Wednesday, July 15, 2015

About Jane Resh Thomas and Hamline University's Writing Program

This week, Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is holding its one week residency. On July 13th, Jane Resh Thomas gave a lecture there.

Based on what I read at On Kindness, On Intention, and On Anger in Children's Writers by V. Arrow, Thomas's remarks were primarily about race. As I read responses--online and privately--to what she said, I have several thoughts.
One: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest in the accurate representation of people who are not white.
Two: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest and commitment to publish writers who are not white.
Discussions on social media are evidence that people were clearly uncomfortable with what Thomas said. Was she, herself, uncomfortable as she delivered that lecture? Does she, today, feel unfairly criticized by what people are saying? Are you a white writer who agrees with what Thomas said? Do you think the criticism directed at her, today, is unfair? Mean, perhaps?

As a Native woman and mother, I ask that you set aside your feelings of discomfort. Instead, I'd like you to think about the millions of children of color, and Native children, who've read horrible things about themselves in the thousands of books that white writers have written.

Did you know, for example, that Little House on the Prairie has "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in it three times? Can you imagine how a Native child feels reading that line?

Let me tell you. A few weeks ago, a young Native boy visiting me saw that book on my table. His eyes widened and his voice rose as he said:
Is that Little House on the Prairie? I had to quit that book. 
He shook his head a bit as he talked about the Indians stealing furs. And then his voice got even louder when he said
That part where it says 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian? That's when I really had to quit that book!!!
It is for that child, and millions of other children like him, that I do the work I do on my site and in my lectures and workshops.

It is uncomfortable for writers who read criticism of their work that points out that ideas and words they've carried in their head all their lives is problematic. These ideas and words appear on the page as a norm for one of their characters. For some, having it pointed out to them generates a huge feeling of embarrassment. For others, there is a defensive reaction, too.

As I read V. Arrow's post, knowing that she was in that room as a student--that she is someone who wants to be a writer of children's books--I knew that she took a great risk in writing her post. As I read through twitter conversations about what she shared, I was glad to see established writers like Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby thanking her for that post. Later, Mary Rockcastle (the director of the program) issued this statement:
Our MFAC program at Hamline is committed to creating a truly diverse and inclusive community. Where ALL of our students can create and do their best work without the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that gets in the way.
A faculty member's words yesterday sent the absolute wrong message about how we should deal with each other's anger and pain--as a community and as a culture. It is unacceptable to deny, denigrate, minimize or otherwise deepen this pain.
Our goal is to educate each student about how this happens, how we purposefully or unintentionally get it wrong, so it does not happen again. So the community we've been building learns, grows, and prevails.
I gather that everyone was required to attend Thomas's lecture and that there were others that they could choose from. I hope that the program selects someone to deliver a required lecture each residency term--a lecture that takes up this moment at Hamline. It was one moment--one hour in a day--but it was far more than that. For Hamline, the stakes are high right now. I read tweets from people who said they were crossing Hamline off the list of writing programs they're applying to.

The stakes are high for Hamline, but they're far higher for the children and young adults who will read the books Hamline students write. It is 2015. For over one hundred years, people have been objecting to the ways that people of color and American Indians are portrayed in children's books. This is not new to me and others who have studied children's literature, but to far too many people, it is a new discussion because it is beyond the spaces they spend their time in.

Hamline can bring it into that space.

Every intervention individuals and institutions make is absolutely vital so that we all get to a point in time when all children can read books that are free of the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that intentionally, or not, denies our existence and humanity.


For further reading:

MFA vs POC, by Junot Diaz, April 30 2014
On Being a Person of Color in an MFA Program, by Justine Ireland, July 13 2015


Ann Bennett said...

Excellent post on two points.
One is the effect of negative comments on children. I saw the name of a very bright student who I loved in the paper about twenty years ago who had been sucked into a cult that formed in central Georgia. I felt that this intelligent young man's frustration with racism weakened him to be sucked into a cult. I still grieve for him.
People can't know something if they have not experienced it or have not been told. The callousness of Jane Resh Thomas' reasoning about pain was bad. A problem with academia is that intelligent people don't always get or allow feedback. Sitting around with people that agree with you is great but it doesn't do much for personal growth and in this case professional growth.

Anonymous said...

Liberals aren't really in favor of freedom of speech. If you so much as dare to tiptoe around certain issues leftists have deemed hot buttons, you can look forward to mob harassment, censorship and professional censure.

Behavior like that exhibited at Hamline is why I, a formerly liberal male, am no longer liberal. I have been lectured, shrilled and scolded away and now I will do anything in my power to support the opposition. You are not tolerant of views that differ from your own and that gives the lie to all your feel good words about diversity of thought.

kellybarnhill said...

Dear Anonymous:

"Freedom of Speech": I don't think it means what you think it means.

Freedom of speech does not freedom from criticism. Indeed, free speech requires vigorous and active criticism - otherwise it is just noise. When we use our words or our platform or our position to broadcast views that are hurtful or harmful or just plain wrong, we need to accept the fact that there will be backlash. There SHOULD be backlash. If there wasn't, it would mean that the listeners were not exercising THEIR freedom of speech, and that would be a tragedy. Freedom of speech means that we all have to put on our big boy pants and our big girl pants and take our lumps when we deserve 'em. Freedom of speech means that sometimes smart, good people will sometimes say really stupid, ignorant, poorly-thought, or hurtful things. It doesn't mean that they are bad or that we have to silence them or write them off. It DOES mean that there will be a vigorous discussion to follow. And there should be. And I think it's good that we all have the freedom to engage.

Anonymous said...

Kelly Barnhill,

"When we use our words or our platform or our position to broadcast views that are hurtful or harmful or just plain wrong."

What exactly do you call using social media platforms in the most cowardly mob attacks on an eighty year old woman who has spent the last 40 years writing books for children? I would ask you if you have no shame but the answer is obvious.

"Freedom of speech means that we all have to put on our big boy pants and our big girl pants and take our lumps when we deserve 'em"

Again, take a look in the mirror! You are grown adults engaging in a melodramatic, hysterical tantrum over the comparatively mild words of an eighty year old. You are acting like angry, spoiled little babies. Who has taken umbrage here, and over what? And against whom!?

I wish I could say that this behavior is disappointing but it's just what I've come to expect from the left.

Such courage you've displayed in your selection of targets, not to mention your methods. When you require a mob of people to attack an eighty year old children's book writer, you really know your cause is a just and righteous one. How your chest must swell with pride every time you think of the Great Wrongs you've righted here and the Great Power you've Spoke Truth to.

After the tantrums and melodrama and cascades of tears over a lecture about how we all need to stop taking terrible umbrage over everything, who really needs to put on big girl pants? Anyone involved in this outrage belongs in diapers. I didn't think I was capable of being further astounded by the cowardice of Social Justice Warriors but I've been proven wrong. This is frankly just flabbergasting.

What the hell is wrong with you and where does this come from? Where do you get the idea that this childish behavior is in any way justified? It is frankly atrocious and abominable.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 12:51,


I hit "publish" on your comment, but that was a mistake.

Comments to this site are moderated, and I generally don't let emotional, meaningless rants like yours be published, especially when they come from spaces that denigrate people (liberal or not) that are working towards a better body of children's literature for all readers.

I could delete your comment, but I generally don't do that, either, once something goes live.

So your comments are there...

You give my readers a glimpse of the obstacles ahead of us as we move to a body of literature that reflects all of us and U.S. history, with honesty and sensitivity to who these books are meant for (children).

Getting to that body of literature includes objecting to the ways that writers depict those who are 'other' to their own experience. It includes emotional reactions to those depictions.

You know... I think it was emotion that prompted Jane Resh Thomas to give that lecture in the first place. Are her emotions childish, too? When are emotions childlike? Who defines them as childlike, and why?

Change is hard, and it never happens without emotion. But--it is happening. And that, Anonymous, is a good thing.

(Note to anyone else who submits a comment like Anonymous at 12:51--I won't publish it unless it is a thoughtful engagement with the topic.)