Friday, June 4, 2010

Quaintness and the challenging of stereotypes

Safiya dancing with Grandpa in Every Little Thing Will Be All Right

If we agree that 'quaintness' is an excellent vehicle in our stories (we need it, after all, to preserve our culture) when does quaintness allow itself to be overtaken by stereotyping?
In looking at this, I prefer to use my own books so that I do not appear to be critical of other people's work. I know it also allows me to promote my books. (It would be great if it translated into sales. Aah, if only!)
Stereotype 1. The heroine should have princess-like qualities. So we move from the inherited European tales towards creating our own versions of fantasy. However the princess with the long golden hair of our childhood is too often replaced by the Amerindian princess (same long hair, different colour), or to a delightful version of Africa, intricate hairstyles or wondrous head wraps. Where is our hair?

And believe me, if you want to create discomfort in a writer's workshop you just have to mention hair. OUR HAIR! I do so even now at my peril. And for those who will say, "Is all right for her to talk.... I say, "Yes, I can very much talk, because I was there for the period of colonialism just before Independence when everything we were was wrong. As they say, 'You had to be there...' and if you weren't there you have no idea how free we are now, free to develop a healthy self concept. So perhaps you will understand when I say I don't mind what styles we use to make us beautiful, as long as we are comfortable with what we really are in the first place. Consequently, it bothers me that after all this time of saying 'our children must see themselves in books', we have adults bleaching their skin, and 'everybody who is anybody' wearing hair extensions, or as one gentleman said on a recent TV talk show, 'wearing other people's hair'. (Yes, I know that other ethnic groups wear them too, especially on TV and in movies, but we are talking about us.) And actually all I want is for us to find descriptive words to replace, 'long, silky, golden ringlets', for example.

Interestingly, even before hair extensions were 'the thing' I decided to have a different heroine. She was not going to be 'black and slim', like some exotic, tropical version of a wood nymph! She was going to be herself. And so for all the little girls who are not tall and slim, and who do not have long hair, or any kind of hair that you can do much with, there is the heroine, Safiya, in Safiya and the Dance, one of the stories in the book, Every Little Thing Will Be All Right. (Carlong Publishers ). Safiya does not 'make up' for not being the slim, fabulous heroine waiting to burst on to the stage of her life, by being extremely well behaved and good. In fact, Safiya is rather willful. All her family think so. We find out about Safiya's appearance as it is contrasted to her Mummy's:

Mummy was a dancer herself, tall and slim with lovely, long ebony legs and her heavy black-as-night hair worn on top of her head in a twisted dancer's knot...

Safiya was quite different from her Mummy. Her hair could not go up on top of her head into a twisted dancer's knot. It was short and crinkly and she wore it like a soft dark brown halo around her head. Also she was short and stocky ... Safiya didn't care about that. She was still going to be a ballet dancer.

Aha! A ballet dancer, you say. And like many of my stories there is a story behind this. I knew that I was going to write about this short heroine, but never did I plan for her to want to do ballet. However, I found as I would do my evening walk, that Safiya would walk around with me, saying, "Tell my story about wanting to do ballet." And I would say, "You can't want to do ballet, your mother is a famous Afro-Caribbean dancer." Or even more frightening (cowardly), " I can't write that. It will ruin my reputation. I'm about our children finding themselves and their culture."

However in the end, Safiya got her way, and her entire family is quite taken aback as she is determined to do a ballet dance and ruin the Independence concert at school as well as the family's reputation! What happens? You'll have to read the story to see how this turns out.

What happens when we move away from stereotypes? Well, I did hear, when the book first came out, that one teacher found it challenging to read Safiya and the Dance to his class because this child was so 'out of order'. Here we see the discomfort with a character who isn't the stereotype of the 'good heroine'. Safiya is what Americans would call feisty, a word which I don't use because some of us are capitulating and using it in place of the very important Jamaican word facety. Safiya is not facety, but she is spirited.
So must the heroine in our books be the traditional stereotypical heroine? Perhaps! Children find it easier to understand things in black and white, rather than in occasional shades of grey. Or do they?

In relation to this book, while signing books at a school book fair, a parent rushed up to me, saying that she had a daughter with a debilitating disease, and she had heard that this book had very uplifting stories which her daughter would like, and moreover, that the author was also there to sign books. I was very moved, honoured and humbled, as I always am, when I discover that in this vast world of story, our stories reach out and touch somebody's heart.

Stereotype 2: Happily-ever-after endings are essential for children's books. Well there would seem to be no arguement about this. I like my adult fiction and movies to have a reasonable happily-ever-after ending.
As writers, we all have experienced characters like Safiya who are determined to write their story their way. It's another thing, however, to have the ending/resolution of the story write itself.
Jenny's Great Gran is another story in Every Little Thing Will Be All Right. This story is set in the UK, a Jamaican family of four generations living together. It is Jenny's job to walk her Great Gran around the garden every day, and of course, children, led by Cicely, the meanest girl in the school, tease her because her Great Gran won't wear her teeth and so her mouth looks ... well ... like that of an old witch, or so the children say.

It turns out that all of the women in Jenny's family have a musical talent and Jenny becomes a bit of a celebrity at school as a result. The fairy tale ending, the happily-ever-after ending is that the children stop teasing Jenny after this. And indeed that was how I wrote it; and so it stayed for a year. And then one day the real ending appeared. This is it:

Cicely says: "Jenny your family may be talented, but your Great Gran still looks like an old witch."
Jenny just laughed and replied. "Great Gran may be old now, but she wasn't always. Anyway she is my very special Great Gran. ... I bet everybody wishes they could have a Great Gran like her."
If she thought that would make any difference to Cicely, it didn't. So Jenny realized that you can't always change people's minds about things, but you can change your own, and sometimes that is enough.

Until I wrote that I did not know that Jenny felt so strongly about the appearance of her Great Gran. The clues are all there, but I didn't know. I also learnt something very important about life from Jenny that I didn't know. I hope that my young readers will also learn this very important thing from Jenny.


  1. Interesting discussion, Diane. What happens is that the writers who subvert the 'traditional' very often get misunderstood by the adult 'gatekeepers' of children literature - like the teachers and some parents. In our part of the world, the written word is still regarded as 'gospel'so many subjects from the real life experiences of the childen are not expected to be 'proper' material for children's books. This pre-supposes that the children themselves have no judgement. One could write a paper on this aspect of writing for children. Keep on listening to your characters and trust them to unearth their own truths.

  2. Children's literature is indeed a challenging genre. I wonder if all these stereotypes already exist in the mind of your young readers - or just in the mind of the writer? And that your efforts not to fall into the trap of stereotyping are in fact not necessary? Children have their own "filters," don't they? This reminds me of one children's writer who deliberately broke every stereotype...Roald Dahl!