Using Language as a Professional & Other Arbitrary Musings

When I was in library school, I had the opportunity to take a course with Dr. Emily Knox, one of the world’s experts on intellectual freedom and its cousin, censorship. It was, and remains, one of the most foundational courses I have had the opportunity to take. Intellectual Freedom & Censorship is the sort of class that provides those who take it (particularly if, like me, they are consumed by anxiety and overthink absolutely everything and always assume that the Worst Is Coming™) endless opportunities for reflection.For example, would our profession be a profession without intellectual freedom? Dr. Knox argues that it is our support for access for all, and our stand against censorship, that has made us a profession.2

Why am I obsessing over Dr. Knox’s class right now, in particular? Oddly enough, it’s less because of current challenges (there are a lot of them) than because of language use, word choice, and the obligations of being a professional (in these cases, of being a librarian or a teacher/instructor/professor). Darned if I can find exactly when we discussed this one, but it was made clear to us as librarians (and, thus, guardians of the First Amendment) that we did not “like” or “love” or “hate” books when we were at work.3 (Similarly, we were told in Adult Popular Literature not to use the word “recommend” but rather “suggest”; if you ever deal with me in person, you will probably notice that I do, indeed, avoid “recommend” at work.) Why must we avoid these words, or these value judgements? Because we cannot impose our values on our patrons.

And I am, indeed, not! But I can ramble about professionalisms anyway. C’est la vie!

So, obviously, we’re imperfect, and this is a hard line to toe—but I’d also argue it’s an important one. It’s not for us to press value judgements on our patrons, to tell them that their romance or their space opera or their western is WRONG, or even that it’s the BEST THING EVER—after all, if they hate that damn book, we want them to feel safe coming back to find another (which is why I tend to end readers’ interactions with some variation of: and if this one doesn’t work, come back and we’ll find another!). And, of course, the only places thus far I’ve found fellow dyslexics and people with chronic pain, who exist as humans in space rather than inspiration porn, are in genre fiction (usually romance—thank you Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan and Anne Brockaway!) and young adult (here’s to Leigh Bardugo!), which, I think, should hopefully underscore the importance of not automatically discounting something because it’s written for teens or, you know, has a happy ending.

but I AM a librarian!

So, maybe because people almost never take me all that seriously at first glimpse, and maybe because ever since I was young I’ve run into Men who Explain Things to me (and also get angry when it turns out I’m not as stupid as I apparently look), professionalism is incredibly important to me. There’s a reason I swear like a Victorian gentleman at work, and it is definitely not because I can’t tell you to go F yourself in three languages (I totally can). So, for instance, when I was a teacher, I was always very careful about how I gave feedback. What a ghastly piece of shite usually became something like what an interesting concept, let’s work together to make this better!

Remember: social media is pretty constant, too! And easily searchable!

Having grown up a dyslexic I am, perhaps, a bit touchy about words, and what they can do—that’s probably even one of the reasons I am so careful when providing feedback. So, as a dyslexic, and as someone who often ponders how to be a better professional (gotta hide all my judginess in public forums, yo), it’s been bothering me to watch some of the discourse, of late, on assistive technologies.4 Basically, a lot of assistive tech is super unpopular with a lot of instructors and professors. For an excellent example of this sort of crappiness, see the prof at UIUC who not only refused to provide accommodations5 for a student but then emailed the entire class about it—because why stop at denial when you can achieve public humiliation, too?

Aethelwold is up to something.

In any case, I have been running into some unnervingly similar comments in my own life. (I even get to be the Inspirational Disabled Person sometimes!) Now, I totally understand that, say, computers in classrooms are not a drama-free topic (kind of like the 4,000 Patterson novels that are published every year! or what makes it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list!), but it’s one of those things that needs to be discussed with, as it were, one’s professional language, and with the understanding that people are always listening—or, as dear old Aethelwold reminds us, a written thing is rather constant. Put it out there that laptops are the devil’s work and no one should use technology in a classroom as it will make them stupid, and, well, not only will I remember forever (and let’s face it, Slytherins suck at forgiveness), but a whole lot of students are realizing that they can never ask this particular person for help. And that’s a huge problem.

Gotta have your porn.

Acquiring safe and non-judgemental readers’ advisory might not be quite as important as finding professors in whom one can confide, but I would certainly argue that it is, indeed, important—and it’s important that the library professional not judge either what’s being read (Patterson ahoy!), or the method of reading (or consuming) said material. Prefer to listen? Excellent! Read only on eReaders? Let’s help you set up Libby6 and Hoopla! We all have our favorite genres, we really, truly do. And that’s fab, and okay, and it’s fab and okay that we have our preferred methods of consuming said genres, whether those are by listening, reading a print book, or utilizing an eReader. (Ironically, I’ve noticed that for the most part, librarians care infinitely less about how people consume literature than the general public. Así es la vida or something, I guess.)

So, in this assortment of obsessive musings, I guess I am trying to say something very simple, and very fundamental: when we are in helping professions (or any profession, really), what we say has a fundamental impact upon those we serve. In a profession such as mine, I need to be safe and available for my patrons, regardless of their literacy level, or their ability to read Cien años de soledad, or their preference for reading erotica on their phones. (I only read my smut on Kindle, personally. Can’t stand that tiny phone screen.)  I don’t always assist my patrons in finding books that I personally like. Honestly, readers’ advisory for People Who Read Like Me is very, very rare, and that’s okay. If I can’t do readers’ for people with different tastes than mine, then I am a piss-poor excuse for a librarian, indeed. Honestly, if we the helpers can’t help without making people feel like garbage, then I think we might need to rethink our professions, or at least our commitments to them. Because we’re really not here to make people feel terrible.


1 Or obsession. Anxiety is weird.
2 Emily Knox. “Intellectual Freedom & Censorship,” 4 February 2014. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
3 At home we can do anything we want, up to and including making book arches or book clutches or book art.
4 What the hell is assistive technology? Check these out:

5 There’s also an interesting comment from a student who screenshot emails from the prof, including notes he sent in prior terms.
6 Libby is the current Overdrive/Media on Demand platform. It was also named one of the Google App Store’s best apps of 2017, which is pretty darn cool.

I am very often tempted to say this! But because I Value Professionalism™ I’ll say say gosh darn instead. And then at home I’ll tell my pillow to f off in three languages, because I damn well can. Also, every novel I will someday publish will probably end up banned for vulgarity, because #yolo.
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2 Cold, 2 Logical: 2017 Highlights

Olaf provides a roughly accurate depiction of 2017.

I’m not much a one for New Year’s Resolutions: I guess that my chronic presumption that The Worst Is Coming™ (kind of like Winter is Coming, but definitely more unpleasant!) might make them difficult. But, as another burning year ends, I can stop and take stock of where I’ve been, and where I might be bound.

Or, more accurately, 2016 and 2017 were both on fire, and 2018, unfortunately, probably will be too. #AlwaysExpectTheWorst

I rarely talk about my profession here, for a lot of reasons—I really do prefer to keep it separate—but I’ve had a few (no doubt small-scale) professional triumphs this year. A coworker and I collaborated on a civil rights-themed display that made it to a local Facebook page (they liked it!). I got up my list of diverse literary awards for the second year in a row, earlier this time—so maybe it was even in time for holiday shopping! And, finally, I participated in a well-received panel at my state library association.

Well, you know, I am. And I’m not even hammered, because I don’t drink.

Presenting in public is not my thing—I prefer to hide behind words, rather than present my little and unimposing face to the world. But I can do it all the same, and sometimes do. So, even as I try to decide whether or not to renew what is theoretically my main professional membership, I am proud to have accomplished at least some things this year.

Like, you know, my grandfather, and my grandmother, and my aunt, and maybe 10 cousins on the other side. 🤷🏻

If I made any New Year’s resolution last year, it was probably to read diversely, to step aggressively outside my comfort zone (largely genre fiction, in particular romance, because even if I believe in the worst, it’s lovely to read about things ending happily sometimes), to push myself to be more and better—and, for that matter, to listen more. Now, listening better is an act in progress, always, and I will continue to work on listening. My reading has been a little more, well, entertaining.

Always the perfect gif. Also, I have never read anything even close to this, but 🤷🏻

Oscar Wilde once wrote: All women become their mothers. That is their tragedy. I have no idea if it’s a tragedy, but, as I sit surrounded by piles of books about the history of racism and the history of white people and sexism through the years and other rather depressing pieces of sociological research, I think it can be accurately said that my reading list is turning into my mother. Perhaps that’s my tragedy: I have no idea. But, hey, thanks for the tendency towards dark literature, Mom!

Let’s face it: a lot of this past year felt like running on a hamster wheel.

Now, I did other things this year, some of which were more important (those pertained, often, to my creative work), and some that were less. I had the opportunity to attend my union’s conference, which turned out to be incredible for me, less because of all the amazing pointers (there were a lot of those) and much more because, for whatever reason it may have been, I came away reminded that I have worth, that my labor has worth, and that, no matter what my professional or personal situation may be, I still have value, as a person and as a professional. (And there’s one of the reasons to belong to a union, folks.) Occasionally I’ve stepped away from my comfort zone on TV (that would be action, mostly); I’m slowly watching Juana Inés on Netflix, and it is alternately brilliant and frustrating (the third episode, “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,” mostly just frustrated me: I would love to see middle-aged women allowed to be strong and powerful and brilliant and not, you know, prone to hysterics and dying and things like that).

It seems appropriate, somehow.

I finally took the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz1 and got sorted into Slytherin and was so happy that I danced and all but sang, which is not really a thing that I do, but, you know, sometimes you’ve got to celebrate getting into the green-draped house of ambitious, manipulative water-lovers. (I love green, like, presumably, all other good Irish-Americans.) So, since I work with the public, I now have a lovely pair of Slytherin earrings to go with all the green I’ve worn for years. I also got what was probably one of the best complimentary insults I’ll ever receive. When one works with the public one hears some amazing things, and I am—proud? pleased? amused?—to report that it is just as well that I purchase for science and math, because I am a cold and logical person. It was not meant as a compliment but I am going to wear it with pride, because honestly, logic is a beautiful thing.

Here’s to 2018! But a lot colder than this gif. Because (thankfully) Winter is Coming. Or, rather, it’s here.

I’m not really going to sign off with resolutions, or even with a lot of hope, because I don’t want to jinx anything by, you know, assuming that something good will happen. (This is, apparently, where logic fails for me—I assume it’s all those thousands upon thousands of years’ worth of ancestors who feared the dark and raided each others’ cattle, coming out and forcing me to knock on wood.) But here’s to hoping for a year a little less on fire: for something good, whatever it is or may be or shall become, and for a whole lot of good books, because they always make things better. Even the dark ones.

Here’s to whatever that something more that we all need is, or will be, or shall become in 2018!

Happy 2018!


1 Note that I also took this one, which is supposedly scientific (probably about as scientific as my INTJ from Myers Briggs! 😂😂😂), and also got into Slytherin, at least when I’m being honest about not liking danger. I really don’t like danger, guys. Also getting my hands dirty is only really acceptable when I’m working with my plants.

Beyond the Caldecott & the Nobel: Diverse Literary Award Winners 2017

Last year, I compiled a list of the diverse literary award winners I found in a scouring of the internet—and then I decided to make it an annual excursion. We know that diversity in publishing is sadly underrepresented: that, even now, precious few of our books show something close to the world many of us recognize as our own. Thus, while these are hardly the only books out there—and they really aren’t!—these winners of diverse literary awards are an excellent place to start, and a great way to help show publishing that we want (as well as need) diverse books.

We need diverse books for kids, but we also need them for adults, and I’m glad to say that the awards covered here celebrate literature for kids, adults, and everything in between. They run the gamut from popular literature and genre fiction (big genre reader, here) to scholarly works, works in translation (some of them are popular works, too!), and poetry. In short, no matter what your tastes, I think you’ll find at least something here to read.

If I find additional awards before the end of 2017, I will add them. If there are typos or errors (which are, alas, quite likely, since I am the compiler), I will fix them as I notice them—and I apologize in advance. In the meantime, since every book is its own journey—bon voyage!  Continue reading

But the Night is Hallowe’en

A long, long time ago, after Christianity came to the Isles and turned old gods into saints or devils or knights of a Round Table, a boy toy from the Scottish side of the borderlands had gotten himself into a bit of trouble. He’d gotten his lover, Burd Janet, into trouble too, but since she was ever so much smarter than he, one guesses she would, in the end, be fine. And so, whether he cared more about her or about his own hide, he told her: “‘But the night is Halloween, lady, / The morn is Hallowday, / Then win me, win me, an ye will, / For weel I wat ye may.'” The boy toy, who hung about Carterhaugh on the Scottish Borders, was, of course, Tam Lin; his words come from Childe Ballad 39A, verse 29—probably my favorite of all the many Childe ballad versions, though I do have far more than a passing fondness for them all. And the day on which he was to pay a tiend to what he called hell was our Halloween.

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Reading for Alt Columbus Day

My plan, for today, was to write about resistance to Christóbal Colón and his crew of marauders; unfortunately, when one has a headache, one is not in the mood to re-read those old diaries—or even de las Casas’ Brevíssima Relación, which always makes me angry1—one is not quite in the right frame of mind to write anything engaging. However, thanks to my librarian superpowers, I can literally always churn out a booklist.2 So here are some books for, you know, Indigenous Peoples Day, and Alt Columbus Day.

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Labor Day 2017: The Camaraderie of a Union

I doubt it’s a secret that I am a fan of labor unions, or that it runs in my blood—that my grandfather encouraged his staff to become the first unionized library in Wisconsin, that my great-great granddad Carl the Commie had to leave Prussia for his unionizing (Von Bismarck, it seems, didn’t approve), that my mother’s been a union member for 50 years (or maybe more), that I have been and am involved in unions.

link.

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Reading for Charlottesville I

Back in the day (which was not actually all that long ago), people used to figure that the sun disappearing behind the moon was, you know, the work of darkness and demons. Given what’s happening in the world of late, I am starting to wonder if perhaps they had something right. In any case, rather than provide a list of funny and engaging books about astronomy, I am presenting reading for Charlottesville, ranging from novels to nonfiction, and from the Holocaust to America’s long, dark history of race relations. Surely, if we understand the horrors of the past, we are better equipped to go forward, not back.

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Para el alma no hay encierro: Juana Inés on Netflix

Miguel Cabrera’s posthumous portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, née Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana. c 1750. Image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s taken me a bit to return to Juana Inés, mainly because I have been running largely on rage and when that is the case I turn, very decidedly, to The Last Kingdom and The Musketeers and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and other violent period dramas (with an occasional helping of Wynonna Earp or Buffy the Vampire Slayer), because I am nowhere near as nice a person as folks seem to think and watching those shield walls and one-sided swordfights is deeply satisfying. (There is a lamentable lack of punching and swordfights1 on Juana Inés, but, obvs, it shouldn’t be there, since it would probably be historically inaccurate to have ninja nuns. In Juana Inés, that it.2)

Bbc First Australia GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

swordfight!

“Paral el alma no hay encierro,” the title pulled straight from one of Juana Inés’s poems,3 hurts to watch, as Juana Inés’s brilliance is tucked away in a convent that would destroy her, her light almost snuffed out.4 It is interspersed with awkward acknowledgements of race and an intense, terminal exploration of women in seventeenth century New Spain. Ignacio, Juana’s faithless suitor, remains the weakest character link, at least for me. Similarly, Juana Inés‘s treatment of race continues to be awkward, although, in tantalizing fits and starts, it seems to be trying for something more, perhaps most of all in the discussion between the virrey and a few members of his counsel about slaves imported from Africa (they’re causing all these problems, complains the virrey, and we don’t need them anyway, we’ve got the Indians—which is probably as close as Juana Inés, or just about anything focusing on creoles, will come to admitting native slavery), and, later, when an irate merchant, who happens to be of African descent himself, goes up against the virrey’s decision not to allow him to disembark the people in his hold at ports in New Spain. (The merchant also pops up for about two seconds which is kind of weird. His costume is super rad though.)

I’m curious about the choice, and prone to read too much into it: there are records of people of African descent holding slaves themselves.5 Similarly, more than one conquistador was a man of African descent; some were free, some were freed, and some were enslaved. One of them, Juan Garrido, went on to become the first person to grow wheat in the Americas—if you read colonial literature, half of which is old letters complaining about your lousy neighbor (those are, alas, universal), or asking for more money, you’ve run into Juan Garrido and his wheat.6 So, as an exiled lit person, I am curious: does this merchant reflect people like Juan Garrido? Does he reflect people like the Brazilian Antonio José Dutra?7 Or is he just there, and am I reading way too much into a casting choice?

Daniel Villalobos Peña‘s 2012 Palacio Nacional de Noche. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the brilliance of Hernán del Riego’s villainous Padre Antonio Núñez de Miranda shines in his absolute conviction that he is destroying Juana in order to “save” her. He will, in fact, destroy anyone and everyone, and do so absolutely convinced that it is God’s will. He is not the sort of man with whom one hopes to deal, for the fanaticism will continually blind him to his own encroaching evil. I’ve got to say, I love these complex and horrible villains—those who are villainous for the sake of villainy get boring awfully fast.

Para el alma no hay encierro
ni prisiones que la impidan
porque sólo la emprisionan
los que forma ella misma.
—Juana Inés de la Cruz8

In a show filled with snappy dialogue (like, really, the writing is really good), Arantza Ruiz’s Juana Inés gets the lion’s share (as it should be, obviously)—and, because whomever adapted this was a genius, much of her words paraphrase, or directly quote, her own works, while tapping into the frustration and fear of life as a genius who happened to be young, beautiful, female, and illegitimate—every last one a strike against her in the seventeenth century. Núñez de Miranda might think he is saving her, but he is trampling her, a fact made more egregious when she asks him to serve as her confessor.

Núñez de Miranda sends Juana Inés off to be abused, because God’s will, or something. From link.

Much of this episode is, indeed, pulled straight from Sor Juana’s biography—she did indeed go, first, to the Discalced Carmelites; unsurprisingly, she hated it, and did indeed become quite ill. Núñez de Miranda would indeed become her confessor, something I have never entirely understood—perhaps Juana Inés, in her genius, knew she needed to keep her enemies closer, and so was trying to keep tabs on the man who would eventually destroy her.

In case you forgot this guy’s face: Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo, Marqués de Mancera y Grande de España, 25th Virrey of New Spain. c. 17th century, in the Salón de Virreyes, Chapultepec Castle. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The secondary characters—Juana Inés being, of course, our hero, and Núñez de Miranda our fanatical villain—remain a rich but inconsistent tapestry. Mauricio Isaac’s Virrey Antonio Sebastián de Toledo y Salazar is still a man of questionable morals, in many ways more modern than Núñez de Miranda—he is far less concerned with minor details such as bastardy (doesn’t affect her genius, he points out) and lies than is the priest, because, after all, that’s why we have confession, isn’t it? (In case you’re wondering—I feel his depiction is fairly accurate to the era; the virreyes were known for supporting Juana Inés—that’s pretty much how she managed to make it as long as she did—after all, it would, years later, be a virrey and vireina, leaving Mexico, who would smuggle her books to Spain, where they would be published.) Also, he still looks spectacularly like the man he portrays, which makes me a little more disposed to like him.

Ladies in waiting: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. In the Prado. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There are, naturally, some rather soapy parts to “Para el alma no hay encierro,” a number of which center around Lisa Owen’s Virreina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo. Ah, writers: could we have been less soapy with the middle-aged woman? Now, I am not entirely sure what Juana Inés’s classification at the viceregal court would have been—she’s a tutor, sure, but likely also some manner of lady in waiting or lady of the bedchamber or something—but it might well have been quite natural, given whatever her position was, for her to assist the Virreina in undressing (and in putting on old-timey lotion).9 Or perhaps it was really as startling as Juana Inés’s face tells us it is. Certainly, Leonor Carreto’s hysterical response to the eventual revelation of Juana Inés’s Big Dark Secret (her parents aren’t married! gasp!) is, well, melodramatic, which is kind of irritating given how infrequent well-written middle-aged women are. But Leonor shines as the episode goes on, seeking out Juana Inés like an avenging angel and finally carrying her away just in time to save her life. It’s super dramatic, and pretty much a melodrama, and it’s pretty great.

This might look familiar to you, if you’ve watched Juana Inés and Leonor Carreto when they’ve gone to the cathedral: “Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México. Dorados,” 2012 photo by CPeralta. Wikimedia Commons.

I have little doubt that it will take me a bit to get back to the third episode of Juana Inés, “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,”10 mainly because I need some swashbuckling and also because I just noticed that Rogue One just hit Netflix. The things of which I was unsure during “Miradme Al Menos” remain, as it were, uncertain—but some of that is simply that I am no watcher of soaps, and never have been. In addition to ripping out our hearts, “Para el alma no hay encierro” also sets up the future: we meet a clergyman who will be an important figure going forward (he’s the guy who agrees with the virreina that, oh yeah, can’t have the clergy thinking they’re above the virreyes—which says he, for one, knows how to politic); we see Leonor go from hysterical matron to scheming, avenging angel; we watch Juana Inés topple, only to rise again, thanks, apparently, to whatever Nahautl healing magic11 has been used on her. And the framing device—Arcelia Ramírez’s dying genius, grasping to hold onto books, memories, words, life—remains as heartrending as ever. Our Juana Inés, both the youth and the dying woman, remain a woman, not a hollow figure of national pride.

Sor Juana, painted c. 1680 by Juan de Miranda. Universidad Naciónal Autónoma de México. Wikimedia Commons.

But most, most of all? I love how much respect, and love, the writers and producers and directors have given Juana Inés and her words—her beautiful, strong words, which have come down well more than 300 years, and which remain strong and stirring even now. Her words speak, in her dialog, even in the titles of Juana Inés’s episodes. It isn’t that often I get to partake of my favorite 17th century Spanish-language texts on the small screen, and I do thrill to it.


Notes
1 I say this, of course, as someone who tried to watch Doctor Strange and got bored. Insufficient action, excessive Orientalism. Although I kinda liked the librarian.
2 There have definitely been ninja nuns. Check out Catalina de Erauso, aka La Monja Alférez, aka the Lieutenant Nun, for one sterling example.
3 Romance 42, “A la misma señora (la Condesa de Galve), en ocasión de cumplir años.” 55-56 in the Obras Completas. By Juana Inés de la Cruz.
4 This is, in case you’re wondering, quite true.
5 They include people like Nicolás Augustín Metoyer of Louisiana, mentioned in this article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and in this article from the Washington Post delving into the Metoyer family’s history.
6 Incidentally, Juan Garrido had slaves, at least occasionally, as mentioned by the National Park Service. He was also not the only person of African descent to be in the New Spain region, not by a long shot—there were many other explorers, including Esteban Dorantes. Meanwhile, while there are Afro-Mexicans, Mexico has only recently started officially documenting its citizens of African descent, as discussion in this Huffington Post article; meanwhile, Afro-Mexicans have been deported and forced to sing the national anthem because people don’t believe they are Mexican, as discussed by the BBC here.
7 Dutra, having managed to to buy his freedom and his wife’s, set out buying himself a number of slaves, including some (I think the musicians were among this number) whom he rented out to make more money. You can learn more about Dutra in Dutra’s World.
8 Romance 42, “A la misma señora (la Condesa de Galve), en ocasión de cumplir años.” 55-56 in the Obras Completas. By Juana Inés de la Cruz.
9 I am definitely no expert on ladies in waiting or anything they do. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ These are some pretty good resources about them:

10 Also a line from a poem! This one was written to commemorate the death of the Marquesa de Mancera, our own Leonor Carreto de Toledo. It is the third section of a longer sonnet: “En la muerte de la Excelentísima Señora Marquesa de Mancera.” Here’s the stanza from which lágrimas negras hails:

Muera mi lira infausta en que influíste
ecos, que lamentables te vocean,
y hasta estos rasgos mal formados sean
lágrimas negras de mi pluma triste.
Juana Inés de la Cruz, from “En la Muerte de la Excelentísima Señora Marquesa de Mancera,” 155-156 in the Obras Completas.

11 All I could think of was this trope, largely because of the way it was handled (and the way Juana Inés has skirted race through both “Miradme Al Menos” and “Para el alma no hay encierro”).

For More Information


Suggested Reading

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. The Answer/La Respuesta, trans. & ed. by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell.  2nd ed., The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009.

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. Obras Completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Porrua, 2007.

Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created. Random House, 2011.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las Trampas de la Fé. 1982. Fondo de Cultural Económica, 1995.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Or, the Traps of Faith.

Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Mariner Books, 2016.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford, 2003.

Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 1985.


Previously
Episode 1

Finding Dankmar Adler in Chicago

Photo of Dankmar Adler taken sometime before his death. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dankmar Adler, that genius of acoustical engineering, was born on July 3, 1844—one hundred seventy-three years ago, today. The Chicago History Museum fêted him, but it’s well possible that if you’re not a Chicagoan, or not an architecture fan,1 you’ve never heard of him. He was an acoustic genius, the acoustics consultant for Carnegie Hall2; the synagogue he built for his father would become the birthplace of gospel. He elevated Sullivan’s lacy architectural fantasies to genius levels after himself bringing Sullivan on, but after an economic downturn, Sullivan would never let him return to the practice, damaging both men, rather irreparably.3 And, as is far too often the case, much of his work has been torn down—but, to our fortune, much of it remains, too. Here are three of those Chicago survivors.

Auditorium Theatre & Building (Roosevelt University)

The Auditorium Building, as seen from Congress across Michigan. Image by Wikipedian Victor Grigas, 30 June 2012.

By the time Roosevelt University bought the Auditorium Building for $1, it had really been through the wringer. Now, slowly but surely, it’s being restored to its original glory, or at least something close. (And it is really, really beautiful—probably the nicest building in which anyone could go to college. Just saying.) The theatre is stunning, a work of architectural and acoustical genius—it is, in fact, the reason Adler got that job as a consultant to Carnegie Hall, and is frequently studied by concert hall architects even now. I like to think that Adler and Sullivan, who built it with dreams of egalitarian glory, would be pleased to know that the building now houses a college based on social justice for all. You’ll find it at 430 S. Michigan, kitty-corner (and a couple blocks) across from the Art Institute, and you’ll likely know it even if you’ve never seen it before: it’s been in its share of movies.

A photo of the Auditorium Theatre stage, 1890. Library of Congress Historic Buildings Survey photo by JW Taylor. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville

In better days: Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1964. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by Harold Allen. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Pilgrim Baptist is one of the saddest of our sad tales of architectural despair, as well as one I’ve covered several times: it was nearly destroyed in a fire, careless roofers destroying the building that was once a synagogue (Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue) and then the birthplace, thanks to its music director, of gospel. I still hope that, some day in the future, someone will bring it back to life. It deserves to have music lift its rafters, not fire. Meanwhile, it sits,4 a despairing hulk, at 3300 S. Indiana, on the corner of Indiana and Martin Luther King Drive, just a bit away from the lake.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. 2016 photo by Jim Roberts. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I know Ebenezer Missionary Baptist5 a little better than I know some of Adler’s work: my mother performs in it often enough to be well-versed in its acoustics, still crystalline after nearly 120 years. This is a late Adler, built after his split with Sullivan, and once again originally a synagogue (Isaiah Temple, once upon a time), and it’s gospel’s birthplace, or at least its childhood home. My mother has said the building runs towards the spare (I don’t know if others would agree with her), but her focus is, and always will be, on the voice of the building, and the voice it gives her instrument, and, as was Adler’s way, Ebenezer Missionary’s voice is still clear, all these years later. You’ll find it at 4501 S. Vincennes, also in Bronzeville.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, 2015 image by John W. Iwanskifrom Flickr.

There are a few more Adler buildings throughout Chicago—some churches, a few remnants of the Adler and Sullivan stock exchange at the Art Institute—enough to give one a taste, as it were, of Adler’s rather extraordinary mind for sound waves. They’re all worth a visit, right down to the rather incredible room, lifted directly from the stock exchange and set down in the Art Institute for anyone to see, as long as they can find it. (I finally went in; naturally I recommend it to others.)

So here’s to Dankmar Adler, Jewish immigrant,  genius engineer and architect, whose works became cradles of a great new American music, and whose buildings remain, as they have always been, spaces of great and pure acoustic beauty, created by a man with an understanding of sound to be filled with music and with life.


1 And how can one be a Chicagoan and not an architecture buff?
2 Notes from both “Origins of Modern Architecture,” fall 2008, and “Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture,” spring 2009, both taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by Timothy Wittman.
3 Ibid.
4 There was a recent attempt to tear the church down; it failed to acquire a permit. I continue to hope that Pilgrim Baptist will, one day soon, come back from the edge of the grave.
5 There is a lot of information out there about Ebenezer, because it is a well-loved building. Here are a few sites:

Miradme Al Menos: Juana Inés on Netflix

Frontispiece, Fama y Obras Póstumas del Fenix de México. Madrid, 1689. From Wikimedia Commons.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, la Décima Musa, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, looms large in the study of the literature of the Siglo de Oro. Hers is often the first woman’s voice we find, in a litany of men; forcefully Juana Inés reminds us of a woman’s genius, and a woman’s perseverance, against great—and ultimately insurmountable—odds. She is, in short, much more immediately important to me than is Simón Bolívar, libertador and subject of a flagrantly inaccurate adaption—but I have watched María Luisa Bemberg’s Yo, La Peor de Todas, and I’ve read Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las Trampas de la Fé,1 as one does—and now, finally, an age after it showed up in my queue, I’m watching the new Netflix/Canal Once production of Juana Inés. I know how this story must end—all of us do, and all of us know her confession, some of us by heart—and so the interest here lies in how this new show will depict Juana Inés’s life, and her genius, and her eventual doom.

The hacienda where Juana Inés grew up: “Frontispicio de la hacienda de Panoaya, en Amecameca, Estado de México, que perteneció al abuelo de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” 26 January 2006. Image by Wikipedian AdamcastforthWikimedia Commons.

The first episode of Juana Inés is a command: “Miradme Al Menos,” which I would translate as “At least look at me!” and which Netflix has translated as “At Least Look Unto Me.” (Okeydokey, Netflix.) Our young protagonist will repeat the phrase, repeatedly, in various forms but always as a command, throughout that first episode: at least look at me, she demands, as men ignore her, and turn away from her, and try to decide her life without ever acknowledging her humanity, let alone her mind.

Viceroy at the time Juana Inés came to the court: Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo, 25th Viceroy of New Spain, Marques of Máncera and Grande of Spain, in a 17th century portrait currently housed in the Salón de Virreyes. Juana Inés really nailed this guy’s look, in case you’re wondering. Wikimedia Commons.

This Juana Inés is not yet the Décima Musa, the woman whose salons were known through Mexico’s cultured elite—and, though they were held in a convent, attended by many of the country’s greatest minds, criollos and peninsulares2 alike. Instead, she’s a child, a genius who happens to be a woman in an era in which women are, as the vierrey periodically reminds his court, supposed to be more decorative motif than greatest mind of the century.

Juana Inés thinks it’s absurd that women aren’t allowed into libraries: women, too, are rational beings. From link.

We follow Juana Inés from her aunt and uncle’s home—she’s been sent there by her mother, who lives in the country, as one does when one has been the mistress of a soldier and has his illegitimate children—to the viceregal court in Distrito Federal, through streets littered by the officials of the Santo Oficio (the Inquisition, also known as the Santa Inquisición), led by one Antonio Núñez de Miranda, a Jesuit priest who is definitely gonna be a problem later one (Juana Inés lets us know this right away, so even if we didn’t already know Juana Inés’s story, we’d know Padre Núñez de Miranda was bad news. After all, the bugger is burning books when we meet him—if it’s not on the okay list, it goes.) We also meet Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora3—it’s his books that Núñez de Miranda is burning. He’s another who will figure in throughout Juana Inés’s story—I’m curious to see how the writers will develop him, and their friendship, as the series goes on.

Escena de Inquisión, by Francisco Goya. 1646. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Juana’s youth is framed by an older Juana, on her deathbed, remembering her life. It’s pretty jarring, at least for me: the hero, brought low, as a framing device for the heroic journey. But her youth itself is a framing device: the show rather brilliantly puts in place the pieces that will make up the adult Juana Inés, from her pride in her Mexican identity (“soy criolla,” she tells a Spaniard) to her linguistic abilities (she speaks Nahault because, as she tells another character, it is the language of the land); from her belief in women’s rights to her aggressive genius, it’s all there: her hero’s journey, and her doom, set from the moment she walks into the viceregal court.

Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656-1657. Wikimedia Commons.

The viceregal court was simultaneously terrific—it looks like something out of Velázquez! it’s incredible!—and also kinda weird. Juana probably had men propose to her—she was a great favorite, after all—but my interest lay, after all, in her words, and in her rather blasé acknowledgement that she joined a convent because of her “absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage” and because, above all, she wanted to live alone and quietly, where nothing “would disturb the freedom my freedom to study.”4 Which is to say, in short, I don’t think she’d be jumping for joy at the thought of marriage to anyone, let alone a guy who writes iffy poems. I was also a little unsure of the viceroy’s mistress, who is clearly out to cause problems—I think she’s artistic license, which makes sense, but I’m not so sure about her. I’ll see what she does in the next episode. (Also, her blondness is rather eye-catching, in a dark-haired court—apparently the viceroy’s got a thing for blondes.)

An idea of the virreina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo: Diego Velázquez’s La Enfanta María Teresa de España, 1652-1653. Wikimedia Commons

From the vicereina to Juana Inés, from the ladies in waiting to the viceroys’ daughter María, “Miradme Al Menos” is filled with women clawing their way through a world distinctly hostile to them. The mistress, what’s her name, uses her body and her spying abilities to try to push herself into the graces of the viceroy and of Núñez de Miranda. The vicereina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo, uses her considerable intelligence and political acumen to try to protect her daughter—she would not seek a better tutor were she not trying to make her daughter something more—and to try to make her own life a little better. She’s a long way from home, is Leonor, in a very different world, and she’s trying her damndest to make it work (although she also calls theirs “this shitty court,” so, you know, she’s not trying to love it or anything like that). Also she looks like she stepped out of a painting by Velázquez.

Clawing one’s way up, by whatever means necessary. From link.

Juana, of course, is something special, even in a world filled with women trying to survive (and to keep their minds from atrophying). She’s an aggressive kid, a genius who knows it, and who has been raised by people who recognized her genius and, for the most part, try to help her on her way, while simultaneously protecting her from an ugly world. I don’t recall precisely why she was tested, by forty of Mexico’s greatest (male) minds—they really did it up, in that there shitty court—but, although I don’t really think it was about tutoring at all, it is very much part of her mythos,5 it isn’t the worst framing device, and fits the story building in Juana Inés rather well. Her snappy dialogue and sly mastery of a bunch of dudebros who expect to drown her with their superiority might seem impossible for a teenager (although I’d argue one has only to actually listen to them to realize that it is not), but it fits with Juana Inés’s writing—she always had a brilliant voice, and would have had it ready to command, although not yet fully matured, when she was “tested,” at 15 or 17, by forty men who wanted her to fail.

Before the test. From link.

One of Juana Inés’s many snappy quotes comes on the theme of obedience, which has never been her strong suit. The words the scriptwriters have given her are a foreshadowing of her great Respuesta, written in 1691, in which she vigorously defends the right of a woman to an education. In fact, Juana Inés will say that it is God’s will that a woman be educated, for did not God give her her mind?6 So, in the flower of her youth, as a teen who manages to be simultaneously assured, even aggressive, and as uncertain as any other teenager, Juana tells Núñez de Miranda that there is no higher love than that of God, and so she will obey God before she will obey him. The most chilling thing about Hernán del Riego’s depiction of Antonio Núñez de Miranda is probably his absolute faith: he’s going to break her, sure, but he’s only doing it to save her soul! That fanaticism makes him rather a terrifying figure.

Confronting Núñez de Miranda. From link

Juana Inés, of course, is magnificent in her confrontation with Núñez de Miranda: her mother is, she says, “una gran mujer, aunque pobre e ignorante”—a great woman, albeit poor and uneducated. She is willing to stand up for her unwed mother, to risk the censure of priests and society to insist on Isabel Ramírez’s greatness. Her speech, and her defiance, is itself a foreshadowing of one of her great poems, “Hombres necios,” in which she points out that the man is always let off easy, while the woman, no matter what she does, must suffer the consequences. (Her father, after all, was presumably still cavorting around the Spanish Empire, military rank intact.) These nods to the poetry and prose of the Décima Musa come throughout the episode, from nods to the Respuesta and “Hombres necios” to, when she critiques the viceregal court, “A Su Retratro” foretold, in its full grim glory.

The courtyard of the Palacio Nacional (the former viceroys’ residence). National Palace, Mexico. 2012 image by Rob Young. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I had a few quibbles, particularly at the very end of the episode. I don’t see Juana Inés, young or old, as the kind of woman who would throw herself into a man’s arms—any man’s arms, even if he did write iffy poetry in her honor. She was a brilliant woman—she knew what being a bastard meant for her marriage prospects. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to join a convent as a nun because of her illegitimacy, which is why she professos herself “hija legítima de Don Pedro de Asbaje y Vargas Machuca y de Isabel Ramírez”7—the lie gave her a chance at a life. The passage of time is also a bit of an issue: one presumes time has passed, but there is no real evidence of it in the dreamy world of the court, where it is always spring, or summer. (Did this gachupín8 really fall in love with our heroine in, like, a week? One hopes not.) Another quibble comes in the confrontation with Antonio Núñez de Miranda: he claims that Juana Inés’s father is the local priest, who is also de Asbaje! (Cue the drumroll, please.) This is presumably being done for dramatic effect, but I am wary of where it could go. So far, Juana Inés has also avoided thorny discussions of race in New Spain. I don’t recall when, exactly, she was “gifted” another human, but I do know Juana took a slave with her to the convent.

Statue of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in Madrid. 2011 image by Wikipedian Drow male. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The show touches on Juana’s linguistic abilities, primarily her ability to speak Nahautl9; she apologizes to a Nahautl man, which seems fitting for a woman who wrote poetry in the Nahautl language, but it still glosses over the realities of life for Afro-Mexicans and indigenous and mestizo Mexicans. It will be interesting to see how the show deals with race as it continues on through Juana Inés’s life and career. I’m also not quite sure about the focus, from what’s her name the mistress, Núñez de Miranda, and the viceroy, on Juana Inés’s poetry for the vicereina—back in the day, it was the done thing to write what was essentially love poetry to one’s patron, and I’m not sure if a man as intelligent and cultured as one presumes the viceroy would have to be would truly be unaware of such literary conventions. But it is certainly possible, and could be a decent foil going forward.

Retrato de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1680, by Juan de Miranda. Wikimedia Commons.

So, for once, I’m really excited about an adaption, although I doubt that I will marathon this one as I marathon nearly everything else—I’m taking way too many notes, and revising too much old research, for that. Juana Inés is, thus far, a remarkable humanization of a woman who has become more symbol than human: the Décima Musa as a child, genius but also unsure, capable of smirking when the displaced mistress calls her names but also capable of fear and uncertainty. So far, in fact, I’ve thought a lot of Marina Warner’s Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form—Sor Juana has come down to us as something of an allegory, her statues and her face on currency less woman than symbol of something else, and something greater. Juana Inés, however, is trying to resurrect the woman, and the girl, behind that symbol, and so far, it is doing rather a good job.


For More Information


End Notes

1 Generally considered the definitive biography of Sor Juana.
2 “Criollo,” or “creole,” means, in this context, a person of Spanish descent born in the Americas. It will become increasingly important in the days to come, as creoles—including people like Sor Juana and her circle—begin to define a “creole identity.” And remember Simón Bolívar? It’ll really come into its own with the Revolutions.
3 Sigüenza y Góngora will eventually get kicked out of the Jesuit order—I’m really curious to see if this gets a mention in Juana Inés.
4 The Answer/La Respuesta, translated by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell. 51.
5 It’s worth noting that this episode is first written down in the biography that went in with her poetry, and that it was part of the effort to prove that, as Electa Arenal and Stephanie Powell write, “nothing in its pages went against church teachings” (3)—important for a world under the sway of the Inquisition.
6 See The Answer/La Respuesta.
7 Quoted from Autobiographical Writing by Early Modern Hispanic Women by Elizabeth Teresa Howe, 196.
8 A less than complimentary term for a Spaniard living in the Americas but born in Spain. This one was more used during the move towards independence.
9 As Arenal & Powell point out, Juana Inés also spoke various languages and dialects, including “African, and … rural dialects” (3). Juana Inés could have gone even further with the whole linguistic genius thing, basically.


Bibliography

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. The Answer/La Respuesta, trans. & ed. by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell.  2nd ed., The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009.

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. Obras Completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Porrua, 2007.

Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 1985.


Episode II

Young Adult Fiction About Migration, Immigration, and Refuge(es), I

A little more than a month ago, an American hopped up on xenophobia shot up two men from India and another man who tried to stop him, killing one. Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to swirl, and hate groups are at a horrifying high. Books can help bring us together; fiction may acually make us better people. It makes sense, then, to me, to turn to books during times like these; to seek out, and suggest, those books which may help us better understand immigrants, and refugees, and those who migrate, even within the same country.

I first read Pam Muñoz Ryan‘s middle grade novel Esperanza Rising shortly after it was published, in the early 2000s. It has stuck with me, powerfully, ever since. It’s set during the Great Depression, in Aguascalientes and then in the San Joaquín Valley in California, and readers follow Esperanza Ortega from her life as a spoiled child of privilege in Aguascalientes through a desperate flight to the United States following her father’s murder. Readers go into the camps where Mexican agricultural laborers live and watch la migra—today’s ICE—as they raid, harass, and bully the laborers. Perhaps the most incredible element of Esperanza Rising? It is told through a child’s eyes (Esperanza is only 15 at book’s end), and, as I remember it, at least, it really does read like a child’s perspective on immigration. It is also a Pura Belpré Award Winner, for those interested in reading up on diverse award winners.

Just because.

You may well have heard Nicola Yoon‘s name: her first book, Everything, Everythingis being made into a movie, and her second, The Sun Is Also a Star, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award For New Talent. It is about The Sun Is Also a Star that I am going to write today. You see, it brings us multiple angles on this theme of migration and immigration and Americanness, and many of them are rarely, if ever, really discussed. The hero, Daniel, is Korean-American; his parents want him to be a doctor, but he’s a poet at heart. The heroine, Natasha, is Jamaican-American; she came young to this country, and is a brilliant student, aiming for the stars, or at least the sun. But she is also, through no fault of her own, undocumented. The Sun Is Also a Star is the story of the luminous, terrifying day during which Natasha and Daniel fall in love, while Natasha is trying desperately to save herself from deportation. (You’re going to cry. And also laugh. And wince.) There’s an added layer of realism to this story: in the words of interviewer Ibi Zoboi (this name will come up again, fyi): “You share a letter to the reader at the beginning of the book about how you and your husband first met. Your name is Nicola and you are Jamaican American, just like Natasha in your novel. Your husband’s name is David and he is Korean American, just like Daniel in your novel.” Zoboi goes on to ask if the novel is autobiographical; Ms. Yoon says that “all evidence to the contrary, the novel is not autobiographical,” but that it “was definitely inspired by the spirit of our relationship.” Ms. Yoon’s books have an almost ethereal, luminous quality—one which I am hoping translates to the screen—and, true to form, The Sun Is Also a Star is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. It’s also an amazing window into what young Americans like the DREAMers must feel. (And, for those who like to know these things: it has starred reviews from KirkusBooklist, and Publishers Weekly.)

Melissa De La Cruz‘s novel Something In Between is, in a way, very similar to Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. Like Natasha, Jasmine de los Santos is an exemplary American girl, smart and college-bound. She is, in the words of one of the quotes De La Cruz uses to preface her novel, almost “more American than people born here.” She is also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, although she, like Natasha, does not at first know this. Unlike Natasha, Jasmine learns about her status during the course of the novel. Adding to her angst, she falls in love with the wrong guy: a dude whose father happens to be a congressman who doesn’t believe in immigration reform (and, indeed, works against it). This is very much a romance; Booklist says that “At its gooey heart, this is a love story suited for romance-thirsty teens,” but reviews from Booklist to Publishers’ Weekly to Kirkus all mention that one will probably learn something from it, too, even if Kirkus thinks it’s way too optimistic. This one is very much a happy ending; it will likely make for a satisfying read, and will provide another window into the life of a young American without papers.

Remember Ibi Zoboi, who interviewed Nicola Yoon about The Sun Is Also a Star? Well, she’s back: she wrote the intense American Street, a novel about a young Haitian woman, Fabiola (or Fab) Toussaint, who comes to the United States with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. But there is a sudden, horrible catch: Fabiola has the proper documentation, and is sent ahead to Detroit—but, somehow, Manman does not, and is detained, thrusting Fabiola alone into a brave and frightening new world. American Street reminds me of some of the contemporary Latin American novels I’ve read; I would call parts of it magical realism, except I think back to what a professor once said—how can it be magical realism if it is one’s belief?—and am hesitant to do so, as Zoboi, through Fabiola, calls up Haitian spirits and traditional beliefs to help her survive Detroit. American Street actually has some similarities with The Hate U Give—it, too, touches on the horrors of structural racism and police brutality. It is rather a tour de force. It has also been reviewed well: Publishers WeeklyKirkusand Booklist all accord it starred reviews.

I have not read Alexandra Diaz‘s The Only Road; it is, however, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and, while Kirkus calls it “A deft, harrowing, yet formulaic sketch of a complex subject,” the blog Latinos in Kidlit gave it a positive review, while it garnered a starred one from BooklistThe Only Road takes its middle-grade readers on a journey from Guatemala to the United States, as young Jaime must escape violence at home before it kills him, too. It is a timely book—think of the children fleeing violence in Central America who have come to the U.S.—and will offer readers a window into a world with which they probably are not particularly familiar. Another Pura Belpré winner, the translated I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Chilean-American academic and writer Marjorie Agosín, offers its readers a look at Chile during the years of the dictatorship, and follows its young heroine to the United States as well. Its reviews mention that it may be intimidating, but Publishers WeeklyKirkus, and the Jewish Book Council all give it strong reviews.

Lithuanian-American Ruta Sepetys calls herself, on her website, a “seeker of lost stories.” Certainly her novels about the human costs of World War II, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, are such lost stories, sought and remembered. I’ll slide away from objectivity here: I loved both Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. They shattered my heart, and I learned a lot from them. Between Shades of Gray follows a young Lithuanian girl, Lina Vilkas, after her father, a math professor, is detained by the Soviet secret police and her mother and brother are sent to Siberia. (My middle name comes in part from a Polish resistance fighter who happened to be a family friend, which might make these stories more intense for me.) It is a story of horror and depravity, but also of humanity and, surprising in those shades of gray, of hope.

Salt to the Sea, meanwhile, showcases several different people—Joana, Lina’s cousin and a nurse; German resistor Florian, fleeing for his life; Polish Emilia, fighting for her life and struggling against the crimes committed against her; and Alfred, a sadistic young Nazi—as they struggle through the end of the war in Prussia. They will all embark upon the Wilhelm Gustloff—and anyone who knows maritime history will know what comes next. (I cried my eyes out anyway, but, because this is Sepetys’ gift, there is still hope.) Both Between Shades of Gray (which definitely isn’t 50 Shades, sorry not sorry) and Salt to the Sea offer a glimpse into the darkness that drives people from their homes. Between Shades of Gray gets starred reviews from Publishers WeeklyKirkusand BooklistKirkus gives Salt to the Sea a strong review, Publishers Weekly and Booklist starred ones. Though both are set in the 1940s, and in Europe, both are a pretty stark reminder of the dangerous facing refugees, and of the reasons why people leave.

I think Warsan Shire has probably written the ultimate contemporary explanation of why one would leave home; there is a reason her poem “Home,” with its reminder that “you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay” has been spoken at protests and held up by asylum seekers. The novels I’ve suggested here are not, to be sure, Shire’s “Home”—but they are strong works, pieces that can help us to better understand the lives of others,1 and the realities of our world. And, of course, there are more out there.


1 By the way there’s an amazing German movie called The Lives of Others. It is very much worth watching.

Art & Politics: An Introduction

Periodically, things go the rounds on social media, promising to break up the monotony of our dinners, or bad dates, or, now, our political postings, with art and music! Because who doesn’t want to see art and music in their timeline, amirite?! I mean, how could I argue with this? Art is beautiful! I have a degree in art history! I love early modern and colonial literature because the visual is so important!

But I can totally argue with it. Part of it, of course, is just that I’m a fighter, apparently, and arm myself with facts and data and critical theories to tilt at the windmills of bad and misleading information. (I often feel rather a lot like this and this, to be frank.) But the other part? It’s quite simple, actually: this is a bullshit theory. The arts are always political. Continue reading

Silence Against the Day

… I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” 30 April 1967

I have thought a great deal, of late, about the Moors and the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and about their expulsion from their own countries, the lands where they were born and where they had lived for, in many cases, generations. I’ve often wondered what I’d do, in a similar position. After all, the ancestors I can trace—most of them, given my brother S’s diligence—came to this continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all arriving prior to the Revolution (in which, of course, they fought). As far as I know, there are no cousins left abroad, no family members with whom to seek temporary shelter. Continue reading

Beyond the Caldecott (and the Nobel)

There are a number of very famous literary awards out there, from the Caldecotts and Newberys of children’s literature fame to the Man Bookers, the Hugos, and the Pulitzers—not to mention the Nobels—of adult literature. They award many great authors; they sometimes make incredibly bizarre choices (see the Nobel award for “literature,” 2016). They often do not, however, do a grand job of selecting representative fiction—which is to say, of course, that, despite problems in the industry, far more than men (often of one race, writing about other men) write great literary works. (There are some bright spots: Paul Beatty won the 2016 Man Booker prize for a novel about race in America! The National Book Awards celebrated diverse voices!)

However, there are also literary prizes out there which seek to recognize everything from literature celebrating the Arab-American experience to literature offering strong representations of characters with disabilities. I have tried to pull together as many of these diverse literary award winners in one space as I could; perhaps they can be among your 2017 reading challenges. The awards here include those specifically focusing upon adult’s and children’s literature, as well as awards which celebrate both.

I will edit the list with additional awards as I find them.

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Christmas 2016 for Depressed Grinches

I’m dubious about the Christmas season, which might be why I really like “Nicholas Was,” the adaption of a Neil Gaiman poem, above, from 39 Degrees North. Holidays are really weird when you’re a musician’s kid: they are your bread and butter, after all, but they’re also definitely not “days off.” (To wit: my mother’s currently performing at a midnight mass; I, obviously, am sitting up, as I’ve done since I was maybe six months old. Since it’s midnight I am no longer watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, since that doesn’t seem quite appropriate, but I am considering Troll Hunters. One must do something, after all.)

From link.

I also never believed in Santa Claus. There are, after all, zero peer-reviewed sources to back up his existence. 😛

Victorian Christmas Card

So I actually like this one. Image from Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr.

Did you know that old-timey Christmas cards were gloriously, well, disturbing? They’re pretty amazing, actually. Hyperallergic has helpfully compiled numerous examples in “Have a Creepy Little Christmas with these Unsettling Victorian Cards,” which are well and truly unsettling. I definitely recommend a look, particularly if you like Victorian oddities (I do) and if you have a slightly warped sense of humor. (And definitely check out the originating links! Many, like this one, have all sorts of awesome images.)

Image from the Lily Library, Indiana University.

Want even more bizarre Christmas greetings? Check out Hyperallergic’s compilation of Victorian dead birds on Christmas cards. Because of course the Victorians put dead birds on Christmas cards. The cards at this compilation are often tamer; after all, they’re looking at cards as “aesthetic objects,” per the article’s title.

A 20th-Century Krampus with a bunch of babies who Just Don’t Care. Wikimedia Commons.

Are you in the mood for an evil Santa? Look no further than Krampus, who is apparently out to get you! And Krampus is definitely creepy, as demonstrated in these amazing photos from—you guessed it—a series of Krampus parades.Want more on Krampus? Here’s a National Geographic article from 2015, and a book, published just this year.

The Mari Lwyd is watching you! 2011 photo by Wikipedian R. fiend. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Considering that the deeply horrifying Mari Lwyd is still very much a part of Welsh celebrations, even though it is clearly delineated as evilevilevil in Silver on the Tree, the clear expert in all such matters, this sort of parade makes a weird kind of sense. Also! The Mari Lwyd is itself a horrifying Christmas tradition! (It is likely someone’s favorite tradition; unfortunately, as someone with an amazing imagination and a fear of the dark, as well as an excellent memory for novels, it scares the daylights out of me.)

One cannot forget the medieval artists who were apparently often trippin’ while they were creating their masterpieces. Luckily, sources such as Marginalia and Discarding Images help out with a steady stream of fabulously bizarre blasts from the past.

Truly horrified mother and infant, anyone?

I have so many thoughts about this one, but I’ll leave it at this: what fascinating syncretism we have on display here!

Here’s another absolutely glorious old illumination, courtesy of Marginalia. I am amazed, and know not what to say. (Also, the anatomy is definitely not right.)

As a musician’s kid, I intensely dislike the piped carols with which stores assault our ears starting in October or November. However! I do like some holiday music!

I’ve probably mentioned Apollo’s Fire before. They’re an amazing Baroque orchestra; their theatricality and musicality make for a spectacle in the truest sense of the word.

“Kuando El Rey” has zero to do with Hanukkah, which started Christmas Eve; however, it’s really pretty, and it’s old Sephardic music, which we don’t often hear. And I’m a colonialist, and a medievalist, and I can’t resist this sort of music. Incidentally, it has an interesting history; the lyrics are written in Ladino, and the song itself dates to…sometime or other, before the expulsion or after. Different sites have different ideas. Also, for those interested: it’s performed by different groups here, here, and here, among others.)

From link.

Gifs are an excellent way to celebrate anything, are they not?

From link.

From link.

This isn’t exactly “holiday,” but so what! From link.

(I mean, my cat actually takes ornaments off the tree, which is why we have none until like three feet up, but.)

From link.

And, finally, for all your holiday questions: here is Geoffrey Chaucer offering sound advice, courtesy of NPR!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Festivus for the Restivus, and happy day off (if you have one) regardless of what you celebrate. And, on a different note, the Thorne Rooms are decorated for the season, and they’re charming as ever—a wonderful respite from an unhappy world.

Merry Socially Conscious Winter Holidays!

It’s almost the end of this trash-fire year! Which means we get to embark on a whole new trash fire, far, far too soon. So, this burning year from hell is about to end (and merge into more hell, unless there’s a miracle). But, if you are here, you presumably care about human rights, and about people who might not look like you. You might even want to have young folks in your life read about great moments in American history, such as the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the recently gutted Voting Rights Act, which was, while we had it, a shining testament to what we could be as a country.

Interested in last-minute, socially conscious reads that are also fun and engaging? Have no fear! There are booklists aplenty to help with your selection. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center—the very place where my grandmother long did cataloging—has compiled an incredible list of “50 Books About Peace and Social Justice.” They range from picture books for munchkins to early and middle grades, on up to high school. Many—maybe even most—of the books on the list are real, actual award winners, too. And many deal with histories, often dark ones, in which young people took a stand. Sometimes it cost them a lot—think of the White Rose. Sometimes it cost them liberty, at least for a time, but not life (see the young folks behind the Churchill Club). And, often, they were the only people to take such a stand, and, by their daring, helped sway the course of history. And did you know that before Brown v. Board of Education there was Mendez v. Westminster? Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old when she became the face of that early step on the fight for integrated schools, yet another reminder of the incredible bravery of young children in this ongoing fight for equality.

Working with really young kids? A lot of the books on the CCBC list, ranging from Last Stop on Market Street and Drum Dream Girl to What Does Peace Feel Like? and Each Kindness, are definitely for the wee ones—just check the suggested age ranges, which the CCBC, naturally, includes. But are you interested in even more suggestions for the picture-book set? Well, no worries. Despite part of its machinery clanging to appeasement, ALA is a vast creature of many parts. One of said parts, the Association for Library Service to Children, or ALSC, has released its own booklist, called “Unity. Kindness. Peace.” It’s available as either a webpage or a pdf, and, from what I can tell, all the included books both encourage empathy and are geared towards the young. We none of us, I think, want to see an uptick in bullying—yet are very much seeing such an uptick. Need I remind anyone, as someone who still has scars from bullying, that it is profoundly damaging? That its scars sink deep and last forever?1

Teens and Up (Or, the Bulk of This Document)

Looking for books for teens and adult people? Again, the CCBC has some really amazing suggestions. I have additional suggestions. Many of the authors listed—those I know best include Matt de la Peña, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, Sharon Creech, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Marjane Satrapi—write extensively on themes pertaining to human rights. Sandra Cisneros, she of The House on Mango Street, is another excellent choice. (I love Mango Street; I also own Woman Hollering Creek, which I think is marvelous—I am a fan of vignettes and of short stories.) Kekla Magoon consistently tackles hard topics; she even has a pair of books—The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets—about race, gender, and politics in 1968 Chicago, following the assassination of Martin Luther King and around the time of the infamous convention.

Did you know Asian-Americans have been a part of the United States for a long, long time? Stacey Lee‘s award-winning novels, including Outrun the Moon, about a Chinese-American teenager working her way up through the social strata in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, and Under a Painted Sky, about two girls—one Chinese-American, the other African-American—who work together to survive the Oregon Trail, cover some of this history, bringing to light contributions of people many of us never thought were there at all. (A reminder: Asians—largely Chinese—worked on the railroads alongside my Irish ancestors.) The Secret of a Heart Note is coming soon; it appears to be contemporary magical realism, and, I’m glad to say, it’s already been well-reviewed, by no less than Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death is, at first glance, perhaps an odd suggestion: it is a fantasy, a high-stakes “game” played by Love and Death, immortals who chose their players…and set them against one another. It is Seattle in the 1930s; Henry, a young white man, and Flora, a young African-American woman, are their unwitting pawns. They must choose each other, and love…or one must die. In the midst of this rather horrifying game, the reader learns a great deal, both about the place and the time and about racism, sexism, and constructions of gender (check out Henry, who is a sensitive, gentle sort of guy). I will, for once, spare you the total spoiler; I’ll just say that this book, which has won its share of awards, made me cry. A lot. It probably sounds like a horrifying premise, but, goodness, what a lovely book.

Similarly, Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers is a strange, lyrical fantasy, one delving deeply into belonging, hate, love, and bigotry. The feud between Palomas and Corbeaus seems almost mythic, a thing of legend, living and awful, feeding on the irrationality of generations, yet Lace Palmoa and Cluck Corbeau are drawn together against all odds and despite the years of hate that should simmer in their blood. They move through a world that is like and yet unlike ours, filled as it is with casual magics; but the hate and bigotry and irrationality with which they must contend is something all of us will know, all too well.

Looking for love stories? Jenny Han is a great place to start. Sara Farizan’s Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel features the coming of age of a young woman of Persian background who is interested in girls (and worried about what will happen should it get out to her classmates); Becky Albertalli’s award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a particularly sweet romance, deals with bullying, race, and class, as well as homophobia. (And it ends happily! Promise!) Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, has come to me highly recommended by the teens for whom it was written.

The Blacksad series, graphic novels featuring a hard-boiled anthropomorphized black cat detective named Blacksad, are hard and intense and beautiful, homage to the old noir school and also a testament to the ways in which we can incorporate history and social commentary into graphic novels featuring talking, suit-clad animals. While I suggest all the Blacksad novels, starting at the beginning—because I always start that way—Arctic Nation, with its emphasis on the horrors of racism and segregation, is particularly chilling and apropos.

There are also, maybe in the vein of The Weight of Feathers, dark love stories. Libba Bray’s Diviners seriesThe Diviners, followed by Lair of Dreams, with more, eventually, to come—follows a diverse group of “diviners” as they work together against rising evil…but, since they are a diverse group, our heroes must also contend with the daily evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia, among other petty human hates. Leigh Bardugo’s shattering Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows followed by Crooked Kingdom—pits a diverse group of “criminals”—including a dyslexic—against a corrupt merchant class, grown fat and venal on the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. (I’d argue that the “crooked kingdom” of the title could very well refer more to those venal merchants who abuse their labor.)

Cat Winters’ The Steep and Thorny Way is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The heroine’s African-American father, murdered, walks the crossroads, seeking justice and his daughter’s safety; the man accused of his murder escapes, and tells his daughter, a biracial girl in a racist town, that he is innocent: the Klan is behind her father’s death. The darkening atmosphere balances with our protagonists, who must outrace time and try to hide from the KKK to find out what really happened. Even darker is Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning novel built around a historical school bombing in Texas. A word of warning: while the protagonists are sweet, and deeply in love, this one is a tragedy. (Pérez has other books that are not quite so tragic; they all look pretty good.)

The newest Captain America on the block, Sam Wilson, must also make an appearance; he is a true Captain America of our age, like Luke Cage a heroic Black man, standing, as it were, not only for that old, trite saying of truth, justice, and the American way, but for an American way that includes liberté, égalité, and fraternité: one in which racism will surely one day fall beneath his boot—or perhaps beneath Misty Knight’s. M. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel features another bright young hero, Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teenager by day, superhero by night. There’s the new Black Panther…and the Avengers have assembled to fight white supremacy. (I think I am going to just go ahead and order that one, actually.)

And, on this theme of superheroes who look like the country at large (check out the adventures of Super Indian while you’re at it! And, coming soon, a whole comic book about Choctaw code talkers!), don’t forget mild-mannered Hank Chu, just trying to do his thing in China Town, LA…while being a superhero at night. Gene Luen Yang has told his story in The Shadow Hero, and it is definitely worth a read. Hank is heroic and an angsty teenager…and he must contend with racism and even class issues as he navigates both his day-time life and his superhero world, into which his mother, who has a thing for superheroes, has thrust him. (Well, also an old deal his father made—but you’ll have to read it to find that part out.)

Shadow Hero is really important to me for a couple of reasons. The first is super simple and not deeply emotional: I liked it. The second is deeper, harder to explain, and deeply emotional. The building of my childhood was quite diverse; if it was majority-anything, it was majority-Asian—but there the majorities tended to fall away, as there were people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia, Indonesia, the Philippines. I didn’t realize, because I was a clueless kid, that there was anything unusual about this; it was something I accepted, just like I accepted the decades-long cold war between my grandmother and her next-door neighbor. I was pretty old—I think I was in high school—before I ran into anti-Asian slurs for the first time. I was, in short, pretty clueless about what Yang describes in his brilliant, moving graphic novel American-Born Chinese. In truth, in case you’re wondering, I still feel badly that I was so clueless about what my best friends must have been living. Never again, guys.

For, la, it is a tapestry. Scene 6, Bayeux Tapestry. Wikimedia Commons.

There are so many more books than what I have listed here; so many authors, to be discovered, read, and cherished. As a Hyde Parker, my America doesn’t look like this country of which I’ve heard too many, lately, speak; I would argue that what makes us great—if, indeed, we are great—are all the threads that make up the tapestry that is us. Tapestries are amazing things, you know: textile art of the highest order, in which every single yarn is chosen with care, and every single piece tells its own story. At a glance, unless one knows something about fiber arts, one probably won’t even notice all the variances that make up a great tapestry. But up close, on careful inspection, one might begin to see.

Fiber art: Peruvian Chimu Mantle, possibly c. 1000-15th century. Wikipedia.

I’ve never cared for the “melting pot” analogy; everything melted together is ugly. But, fashioned as a sort of tapestry, well, our differences make us stunning. And so I present this incomplete list of books which delve into, and celebrate, so many of the threads that make up our American tapestry.

Happy Endings for Teens and Older

Everything sucks; perhaps you only want to read super-happy stuff set in our super-diverse and beautiful world. Maybe some of these will fit the bill.

 Additional Resources


1 For more information on bullying, see any or all of the following studies:

Cornbread 4 Eva: Graffiti, Part II

In honor of less-than-stellar days, here is some stellar street art.

graffiti: cornbread 4 eva, with a crown.
Cornbread 4 Eva on Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I’m going to assume the above is cornbread for ever, rather than cornbread for my middle name, although clearly one can never be sure—perhaps Eva really likes cornbread! This is one of my all-time favorite whacko pieces of graffiti; I got the image fairly early in my tenure in Chambana, though it may still be on the building. I’d like to think that it was some performer in a moment of high hilarity (or perhaps excess alcohol!), providing us all with sufficient entertainment to make it through another round of exhaustion and overwork. Cornbread 4 eva!

Kilroy was here!
Kilroy was here! Somehere in Urbana.

Kilroy’s here! I think I’ve seen him all over, but I’m pretty sure this iteration of our national trickster lives somewhere in downtown Urbana, just as delightfully tricksey as ever he was.

an ink eye, UIUC campus
The eye is watching. UIUC campus.

The eye is close kin to IT’S CHALK, which was not written in chalk, and which I presented in Part I. I occasionally wonder if it’s the same person—I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the same not-chalk—but this person probably was more concerned with surveillance (maybe? I’m really not sure?), while CHALKer was just goofin’ around.

white swirly design on a sign post
swirly things on a signpost! UIUC

The signposts in Chambana—probably in every college town, everywhere, if Hyde Park is any indication—are a canvas for local street artists, taggers, and drunk people. Some of what gets tagged isn’t really worth remembering, but some, like this random design, really is.

stenciled bear with one round eye and one star eye on a no parking sign
Stencil Bear and No Parking

Like signposts, No Parking signs are great for tagging. This one is, I’m pretty sure, a stencil (look at the edges), decorating a NO PARKING sign. I love this kind of decoration. Facilities probably doesn’t.

smileyface on the back of a sign in the UIUC area
🙂 on the back of a sign in Urbana

🙂 Check the back of a sign the next time you’re in a college town—it might have a stencil, or a sticker, or a political slogan (there are a lot of those)…or it might be smiling at you!

Person made out of pins on a cork board.
Pin person on a pin board in a hallway

The pin person isn’t quite street art, and it isn’t graffiti, but it is hallway art, which, I think, must be close kin to the transitory nature of so much street art. Pin guy lived, for a while, on one of our corkboards in the Foreign Language Building, the fabulously ugly building which was my home away from home for the four years I spent in Urbana. Little things like PinPerson really made FLB home, the sort of place where a (dis)placed student could feel safe. Everyone decorated FLB, from posters to bumperstickers to PinPeople. There may forever be new generations of students living in its unhallowed halls, but that, at least, will remain the same.

TOY written on WORKERS sign.
Watch out for toy workers! Urbana, Illinois

Is this art? Probably not really? But I don’t care! It’s amazing! TOY WORKERS injected a whole lot of humor into my summer the year it appeared.

Butterflies on a piller between science buildings, Urbana
Between the science buildings.

Sometime while I wasn’t around—which wouldn’t, in truth, have been difficult—someone stenciled the pillars between two science buildings with butterflies. Lots and lots and lots of butterflies. I’m not, of course, entirely sure what they meant to do with them, but I loved them then, and I love them now. It’s a startling and joyous thing to stumble across, while rushing to work and to class and then home again, jiggity-jog.

TEMPO written on a signpost in Hyde Park, University of Chicago campus
TEMPO, Hyde Park

I feel like TEMPO is profoundly Hyde Park graffiti, although I suppose it could just as easily have been found on a building near Krannert. But here’s (down) tempo for you, on the back of a sign.

Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign shows an eggplant bassist, Urbana, Illinois
Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign, Urbana, Illinois.

This isn’t quite what we usually consider street art—it’s a business sign, the one formerly attached to the Red Herring in Urbana—but it really is street art, too: it’s a part of the urban art scene, for the time that it is there. Alas, it’s been painted over now; I don’t like the new sign half as much as I like this eggplant bassist.

Red Herring sign with leaves, vegetables, and eggplant bassist, Urbana, IL. Pre-2015.
The Red Herring sign, pre-2015. Urbana, Illinois.

For reference, here’s the full sign. It was a gem, I tell you, and I mourn that it is gone.

And that’s it for Part II—though there will definitely be more. 🙂

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On Being an Unfixable Dyslexic Nerd

I’ll tell you a not-exactly-secret secret: I’m dyslexic. I’ve been dyslexic all my life: my neurons do not, as it were, fire quite like yours. (Or maybe you are dyslexic, too, and then our neurons have something in common.) When I was younger I never thought I’d publicly admit to being dyslexic—and then, my last year in grad school, I actually presented on it. I will tell you an actual secret now: I was so afraid I was shaking when I did so; I thought I would collapse midway through, thought I’d do more than uptalk and say “um.” I’ll always wonder if I damaged my chances in the extraordinarily competitive world of libraries by acknowledging what I am—and yet I am glad I did.

I’m neither broken nor Baroque, though I surely do like Early Modern lit! From link.

Here’s a truth: dyslexia is part of my identity, like having dark hair or freckles or a taste for Wisconsin cheese or heavily muscled football player’s legs. It’s not always a source of happiness—I mean, it rarely is—but then, I’m not always thrilled about my legs, either, even if they do mean I can walk or ski for miles. As a kid I memorized a lot—you would, perhaps, not believe quite how much—and I teamed up with friends, and I made it. Not always easily, not always prettily—a teacher once told my mother, in front of me, that I was developmentally delayed (definitely not the word she used)—but I made it. And then I learned to read on Shakespeare, and took off running. But don’t think I wasn’t compensating, because I was. We all learn to do it. But—and this is important—dyslexia isn’t something to be changed, or taken away, or reversed. I am not broken, and therefore cannot be fixed.

A nicer reaction to realizing that yet another random person thinks you’re broken.

Recently, in a task related to my job, I happened to be scanning the card catalog for books pertaining to dyslexia, hoping to find fiction in which the dyslexic was treated as a normal person and not as, say, a magical (learning) disabled entity, which drives me nuts. So imagine my frustration when I stumbled across a book promising to “reverse” dyslexia. (I refuse to link to the book; it’s called Reversing Dyslexia: Improving Learning and Behavior Without Drugs.) We dyslexics already struggle with our self-esteem and are prone to anxiety1; the last thing we need is to hear that we suck, and are broken, and somehow “fixable”—maybe, if we spend the money/follow the plan/drink the snake oil.

Into the Woods. Gif from Giphy.

As a child, struggling to read and to do what was expected of me, I didn’t need to hear that another person thought I was broken. I needed to see myself reflected back at me—another reason why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, folks—and I needed people to believe in me, even when that was hard. I needed to know some of the things I’ve since learned, from researching dyslexia. As an adult, I’ve found out that lots of other dyslexics have trouble separating the conversational wheat from the chaff in a crowded room,2 and that many of us struggle with self-esteem, concealment, and anxiety.3 Hell, we apparently don’t even hear words right all the time, which makes it hard to connect letters with sounds and influences our common (in)ability to syllabify.4

And so, because in library school I was angry and alienated to find little or no mention of other people like me, I started researching, as it were, myself. You are not alone, the research whispers to me. I don’t always understand what the hell it’s saying to me—I often stick, particularly with the neurology texts, to introductions, conclusions, and discussions, which are sometimes understandable to a layperson with a good background in science—but I know that I’m not wrong, or broken; it’s just the way my brain happens to be made. It drives home the incredible preciousness of my ability to read: each word is like a treasure pulled from the dark, and, when I began to lose my reading comprehension at the end of my first Master’s, as I forced myself through sometimes as much as a thousand pages in a day, I was about as afraid as I have ever been. Words are, you see, rather my life’s work; I was reminded, forcefully, that sometimes, I need to make accommodations for myself.

I am often rather bad at accommodating myself, though I am fairly good at offering discreet accommodation to others. I am super-duper good at compensating, though! I definitely got skills! (I’m not sure this is something of which to be proud, but it has become part of who I am.) It’s probably part of why I listen quite as hard as I do, why I watch as carefully as I always have. Maybe it has something to do with my tendency towards careful sourcing and research—after all, when words have been a struggle (and when one sometimes mixes them up even in one’s speech), one must take extra care with one’s choices. And, as an inveterate reader ever since Much Ado About Nothing dragged me into literacy, I have sought out others like myself—rarely, alas, with any kind of success.

The first time I ran into a recognizable dyslexic in my reading, it was in Connie Brockway‘s As You Desirea historic romance novel set in Egypt. The six-pack-abbed, profiteering/archaeologist/white-steed-ridin’ hunk of manhood hero was, quite recognizably (at least for me), a dyslexic. Brockway identified him as such in her author’s note at the end, acknowledging that his ability to read hieroglyphics might have been wild but she was stickin’ with it. (I don’t know: we all have our things, so why not have a dyslexic who could read hieroglyphs?) I have, quite literally, zilch in common with Harry Braxton, our man on the white horse, but for a common neurological difference.

It was an amazing moment, to find someone else, out there, in print–someone who (aside from his romantic perfections) wasn’t actually a magical disabled person, at all. He was just a dude with elastic morals on a white horse. The next guy I found was, once again, in a romance novel—this time the hero of Tessa Dare‘s second Castles Ever After book, Say Yes to the MarquessSpoiler alert: Cleo totally doesn’t say yes to the marquess; she marries his dyslexic prizefighting brother, instead. (In case you’re wondering: the prizefighting seemed totally reasonable to me; we all compensate in our own ways, and I know my father was famed—not in a particularly good way—for hitting first, and hitting hard—and he was nowhere near as large as the fictional Rafe Brandon.)

I think my favorite fictional dyslexic, as of now, is Wylan Van Eck, one of the ensemble cast of Leigh Bardugo‘s amazing Six of Crows duology. The thing is, while Wylan doesn’t usually seem to have problems understanding people in crowded situations–although I should probably re-read it; he actually might—I know him, so very, very well. Unlike me Wylan’s family is wildly unsupportive—his father, upstanding soul that he is, wants Wylan dead—and it takes the morally elastic Kaz Brekker to recognize Wylan’s genius. (Brekker himself has a disability, one which, from what I have gathered, rather mirrors Bardugo’s own—although that hasn’t stopped some folks from saying that she “doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” which is, I guess, a good time to point out that disabilities, like everything else, are individual.) Wylan is, you see, really, really smart. He’s also deeply ashamed of his inability to read, and his self-esteem is definitely messed up. He compensates, and hides, and tries not to get backed into situations wherein he can’t help but reveal his difference. And, boy, do I get that. I can read—and read well—but I, too, try to hide, whenever possible. It’s so much easier, so much less frightening.

Flagrantly untrue, but a nice sentiment nonetheless.

Evil Willow, up there, has monumental self-confidence. I don’t. I do, however, have a bunch of degrees, and various academic honors. I’m a damn good researcher, even if sometimes it takes me a little to figure out spelling. (I have lots of tricks for that, no worries.) It’s still upsetting to see things assuring me that I’m broken but can be “fixed”—and, in truth, I don’t even want to think about what it’s like for a kid who’s already struggling with being different. I’d so love to see us reach a day where being different isn’t seen as wrong, or bad, or a problem to be fixed. For now, I’ll keep on trying to do my part to get there. We can only ever go forward—and, for me, that’s probably a really good thing.

Works Cited

1 This is cited in multiple studies, including the following:

  • Alexander-Passe, N. (2006). How dyslexic teenagers cope: An investigation of self-esteem, coping, and depression. Dyslexia, 12(4), 256-275. DOI: 10.1002/dys.18
  • Habib, L., Berget, G., Sandnes, F.E., Sanderson, N., Kahn, P., Fagernes, S., & Olcay, A. (2012). Dyslexic students in higher education and virtual learning environments: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 574-584. DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00486.x
  • Heiman, T. (2008). Females with learning disabilities taking on-line courses: Perceptions of the learning environment, coping and well-being. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21(1), 4-14. Available open-access from ERIC.
  • Ingesson, S.G. (2007). Growing up with dyslexia: Interviews with teenagers and young adults. School Psychology International, 28(5), 574-591. DOI: 10.1177/0143034307085659
  • Nalavany, B.A., Carawan, L.W., & Sauber, S. (2015). Adults with dyslexia, an invisible disability: The mediational role of concealment on perceived family support and self-esteem. British Journal of Social Work, 45, 568-586. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bct152

Sometimes, I wonder if this is behind some of my own occasionally debilitating anxiety.
2 Chandrasaekaran, B., Hornickel, J., Skoe, E., Nicol, T., & Kraus, N. (2009). Content-dependent encoding in the human auditory brainstem relates to hearing speech in noise: Implications for developmental dyslexia. Neuron, 64(3), 311-319. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.006
3 See note1 for this.
4 Blau, V., Reithler, J., van Atteveldt, N., Seitz, J., Gerretsen, P., Goebel, R., & Blomert, L. (2010). Deviant processing of letters and speech sounds as proximate cause of reading failure: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of dyslexic children. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 133, 868-879. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp308.

Further Reading

Accessible Options: Putting Learning Disabilities into Library School” (aka my presentation)

“Accessible Options” slides

Dyslexic Teens in the Library: Trends and Best Practices” (me again)

The Geek’s Guide to Disability” from The Bias.

Pinterest board where I occasionally pin research about dyslexia.

The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why it Matters,” by Lydia Brown.

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity