Last week, I had the honor of being on a panel for the Northern California Association of Children’s Librarians Institute 2015, located at the San Francisco Public Library. “Who Holds the Power: The Impact of Privilege on Children’s Literature” featured Jacqueline Woodson, Laura Atkins, me, Malinda Lo, and Nina Lindsay.
Jacqueline Woodson is the current recipient of the National Book Award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, and I’d just finished the book. All of the panelists were stellar.
I was honored to be included for my self-published book puffy: people whose hair defies gravity. Thanks to all the librarians who bought the book and shared stories about reading it to puffy-haired children and watching their faces light up.
It was a magical day, a room filled with librarians who wanted to make sure young people had access to books that featured diverse stories about people of various races, abilities, sexual orientations and genders, as well as unexpected gender roles.
The San Francisco Public Library documented it all on video, below. Thanks to Malinda Lo for tweeting it out!
I was really inspired by the day, and it’s probably not a mistake that I turned in a non-fiction book proposal this week, as well as completing a first draft of a fairy book for my daughter…and maybe beyond.
As many of you know, I have a two-book deal with Kensington Publishing. I sold the series based on the manuscript for a feminist heist novel with a Latina Robin Hood and her crew of sex workers. A few weeks ago, I turned in the outline for my second book in the series, another feminist heist novel that stars Tyesha, the secondary protagonist of the first book.
It took me nearly six years to get an agent from the time I started working on the first book. And another year after that to get a publisher. I revised the first book at least seven times. So much time in revision was spent altering the structure of the book, changing the plot, and fine-tuning the protagonist’s journey.
But when you have a two-book deal, you need to crank out two books within the space of a year. So you don’t have time to wander around in one draft and make a bunch of messes and later come clean them up. At least I don’t have time for that. I’m a working artist mom, and I have the nerve to be working on a non-fiction book, as well. Yet, the beauty of the two-book deal is that you know exactly whom you need to please with the second book–the acquiring editor. With my first book, I worked with several workshop teachers, three freelance editors, and had half a dozen beta readers (non-professionals who gave me feedback). Each had a different aesthetic, a different set of political views. They often disagreed. But I sent this outline to my editor, and she sent me feedback about what’s not working before I’ve even written it. This is awesome. She’s indicated which scenes need to be deleted before I waste any time writing them. She’s identifying plot problems before I write myself into a mess. It’s like writing with GPS, except without the annoying voice. And of course, like with GPS, there are times you need to reroute. A traffic jam or just a scenic route you’d rather follow. But I feel particularly grateful to have such a clear trajectory. Some writers feel painfully constricted by an outline, their creativity stifled. I feel confident. I’ve always used them for the novels I’ve worked on, but this is the first time I’ve had an outline critiqued by someone else, particularly by the very person who will be approving the book.
Thanks so much to Mercedes Fernandez of Kensington’s Dafina. Equal thanks to Jenni Ferrari-Adler, my amazing agent. Thanks also to Scrivener, the writing program that helped me organize the actual files. In the future, I aspire to be able to write more than one novel a year. For now, however, I’m just grateful to be on track in my writing. And outlining.
Recently, a number of women on twitter have joked about changing their online identity to that of a man. Men’s comments are more likely to be taken seriously, and are far less likely to be trolled with hate comments and threats of violence for their opinions.
In the literary industry, men are paid more, and receive more coverage, awards, and overall respect, as this week’s new VIDA count attests.
This morning, I saw one black woman on twitter’s hilarious remake of herself as a man.
I decided to play with what that might look like for me. A little while back, I took a few selfies wearing a fake mustache my daughter had. Here are some of my faves:
What if the Disney Princesses were really just brilliant writers, frustrated by sexism in the literary industry…
and then this meme that started off the series…before they decided to write and were just mouthing off…
Last week, actor Roger Moore’s comments that London-born Idris Elba isn’t “English-English” enough to play Bond have touched off a storm of controversy about racism. Elba would be a fabulous Bond, but the real radical move would be to cast a woman.
Leaked emails from Sony have suggested that Idris Elba is being considered to succeed Daniel Craig in the role of James Bond, and Elba is said to have had talks with producers. Elba has also admitted he would love the role. Roger Moore, who played Bond in the 1970s and 80s, got in trouble for saying Elba wasn’t English enough to play Bond. Not “English English” enough Moore reportedly said of Elba, who was born in London. Moore said his comments were “lost in translation” in an interview for Paris Match magazine. Moore was taken to task by many critics who pointed out that some of the best actors to play Bond have not been English: Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan have roots in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, respectively. I would go further to say that by virtue of Moore’s own English Englishness, he was one of the worst Bond actors. The middle class white Anglo Saxon Protestant style that Moore brought to the role made his rendering of Bond bland and uninteresting. Bond needs a little “ethnicity” to be an edgy and credibly spy. The English style of aggression is compartmentalized and passive aggressive. They send younger sons to build an empire of blood while the elder sons sit at home and survey their land and the ladies sip tea. Throughout their colonial empire, they set up people of color in the middle (East and South Asian, Arab and Jewish) to be their middlemen. They let the colored folks tear each other apart and sit back at home while the riches roll in. Poor and working class English folks can be plenty vicious, but there’s never question of Bond with a Cockney accent. I think Elba would make a fabulous Bond. Would Sony feel the need to make a white James Bond, as well, the same way they did with the female reboot of Ghostbusters? Probably not. Because at this point, with our black president, and the proven blockbuster bankability of numerous black male actors, Elba as Bond is actually a predictable next move. Moore shows himself as a dinosaur in failing to jump on the bandwagon. Sony isn’t leading the trend, it’s following. The real bold move would be to make Bond a woman.
Racism has always been part of author Ian Fleming’s vision of James Bond written in the 50s and 60s. I read the original books as a teenager because I was a voracious reader and I wanted to impress my boyfriend who read the books. But the stories hold together without the explicit racism—stereotyped depictions of people of color. It works to have a black man in the role, even as he would be working on behalf of England’s white colonial interests. You could basically remake any of the old stories with Elba or an actor of color as a contemporary Bond. However, it would utterly change the story if Bond were a woman. The Bond character moves in the world’s male dominated spaces in a position of privilege. Women are objects or cunning adversaries,or sexy allies. But spycraft for women is based in a different skillset. Women spies have the same brainpower but rely on classic manifestations of sexism. Female spies approach those in power—mostly men—either relying on how men systematically underestimate women’s intelligence, or how men can predictably be distracted by sexual opportunities. Women spies also consistently exploit the invisibility of domestic workers.
Lately, I’ve been admiring the skills of women spies on television. USA’s Covert Affairs, the female half of the husband-wife duo on FX’s The Americans, and I’ve Alias, the spy show I never saw when it came out in 2001, back when I didn’t have TV and you couldn’t yet watch shows on the internet.
A female Bond would also complicate the playboy approach to love interests. Plenty of women like affairs and hook ups in real life, but there’s an expectation of longer-term romantic storylines for women characters in media. How would writers balance the need to fulfill those expectations of the moviegoing audience while maintaining sexy spy tension in the films? I don’t know, but I would love to see the writers try. As a writer, I’d love to try it, myself. In my own writing of women’s action novels, I solve the question by having each book focus on a different character. So each protagonist gets her stand-alone arc where her life is transformed and the audience can get the same new love affair romantic payoffs they’ve come to expect. But with Bond, the formula is to have some kind of sexy ever after ending to one movie and the woman is long gone by the time the next film opens with a different sexy love interest. No explanation needed.
A female Bond has been done in fiction. One of my favorite writers, Mabel Maney, wrote two books which parodied Fleming’s work starring Jane Bond, James’ twin sister: Kiss The Girls and Make Them Spy (2001), and The Girl with the Golden Bouffant (2004). When the books open, Jane, a depressed, androgynous lesbian, is contacted by Her Majesty’s government when James is washed up and drying out in an inpatient placement—all the liquor, stress and sex has taken its toll. Maney portrays Bond as a sociopathic narcissist. The government contacts Jane because there’s a mission that can only be undertaken by Bond. With a bit of a drag makeover, Jane can impersonate him perfectly. In Maney’s signature hilarious style—honed in her previous series of Nancy Drew parodies of the 1950s—she creates a sixties-style, skilled, sexy crew of lesbians to undermine sexism and save the day.
The movie industry ran out of Ian Fleming novels decades ago. At first they made movies based on Fleming’s short stories, and then had to write scripts from scratch. The stories have moved from cold war to war on terror like all the spy narratives. Why not a gender update? Why not a Jane Bond or Jenny Bond or Jamie Bond or even Juana Bond? I would love to see Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba or Yvonne Strahovski (Agent Sarah Walker from the TV show Chuck) as Bond. But since Hollywood does not appear to be ready, I’ll have to satisfy that craving by reading and writing nuanced, smart, sexy, edgy action novels, with badass women in the center.
Today is a Day of Visibility for Transgender folks. As the infographic above shows, the oppression of transgender folks is brutal, at so many levels. For those of us who are not trans, we have the opportunity to act as allies. We can ask ourselves, what can we do in our daily lives to interrupt and eventually end the oppression of trans people. We may not be able to change the world overnight, but in what areas do we have influence? As a teacher, I hire trans folks as teachers, support their professional development, teach a critique of the gender binary to my students, and create welcoming spaces for trans folks in my classes. As a writer, I make sure trans folks are visible in my work.
I write about women. And that includes trans women. It’s been important for me, as a woman who is not trans, to think, do my homework, and be intentional about the inclusion of trans women’s stories in my book. There are many stereotypes about trans folks. One is that all trans folks are sex workers. So, if your book features a lone trans character who has a brief cameo appearance as a sex worker stereotype, that is not the visibility you are looking for. However, because my book is set in a sex work context, most of my female characters are current or former sex workers, and the trans women are no exception. However, Serena–who is trans–has left the sex industries and become the computer genius of the crew. She’s the go-to girl for all things computer, and it is later revealed that she is an incredible hacker.
In her official legal job, she’s the executive assistant to the protagonist, who is the executive director of a women’s health clinic. Serena does a phenomenal job holding things together because she has an incredibly sharp memory and an incredible ability to organize information. Unfortunately, these were survival skills that she had to develop in response to the incredible danger that she faced as a trans woman: the ability to track, remember names, faces, contexts. She grew up needing the hyper-vigilance of those who are never safe. Fortunately, as is the case for all of the characters in the book, they now use their survival skills as part of an activist team that provides health services to low-income women (cis and trans) in lower Manhattan, including many sex workers. And when the economy tanks, the team also starts to run an escort service. They robbing corrupt CEOs involved in a sex trafficking scandal. And they prepare to heist a billionaire.
In this novel, the community of women welcomes and protects trans women from misogynist violence, stigma, and shunning. I want to encourage all writers to think about creating fictional worlds where trans folks are visible, powerful, loved, and integral parts of the communities we create on the page.
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS: Confession time: I read a lot of young adult books. It started when I was doing research for my my feminist heist novel, which will be published by Kensington Books next year. My book is decidedly not for young people, but when I searched for heist books with female protagonists, Ally Carter’s book ’s Heist Society came up. That book led me to her teen spy girls series and then to Robin Benway’s spy girl series.
What I love about these books is the metaphorical relationship between spying and growing into womanhood. Both sets of books feature young, teenage girls who are high level spies. There is a fascinating parallel between their spycraft (lying, deceiving others, hiding your true feelings, disguising yourself, manipulating others to like and trust you) and regular teenage girlhood. The struggles around priorities, loyalties, disclosure, and identity for spies and ordinary young women really mirror each other.
Both sets of books feature young white women, but I have begun working on a YA spy series with a black teen female protagonist. I am excited to continue to explore this theme with the added intersection of race: how is becoming successful as a young black woman in the United States like a secret agent’s long-term stealth mission?
CHILDREN’S BOOKS: When my daughter was a toddler, I began working on my book puffy: people whose hair defies gravity. Until last year, she would pretty much listen to any picture book we would read her. Now that she’s five, she’s started picking out her own books in the library, and is particularly interested in chapter books for slightly older kids. One day, she picked out a title from the Rainbow Magic series. These are books about fairies, written at a second grade reading level. There are over 200 books in the series, ghostwritten by various authors under the pseudonym “Daisy Meadows.” Recently, at my daughter’s preschool, another parent said he couldn’t stand reading any more of this series, because they’re all the same. Which is exactly what I love about them as a writer. They all follow a formula, but it’s a good formula: two best friends help the fairies recover a magic object and triumph over the mean goblins. I enjoy reading them because I’m trying to understand the formula so I can write some fan fiction versions for my daughter that have lead characters of color. As it is, when I read aloud to her, I change the names of the two protagonists: Rachel Walker and Kristy Tate to Rachel Kleingrove and Kristy Teng, making them Jewish and Chinese/mixed heritage. I like that some of the fairies are of color, but the town environment is heavily white, and all the mythical references are European. The core concept is not new: the forces of good among creatures from another world are at war with the forces of evil or mayhem and need human help. And I like that the protagonists are girls and the magical creatures are girls. In every book, the wit, athleticism, and/or power of girls is what saves the day. If I ever get serious, I might do a series with some of the same ingredients that puts girls of color in the center, and brings in African or Indigenous magic.
Also, I love these books because they are longer and we get to read a new chapter every night. Sometimes I do get bored reading the same picture books over and over. However, here are a bunch of picture books that we love:
Thunder Rose and Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolen
Eva Uses Her Head by Robert O’Brien (kids of color+plotline about disabled accessibility)
Floating On Mama’s Song by Laura Lacamara
Just A Minute! by Yuyi Morales
Little Night by Yuyi Morales
Quinito’s Neighborhood by Ina Cumpiano
Drum City by Thea Guidone (stunning illustrations by Vanessa Newton)
Every Little Thing and One Love by Cedella Marley (also illustrated by Vanessa Newton)
The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington
Julie Black Belt series by Oliver Chin
Lola in the Library and Lola Loves Stories by Anna McQuinn
Dancing In The Wings by Debbie Allen
Look Back! by Trish Cooke
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
Quack by Arthur Yorinks (written half in Duck language!)