Before becoming a translator, I wrote historical fiction set in part in Chile, a country I knew from working with exiles who had fled the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s as well as with musicians inside the country who were working underground to restore democracy.
In addition to my knowledge gained from personal relationships and spending time in Chile, I read works of fiction and nonfiction by Chilean authors, in the original language and in translation.
These books were the original Own Voices, and translators were the people who made these voices available to those who didn’t speak or read Spanish.
My award-winning novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009) portrayed one of many refugee stories, past and present.
Eighteen months ago, Claudia Bedrick at Enchanted Lion gave me the opportunity to translate a book about a refugee family in Portugal fleeing a brutal dictatorship that ruled from 1926 to 1974. This family left in the mid 1960s in search of a place “where all children go to school” and ended up in Communist Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Prague Spring.
Not finding the freedom they seek in their new home, the young narrator and her mother set about creating beauty and bringing change to their corner of the world.
At a time when so many countries are closing their borders to families seeking safety and freedom, Three Balls of Wool shows how refugees and immigrants can enrich their new homes. They bring knowledge, skills, creativity, vibrant cultures, new ways of doing things.
Photos of the Portuguese and French editions from an exhibit
featuring illustrator Yara Kono at a public library
in Vila Franca de Xira, a town outside Lisbon, Portugal.
Own Voices books are authentic stories, mirrors for those who share the backgrounds and experiences, and windows for those who do not. And right now, we need authentic window books more than ever, to develop the capacity for empathy and understanding.
Through the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, Teaching for Change, and others, we are seeing more books about and by people of color, and those books are making their way into schools and onto bestseller lists.
I believe that international books in translation are the next front line in terms of diversity and Own Voices.
In times of crisis, people look to examples from the past and from other countries to offer guidance.
Set during the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, and under Communism in Eastern Europe, Three Balls of Wool offers these examples, in an authentic and age-appropriate way.
Here are some questions to think about and discuss with young readers:
What is it like to live without freedom? Why do people take risks to have freedom?
What can we learn from others forced to make the choice between staying in a bad situation or moving to places unknown where they may or may not be welcome?
How would you welcome someone from a different land, from a different culture, who speaks a different language?
How do people fit into their new home while staying true to who they are and where they come from?
How do immigrants contribute to making their new homes a better place to live?
The fact that Three Balls of Wool has been translated from another language into English offers additional educational opportunities. Students in foreign language classes, from the earliest grades on, can discuss and understand the advantages of knowing another language. Students who are bilingual can try their hand at translating a poem or a story from one language into another.
Who knows? This may turn into a valuable career one day!
When I became fluent in Spanish, and then Portuguese, it was like having a key to unlock a hidden room. Knowing these languages has allowed me to read and listen to authentic voices and to bring them to readers in English who don’t know these languages.
I hope that my translations will encourage you to explore other countries, to learn from the diverse people who live there, and to welcome their stories into your homes and classrooms.
Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.
At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum–her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.
It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.
I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.
(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there’s a difference. To clarify: I’m likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it’s also about law and political status.)
More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.
Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.
As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.
Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.
I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.
I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I’m well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
I’ll restate that:
Restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.
As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room”every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).
Watch this and, if it’s not your inherent perspective, try to do so–with your writing cap on–from a Native or POC point of view.
(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.
In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.
Ducking that content isn’t a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent–out of the past, present, and future–isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.
After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don’t make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children’s-YA literature.
So, to recap: (1) I’m well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children’s-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?
Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.
Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.
Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.
But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.
Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?
“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”
Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.
And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.
My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately….”
What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?
What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?
Or one book about Asian Americans–period? Especially since “Asian American” is an umbrella term.
Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.
Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:
we’re already publishing a half dozen dystopians…”
Here’s the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be “too similar” to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you’ll often hear talk of “getting there first” in the marketplace.
Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?
This is what I personally do with that reality:
Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.
In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.
The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.
These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).
The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.
No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a’ la “The Breakfast Club” (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).
The Feral series’ question is: “What does it mean to be human?” My answer isn’t: “Let’s check in with the all-white heroes to find out.” (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)
The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it’s a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.
Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen–the daughter of the mayor–who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”
Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.
But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.
Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)
We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)
Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.
Nifty. Green light.
Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.
I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.
The. Best. Catwoman.
Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.
She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.
She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.
There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.
As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.
So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all
that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for
permission and consult with Black author friends, too.
Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.
Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn’t wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.
I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.
What’s more, I’d have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript–Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who’d have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I’d never imagine.
I’m not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.
He and I have more in common. We’re both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.
Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I’ve met him in person in Oklahoma!
I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian”
are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn’t make me Chickasaw.
Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations
people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we’re not one
in the same.
I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.
Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we’re mentioned, the focus isn’t on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)
There’s no way I would’ve put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.
John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.
Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.
And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)
Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers–both those directly reflected by the book and those who’re not.
These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 9/11 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun’s stories with kids. He chose her as his co-author.
As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.
We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 9/11 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.
Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.
Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.
Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.
She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there’s something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”
I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong ownvoices advocate myself.
At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.
It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.
Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens.
Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.
There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling “Native” stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.
When I say “damaging,” that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there’s the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.
If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.
Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.
It’s a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that’s a critical component. It’s also persistently framed as primarily about white writers’ fear and failures.
As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions
and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.
As if diverse writers can’t stretch to successfully write across identity elements like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise.
As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That’s taking the idea that this isn’t all about them and responding with, “But wait, what about them?”
Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of “which ideas are right for me?” is something every writer must consider.
By the way, even when you’re writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I’ve consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.
When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.
The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.
We must strive to create the best books for all kids.
Moreover, the same embedded patterns that (for example) consistently privilege White voices over those of Indigenous peoples and Peoples of Colour will also work to privilege outsider voices over insider ones, at least to some degree.
The insider voices, of those fully aware of the great complexities and contradictions of insider existence, will always be more difficult to read and less likely to conform to outsider expectations as to the lives and stories of ‘Others’.
Insider stories can therefore be read as less ‘true’ or trap an insider author in a familiar double-bind – if we write of some of the bleaker aspect of our existence we’re told we’re writing ‘issues’ books; if we don’t we’re accused of inauthenticity.
I would like to think that as an Indigenous woman, I have some insight into marginalisation not my own. I have always thought that any experience of injustice should always increase our empathy and push us towards a greater understanding of injustice in other contexts.
But that does not mean my experiences equate to that of other peoples.
In an Australian context, I have said that I do not believe non-Indigenous authors should be writing Indigenous characters from first person perspective or deep third, because I don’t think a privilege problem can be solved by writers of privilege speaking in the voices of the marginalised.
And I apply the same limitation to myself in relation to experiences and identities not my own.
But between the thought and the action must come the process by which I determine if I am really helping at all.
So I ask myself, is the story mine to tell? The answer is no, of course; their stories are their own and their pain is not my source material.
The only way in which I would write from someone else’s perspective is in equitable partnership with someone from that group (where copyright, royalties and credit are shared).
This would not necessarily mean we each wrote half a novel. The other person may not write a word; their contribution could be in opening a window onto insider existence and correcting the mistakes an outsider inevitably makes.
I’ve had people tell me that this is the job of a sensitivity reader. But I am cautious about the boundaries of that relationship because I think there are cases where the input of an insider advisor infuses the narrative to such a degree that they are really a co-author and should be treated as such.
I don’t think the question is who wrote what words, but whether the story could have been told at all but for the contribution of the insider.
Someone once told me that I was restricting myself as a storyteller. I don’t believe I am.
I am acknowledging boundaries, but boundaries do not necessarily limit or restrict. Boundaries can define a safe operating space, for myself and for others, and respect for individual and collective boundaries is part and parcel of acknowledging the inherent dignity of all human beings.
I have begun co-writing a speculative fiction YA novel that is told from the perspectives of two girls: one Chinese, and one Indigenous. I am writing the Indigenous girl, and Chinese-Australian author Rebecca Lim is writing the Chinese girl.
The original idea for the story was Rebecca’s, but already it is changing as we each negotiate our own identities and experiences.
This is not a story that is restricted by boundaries; it is one that would not exist without them. In the writing of it, Rebecca and I are creating something that is greater than the sum of both of us – and in such stories, I see the future.