Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Two Tragedies and a Rising of Social Justice Consciousness

My recent trip to India was marked by two horrific tragedies: one in my home country and another in the country of my family origins.

There is very little seemingly in common with a brutal gang rape in New Delhi and an elementary school killing in Connecticut. Except that both have ignited the hearts and minds of citizens around the world toward the work of peace and social justice. And that in both cases, there is so much to do.

There has been much written lately about the brutal gang rape, torture, and eventual death of a 23-year old college student in New Delhi, India.

There have been smart analyses from within the subcontinent and the South Asian diaspora of rape culture and gender violence in the Indian context,  rigid definitions of masculinity, femininity and heteronormativity, of how this one young woman's death has brought back into the light of memory so many other women's lives.

What else can be said? How can I give adequate words to such anguish and anger, outrage and grief?

Today, in reading this interview of Eve Ensler    regarding the New Delhi rape and subsequent protests, I was initially nervous. I worried if the well known American feminist would take the tack of 'looking Eastward with disgust' - pointing to Indian patriarchy or Indian contexts as being somehow 'more' enabling of gender violence.

But instead, Ensler took the path of solidarity. When asked about how Indian culture might specifically play into rape culture, Ensler replied:

That will be a wrong approach. I think there is patriarchy, and there is humanity, and there is pressure. Rape, harassment, incest, dowry, and even bringing up girls as less as significant to men, are all things not particular to India. The issue at hand may manifest itself a little different culturally here and there. But there is a global patriarchy that is controlled by the methodology of violence. Which is essentially this mindset that women are less, women are not equal, they are to be controlled, their sexuality is to be contained, their life forces are to be dampened, they are to be kept down so that men can have power. I see this mindset in every country I go to.

She goes on to call the mass protests and outrage in Delhi following the rape a "part of the rising." And despite denigration of the protesters by Indian politicians as 'dented and painted women', or even more legitimate critique of how this particular rape - and not thousands of others -- ignited the outrage of India's rising elite upper middle class   , what is profoundly true about the public outrage in India is how it has awakened South Asia, the diaspora, and the world to issues of gender violence.

As Ensler so rightly says, the task now is channeling this energy and outrage into ongoing, thoughtful, and socially just work. 

And while the situations are by no means alike, I do wonder if gun control protests in this country can equally be considered part of the worldwide "rising" for peace and social justice. And if not, how can we make them so? How can we turn the unacceptable and horrific deaths of our young people -- all our young people -- be it from gender violence, or the acts of a mentally ill individual with access to horrific weapons -- into action, justice and future political vision?

Perhaps these two recent tragedies have as much that differentiate them as bring them together into the light of common knowledge. But both have been devastating. And both can be awakenings.

I can't help but go back to the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Into that heaven of freedom, and justice, let our world -- finally --- awake.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, and the Great Gender Divide

One of the very first books my now eight year old daughter loved was called Ruby Bridges Goes to School. Even before she could read well, she would return again and again to this slim volume, turning the pages reverently, frowning at the hateful expressions of pro-segregation racists, smiling as she contemplated the bravery of this ‘real little girl.’

At the time, I thought that perhaps it was the similarity of their ages. Ruby was an entering first grader, as was my daughter. She was a girl of color, also like my child. But Ruby lived in such a different time, and struggled against such overt, violent racism. What did my daughter find so compelling about this book, that she preferred it to most others – including bookshelves full of fairy tales and princess stories?

Now, a few years and any number of books later, my big reader eight year old still gravitates to fiction and nonfiction exploring the lives of ‘real little girls.’ Unlike her older brother, who launched quickly from early chapter books into fantasy series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Septimus Heap, and the like, my daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists. I was at first a bit flabbergasted at her lack of attraction for fantasy – a genre her mother and brother both adore. In fact, my current middle grade novel is a fantasy adventure based on Indian folk-tales, and starring, you guessed it, a middle grade girl protagonist. So why doesn’t my daughter enjoy the genre I so love?

As a parent, pediatrician, and feminist activist, I’ve always struggled against the notion that there even is such a thing as a ‘girl book’ or a ‘boy book.’ In fact, my beliefs had been seemingly verified out by my son, who as readily consumes male protagonist fantasy as he does more ‘realistic’ stories with girl main characters such as the Ramona books or Little House on the Prairie series.

Yet, there is clearly a message being sent. And it’s through the eyes of my daughter that I am finally able to see it. With the notable exception of Harry Potter’s Hermione (whom my daughter loves), there are few central female characters in middle grade fantasy novels. If literature is a mirror – an opportunity to show children a reflection of their own lives and their own experiences (or approximations of their own lives and own experiences), then what is happening for my daughter is obvious. While she was able to see herself even in the struggles of a girl who lived in such a different time, like Ruby Bridges, she is unable to see herself in most of the the fantasy novels that populate the bookshelves in her house.

Even the names of each of her brother’s favorite series send out the message loud and clear – fantasy is a boy’s genre. Or at least a genre dominated by boy protagonists. And it’s certainly not because women aren’t writing fantasy. As this blog entitled Finding Female in Middle Grade Fantasy notes:
“Even fantasy books written by women have mostly male protagonists: Rowan of Rin by Emily Rhodda, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, Septimus Heap by Angie Sage, and The Unnamables by Ellen Booream. And among those books with females heroines, most are paired alongside boy heroes, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett, Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles, and of course, Rowling’s Harry Potter.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!