Saturday, May 12, 2018

Gina Haspel nomination - revisiting The Politics of Mockingjay

Watching the politics around Gina Haspel's confirmation as CIA Director, and the reprehensible attacks from the White House directed at Senator John McCain, I've been reminded of a piece I wrote eight years ago for The Girl Who Was on Fire, an anthology of essays about Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series. I thought about it as I was listening to different news channels while stuck in traffic on I-95 this afternoon driving back from an author talk. Two themes of the essay - what it means to be patriotic and the use of torture, seem to be as much if not more of an issue today as they were back in 2010 when I wrote this:

"In the summer of 2008, two letters from readers arrived at my paper. One, addressed to me, asked, “Can you name me an instance where you are on the United State's side on an issue?” The other, addressed to my editor at the paper, complained: “ If you're going to continue to publish the far left ramblings of Sarah Darer Littman on your editorial page, you can at least try to balance things out by having somebody else on who actually wants to see our country win the war on terrorism.”

I found myself bemused by both, because as far as I’m concerned, I’m on the United States’ side on EVERY issue. It’s because I love my country so much, because I believe so passionately in the ideals upon which it was founded, that I’m so vocal when I feel that our government and our elected officials are taking us down paths that diverge from those principles.

So what does it mean to be patriotic? What does “being on America’s side” constitute? Does it mean “My country”—or in Katniss’ case, the rebellion—“right or wrong”? Personally, I don’t believe that is the case. One of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

To me, it is about asking questions, fighting for what you believe in and holding our leaders accountable. It’s about making sure that making sure that they don’t take us down a path that is antithetical to what we stand for. It’s about saying “The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values” as President Bush declared in a speech on September 6th, 2006, but really meaning it, not coming up with rationalizations for how and why we are allowed do so.

It’s about facing the real challenges ahead of us without losing who we are as a nation, without compromising the core values and beliefs that made America the shining beacon of democracy in the world.

I have a letter to the editor from a World War II veteran, Richard P. Petrizzi, that I keep pinned above my desk. It reads ; “I have many friends who are veterans who have never worn a flag on their lapels or flown flags in front of their homes. Yet these same people went to war to fight the dictators who were trying to conquer the world. We fought at that time to preserve our freedoms, including freedom of speech. I urge Sarah Darer Littman to keep writing her column and standing up for what democracy is all about.”

Almost two thousand years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote the Satires, a series of poems highly critical of the mores and actions of his Roman contemporaries. In Satire X, he writes of the downfall of the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, and the reaction of the citizens of Rome as he is dragged through the streets to his execution. One citizen asks ”But on what charge was he condemned? Who informed against him? What was the evidence, who the witnesses, who made good the case?"

Another replies: "Nothing of the sort; a great and wordy letter came from Capri, " in other words, Sejanus had been condemned to death on the basis of a letter from the Emperor Tiberius, because he’d fallen out of favor with his former friend. “Good; I ask no more," replies the first citizen – abandoning law and order to the winds.

Juvenal rails that “the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things----Bread and Games!”

Or, in the original Latin: Panem et Circenses. The phrase originated with Juvenal and two thousand years later, it describes how much of the American public preferred to lose themselves in “reality TV” than pay attention the erosion of civil liberties during the War on Terror; “asking no more” in the way of evidence from their government when confronted by policies that so clearly contradict our laws and our national values. From warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, to the politicized hiring and firing of Department of Justice officials, from the abrogation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, to leaking the name of a covert CIA agent for political purposes - the list of Bush Administration transgressions goes on. Although the Obama Administration has corrected some of the worst abuses such as the use of torture, it still hasn’t rejected the use of extraordinary rendition or closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that the harsh treatment received there has motivated several released prisoners to become members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet much of the American public remains too busy watching Reality TV, preferring to discuss Dancing with the Stars and Jersey Shore, and continue to accept the harsh treatment of prisoners under the guise of “national security”, without understanding the global strategic implications, let alone the immorality.

My upcoming novel ANYTHING BUT OKAY, (Scholastic, October 2018) is a further exploration of the questions I had in 2010 about what it means to be a patriot and who gets to define it. Rereading the essay from eight years ago reminds me that the seeds of our current political chaos weren't planted by Trump. Trump's election is the ugly weed that sprouted from the seeds planted years earlier. We have to recognize that in order to move forward with any vestige of a civilized society intact.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Branding or Gendering

#kidlitwomen, is a month of essays and posts about gender inequities and other disparities in children’s literature. Join the conversation at KidlitWomen on Facebook and by searching #KidlitWomen on Twitter.

When my editor sent me the cover concept for my upcoming novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY, I liked it – a lot. Nonetheless, there was something that concerned me, and I wrote back posing the question of cover gendering.

My last three YA novels all have a technology element. As far as protagonists:

BACKLASH is told from four points of view, three female, one male.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT is from the point of view of a bright female who does probability trees to figure out if the guy she likes will invite her to the dance, and if she should accept if another guy asks her first.

ANYTHING BUT OKAY is told primarily from a female point of view, but with part of the story told in diary entries from the main character's older brother, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is struggling with PTSD.

Here are the covers:

In comparison, I looked at the covers of some well-known male YA authors who also published books with a female protagonist, including several from my publisher.

Here are some examples:

When I look at these, I can't help but wonder if this is truly a branding and marketing issue or it’s gendering issue. Even the covers by male authors that do feature a girl on the cover are in more gender neutral color palettes. Not a hint of pink to be found. Why does this matter? Because despite the admonition that we "shouldn't judge a book by its cover", we all know that's what happens.

I’m by no means the first one who has raised this. Back in 2013, Maureen Johnson tweeted to her followers: I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy”. She then had the genius idea for a Coverflip.

The results were illuminating, as you can see here.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes wrote a fascinating post the causality of a book's success and gender.

There are important reasons why we need to examine this more closely, particularly now that #Metoo has started past-due conversations about harassment. Covers create a perception of the book, and that translates to school visits - an important source of income for authors, and a source of book sales, which then translate to other forms of recognition - the cascading model, as Jennifer put it.

At a school visit not long after my novel IN CASE YOU MISSED IT came out, the media specialist told me that she almost had me only speak to the girls, because I write “girl books”.

I don’t think of myself as a writer of “girl books.” I do my best to create intelligent, thoughtful female characters with a full range of emotions – just as I do with my male characters. Then I put them in situations where they have to make choices, choices which are difficult because the answers aren't clearly spelled out in black and white. The grey areas of the human experience fascinate me, because it's those choices, as Albus Dumbledore observed: "that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

As far as I’m concerned, I write books for thinking human beings of any gender. Not only that, my school visit presentations cover completely non-gendered topics like research, the important of writing well no matter what you do in life, inspiration, creativity, and persistence. There are even butt jokes and corpses.

I asked the media specialist what message she was sending to both boys and girls if the girls were required to listen to male authors, but boys weren’t required to listen to female authors.

Her reply: “I never thought of that.”

It's just not good enough. We all need to think a harder about that, because the messages we’re sending boys are ones that will stick with them when they are men in college and the workplace. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. Boys shouldn't grow up with the message that women's voices are unimportant and can be ignored. Shannon Hale has been powerfully outspoken on this.

When I asked other female kidlit authors for their thoughts, I heard a depressingly familiar story.

Here's Melanie Crowder:
I did a middle school assembly-style visit with a group of debut authors in 2013. We were brand new, bright eyed and enthusiastic, but the school nearly cancelled at the last minute. When I approached the principal before the visit he said something along the lines of: "Oh, we almost cancelled because you're all women and we didn't think the boys would get anything out of it."

A woman author who wished to remain anonymous told me: “I was meeting with a bookseller who is influential in selecting our city-wide read. She was flipping though my books, looking for one that had broad enough appeal for the program--and she made it very clear that by broad appeal, she meant one with a boy protagonist.”

Christina Soontornvat spoke of a problem that is all too familiar:
"I have gotten so many comments of "Do you think my son would read this?" or "Oh, we have some girls in our class who would love that". Too many comments to keep track of! But when kids are allowed to choose, I find that boys tend to like them in the same proportion as girls do. "

At least she gets asked if the adult's son would read it. I get people just telling me: "Oh, it looks great, but I only have sons/grandsons/nephews." They take one look at my covers and ASSUME that the book wouldn't be of interest - and I can't help but wonder if it would be the same story if my covers were more like the male author ones above.

What's particularly depressing is how young kids are when they get this message from parents and gatekeepers. Here's picture book author and journalist Dashka Slater: "I have watched parents literally take copies of my book Dangerously Ever After out of their sons' hands because it's about a princess."

We all know how subversive it would be for a young boy to read about a princess. Heck, he might grow up to respect and understand women better!

Here's an unutterably depressing story from Newbery award-winning author Linda Sue Park.

One of my books, KEEPING SCORE, is a baseball book with a girl protagonist. Uphill work getting boys to read it, sigh. When the paperback jacket was dummied, the publisher showed it to me. It had even MORE 'girl' markers (more pink, very domestic scene). I told them about the difficulty of getting boys to even open it. They switched to a cover with a DOG. Boom! Boys read it now. It's such a quandary: Is it better to have the dog on the cover so boys will at least open it, and read about a girl character? Or leave the girl on the cover while we work on dismantling the patriarchy--which means countless boys WON'T read it, at least for now.... OY."

What does that say about the messages we adults send young men and boys, that they will pick up a book with a dog on the cover over one with a girl - even if it's about baseball?

I know that boys DO read my books, and again, I can't help wondering how many more might if my covers were more gender neutral.

Here's Jen Brooks, a media specialist in Findlay, OH:

Sayantani Das Gupta wrote:
On the flip side my new female protagonist mg book with a brown girl on the cover front and center is actually getting really good reception so far from boys and girls and teachers seem to be pushing it toward both - is it because it’s a funny fantasy and not realistic fic? I don’t know .

It's an interesting question. I wonder if it's because it's humorous fantasy or that one can get away with more when it's a drawing of a girl than photograph? Or if it's because middle grade rather than YA?

Holly Westlund was working as a bookseller when Marie Rutkowski's WINNER'S CURSE trilogy first came out.

I think THE WINNER'S CURSE trilogy is an excellent example of series that should realistically appeal equally to both genders and was marketed to girls only (see covers), despite the dual protagonists.

Maureen Johnson made the papers when she highlighted the gendered covers issue in 2013. Sadly, five years later, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

About Valentine's Day...

Haven't had much time to blog lately due to...well, lots of reasons, but the best one is the impending deadline for my 2019 Scholastic book. But given the fact that the #MeToo has finally hit the kidlit world and tomorrow is Valentine's Day, Auntie Sarah wants to share a few words about love.

I hate Valentine's Day - I think it's a ridiculous holiday. I told my then boyfriend, now husband, that I never want or expect anything from him on V-Day. Here's why - because love isn't about a day where you get expensive presents, chocolate (okay, you can give me dark chocolate if you REALLY want to), and flowers which have been hiked in price because supply and demand.

Love, as far as Auntie Sarah is concerned, is shown by being there on a day-to-day basis, not by overpriced flowers and dinners on a prescribed day. By being supportive of your partner's career, and strong enough in your own self to rejoice in her successes, instead of feeling threatened by them. By believing your partner when she tells you about the experiences she had with harassment and abuse in life, and in the workplace. By taking action and having conversations with other men about how you can make the world a better place for her, instead of shrugging and saying: "boys will be boys."

Love is surprising your partner with flowers or chocolate or something you know she likes and will make her laugh - but when she least expects it, not just because you're supposed to because it's Valentine's Day and everyone else is doing it.

Love is laughing together. And crying together when hard times hit, and helping each other to find hope again.

Love is experiencing true intimacy when you talk about the things closest to your heart.

"But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

The love and respect your partner shows you on a day-to-day basis is so much more important and revealing than the most extravagant prescribed expressions on Valentine's Day.

Go forth and love. But don't make it about the Hallmark Holiday.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Ritual

I've spent a great deal of refreshing time off line in the last 10 days while practicing for and singing in the Temple Beth El choir for the High Holy Days. That detox was really needed, especially given how ugly things have become recently.

I'm one of those people who always reads the footnotes and the acknowledgements when I read books, and when I'm in synagogue I'm no different - some of the most interesting stuff about the Torah is found in the commentary. This quote about ritual in the High Holy day machzor really struck a chord with me:

"Ritual fills the human need for completeness. It speaks to the depth of human emotion by giving a specific form to work through diverse emotions."

This resonated with me on so many levels. Firstly, as the parent of a kid who grew up on the autistic spectrum, I know how important ritualistic behavior can be for dealing with emotions like anxiety, anger, insecurity, even happiness.

But it's not just for those on the AS. Go through the experience of losing both of my parents in rapid succession, Dad to the long, slow, painful goodbye of Alzheimer's and Mom to the sudden, unexpected and no change to say goodbye of a DVT, made me appreciate how humane and necessary the rituals of shiva and mourning in the Jewish faith are to dealing with grief. Shiva, while exhausting, reminds you that you are not alone in your grief, that you are loved, and that you have community to support you. In the case of my dad, where I'd only been allowing myself to remember my dad as he was at that very moment during the Alzheimer's descent, because thinking about him as he was before was too painful, shiva was a time where we all could start to reconnect back with "real Dad" - the one we'd started to lose so many years before. We put together a slideshow that played throughout of pictures of him throughout his life and it gave us a chance to talk about him and tell stories and remember the man we missed so much and had been missing so much all through the Alzheimer's journey.

With Mom, her death was so sudden and unexpected, and came so soon on the heels of losing Dad, that the grief felt like it was bottomless and never-ending. But I had children, book deadlines and a mortgage and health insurance to pay. I couldn't let myself give into the grief. I had to get up and persist - as one does. But the grief was there, always. The ritual of going to synagogue to say kaddish for a year was healing because it meant that I wasn't just allowed, but prescribed to recognize that I was still mourning, even though I was still having to pick myself up and get on with life, because that's what you do.

On certain Jewish holidays, there's the Yizkor service, in which we remember those who have passed on before us. In Orthodox Congregations, they ask everyone whose parents are still living to leave. Because I'd been attending an orthodox congregation before my parents died, I'd never been in a Yizkor service until after my father died. I remember the Yom Kippur service very shortly before Dad died. I'd spent Kol Nidre with him instead of going to services, and I knew he wasn't going to make it until the following year. When my son and I went outside for Yizkor, I started crying and I said to my son, "This is the last time I'm going to be outside for Yizkor." And it was.

Now I attend a conservative synagogue and I realized yesterday as I was crying my way through the beautiful Yizkor service that there were young kids in the room and that people hadn't been asked to leave if their parents were alive. I was talking to my husband about it this morning, and we both thought how much healthier it is. Sure, kids might get scared by seeing their parents cry, but they also realize that mourning people you love is natural and part of life - and that it's okay to cry. I remember when I was at Silver Hill, and I told the psychiatrist that I always cried in the shower because I didn't want my kids to see me cry. He said: "What's the matter with letting them see you cry?"

That was one of the "aha" moments when I realized that it was okay to be human, not "perfect".

There are so many different kinds of ritual that can provide comfort - they don't necessarily have to be religious. But there is comfort and meaning in ritual - especially when community is a part of it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman and Hillel - the super hero we need now.

As a young girl I loved the Lynda Carter series Wonder Woman. Not only was she badass, she had brown hair and wore glasses in her Diana Prince alter ego just like me, instead of being blonde like most other female leads. And she was smart!

When Michael Garofalo from StoryCorps called to ask if they could make the interview between my son Josh and me into an animation, I asked if they could make me look like Wonder Woman. He laughed and didn't make any promises. As you can see, I ended up looking more like Marge Simpson, than Lynda Carter, but it's probably closer my reality as a suburban mom :)

Well, the now 24 year-old Josh and I went to see the Wonder Woman movie on Sunday, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I've been happy to watch sexist headlines about director Patty Jenkins called out, and the brilliant Ms. Jenkins taking on tired old sexist tropes:

For example:

Only men love action movies. I spent the weekend watching war movies and political documentaries. When I wasn't watching, I was reading Michael Hasting's book THE OPERATORS, which is, funnily enough, about the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. Michael Flynn figures prominently, which makes it particularly interesting reading at this juncture.

Or only men pay for their girlfriends/wives to go to comic book cons/superhero movies:

Or the "white male director is a discovery, woman/person of color director is a 'gamble' trope, as exemplified by The Hollywood Reporter headline:

Think this stereotyping and framing doesn't matter in terms of business and funding in EVERY SINGLE FIELD? It does, folks. It does.
Here's a little bit of research for you from Sweden that was recently published in the Harvard Business Review.

The TL:DR: This chart:

Now pretty much every woman I've talked to who saw the Wonder Woman movie mentions the No Man's Land scene. And pretty much every woman I've talked to cried during that scene. *raises hand* In an interview with Fandango, director Patty Jenkins spoke about how the best scene in the movie almost didn't happen:

The sequence features Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman bravely marching across a stretch of unoccupied land in order to reach a village on the other side and rescue its people from German forces. It’s an incredible scene and perhaps the highlight of the movie, but Jenkins admits it was kind of a hard sell because Wonder Woman wasn’t fighting anyone or anything.

“I think that in superhero movies, they fight other people, they fight villains,” she said. “So when I started to really hunker in on the significance of No Man's Land, there were a couple people who were deeply confused, wondering, like, ‘Well, what is she going to do? How many bullets can she fight?’ And I kept saying, ‘It's not about that. This is a different scene than that. This is a scene about her becoming Wonder Woman.’”

I was thinking about why that scene affected me so much, and the reasons are complex. For one, there's this, which I just read this morning in Adam Grant's book ORIGINALS: How Non-Conformists Move the World

As a woman who has been writing political opinion (often unpopular political opinion) for the last 14 years, I know how it feels to be in that wilderness. Instead of bullets, you get rape threats or hate mail telling you you're unAmerican or unpatriotic or a terrorist lover or you should die, or you need to get laid, or a blatantly misogynist male Greenwich real estate broker writing several pieces calling you mentally unstable, despite his own issues. But you are still there, often feeling totally alone, but knowing you have to be brave enough to take that step despite the intense flak you know you'll face because as Diana says, "Who will I be if I stay?"

Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote about Trump's "Diplomacy of Narcissism" and how it made him look weak, rather than strong. Since the 80's, the U.S.A has been dominated by Gordon Gekko "Greed is Good, greed is pure" propaganda. Anything that smacks of caring about community and other is labeled "socialism." But Dionne reminds us of Rabbi Hillel's questions:

No Man's Land made me cry from the depths of my neshama (soul) because it was the confirmation of what I've always felt - that we cannot keep walking on by when we see injustice. We cannot keep turning a blind eye. I've spent my entire life wondering how the Holocaust could happen, and the last two years have made me realize exactly how. I've seen people I considered friends turn a blind eye to racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, possible treason and any number of egregious things because they want a tax cut, or they are putting party over country, or they want to be able to keep taking their golf vacations four or five times a year while still paying for their employees health insurance, even though it means that 24 million of us will lose health insurance entirely so they can afford to do so. Or, working class friends who for some reason have bought into the narrative that a serial liar who inherited his wealth, has been notoriously corrupt and who has stiffed working class people over and over and over again has miraculously changed and is now their champion in anything other than empty promises.

This is a time when we all have to ask ourselves: "If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?" And have the courage to take that first step into the breach of No Man's Land.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why is it acceptable to be ridiculously rude to writers?

Yesterday I attended a literary luncheon for the witty, wonderful Emma Donaghue, whose new book The Wonder I can't wait to read. As Emma spoke I scribbled notes in my bullet journal to share with fellow writers and students. During the lunch, I remarked to a woman sitting at the table that I'd been taking notes because I, too, am a writer.

Rude question number 1: "Have you published anything?"

me: "Yes actually, let me think, FIFTEEN BOOKS."

Rude question number 2: "And you actually make a living from that?"

me: *starting to explode internally but still being my mother's daughter externally* "Well yes. I can't afford to do this without making a living from it. I have a family to support."

Said woman was a career woman herself - finance apparently. It just makes it all the more insulting and infuriating that she would ask me such rude questions.

Of course, as any creative person knows, this isn't the first time I've been subjected to this line of questioning from random strangers at a social event. The same people who wouldn't DREAM of asking a hedge fund person they don't know "Are you beating the indices this year?" or a heart surgeon "What's the survival rate of your patients" in a social setting, feel they are entitled to treat those of us engaged in creative pursuits with absolutely no respect.

I won't pretend that making a living from creativity is easy. It is HARD, HARD work. I wrote ten books in three years - not to mention countless political columns and some essays, and I also taught creative writing to kids and was an adjunct in an MFA program. To put it bluntly, I worked - and continue to work - my freaking ass off. But I am doing what I love and am completely passionate about, and that is what makes the difference. When I worked in Finance, working this hard felt like work. I enjoyed my job, found it interesting, and I learned a great deal, but I wasn't passionate about it.

I'm beyond tired of creatives being the Rodney Dangerfields of the career world.

The next time you open your mouth to ask a writer, artist or singer a rude question, ask yourself if you'd ask it of your investment advisor or orthopedic surgeon. If you wouldn't, please close your mouth.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What is the difference between cultural appropriation vs cross-fertilization? A sincere question.

Recently, the amazing cantor at our synagogue, Magda Fishman (if you get a chance to hear her sing, run don't walk!)encouraged me to join our synagogue choir after a lifetime of thinking I couldn't sing. I've now taken as my motto the line from Florence Foster Jenkins: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

I was driving home from rehearsal last night (we're currently on double time rehearsals for the High Holy Days) and one of my favorite cover songs came up on shuffle:

I wasn't a happy teenager, and I listened to a LOT of Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon is still one of my favorite albums of all time, and the necklace I wear around my neck is the "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" I got for my 40th birthday, which I never take off unless I have to for medical or security reasons. One of my first bylines was a review of Pink Floyd's Wall Tour concert in my high school newspaper.

It didn't make me upset when Wyclef Jean did this cover, as it appeared to for some angry commenters on You Tube. I LOVED the fact that the same music that provided me meaning and strength as a disaffected, depressed white female teen in the suburbs did the same for two refugee teens of color in the projects of New York City.

It's the same thing I felt when I went to a Talking Dreads concert at the Fairfield Theater a little while back -

I've always loved the Talking Heads. Went to see them in concert in the 80's a bunch of times - including in Chapel Hill when I was in college. Seeing their music performed by Mystic Bowie with this new and different energy was nothing other than awesome.

One of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs is When the Levee Breaks.

But that was a rock n roll, driving version of Memphis Minnie:

I have them both in my collection. But when the shizzle hits the fan in my life, I tend to listen to the Led Zeppelin version, because it the driving drum beat gives me strength. Maybe that's my inner teen rock chick?

I guess this all got me thinking about the question - where is the line between "cultural appropriation" and "cross fertilization of ideas"? I ask this in a genuine way, as a creative person, who was brought up to learn from and appreciate and respect all cultures.

My late Grandma Dorothy said this:

"We are all part of one humanity. There is no pure group . We are all mixed up through commerce and conquest through the ages."

"How can we trace the influence of one group upon the other...through the arts, through music, through dance, through theatre, and literature!"

So I continue to ponder this, and welcome constructive response.