Getting Down. Getting Over.

I’m beginning to feel like a one trick pony once again writing about When We Was Fierce. There’s just a little more to say on this front. And, this morning my head was filling with thoughts for several new posts, a possible new series and the idea that I really need to get back to interviewing authors. Know that I do have an entire repertoire in me; I am not obsessing.

Every now and then I do a little searching on Bing to see if perhaps Candlewick has said anything, come to any decision about the book. Will they just let it fade into the sunset? Will there be no other statement from them or the author? In my searching, I’ve run across stories about the postponement of the book in both French and Swedish newspapers with both papers containing information from different sources. Just prior to that, London’s Guardian ran an article about the postponement as well. In Australia, author Ambelin Kwaymullina recapped the events leading to the postponement relating them to the Australian literary industry.

This conversation should not be ignored by any Australian writer with aspirations to being published in the US, especially since we do not – yet – have the dedicated cyber-spaces in Australia that will critically examine representation issues.  This means books that are not challenged (at least not in publicly available discussions) in an Australian context may well be challenged in the States. Second, I believe that many Australian authors who write to experiences of exclusion not their own are doing so out of a genuine desire to support marginalised peoples. But I also believe that most authors lack the necessary knowledge to manifest that intent into reality – and in the absence of such knowledge, authors are all too likely to produce narratives that do the exact opposite of what they intended to achieve. Thus, an understanding of the twenty first century diversity conversation is essential knowledge for any author seeking to write of others with integrity and respect.

I know that the struggle to improve representation of marginalized children in books in the US goes back to 1933 when Sterling Brown first critiqued images portraying African American children in literature. I know that there are people alive who have spent most of their adult life trying to improve this representation. I know that racism, bigotry and misrepresentation are global issues but, I did not realize that the United States was being watched by so many regarding its diversity in children’s literature, that we’re on the precipice of global change. It’s been so bad here for so long that I’d like to believe that some other country is getting it right.

You may remember that Dr. Sonia Rodriquez called out the Latinx community, asking what WWWF meant for Latinx kids. Well, last week, Latinas Chat Media discussed The Getdown and When We Was Fierce. They definitely took the discussion to the next level, assessing how we sometimes give members of our own community a pass when they really ought to be called to task. Or should they? Should their artistry speak for itself, or should the offensive nature of their work be called to question? Should we do that to our own? Their discussion illustrates the complexity of the topic of critically reviewing books.

Their chat actually began with a critique of the Getdown, a new Netflix series set in the Bronx in 1977. The mini-series is a coming of age story of Mylene, Zeke and hip hop in terms of its art, music and language. This Afro-Latinx story was created by Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, neither of whom is Afro-Latinx. I’d seen the series on Netflix but not until I heard it discussed during this chat did I consider watching it. And, I’m glad I did. Luhhrmann and Guirgis manage to deliver a story that does what When We Were Fierce could not. Their Bronx is a community with violence, not a violent community. While Zeke, Mylene and Shaolin all have choices to make the film fully explores their options within their own community. It is literally burning throughout the series but the characters repeatedly find reason to embrace it and call it home. And the language? The language in the songs, the graffiti and the poetry is hiphop. While WWWF attempted to be lyrical with made up words, The Getdown achieves it through lighting, syncopated music and a certain Kung Fu quality. While many of these elements are not available in printed text (OK, none of them are!) both formats begin with words. Words are transformative.

4 thoughts on “Getting Down. Getting Over.

  1. Based on my experience as a translator and talking with other translators, other places in the world aren’t generally better in terms of representation and are often worse. Colonialist attitudes persist throughout Europe, for instance. Last week, in an otherwise excellent article in Slate talking about the importance of children’s books in translation, British translator Daniel Hahn praised the Tintin series he loved as a child, with no critique of its racist and colonialist themes. And when I mentioned to a colleague who translates to and from Portuguese and French that I would have to get rid of a caricaturish portrayal of Native Americans in a YA novel from Portugal I was considering translating into English, she said, “What’s the problem? This is what we grew up with.”


  2. A novice viewpoint here: I’m wondering if an author should really even be writing so viscerally about something beyond his/her own experience, which seems to be the case with When We Was Fierce. Seems, in the spirit of authenticity, one’s energy would be better spent supporting those who could actually tell the story from experience, if the goal was actually to bring that experience to light and to the world .


    1. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.

      In my opinion, diversity in children’s literature should not have been equated with getting white writers to be more inclusive in their writing, but in providing for the inclusion of Native/POC authors.

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