Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Multicultural Children's Book Festival

Okay, I confess: I haven’t been doing well with the label “multicultural.” Those five syllables can make a writer feel tokenized and sidelined in the blink of a well-meaning eye. But all that changed on November 3, 2007 in our nation’s capital, when I fell back in love with the word.

The taxi whisked me from Reagan Airport to the Kennedy Center. Inside the spacious, flag-lined lobby, I was greeted, taken on a tour of the Festival venue, and guided into the theater for a sound check. All the authors scheduled to sign and read were fed (stuffed, in fact) and assigned a Kennedy Fellow as an escort. My personal TLC giver accompanied me to a signing area, toting a large bottle of icy water, a good pen or two, and more snacks to sustain me. A poster featuring my face (albeit a somewhat younger version — must update my bio photo) adorned the table, along with stacks of my books waiting expectantly to be connected to readers.

It was time. A ribbon was cut with oversized shears, music began to play, and a bevy of children and parents streamed into the large room. What a relief to be here, I thought, surrounded for once by piles of books featuring non-white protagonists. But even more intriguing were the eager eyes of children taking stock of a banquet of stories about kids like them. For once, they weren’t on the margins. For once, an entire event was about their stories. As I watched and talked and signed and listened, I realized anew the importance of providing a “multicultural” feast of literature, and gave thanks that I’m able to contribute to the spread.

I loved meeting the talented Kennedy fellows who guided us through the day, gave my best effort as I read from Rickshaw Girl in the Center’s acoustically and aesthetically perfect theater, and in short was thoroughly spoiled by the organizers’ gracious attention. The entire event was marked by professionalism and courtesy, but best of all it helped me make peace again with an overused but still desperately needed label: confound it, people, I am a multicultural author. And proud of it, too.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I went back to your Friday, November 2nd, blog and left a comment a few days ago. The topic of that blog was multi-cultural book writing and illustrating. You'll have to backtrack to read it.

It's saddening how small a percentage of minority children's and YA fiction is published in the nation each year and over the years. If only more minority-owned publishing houses would emerge and give multi-cultural writers more opportunities.

Mitali Perkins said...

I go back and forth on that issue as I wonder if "separate but equal" in the world of publishing is the ideal way to go. Some mainstream publishing houses are just beginning to respond to and anticipate the rapid browning of America. Maybe that's a hopeful sign, as is the fact that the editor of two of the National Book Award nominees is African American (Jennifer Hunt). Her ethnicity really hasn't seemed to be a big deal to the rest of the world, but it certainly was noted by those of us on the margins.

Cloudscome said...

I am glad to read about your experience. One of these days I'll attend an event like this and look for you!

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about pondering the merits and demerits of "separate but equal." However, I've noticed that more than a couple of the big houses all but ignore the existence of young Asian readers out there. They sure do use Asian illustrators for their picture books, though, but only one or two authors. Inclusion seems to be going too slowly; minority publishers would offer another avenue, though not the best.

Who are the two National Book Award nominess who have Jennifer Hunt as their editor? What a coup for her. Made me glad of hear of it.

Paula said...

If only the publishing industry knew what to do with the label multi-cultural. I wish they'd either find a way to truly market under it, so that books by authors of color flourish or get rid of it and market every single book by it's subject matter/context.

I don't mind being multi-cultural. To me, it means the characters of a book likely represents more than one single race. But what I've discovered is, the marketing will go by whatever the race of the author and/or main character is. Which then dilutes the multi-cultural aspect of the book.

Maybe they'll get it right eventually.

Pooja said...

What Paula said...

I have faith that "they'll" eventually get it right ;).

Mitali Perkins said...

Paula, you're right. The M-label is often given because of the author, not the book. But that gets odd when you push it. How M does an author have to be before s/he loses the label? Marina Budhos is half South Asian. Does that make "Ask Me No Questions" more "multicultural" than Paula Jolin's "In the Name of God"? Both feature Muslim protagonists, but Jolin is white, not just half-white (feels weird even to write that).

Or are they both M-reads because of their protagonists? Okay, then, is Traveling Pants an M-read because Carmen is half-Cuban?

Bottom Line: When it comes to getting the books in the hands of all kinds of readers, does the M-label hinder or help?

Maybe our goal should be to move the label to the readership, and hope that all of our books will appeal to a multitude of readers from every class, culture, and continent.

Mitali Perkins said...

Anonymous, editor Jennifer's two books were Sherman Alexie's Diary (winner) and Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl.

Paula said...

Mitali, so interesting to think of Traveling Pants being an M book b/c of Carmen. Goes to prove that it's definitely about the author, many (most) times.

As an argument against shelving books by ethnicity - I've often asked why James Patterson books aren't in the African American section of the bookstores. After all, Alex Delaware, the MC of one of his longest running series is African American.

As a writer of YA, I've only ever wanted my books to appeal to any reader that was touched by the story. But that's simply un-marketable. LOL

Paula said...

Mitali, so interesting to think of Traveling Pants being an M book b/c of Carmen. Goes to prove that it's definitely about the author, many (most) times.

As an argument against shelving books by ethnicity - I've often asked why James Patterson books aren't in the African American section of the bookstores. After all, Alex Delaware, the MC of one of his longest running series is African American.

As a writer of YA, I've only ever wanted my books to appeal to any reader that was touched by the story. But that's simply un-marketable. LOL

sheela-chari said...

One of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, went to great lengths to avoid being labeled as a feminist poet. She didn't like labels, she didn't see herself as a feminist poet, but a female who wrote poetry. I always think of her when I feel resistant to the label of multicultural writer. It's an uncomfortable one for me, but maybe it has to do with the fear of being marginalized. But reading your post now, it's kind of refreshing, the idea of taking back that word. Thanks for offering that!

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