Last week I got this email from my friend, Pat Austin, children’s literature professor at the University of New Orleans and author of the picture book, THE CAT WHO LOVED MOZART.
I’d love if you would discuss what drew you to a topic that you know so little about — in both the case of the pioneer girl and the Gitano girl. I’m so afraid of writing outside of my culture. I was castigated by an editor for use of Black English that I heard everyday from my students. I’m also very hard on books as a reader when I know the author is writing outside his/her culture. Hence, I’m now twice shy.
(You can post my question if you wish).
I’m not able to put my finger on one thing that has drawn me to my pioneer girl and Gitano girl, but here are a few ideas:
- Curiosity: Outside of reading MY ANTONIA my junior year, I don’t have any memory of learning much about the frontier in school. In college a friend handed me a collection of first-hand accounts of pioneer women, and I was floored by their strength and perseverance. Likewise, I’d never learned about the Gypsies, Europe’s largest minority, outside of some brief encounters overseas. Add to this a summer flamenco class and a love of Spain, and I’d narrowed down which group of Gypsies I wanted to focus on.
- Personal Experience: As a child, I talked about Laura Ingalls as if I knew her personally. In re-reading her books to my boys, I was struck by her strong character and her family’s steady approach to hardship. While in Spain as a teenager, I attended San Fermin, a week-long festival in the city of Pamplona. There was lots of camaraderie with strangers (aided by the liberally-flowing vino). I was the only American in my group and was surprised at the way the festival temporarily broke down the Gitano/Spanish barriers I had experienced elsewhere. We spent a portion of our afternoon sitting in a gazebo, playing cards with a Gitano man, talking and listening to him play music.
- Personal Study: I love learning new things. It’s so satisfying to study something/somewhere/someone new at my own pace, timing, and depth.
- Interest in the marginalized: MAY B. is a survival story set on the frontier, but it’s also the story of a girl who, because of a learning disability, has been largely dismissed by her community. The Gitano culture, while not cohesive, is set apart, mysterious, sometimes problematic, and often misunderstood. I’m drawn to people on the edges — their stories, what makes them operate the way they do, the way they make sense of the world.
- Humanity unites us: I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people of different cultures. Again and again I’m reminded our similarities outweigh our differences. This, however, doesn’t necessarily make things simple.
I think this is why I find the story of Mary Jemison, who was captured in a raid and raised with the Seneca Indians, so interesting. Every book I’ve read about her ultimately shows people are people and at the core have the same needs. This doesn’t dismiss their differences or explain them away but adds a layer of understanding in the midst of the complexity.
Pat, I miss the rich discussions that seem to swirl around you, and I’m so happy we’ve kept in touch.