’s what we as writers and humans must do every single day. Thank you so much for reading!
Irene Latham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyds Mills, and Charlesbridge. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Bank Street College and other organizations. Visit her at irenelatham.com