Over the last academic year, I’ve met with a variety of students–8th graders to college kids–to talk about the craft of memoir writing. The invites have come because I’m currently working on a memoir about two years I spent in India as a new parent. Having written A Girl Called Problem first and now this memoir, I can say that distilling a story from my own life experience often feels more challenging than writing the story of a Sukuma girl in 1960s Tanzania. Surprising, I suppose. Am I not “writing what I know” with the memoir, and grossly violating the old dictum with my novel set in Tanzania?
Zoe Heller wrote a great column in the New York Times recently about “writing what you know.” She clarifies: “In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination.” She goes on to talk about the challenge of finding worthy stories in creative nonfiction, offering us an example from V.S. Naipaul, who wrote an account of a trip he took from Trinidad to England in his late teens. Naipaul realized in retrospect that he was so keen to find what was literary in his experience during his trip that he failed to record the most important details–what he was truly feeling.
Heller’s column is here. I strongly recommend reading it.
We try to “write what we know,” but what exactly do we know?
This discussion of what an author knows also loops back on discussions about the appalling lack of characters of color in contemporary children’s literature. The very accomplished author, Walter Dean Myers, recently made the case in the New York Times that we have a pressing need in this country for our children’s literature to reflect its diverse readership. As he says, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” I would argue that this call to depict characters of color in children’s literature should not fall solely on the shoulders of authors of color. I wrote about a village in East Africa populated by people who look very different than I do. But I did my research and sought out help from friends who had connections to that time and place. The final step–and this bit was scary at times–was to claim the story of A Girl Called Problem as one I know. I’m glad I did.
I started writing A Girl Called Problem as part of a graduate creative writing class taught by Kathryn Reiss at Mills College. In addition to being a very prolific and talented author of teen mysteries, Kathryn has taught young-adult craft classes and workshops for years and is quite the expert! In fact, last year she was quoted in The Atlantic for a story on young-adult fiction.
By the time I had completed Kathryn’s young-adult workshop, I had an outline for A Girl Called Problem and about four chapters of the book written–this was the jump-start I needed. I was joined that year by graduate students Nina LaCour and Carly Anne West, both of whom have gone on to publish wonderful books for teens.
This last week, Kathryn’s current students read A Girl Called Problem. Here they are:
It’s exciting and an honor to see A Girl Called Problem come full circle. Thank you to Kathryn and to the students at Mills who took the time to study my novel!
A Girl Called Problem made the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project List. This is a list, compiled by the American Library Association, of the year’s best feminist literature for readers aged birth to 18. It’s an honor to find A Girl Called Problem among the likes of I am Malala and other wonderful books. Here’s a snapshot of the some of the titles that made the list:
Thanks to the committed reviewers who help make this list possible every year.
I’m overdue in celebrating this mention from the wonderful Betsy Bird at School Library Journal’s Fuse #8 Blog, but A Girl Called Problem‘s own Mama Shida made Ms. Bird’s list for the “WORST parents of 2013″ in kid lit. Here’s what she had to say about Mama Shida, who was placed in the “Mildly Awful” parent category:
On the one hand, Shida’s mother is biting, neglectful, and self-absorbed. On the other, it seems pretty clear, to the average adult reader anyway, that she’s clinically depressed.
I tell you, any mention from Fuse #8 is an honor!
A Girl Called Problem got a brief but complimentary mention recently in Monica Edinger’s wonderful Horn Book article entitled, “Books about Africa.” Edinger is the author of the recently released and very well-received Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad.
In the article, Edinger offers a helpful survey of books that do (and sometimes don’t) help young folks develop an accurate and rich concept of the diverse and fascinating continent that is Africa. She makes the point that we could still use more good literature for young people set in this part of the world. Let’s hope if Edinger revisits the topic in a decade that she’ll have a lot more material to draw on! In the meantime, I strongly recommend her article.