Girlz ‘n the Hood: A Memoir of Mama in South Central Los Angeles by Mary Hill-Wagner
Hill-Wagner is one of eleven children who grew up with an often single mother in South Central LA. Though her mother worked as a nurse’s aide, money was tight. At times, she was unemployed and her welfare benefits didn’t stretch to the end of the month. The school-age children would bring part of their school lunches home for the younger kids to eat. Mary collected returnable RC Cola bottles to buy herself treats. And while the family gets through these hard times, more serious troubles haunt siblings who become addicted and land on the wrong side of the law. At one point, the family loses its home to fire and spends weeks homeless. However, Mary’s mother manages to keep the family together. A Jehovah’s Witness, she abides in her faith, her quick-wit, her persistence, her hard work, and a number of handy guns. (Yes, those guns really do come in handy, but no spoilers.)
We know immediately that little Mary is an incipient writer. She loves to listen to adult stories and repeatedly risks punishment in order to eavesdrop on adults. In one funny scene, she puts a glass to the door and wonders why she can’t hear the conversation on the other side since it always works in the movies.
Girlz ‘n the Hood concludes with poignant reflections on how much is enough when one is helping family members and also trying to escape a cycle of poverty. I highly recommend it.
High School Housekeeping: I’ve been focusing on books that teens and librarians might not otherwise know about, but that are great choices for their reading and school libraries. Girlz ’n the Hood is an adult memoir, but an excellent choice for high school readers.
An article in yesterday’s LA Times about the ‘Groveland Four’ being exonerated (they are all dead) caught my eye. I happened to have just finished reading a great book about the case: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The article states: “Gilbert King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, attended the Monday hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the NAACP lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court justice who defended Irvin during his second trial.”
Devil in the Grove is about Thurgood Marshall, pre-Brown v. Board of Education. The major action begins in 1946, when Black veterans, having come home from fighting in WW II, were beaten in the streets if they dared wear their uniforms. The book has a lot of background on various work the NAACP was doing at the time, particularly research for equity and integration in schools. However, as indicated in the title, its main subject is the work of Marshall and others in a Groveland, FL case of rape accusation, an accusation against four Black men that was clearly false. A case that had all the elements of systemic racism, corruption, lying, and cheating that you could imagine. Every single one in a single case. The corrupt, murderous (and likely criminally involved in a gambling ring) Sheriff McCall feels like a caricature, and, yet, he is all too real.
I didn’t start this on purpose thinking of the current trials—the Rittenhouse shame and the Arbery case. It’s an audiobook I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had. (I buy a lot more books than I can read and sometimes find titles in my own personal backlist.) I found it when I was searching ‘unread titles’ on Audible. But the Rittenhouse case and the Arbery murders were being conducted as I went through the book. That this particular case took place in 1949 is relevant now. Sadly, there are moments when I was thinking “seventy-five years ago or today?”
As it won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s probably evident that this is a great book. But now is a particularly consequential moment to read it as much of the subject matter plays out in our national news and is debated in our legislative bodies. The reader also learns about heroic people who are not as well known as Thurgood Marshall. The story of Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP, is particularly tragic. When he calls for the arrest of Sheriff McCall for the murder of one of the Groveland Four, his house is firebombed by (never found) KKK members on Christmas Night 1951.
High School Housekeeping:Devil in the Grove is an important book because it tells the story of a representative injustice, one not taught or discussed in school. It’s adult nonfiction that I recommend for high school students.
“I couldn’t call my parents. Believe me, I was not alone in my willingness to risk being murdered on the street before admitting to them my shame. A violent death was an unlikely abstraction. The wrath of my parents, a certainty.”
These are a few lines from the short story “The Bitten Woman” in my collection Acts of Contrition. For my book discussion tonight, sponsored by Inlandia and the Riverside Public Library, I plan to read the first half of that story. I figure I should start at the beginning and see what people have to say.
Some of the stories have young protagonists—teen girls and young adult girls making their way in the world. Others center on older women. I thought librarians would enjoy the chat about the book.
If you are up for a book talk by two authors, please join us. My book is a collection of feminist short fiction. The other author, Marj Charlier, will discuss her historical fiction. Rebel Nun. We’ll talk about our paths to publishing and then answer questions. 7 PM PDT tonight. Put on your pjs and get your glass of wine! 😉 Register here.
Excellent Overview of the Relationship of Sports Culture and Women
Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America consistently focuses on the place of women in American sports culture. The author, Julie DiCaro, worked in sports media before losing her job during the 2020 COVID pandemic. In the introduction she tells the reader that working in sports talk radio is “like working in a frat house” and goes on to prove it. There are very few women in sports talk radio. When they want to write about some of the larger cultural stories surrounding sports—social justice; the inequity in treatment between male and female athletes including equipment, venues, and pay; sexual harassment of the women who report on men’s sports; cases of sexual assault and domestic abuse perpetrated by male athletes—the station can shut down the story to avoid upsetting an important team or client. Stations also continue to have as guests male athletes who have been repeated and credibly accused of sexual assault because hey are popular. Some even employ these men as commentators.
A Brief History of Women in Sports Media
DiCaro begins with a history of women reporting on men’s sports and includes stories about access to male locker rooms (while raising the question of why interviews are even done in locker rooms). Early on women had buckets of water thrown on them and jockstraps thrown at them. Today many sports reporters are ‘sideline’ reporters who report from the field when there’s a lull in the action. Few have their own sports shows. Even if they are in the studio, they solicit the opinions of the males on the program.
Female Sports Commentating Today
One of the worst aspects of the job for a female sports commentator today is the blowback on social media, where they are cursed out, called slurs, and even receive death threats. A complete chapter covers the toxic, misogynistic environment of Barstool Sports which has a vast following of “Stoolies” who use social media to stalk, troll, and harass women.
The very sound of female voices calling sports make some sports fans irate. Because of all this, women in sports often self-police, following all the rules, leaving off personality, which is so important in sports talk media.
Women Athletes Today
The second half of the book deals with female athletes and women’s sports including double standards for behaviors (the treatment of Serena Williams stars in this section), the fight for equal pay (with an in-depth look at soccer) and finally the state of women’s and girls’ sports in other areas of the world relative to the United States.
DiCaro makes suggestions for female sports fans to support both female athletes and reporters such as tuning in or listening in when females are playing or reporting.
High School Housekeeping
While this is an adult book, it’s straightforward and clear. For high school students who are interested in the sports culture and how it relates to women, as well as those that are researching women in the workplace, the MeToo Movement and more, this is a great book. All of DiCaro’s discussions are backed with facts, stats, and examples from life. Sidelined includes both a bibliography of sources and a helpful index for those looking to do their own research. NB: As women in sports media are trolled, the book details some of the nastier things they are called, so examples of slurs and profanity are included.
“Gomer knew what coming out was. He had taken the sex-ed classes, and there were gay people in his town, but they tended to come for weekends and the summer, because they had jobs in the city. They were rich gay people, in other words, and he went to public school, and the local people were different.”
RescuePlan by Stephanie Barbe Hammer is the story of fifteen-year-old Gomer Faithcutt, a cancer survivor in search of a life plan. His hometown, Narrow Interior, is confining. His mom left the family to return to China when he was nine. His depressed dad, Gideon, is an artist who doesn’t have time to paint and is way too careful. Gomer lives with him and a chain-smoking landlady in an old house. He’s becoming aware of his bisexuality, a thing he’s not ready to discuss with his dad.
Is a Rescue Plan a Survival Plan?
With his cancer in remission, and unsure about the future, Gomer wants more than a survival plan. He wants to fulfill goals. Along with his good friend Mackie, a girl he likes in a way he hasn’t yet defined, Gomer is taking a Junior Lifeguard Certification course. He’d started the course previously, but, as a result of cancer treatment, he was unable to complete his certification by passing the water challenges such as a mock rescue of a drowning person.
The course coach is less than understanding as Gomer works to regain his strength. Yet Gomer has a sense of magic that serves him well. In the showers at the public pool where he is training, he sees the image of a woman in the water. He meets the beautiful and graceful Christopher, who plays the mandolin. When a billionaire moves across the street from Gomer, we’re in the realm of the extraordinary.
A Rescue Plan Contains Multitudes
“People tend to assume you’re just one thing. Not more.” Rescue Plan is a work about being more than one thing. Gomer likes guys, girls, water, music, and ethereal beings. He fights weakness, cancer, an unempathetic coach, and even a chain-smoking landlady. And he learns something about himself and his loved ones along the way.
“If someone you love teaches you something—anything—it’s a gift you hold onto. It’s a raft and a buoy.”
High School Housekeeping: I’m a big proponent of having a lot of short reads in the teen library. Placing novelettes on their own racks and spinners encourages readers to shop. But it also makes available good stories for students learning English and teens who are intimidated by longer work. Rescue Plan is published by the indie publisher Bamboo DartPress and is available for purchase from their website, on Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and on Amazon. It’s a different read than the typical short novel for teens such as those from Orca. While I love the availability of those books, this fifty-page indie read is a chance to add something more edgy and more magical to the collection. It’s a more mature read that will appeal to the teen LGBTQ community as well.
My book of short fiction Acts of Contrition: Short Stories is now available on pre-sale from Los Nietos Press. The official publication date is March 15, 2021. Yeah, the Ides of March! Thankfully, I’m not superstitious. At least not that superstitious. Please note: My stories are not specifically YA. The first half deal with many issues that teen girls live through. The others move on and deal with issues that women continue to deal with all their lives. However, I wanted to add this post here (pretty much the same as a post on my author blog) because I hope some teacher librarians will be interested.
I have to say I’m a bit (understatement!) anxious because there is a lot of darkness—dark humor—in these stories. There’s a lot of poking at sacred cows–traditional religions, evangelical cultism, new age spiritualism, and the currently popular ‘multi-marketing scheme as life-coaching.’ I worry that pious people will be surprised by them. I’m a deeply faithful person, but my faith, over the years, has veered away from the organized church. There’s a good essay to be written about the number of times my husband and I tried to stick with the Catholic Church. Someday, I will write it.
Acts of Contrition as a Journey
We left for other churches and returned, partly because the Catholics had more people that looked like my husband (brown). Ultimately, when the news broke that the Catholic Church had hidden pedophiles and just moved them around, endangering countless children, I knew I couldn’t go back, knew I couldn’t write any more weekly checks to support them. This was in no way fun. I am not a ‘lasped’ Catholic—I am a ‘leave on principle’ Catholic. It was one of the sadder days of my life, having to walk away from all that history and spiritually and the only church with madonna adoration, with the kind of symbolism that I—English major—love so much.
So, I hope people like the stories. But I am getting so old. Both my parents died this year, and it makes me think of what they never admitted to about themselves, and how I might, in a newer generation, be allowed admit who I really am. Writing fiction, creating on paper the world of my mind, is one way of making that admission.
For better or for worse, I’m in.
Back Cover Summary
The women in Acts of Contrition face society’s devaluation, from parents, from elders, from all who assume authority over them. They battle oppressions as simple as gender stereotyping, as complex as prerequisites to friendship or love. Some can look back and laugh, some find luck in their escape from harm, some engineer their own good fortune, all the while riding a wave of dark humor. What all the characters come to understand is that silence places them at greater risk than speaking out. They progress toward freedom through the telling of their stories.
Praise for Acts of Contrition
“Acts of Contrition is a great collection, one I read in a single sitting, the stories sly and engaging, hilariously dark and always surprising. The women of Victoria Waddle’s fiction are characters I’d spend much more time with – they are brutally honest, have excellent talents at remembering, and they soldier on with grace and humor and wine.”
—Susan Straight, author of eight novels, including Highwire Moon, and one memoir, In the Country of Women
“In ‘Solvent,’ one of the later stories in this collection, a reformed Evangelical-Christian-turned-New-agey-vegan-spiritual pyramid scheme saleswoman demonstrates the effectiveness of a caustic cleaning product over an heirloom dining table to a pair of tipsy Mormon missionary boys and a mother-daughter team of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this one anecdote, the entire collection is distilled.”
—Cati Porter, author of TheBody at a Loss, Director of Inlandia Institute
“I love Victoria Waddle’s Acts of Contrition for the way it sees life not as mundane but as meaningful. What a lesser writer might have missed about the meaning of those moments that pass us by, Waddle is able to explore, and her stories are extraordinary. They are magic. They draw out both the absurdity of personal mythologies found in tarot cards, prayers, and omens and the wonder in them as well. They find the magic in the extraordinary and in the every day.”
—John Brantingham, Poet Laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
I was delighted in reading Tobi-Hope Jieun Park’s poetry chapbook Meraki. Park defines meraki as meaning “to put a piece of yourself into everything you do.” That she has been able to put herself into so many reflective pieces at such a young age is quite an accomplishment.
Park is a three-time Gold Key winner and a National Gold Medalist at the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her poetry has been included in journals such as Chautauqua Journal, SOLA, Common Ground Review, and Cold Mountain Review. At age fourteen, her poem “The World” was included in Rattle’s 2018 Young Poets Anthology. Though I haven’t met Park, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss teen writing with her; she was one of the teen editors for the last teen issue of Inlandia, the online journal of the Inlandia Institute, where I am managing editor. Her understanding of creative writing and of teen goals in producing it was very helpful in bringing the issue together.
Park sees Meraki as an invitation to “step into the Korean-American identity” that “explores themes of food, family, and color through the eyes of a foreigner.” As the reader, I saw much in the progression from her family history to her own individual history. In Park’s poems, we have a child reflecting on the love of a grandmother and grandfather. The child grows into her teen years and an understanding of the value of friendship. Clearly, a friend has been lost (apparently to suicide) and the unanswerable question ‘why’ must be asked over and over. The poems that intervene honor the love of a father and question the color line in America.
Park takes up these important themes using such beautiful and fluid language that she is a joy to read. In “Persimmon Girl,” the narrator watches her ‘magic’ Nana bring “the little knife towards her/. . . like a shiny little tractor on a persimmon hill.” In “paraguayo,” the narrator’s father “squeezes the electricity of [his] native tongue,/presses it into English, and they drink it up like water.”
One of my favorite poems is “the way we fold.” It begins “In a dream, we rest in the woodpeckered hollow/of a white gumtree . . .” The sense of loss soon reveals itself. “Your smile used to be left handed, like a ripple, young and bluey/and drawn from the dark of a desert well.”
With Christina Miles, Park co-wrote “we’re still not over ‘92.” It’s a reflection on color and race in America. I think it would make a good read aloud in an English, history, or creative writing class.
Park’s website includes her Instagram posts, where you can watch her and Christina Miles read “we’re still not over ‘92.” Teachers and librarians can contact her through the website if they wish to have an online discussion between Park and their students about her writing process and how a teen becomes a published author. In my experience, she’s very giving with her time and energy and could enliven a class discussion, particularly as students are largely online this year.
High School Housekeeping: This is a great little chapbook for all high school students as it deals with teen themes and emotions. It’s also a fun little book to have in the library as an encouragement to teens who want creative examples.
Meg Medina’s Burn, Baby, Burn is an example of great storytelling. This didn’t surprise me as I’d loved Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I’d recommend Burn to any teen looking for a good read. I’d also recommend it to any writer looking for an example of a perfectly-constructed novel. It’s a particularly good choice right now because the world Medina recreates has many of the same issues we struggle with today.
Burn has great characters, plotting, and pacing. Medina achieves this trifecta by creating a sort of Venn diagram of three overlapping problem areas, each with stakes for the protagonist, Nora López. While most writers introduce these three problem areas—societal, close-to-home, and romantic—Medina maintains the stakes for the protagonist in all three areas throughout. Her ability to keep each one in the foreground throughout the novel assures that all the important characters are well developed. Plotting and pacing rely on this balancing act, so when done well, the story moves as it should.
Nora is a high school senior living in Queens (New York City) during the spring and summer of 1977. That’s a tough place to be at that time. The city appears to be on fire with frequent arson and blackout incidents, followed by looting. There is constant heat and racial tension. A serial killer is on the loose and targeting young girls. In addition, Nora is shouldering too much responsibility for her dysfunctional family. She hopes that turning eighteen and getting out on her own will be the answer to her problems. She and her best friend, Kathleen, budding feminists, want to be free to dance and fantasize about the deceased TV star Freddie Prinze. But Nora is adrift about future plans and has very little money, despite having a part-time job at the local deli. Her first experience in love was a disaster. But when Nora meets Pablo, a new coworker at the deli, she is smitten. However, Nora is unable to share her family troubles with either Kathleen or Pablo, as this feels like an act of betrayal. Her silence creates distance from those she needs most.
An infamous serial killer known as ‘Son of Sam’ was on the loose in New York City for the year in which the novel takes place. Nora and Kathleen, as well as Kathleen’s parents, are afraid every time the teens leave the house because Son of Sam kills young girls. The girls’ fears intersect with their dating lives: Son of Sam kills couples who are making out in cars. Nora continually has this in mind:
“I think sheepishly of Mima [Nora’s mom], who always tells me not to walk this way alone, especially not at night. A thousand times she’s warned me, and I always sneer at her dramatic lectures about this patch of weeds and broken glass, about the dark corners where a girl could be pushed, dragged off to the dead end, and then God Knows What. It has always seemed so stupid, so Mima. But now . . .”
Though plainclothes police women hang around the neighborhood, Nora doesn’t feel any safer. “Fake lures don’t fool the prize fish you’re trying to catch. It’s always the real worm, hopelessly writhing on the hook, that draws what you want from the dark.”
Nora’s close problems center on family life with Mima and Hector, Nora’s brother. Equally important is her father, Papi, who is utterly outside her family life.
Nora lives with her mother and her brother Hector in their small apartment in Queens. Nora shares a bedroom with Hector. Yet her father lives with his new wife and new son in a high rise with a doorman–in greater safety than his first family. He rarely speaks to his older kids and is often late in paying their rent. Meanwhile, the son he has with his new wife goes to “private kindergarten for geniuses.” Even though he ignores his older kids, everyone tiptoes around him. Nora’s mom never speaks to him but commandeers Nora’s mediation.
“My parents haven’t spoken directly since the day they signed their divorce papers. Guess who’s their messenger pigeon?”
Papi says over and over that rent checks are lost in the mail. Nora pretends to believe him. Papi has no idea how anything is going including Hector’s bad and even criminal behaviors at school and at home. Meanwhile, Nora’s relationship with her mother is complicated by the silence surrounding Hector’s problems and Mima’s endless judgment of Nora.
“Hector snaps like one of his lighters. His cheeks go blotchy, and he shoves past me into the entry hall, where Mima’s purse hangs in the coat closet. He grabs it and digs inside, tossing out her eyeglass case, her pens, her citizenship card, used tissues. ‘¡Pero hijo!’ Mima stands helplessly at the doorway as he empties her purse. Soapy water drips from her hands onto the floor. ‘¡No lo tengo!’ My stomach squeezes into a familiar knot as I try to figure out the puzzle, fast. I could give him the ten bucks to cool things off, or I could hide in our bedroom and let them combust.”
Explaining why Nora hides this from Kathleen and Pablo, she says, “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own front door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?”
As Nora is beginning to date her coworker, Pablo, there’s real suspense in her efforts to keep him from learning about her family. In addition, any possible make out scene has the Son of Sam lurking in the background.
Of a recently murdered couple, Nora says, “They were eighteen and twenty years old, more or less like us. They went to the movies and found out that the city isn’t huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.”
Pablo eventually learns more about Hector’s behavior. Nora tells him it’s none of his business. This appears to be a romance breaker.
Add Problems Together to Create Suspense
Writing teachers will warn that surprise or shock is not suspense, and that’s true. But sometimes writers have a suspenseful story in hand without understanding where the suspense comes from. In the case of Nora’s universe–1977 New York City–there is the suspense of a serial killer roaming the streets and killing young couples. But when Nora learns about arson, burglaries, and drug dealing in her neighborhood and apartment building, the problems of society at large hit home. A writer might think the suspense lies in the question of whether Nora’s brother, Hector, is involved in criminal activity. But really, Medina is showing her hand in placing hints early and often. The suspense for me, as the reader, was in something I really didn’t know: what will happen to the family when they learn what Hector has done? How can an absent father and a mother who refuses to see her son’s behavior for what it is (partly because she isn’t empowered to change it) have any influence over the future? They are unjustly placing the burden in Nora’s lap. What will happen to her? This sort of suspense is the best because Nora doesn’t deserve to be made responsible, doesn’t deserve to be harmed. What teen hasn’t felt the same impotence in facing their parents? Everyone who reads this novel will be in high tension about Nora’s future throughout. We want her to tell Papi what he needs to know because, in a sense, this would be speaking truth to power. We are wanting it, waiting for it, will revel in it. That’s high stakes suspense.
Finish with Important Questions–and Answers
A good YA novel comes to some resolution. In order to do so, mentors and friends have to be introduced early and show up repeatedly. Nora has adults who care about her, and more importantly, act to direct her into a better future. Ms. Friedmor, the school’s head guidance counselor, and Mr. Melvin, the woodshop teacher, are two of the most important. Kathleen’s parents are always welcoming and are ultimately instrumental in her plan to become independent.
Some of the larger societal questions create conflict: The fear, fires, and looting bring disagreement between Stiller (an African American feminist and activist) and Kathleen’s father (a firefighter) to the surface. Their argument over safety and privilege will strike a cord, mirroring today’s news. Equally familiar is the characters’ exhaustion with what feels like innumerable, endless issues:
“But here’s what’s really weird. We’re all too hot and tired to even care. In fact, no one acts surprised because, face it, what disaster hasn’t happened this year? We’re burning. We’re broke. We’re laid off. We’re ripping each other off or being murdered or pulling the trigger.”
“Every rule I know is gone, and we’re in chaos. There are no rules for how a family should work. No rules for how far loyalty should reach. No boundaries on stealing or looting. No limits on how people ruin one another’s lives or how we blame one another for our pain. . . . Now no rules for how we kill each other, either.”
I don’t want to give away all the many resolutions, but ultimately Nora finds her way–with help, but on her own terms.
“Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.”
Ms. Friedmor’s words are something of a theme for Burn, Baby, Burn. They can be a reminder for writers as well: “Remember to reach. You’ll surprise yourself.”
Medina includes an afterword about the setting and action of Burn, Baby, Burn. As writers are living through the same sorts of tension and social justice issues today, they may take to heart her purpose in writing the novel and get to work on a similar exploration of their own.
“In so many ways, this is a novel about people at their worst. It is a story of family pain and of juvenile domestic violence, a chronically underreported issue. It’s the story of community pain — and all the ways that people try to cope in the face of fear. But for me, this novel is a celebration of people who find their strength even in the worst circumstances. I wrote this story because young people everywhere sometimes find that they have to fuel their hope against a bleak backdrop and outpourings of rage.”
Sometimes high school research paper assignments start with a work of fiction set in a historical period. Students read the fiction and then research the events around which the novel is set. If you’re in high school and receive such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn would be a great place to start. If you’re a teacher librarian helping students with such an assignment, Burn, Baby, Burn is a great recommendation because the number of things mentioned in all areas of life–social justice, pop culture, clothing, etc.–will smooth the path of the project. There’s so much to look into: the discussion of the crime rate in New York City in the mid to late 1970s; the serial murderer ‘Son of Sam;’ arson; drug addiction; the mention of a police shooting of a youth who was simply standing outside his apartment building; the National Organization for Women (NOW), Carmen Vivian Rivera and reproductive rights. In pop culture, there’s mention of the movies Carrie, Rocky, Annie Hall, and Star Wars; the TV shows Baretta and Chico and the Man. Musicians include the Ohio Players (funk), the Ramones (punk), Vicki Sue Robinson (disco), and David Bowie (glam rock and more). The girls long for clothing brands like Sasson and Calvin Klein.
Note: This is a YA book review as well as a comment on teen writing, so I added it here from my personal blog
A recent experience with a teen writer had me going back to The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’d originally purchased and listened to The Poet X on audiobook–a powerful narration by the author herself, which I highly recommend. A few months ago, I finished putting together the third teen issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey, the journal sponsored by the Inlandia Institute. These two experiences connected for me when one of the teen authors emailed to ask that I remove her work from the issue.
With the two previous teen issues of Inlandia, wrapping up the experience meant having an in-person celebration on the library lawn in downtown Riverside, California. I’d spend the weeks before the gathering making all sorts of cookies. On the evening of the live reading, I’d meet with the institute director, the programs coordinator, the teen editors and several of the teen authors, who read from their work to a live audience. It was a joy to meet the authors and connect their voices to their published work. It was a joy to meet their proud parents and siblings, and even some of their teachers who had encouraged their writing journey.
This year, because of the pandemic, we had an online gathering. While I missed meeting the writers, parents, and teachers (the online audience had the opportunity to chat by text only and were not visible), it was fun to have some of the distant authors read. We even had girls from Shanghai, China and Bristol, England.
Still, the pandemic had a depressing effect on me as I was working on the teen issue. Having been both a teacher and high school librarian, I know what the daily routine of school means to teens whose family life is broken. Some of these teens were submitting work to us. About seventy-five percent of them were being rejected by the teen editors. The letters declining their work would come from me. What would I say in the midst of these losses? My draft of the decline letter grew ever longer.
Thank you for sending us your work. We are very sorry, but it does not quite fit with this issue. We realize that this season is difficult for so many of us and in so many ways. And while your work was not chosen for this issue, the editors enjoyed its admirable qualities. You are doing the hard work that creative endeavors require. Thank you for your willingness to offer your work to others, to contribute to the artistic conversation that means so much to us right now.
And then I added notes on what we liked about each piece and suggested edits. Because here’s the thing: most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.
“If continued” is the key. Think of The Poet X. It’s a work by an adult about the experience of a teen.
The girl who withdrew her short story from the teen issue of the journal had been delighted to have it accepted. She was one of the few authors who wrote to me to talk about it when she received the acceptance letter. Her byline included her first, middle and last name. Her fiction was a sweet story about two young lesbians who meet accidentally and over time, realize that they are in love. It was innocent stuff, but ended tragically, in a way that keeps the lovers apart. When I first read it, I thought of the influence of Romeo and Juliet since its required reading in most US schools.
But I came to see this ending differently as my correspondence with the author continued. After I sent her the unpublished link to her story for a final review, she worried about having her full name in her byline. Would it be too much trouble to remove her middle name and use just her first initial? “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have a relative that I don’t want to see it. I’m thinking about the person searching my name online.” No problem, I told her.
The story was published, the online celebration was over and recorded. This author did not read her work or even attend. But a few days later, she emailed me again. Would it be too much trouble if I removed her story from the issue? She was having difficulty with the relative and needed the story to disappear. Though young, she understood specificity of language, and I thought her use of the words “a relative” rather than ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘uncle,’ or ‘cousin’ was telling.
I told her how sorry I was, but ultimately, I removed both her story and her author bio. I was not her teacher, a trusted adult who could advocate for her with her parents. I’d never even met her. I’d only read her story and was glad to see that the teen editors had selected it. We emailed a few more times. I told her I hoped that she would continue to write. I hoped, too, that she was keeping a journal of her experiences because the time would come when she would be able to speak and write freely. She would need to reference her teen emotional state. She answered that she was, indeed, keeping a journal. That she would continue her writing journey.
My hope for, and her assurance of, the journal writing is what triggered thoughts of The Poet X. As the novel tells us “Xiomara” (the protagonist’s name) means one who is ready for war. What better readies a writer for the fight for their voice than journal writing? I decided to get a print copy of the novel and look back at the language and passages that had moved me in the audio version.
The Poet X
Xiomara is a high school sophomore living in Harlem with her ultra-religious (Catholic) mother, her reformed but previously philandering father, and her twin brother. Her mother cleans an office building in Queens. Xiomara says “I look at her scarred knuckles./I know exactly how she was taught faith.” (17) Xiomara and Twin (Xavier) were conceived years into their parents’ marriage and considered to be answered prayers. Nonetheless, Xiomara’s delivery was very difficult and she has been considered difficult ever since. “‘Pero, tú no eres fácil.’/You sure ain’t an easy one.” (10)
A major reason her mother finds her difficult is that Xiomara does not have the religious fervor of her mother, but would rather write poems. Religion, the Catholic Church is “A friend I just don’t think I need anymore.” (13) The Confirmation instructor, Father Sean is sympathetic, but clearly has no intention of confirming Xiomara if she doesn’t feel it’s right. (Quick note: The sacrament of Confirmation is one in which the recipient accepts God–particularly the Holy Spirit–of their own free will. The Catholic Church has infant baptism and other sacraments for the young such as Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, but Confirmation is the first time the person will choose the church of their own accord.) Xiomara asks, “What’s the point of God giving me life/if I can’t live it as my own?//Why does listening to his commandments mean I need to shut down my own voice?” (57)
In the fight to use her own voice, Xiomara has an ally in Ms. Galiano, her English teacher, who is also the advisor for the poetry club. She sees Xiomara’s talent and creativity and encourages it. Xiomara’s other allies include Twin and Caridad. Twin is a slight, church-loving altar boy and excellent student who has skipped a grade and goes to high school for gifted kids. He’s also gay, and Xiomara suspects it but is afraid of openly discussing it–and really afraid of what will happen if her parents find out. Caridad, Xiomara’s best friend, is deeply religious and still follows the rules of her parents and the Church. The girls are the opposites that attract and have known one another since they were babies.
It is her desire to attend the poetry club meetings, which happen to be at the same time as Confirmation class, that brings Xiomara to break her mom’s rules regarding piety. “Tuesday has become my equivalent/to Mami’s Sunday. A prayer circle.” (283) It is Aman, Xiomara’s lab partner in biology class, for whom she breaks her mother’s rules on not dating.
At first, Xiomara finds her voice in her journals, gifts from Twin. Later, she will fight to have that voice heard at poetry slams. The things she writes about would drive her mother crazy if she saw them. Her lack of conviction in the face of Confirmation. Her first period and how her mother told her that only cueros (whores) use tampons. Her feelings about having a mature body, curvy and busty, one that makes her stand out in all the sophomore class and drives male response about her.
I am unhide-able.
Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said
was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”
The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults. (p. 5)
Sometimes it feels
All I’m worth is under my skirt (14)
I should be used to it.
I shouldn’t get so angry
when boys–and sometimes
talk to me however they want,
think they can grab themselves
or rub against me
or make all kinds of offers.
But I’m never used to it.
And it always makes my hands shake.
Always makes my throat tight.
The only thing that calms me down
after Twin and I get home
is to put my headphones on.
To listen to Drake.
To grab my notebook,
and write, and write, and write
all the things I wish I could have said.
Make poems from the sharp feelings inside,
that feel like they could
carve me wide
(I love the way this part of the poem looks on the page–much like a curvy girl.)
See, a cuero is my skin. A cuero/is just a covering. A cuero is a loose thing./Tied down by no one. Fluttering/and waving in the wind. Flying. Flying. Gone. (206)
Readers of The Poet X will also fall in love with the poetic language
That incense makes bow tie pasta of my belly./That all the lit candles beckon like fingers/that want to clutch around my throat. (62)
And their words are like the catch of a gas stove,/the click, click while you’re waiting/for it to light up and then flame big and blue. (110)
On the train ride home/Twin steps into his feelings/like they’re a gated-off room/I don’t have visitation rights to. (176)
My mother’s face scrunches tight/like someone has vacuumed all her joy. (229)
Ultimately, writing (in a larger sense, one might substitute “creating”) matters. It is the creative life which often presses against the spiritual life, that engenders faith and hope.
Hiding in my journal
is the only way I know not to cry.
My house is a tomb.
Even Twin has stopped speaking to me
As if he’s afraid a single word
Will cause my facade to crack. (237)
Because so many of the poems tonight
Felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
If I did that for someone else? (282)
My experience is that there are not many outlets for teen voices, almost none during a pandemic. As adults, our goal for teen voices is that they be heard. I hope teachers and school librarians are talking up books such as The Poet X to remind their writers of the value of their work. I hope school libraries have found a way to check out books to students even when they are distance learning. And I also hope that teachers and librarians have devised contests where all the participants receive journals. Because, again, most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.
Note: The page numbers given above are from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).
I’ve discussed previous teen issues of Inlandiahere and here. I’ve written about books centered on teen voices on my School Library Lady blog. Some of the earlier ones, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, still have much to say.
After tomorrow, the AudioFile Audiobooks for Teens Program will be half way through. There have been some YA great titles, so if you haven’t signed up for the program yet, do so now! The titles pictured above will only be available through tomorrow. But when you register, you will get a weekly notification of new titles. You can still get 14 free audiobooks if you start today. This week’s themed pair is on life-changing decisions. There’s a new theme each week.