Sunday, 23 March 2014

Seeing Ourselves in What We Read – Maeve Friel

I am a great lover of Latin American literature from Pablo Neruda to Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Junot Diaz and Julio Cortázar. 
But a few months ago, I realised that I knew no LA children´s lit writers.

So I set myself the task to read and blog about writers and illustrators of children´s books from each of the 21 countries of Latin America. Although I speak Spanish, I decided to begin with writers whose books have been translated into English. 
Reading Latin America, as I am calling my project, is turning out to be a vast undertaking.

So far, I have discovered Ana Maria Machado and Lygia Bojunga Nunes from Brazil, both winners of Hans Cristian Andersen and ALMA awards.
From Argentina, there is writer and illustrator Isol who won the 2013 ALMA (have a look out for her fold-out frieze picture book It is Very Useful to Have A Duck) and the poet Jorge Elias Luján (Doggy Slippers) who is an ALMA nominee this year. 
I have adored a funny charming memoir (When I Was a Boy, Neruda Called me Policarpo) by Chilean Poli Delano about growing up with family friend Pablo Neruda who was clearly mad as a hatter.  Edna Iturralde from Ecuador is a great and prolific writer whose Green Was My Valley is a powerful series of short stories about the indigenous peoples who live along the Amazon, the title story being a powerful wake-up call about the damage being done to the environment by oil companies.
From Cuba, I was quite shocked by the brief but hard-hitting Letters to My Mother by Teresa Cárdenas, in which an unhappy young girl writes to her dead mother about the racism and domestic abuse she suffers. 
Rigoberta Menchú who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her support of  indigenous peoples and whose father was killed in the prolonged guerrilla wars of Guatemala,  retells ancient folk tales and the creation myths of the Mayan people as told to her by her grandparents.  
Next on my agenda are Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic) and Irene Vasco (Colombia).

I have been delighted to find out along the way about the International Youth Library in Munich (how did I not know about this?) and about, an organisation dedicated to promoting and exploring world literature and children´s books in translation. GroundwoodBooks, in Toronto, is a fantastic publisher who publish high quality Latin American writers in translation and in bilingual editions.

Inevitably, my search for Latin American writers brought me up against the need to distinguish between Latin American and Latino.
There have been articles recently about the invisibility of Latino children in books published in the United States despite the fact that Latinos are a significant demographic there, and Christopher Myers has written in the New York Times about the Apartheid of Children´s Literature and the absence of black children in US books – of 2300 books last year, he says that only 93 featured black children.
When I wrote to Edna Iturralde about what she was reading as a child in Ecuador, she mentioned Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and the swashbuckling books of the Italian Emile Salgari – all books in translation, none of them with South American characters or settings, but ones which made her a reader and a writer.

I understand that there are very important issues here about The Market and what publishers think they can and cannot publish, but it got me to thinking about what I was reading as a young and voracious reader in Ireland.
I´m giving my age away here when I say that I was lapping up The Famous Five, Heidi, What Katy Did, Little Women, Treasure Island, The Bobbsey Twins, the legends of Greece and Rome, the 1001 Nights and The Secret Garden.
The only books that I remember that had an Irish setting were by Patricia Lynch, all turf cutter’s donkeys, leprechauns, washerwomen and gypsy fiddlers, which were more remote from my experience and far less appealing than the adventures of Just William or Huck Finn on the Mississippi.

The emergence of contemporary Irish children´s literature began in the 1980s with  Marita Conlon Mc Kenna´s famine-based  historical novel Under the Hawthorn Tree.
Since then there has been an unstoppable flow of Irish childrens´ writers and illustrators with huge global reach -  Drum Roll please for Oliver Jeffers, Eoin Colfer, PJ Lynch, Martin Waddell, Darren Shan, John Boyne, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Derek Landy, Siobhán Parkinson, Chris Houghton, Celine Kiernan, Niamh Sharkey, Roddy Doyle and  Malachy Doyle. (Forgive me, any Scattered Irish Authors that I have omitted here -  you are too numerous to mention.)
They write about monsters, lost hats, worried little owls, annoyed crayons, faery detectives, dystopian worlds, German concentration camps, alcoholic mothers and frustrated would-be heroines.
Few, actually hardly any, of their books have an obviously Irish setting.

If you look at the formidable shortlist for the 2014 Children´sBooks Ireland awards  (the winners will be announced in May), you will see what I mean:
The Sleeping Baobab Tree by Paula Leyden
Warp The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer
Heart Shaped by Siobhán Parkinson
Hagwitch by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
Too Many Ponies by Sheena Wilkinson
Skulduggery Pleasant Last Stand of Dead Men by Derek Landy
Mysterious Traveller, illustrated by PJ Lynch
The Day the Crayons Quit illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

These are all wonderful books which will resonate with children in Ireland and all over the world. Only two of them are set in Ireland.

So I wonder if it is that important to see yourself mirrored in what you read? 
Should a writer feel a social responsibility to write about or to represent his/her national culture or ethnicity in a particular light?
I think not. I think we writers write the stories we want to tell. And our readers can be trusted to see themselves in a duck or a Victorian puppeteer or an African child or a disgruntled beige crayon.
What do you think?
You can also find me on Facebook or follow me on twitter @MaeveFriel

Maeve Friel 


Elen C said...

I think you raise an interesting question. Of course, no writer should be forced to include their personal geography (I've never written about Wales!). However, I think no one should think that their experience 'isn't what book are about' (see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on the 'single story'). If the default of every writer is middle-class, white, Oxford, regardless of where they grew up, then the literary world is all the poorer, I think.

Elen C said...

Oh, and great reading project, by the way!

Joan Lennon said...

"Our readers can be trusted to see themselves in a duck or a Victorian puppeteer or an African child or a disgruntled beige crayon." I think they can.

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderfully wide view of writing, and what matters. THANK YOU! So often we (by which I probably mean I!) see the US & UK title lists as all the titles there are, while obviously knowing they are not. So thanks for all these interesting "new" titles and writers.

Personally, while I agree with readers seeing themselves in everything - and hooray for that - I also worry that the demands/costs of publishing means that geographically specific locations and stories are fading as "they won't sell well" outside wherever. (Have just been asked to play down a London setting in a story for a reading scheme as they need to sell as widely as possible.) But maybe I'm just grumpy.

malachy doyle said...

Thanks for including me, Maeve. I agree with Penny's concerns about the internationalisation / Americanisation of story. That's partly why I make a point of placing some of my books with Irish and Welsh publishers, who actively encourage place-specific stories.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant. I think this post needs more wide spread recognition. Going on to Twitter right now. It was impossible for me to sell my story set in Botswana here in the UK. Too place specific I was told. But its really just an adventure story set in Botswana. Don't we want to encourage children to step out? Homogenizing everything makes for a very bland taste.

Maeve said...

Hello Dianne, thank you for your comment and your tweet. Do you know Paula Leyden who was born in Kenya, brought up in Zambia and lived for many years in South Africa. She lives in Ireland now and has written two novels set in Africa - The Baobab Tree is short listed for the Children's Books Ireland awards - see main article. She is published by Walker.
By the way I have just ordered your Giraffe book which sounds wonderful.

Maeve said...

Thank you Elen, Malachy, Penny and Joan.
I too listened to that Ted talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and thoroughly agree with her that there is no single story.
Look forward to spreading more info about Latin American children's lit.