Sunday, October 25, 2015

The "anyone can write" argument in Laura Amy Schlitz's THE HIRED GIRL

As most people in children's literature know, Laura Amy Schlitz's book, The Hired Girl, has been the focus of a great deal of discussion over the last two weeks. That discussion is primarily centered on her use of "civilized" to describe Indians, and, her depictions of Jews. The point of view in The Hired Girl is a 14 year old girl who is Roman Catholic. Her name is Joan.

Today, I am taking a look at a passage in The Hired Girl that has bearing on heated discussions of late about diversity and "who can write." Meg Rosoff's comments on Edith Campbell's Facebook page and Michael Grant's post are two recent examples of the discussions, and I think Schlitz, through her character, is chiming in, too, in the later part of her book.

David, a Jewish character in The Hired Girl, has his heart set on being a portrait painter. He doesn't want to take up a position in his father's department store. He wants to study painting in Paris. He is working on a painting of Joan of Arc, for a French woman named Madame Marechaux. A devout Catholic, Madame Marechaux wants to see Joan of Arc made into a saint and wants to hang a large painting of her at the top of her stairs in her house on Fifth Avenue in New York City. If his painting is chosen, David thinks it will help him in his dream of being a painter. He asks Joan to sit for him because he thinks her physique and her face, are like that of Joan of Arc.

Well, Madame Marechaux does not choose his painting. She chose the painting done by a French painter named LeClerq. David tells Joan (Kindle Locations 4253-4259):
“The wretched woman chose LeClerq! LeClerq, can you imagine? Of course you don’t know LeClerq, but he’s an idiot! He can’t draw, his perspective’s faulty; he couldn’t foreshorten if his life depended on it. All he does is slather on a lot of greasy impasto with a palette knife — it’s sickening; the man’s a fake, but he’s French, which makes him a god to Madame Marechaux, and he’s not a Jew —” 
“The way he carries on about religion, you’d think he was Beato Angelico. Oily little highlights everywhere; it’s enough to make you sick. Madame Marechaux said his sketches were imbued with the deepest piety. Can you imagine saying that — imbued with the deepest piety? Did you ever hear anything so pretentious in your life?”
In the first paragraph, note how LeClerq's abilities are denigrated. In the second one, his speech about his religion (Roman Catholic) is also denigrated--especially in how it informs his art. David continues (Kindle Locations 4265-4268):
She says that I’m bound to be at a disadvantage with Joan of Arc because I’m not a Roman Catholic. What does she know about it? When I’m painting, my religion is painting! I could paint Mahomet flying into the sky on a peacock, or a jackass, or whatever the hell it was. I could feel it, I swear I’d feel it, I’d be imbued with the deepest piety —”
*Two things come to mind. Muslims do not depict Muhammed. People depict him anyway, and use free speech as a defense of their decisions to depict him. What is being communicated to readers through David's words?

Is Schlitz--through her characters--pushing against the growing call for diversity of authors? I think so, and, I think it is an overt move on the part of Schlitz, her editor, and her publishing house.

What do you think?


*Update, October 25, 11:30 AM

In her Author's Note, Schlitz addressed her use of Mahomet:
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans. 
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet andMahometan. These are the words that were used at that time. 


Roger Sutton said...

Really, I though she was depicting him as your basic a-hole egotistical artist!

Beverly Slapin said...

Debbie, thank you for positing this question of whether Schlitz—through her characters—is pushing against the growing call for diversity of authors. I agree with you that it’s an overt move by her and her publisher.

When I read David’s arrogant defense of his “right” to paint anything he damn wanted to (“When I’m painting, my religion is painting! I could paint Mahomet flying into the sky on a peacock, or a jackass, or whatever the hell it was. I could feel it, I swear I’d feel it, and I’d be imbued with the deepest piety…”) two events came to mind.

One was in 2005, just before Ramadan, when a Danish newspaper published insulting and blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Over the next few years, a series of “Muhammad cartoon” publications and contests ramped up the debate between what was seen as the non-Muslim world’s freedom of speech vs. the Muslim world’s freedom of religion. Then came the Charlie Hebdo attacks, followed by Western world protests in defense of “freedom of speech.”

The other event was earlier, in 1999, when a group of nine women (including you and me) published a long critical review of Ann Rinaldi’s MY HEART IS ON THE GROUND, which had previously garnered only positive reviews. Following the publication of our essay came blowback from Rinaldi, Scholastic, and many others in the publishing world. (One of the things that especially enraged us was that Rinaldi had given her characters names that she had “found” on children’s gravestones at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.)

Back to Schlitz: In her author’s note (which reminds me of Rinaldi’s author’s note), she writes: “In THE HIRED GIRL, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as ‘Hebrew,’ ‘Mahomet,’ and ‘Mahometans.’ I used ‘Mahomet’ and ‘Mahometan’ for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century.”

This is one of those ruses I like to call “trying-to-halt-the-speeding train-of-criticism.” The reality is that Muslims never, ever referred to themselves or Islam by anything based on their prophet’s name. It’s a blasphemy. That said, according to a Muslim friend (who is a Koranic scholar), “it was the Orientalists who called Muslims in such names (‘at that time’) because they were/are ignorant, and they were trying to reduce the religion to a ‘human.’ This writer, perhaps another one.”

So, like Rinaldi, who also claimed historical accuracy, Schlitz—through her characters—adds her “right” to write whatever she damn well pleases.

vschanoes said...

I have a different reading: I would read that scene as an example of David running into actual anti-Semitism stymying his career. I think what makes it different from the problems presented by Rosoff et al is that Catholics as a class have never been oppressed or persecuted or exploited by Jews. Quite the reverse. Oppressors do not have the right, in my opinion, to assert rights over their ideology against those they have oppressed and persecuted with that very ideology. Particularly after the hundreds upon hundreds of years of conversion attempts, to discount a Jewish artist's use of Christian symbols and representations; it also, given the gatekeepers as well as the history of western art, would effectively exclude a Jewish artist from the conversations and traditions of western art. Talking about intangibles like "imbued with piety" is one way Jewish artists and writers have traditionally been excluded and rejected when their work was too good for there to be any verifiable excuse. I think reading it as an assertion of the right to write/paint anything requires that we ignore the relative positions of Jews and Catholics.

That said, maybe Schlitz and/or her editor are willing to do just that and see it that way. But I don't, given the context, and David certainly wouldn't. He should probably, to be accurate, be going on more about anti-Semitism, but the assertion of "I have no religion but my painting" was/is also a popular way for assimilated Jews to counter anti-Semitism.


Debbie Reese said...

Oh--that is interesting, Veronica. Thanks for sharing that context.

Right after that, Joan tells him:

“Oh, David,” I said, “it’s awful! It’s anti-Semitism, that’s what it is!”

The conversation moves on and they don't talk about that anymore.

Sarah said...

Thanks, Veronica.

I still don't know at all what to make of the rest of that passage, and the quote about depicting Muhammad. I agree that David is a pretty unsympathetic character, who is kind of oblivious to anyone's feelings but his own. Is this passage partly a commentary on his own prejudices? There was still an easy way that the author introduces an offensive statement (the depiction David describes) and then moves on, which brought me up short. I think the connections you draw are interesting, Debbie. I don't know that it was an intentional statement an the author's part? (Or that it wasn't.) But it did seem like another example of a place where I found myself asking why it was there and what purpose it served.

Anonymous said...

I think we're supposed to know (from knowledge we bring with us from outside the book) that depictions of Mohamed are not pious. With this knowledge, David is shown to be wrong by his own words. The passage then actually seems to support the call for diversity since it says that knowledge of craft is _not_ a substitute for knowledge of subject. ???