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Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

IMG_1777Up again. Listening to the Lauryn Hill channel on You Tube, which reminded me of a conversation we had in Accra on Sunday night. After the closing plenary we got into two buses and headed over to a reception held at the Pan-African Writers Association; plastic chairs were set up on the lawn and under the gazebo and so we gathered there to eat, drink, discuss the conference and the next day’s trip to Elmina. Then the dj showed up and ALL the elders started to groove…even Ama Ata Aidoo was dancing! I hope my friends and I will be dancing like that when we’re seventy. It’s strange how invested we are in seeing one another succeed. When a group of us was ready to go, we headed over to the bus but couldn’t find our driver and so we stood there in the dark and somehow started talking about Lauryn. She was recently sentenced to three months in federal prison for tax evasion and we speculated on the reason why—was she too defiant in court? Was it somehow Rohan Marley’s fault? How many kids has she got—five or six? It wasn’t catty gossip; it was a genuine discussion about her well-being, a desire to see her “make it.” Of all the black women artists out there, Lauryn feels like she belongs to us. We worry about her in a way we don’t worry about the others…

IMG_1785I skipped a couple of panels on Saturday in order to have time to work on my talk, but in the end I ran out of time and never even got to The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I did talk about mental illness and family legacy, though, and since I was the first presenter I didn’t have to worry about the two blackouts that came toward the end of our panel (kudos to Cheryl Sterling who kept right on talking in the dark!). On Saturday the day ended with three amazing performances by Wura Ogunji (top), Rosamond S. King (right), and Gabrielle Civil (below). As Rosamond led us from the conference venue to the sea, I talked with Gina Athena Ulysse about activism and the future of OWWA. Later that night I tried to write about my ambivalence around activism—how can you change the world when you’re hoarding time to write? I wrote, “I don’t want to be a martyr.” My friends give far more than I do to the various causes concerned with the welfare of black women, and I have witnessed their triumphs along with the toll such projects can take on their own health and well-being. Gina assured me that there are lots of different ways to contribute to “the cause,” and each woman has to find the way that’s right for her. Writing a check doesn’t feel like activism but sometimes that kind of contribution keeps the wheels turning. This weekend I have to grade final exams and finish the revisions for this latest article. I’m not “in the trenches”—I stir the pot in my own way, but mostly I protect myself and my writing time. Is Toni Morrison an activist? The women I most admire died young—June Jordan, Audre Lorde—and I don’t want to share their fate. But can you achieve that level of greatness without taking risks? I’m risk-averse but maybe that’s something I need to work on. I’ve got the example of my daring friends before me so I guess it’s time to step out of the shadows…

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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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32085_1486219798451_7799156_nI’m not on Twitter much but on one of my recent visits I discovered a young black woman who’s doing her best to promote diversity in the Canadian children’s publishing industry. I recently had an unproductive exchange with a book festival director in Toronto so I’m very pleased to share this interview with Léonicka Valcius.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a young black woman with fabulous hair. I have many passions: some serious (social justice, economic inequality, oppression) and some frivolous (food, fashion, entertainment). I just started my career as a publishing professional and I have two commitments: to be the authors’ advocate and to promote diversity in publishing. (These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.)

As a black child growing up in Toronto, I never saw myself in Canadian books and knew nothing about opportunities in the arts. Describe your evolution from a girl who loved reading to a book blogger and publishing professional.

It was such a long, winding path. Very much a case of growing into who you were meant to be.

I am Haitian-Canadian. I was born in Montreal but grew up in Florida, and I didn’t see much of myself in books either. The sad part is I never thought to look. I have always loved historical fiction and SFF, so somewhere along the line I took it for granted that people like me were never princesses, or warriors, or explorers. It didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t realize it was a problem. I lived and went to school in a predominately white area and was used to being the only black girl in the room. In that way, the books I read reinforced that reality. Even when I wrote my own stories they featured blond-haired protagonists.

In high school and university I practically stopped reading books for fun—I had so much school reading to do! But I stayed connected to other readers by joining FictionPress.com. Though I am not much of a writer, I had been editing for my peers for years and continued to do so online. So when I hit that point where I had to decide what to do with my life, I took a look at what I was doing with my free time. Working in publishing was just the logical extension of my passions.

It’s not exactly encouraging to hear everyone screaming “publishing is dead!” when you are in publishing school. And after being surrounded by people of color at Florida Atlantic University and then University of Toronto, returning to a predominantly white environment was jarring. But I didn’t know any of that before going in. Perhaps if I had, I would have been more reticent and assumed that “people like me” didn’t belong in the industry. My ignorance worked to my benefit in this case.

I am also incredibly blessed. I was only able to afford publishing school and six months of internships because I live with my parents. I don’t pay rent. I don’t pay for food. My parents signed for my loan and covered my transportation costs when money was super tight. For people without those luxuries, getting into publishing is especially difficult (but not impossible).

Getting my job was a combination of hard work, support from my network, and divine intervention. My job is fast-paced and sometimes stressful but I love every bit of it. And how could I not? I get to share books with kids! I work for Scholastic Book Fairs Canada. I am the Junior Product Manager for their French division, Festival du Livre. I’m essentially a book buyer and marketer rolled into one. I purchase French children’s books, which are then sold in French book fairs hosted by schools across Canada, and I promote these books and the fairs through print and web marketing.

I fell into children’s publishing by accident. In fact I distinctly remember actively avoiding it. I thought it was too specialized, too idiosyncratic and that it was not the place for a beginner like me. But of course, God’s plans were greater than mine. Even though I love children’s books personally, and I loved my visit to the Scholastic offices, I still said “probably adult fiction” when people asked what type of books I wanted to work with. Then Ali McDonald, the children’s literary agent at The Rights Factory (where I had my first internship,) took me to the Festival of Trees. I’m forever in her debt.

I still try to blog here and there but I’m not nearly consistent enough to call myself a book blogger. I just try to engage with people who love books, both online and in real life.

You seem to be connected to the US children’s literature community. Compare the diversity and activism you see in the US to that in Canada. Are the challenges and/or solutions the same?

I’m only as connected as the internet allows me to be, though I am trying to learn as much as I can. Like in many industries it is useful to watch what the US is doing in terms of kidlit in order to get a heads up on upcoming trends.

Insofar as the challenge is to increase diversity in all levels of publishing (from the characters in the books, to the writers, to the people working in the pub houses) then yes, the challenges seem the same to me.

The differences emerge in visibility. The conversations about diversity in US kidlit are easy to find on various social media platforms. In Canada it seems to be considered a non-issue, especially because Canada clings to this rosy reputation for being open and multicultural. I have initiated every conversation about diversity that I’ve had in Canada. That said, there are many groups who are quietly doing the work to fix the problem.

What would you say to a black child in Toronto who has a vague interest in leading a “literary life”? 

Read! Read everything, question everything, then read some more. Use the library at your school or in your city to look for black writers who write books similar to those you already like.

And write! I’m especially fond of fanfiction because it can be a great writing exercise. You already have the foundation of a story so you can be creative. What would happen if the protagonist was black? Was a girl? Was poor? Rich? Lived in the past? Lived in the future? The possibilities really are endless.

Finally, talk to your friends about the books you read the same way you’d talk to them about a movie you saw. Sharing your ideas helps you solidify your opinions or consider another point of view.

You can follow Léonicka on Twitter (@Leonicka) and you can find her blog here.

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pulishing perspectivesSummer Edward, Caribbean children’s literature specialist, is running a series on her website called “Publishing Perspectives” and today I’m her featured guest. Summer’s first question had to do with transparency:

As a blogging author, is transparency something deliberate on your part? Or is it just sort of an inherent aspect of who Zetta Elliott is?

I’ve said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn’t just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.

You can read the entire interview here.

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It actually feels like spring here in Toronto—for once I’m not shivering through my visit, though I am wearing a hoodie I borrowed from my cousin. She’s out having Easter dinner with her in-laws so I thought I’d take a moment to blog. I’ve got way too much sugar in my system; in addition to Easter chocolate we’ve been snacking on English toffee and vintage candy from our youth, and yesterday I had the ultimate butter tart (no raisins!) at a cafe where I met African Canadian author Kelbian Noel. I’ll be posting an interview with Kelbian tomorrow to coincide with the release date of her second speculative YA novel, Sprung. Despite my sugar consumption, right now I’m feeling bitter and here’s why: Kelbian and I spent most of our time together bemoaning the difficulty of getting published while black in Canada. We also tried to develop some strategies for breaking through the color barrier, and one idea was to propose a panel to the coordinators of an established literary event. There’s an annual book festival in Toronto called Word on the Street and these are the stats they proudly share in their brochure.

images2012 Festival Demographics

  • 65% Female, 34% Male
  • 63% of our visitors have an annual household income of $50,000 and greater
  • 28.3% of our visitors have an annual household income of $100,000 and greater
  • Our visitors come from a range of age demographics (total number of visitors 215,000):

Under 17 – 18% of visitors

18-24 years – 14% of visitors

25-34 years – 20% of visitors

35-44 years – 16% of visitors

45-54 years – 13% of visitors

55+ years – 20% of visitors

  • 72% of our visitors have completed college/university
  • 33% of our visitors have completed postgraduate studies (This is up from 30.9% in 2011)
  • 73% of our visitors are from Metropolitan Toronto
  • 27% of our visitors are tourists from outside the GTA
  • 80% of our visitors describe themselves as avid readers
  • 85% of our visitors consider The Word On The Street a key cultural event

Now, close your eyes and imagine what this book festival looks like. A third of the visitors are middle-aged; the vast majority of visitors are college-educated and a third have advanced degrees; nearly two-thirds are middle class and one third of their visitors make more than a hundred grand a year. Kids account for a fifth of the visitors, but if they’re brought by these highly educated, wealthy adults, chances are they aren’t struggling with literacy. In case you don’t know the city of Toronto, let me share some other stats:

Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Toronto second, behind Miami, Florida, in its list of the world’s cities with the largest percentage of foreign-born population. Miami’s foreign-born population is dominated by those of Cuban and Latin American descent, unlike Toronto’s foreign-born population, which is not dominated by any particular ethnic group.

The 2006 census indicates 46.9% of Toronto’s population is composed of visible minorities; 1,162,630 non-Whites, or 23% of Canada’s visible minority population, live in Toronto; of this, approximately 70% are of Asian ancestry. Annually, almost half of all immigrants to Canada settle in the Greater Toronto Area. In March 2005, Statistics Canada projected that the combined visible minority proportion will comprise a majority in both Toronto and Vancouver by 2012.

  • 2006: 46.9% (South Asian: 12.0%, Chinese: 11.4%, Black 8.4%, Filipino 4.1%, Arab/West Asian: 2.6%, Latin American 2.6%, Southeast Asian 1.5%, Korean 1.4%, multiple 1.3%, not included elsewhere 1.0%, Japanese 0.5%)

Poverty is also on the rise in Toronto, with almost 25% of the population living hand to mouth:

Toronto’s poverty rates are higher than the provincial and national average. Overall, recent immigrants fare the worse with nearly half (46 per cent) in poverty. One in three children (under age 15) is living in poverty and 31 per cent of youths (15 to 24). Housing costs is the big driver, with almost 47 per cent of all tenants paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Another 23 per cent pay an astonishing 50 per cent or more on rent.

So. Let’s revisit the stats for Word on the Street. I’ve never attended or presented at this event, but feedback from attendees seems overwhelmingly positive. Yet does this literary event accurately reflect the 21st-century city of Toronto? Are they actually achieving their objectives if their attendees represent such a small (and privileged) slice of the population? Do you think their featured authors reflect and/or are likely to appeal to people of color (who make up 50% of the city’s population)?

Mission

The Word On The Street Toronto is a non-profit organization that celebrates Canadian reading and writing, and champions literacy, primarily through a free, annual outdoor festival.

Objectives

  • To ensure that the people of Toronto know about the annual festival, and value it as having the best and broadest offerings within the Canadian publishing industry.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street helps Toronto become 100% literate through its effective support for literacy awareness and programs.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street Toronto is a valuable and vital event for the Canadian publishing industry and a top choice for Canadian authors, publishers and booksellers.

Right now I’m thinking it’s not worth my time to approach the organizers of this event. I may send them an email, however, and hip them to Pop Up—a nonprofit in the UK that brings literature to communities that are too often ignored by big splashy book festivals…

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imagesIf you were at the NYPL yesterday for Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literature Salon then you know that we had a full house (all 80 seats were filled!) and people came ready to both listen and share their insights and experiences. Betsy is an expert moderator, which made it easy for those of us on the panel to share our thoughts on diversity in children’s literature. I met editor Connie Hsu for the first time, and learned about how her experience growing up in Alabama continues to influence her decisions as an editor. Connie’s aware of the importance of tradition but she’s also looking for what’s new, which is encouraging. I was *so* excited to finally meet Sofia Quintero, fierce author/filmmaker/activist and cancer survivor—I had to stop myself from reaching over to high-five her every time she made a brilliant point about the coded terms (“mainstream,” “cross-over”) used to conceal racialized power dynamics in publishing. Sofia works with Book Up and she told us about an experience taking a group of kids from the Bronx into the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. “Why are there more pictures of zombies on book covers than people of color?” After the panel ended, I met Allie Jane Bruce, a children’s librarian at Bankstreet College of Education who let me know that she works with children who are just as outraged about the lack of diversity in publishing. I’m hoping to meet those young people and hear about their strategies for creating change. During the Q&A session we revisited the issue of David Levithan’s Teen Author Festival, which continues to be overwhelmingly white despite repeated complaints. So how DO we create change?

makers_women640_mediumI watched Makers: Women Who Make America last week and at the end of the 3-hour documentary on the women’s movement found myself feeling rather blue. A couple of black feminists were included in the film and one Latina, but no Asian Americans and no American Indians. It was basically white middle-class women talking about white middle-class women. One scholar was asked to identify the movement’s limitations and she said that the feminist movement had failed to address the needs of working-class women, which has only increased the suffering of women and children living in poverty. White middle-class women have a long history of working with people of color to create change (abolition, the civil rights movement), but there have also been times when white women chose to throw people of color under the bus in order to preserve their own privilege. White middle-class women seem to dominate the children’s publishing industry, and so it was heartening to have several white women approach me after the panel to share their activism and/or to ask about where to start. When white women rise up, they’re a formidable force so I do hope we can stir them out of complacency and into action. We need more allies!

Speaking of allies, it was great to see Lyn Miller-Lachmann at yesterday’s event. Lyn is an award-winning YA author and core committee member of See What We See, the social justice advocacy group that generated a lot of interest during the panel. She’s got a new book, Rogue, coming out next month and I was thrilled to get a copy yesterday. Please support the writers who are fighting for change!

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imagesIf you’re a member of the children’s literature community then you know Betsy Bird, Fuse8 blogger and Youth Materials Specialist at the NYPL. You probably also know that Betsy runs a monthly Children’s Literature Salon and on March 2nd the focus will be on diversity (learn more here). I hope you’ll join me, Betsy, Sofia Quintero, Connie Hsu, and Jacqueline Woodson as we discuss the challenge of creating equity in the children’s publishing industry. I’ve just joined the diversity committee at my job and it’s fascinating to see firsthand how the college gathers data in order to assess the progress it has or hasn’t made in meeting its diversity goals. Why can’t the publishing industry do the same?

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