Last Saturday, I attended a charity fundraising gala for the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. The event, called “Authors on the Move,” literally involved “authors on the move” – over 40 authors (including me) rotated from table to table, speed-dating style, and chatted with attendees about our books, our writing process, and all sorts of other things. We were treated to a champagne reception, a four-course gourmet meal, plenty of wine, and a live auction. It was a very lavish and fun event, and it was an incredible honor to be asked to participate.
And I almost didn’t go.
Why? Because the invited keynote speaker was Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket. Many children know him for his books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events, All the Wrong Questions, The Dark, and We Are Pirates. Many people got to know him because of his remarks at the 2014 National Book Awards Ceremony. When he presented Jacqueline Woodson with the award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler quipped that Woodson is allergic to watermelon – likely assuming that our “post-racist” society could find humor and social commentary in such a statement. He also probably assumed that, because he and Woodson were friends, that he could joke with her about watermelon and that she would “get it.”
But she didn’t get it. No one did, actually. And even though Handler later apologized, and even though he tried to make amends by making a large matching donation to We Need Diverse Books, the wound lingered. If you read Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times op-ed piece, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke,” you can feel the sting of that wound. It takes seconds to tell a joke, but years for the stab wounds to heal.
And that’s why, when I learned that Daniel Handler was the keynote speaker at this event, I had second thoughts about attending – and I knew I had a dilemma on my hands. If I went, my attendance could be taken as a form of passive acceptance of Handler’s racist behavior, and as a reinforcement of his privilege. If I didn’t go, then diversity in children’s books probably wouldn’t be part of the conversation at the event. You see, in a split-second epiphany, I realized that among the children’s book authors, I was the “diversity” – meaning that my book was the only one featuring a historically marginalized and underrepresented group. Layers upon layers of oppression, you see.
My dilemma, of course, was minor in the grand scheme of things. Those of us who identify with minoritized groups face all sorts of no-win situations like this, and in many cases the stakes are much higher. But the bottom line always boils down to this: How do I choose a course of action that maintains my integrity, and that doesn’t involve participating in systemic oppression?
As you know, I decided to go. But even up until the night of the event, lots of evil voices in my head kept telling me that I was making a bad decision. You just want to get dressed up fancy! the evil voice said. You just want to sell lots of books! Boycott the event, and be a REAL activist!
Somehow, through all that clamor, a quieter voice kept saying, Go.
So I did. I trusted my gut. And I’m so glad I did.
I got dressed up real fancy. So fancy, in fact, that I got more questions about my necklace than I did about anything else. I sold lots of books. All of them, actually. I ate wonderful food, met many interesting people, and watched people bid huge amounts of money on dinners, weekend trips, and other auction items. (Dinner with me brought in $1,400, to give you an idea.) The Sacramento Library Foundation raised over $100,000, much of it to be used for their Summer Reading Program for kids.
And at every single table I was seated at, we talked about diversity (and oppression) in meaningful ways. We talked about the limited narratives in LGBT children’s literature; the absence of LGBT writers of color in the children’s book world; the dangers of raising children to be “color-blind,” rather than educating them about racism and other forms of oppression; the importance of being able to see oneself reflected in books and other forms of popular culture. We talked about Daniel Handler and the National Book Awards, reflected on whether he would address it in his keynote, and debriefed afterwards about what he did say. (He did address it, and it was the one time during his whole talk where he was dead serious.) Among the highly privileged, we even had discussions about privilege – White privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege. And we had time to talk about lighter topics, too – like where I bought my stunning necklace.
Would those conversations have happened if I hadn’t attended? It’s hard to know. But I do know that if you live in the bubble of privilege, it’s very easy NOT to have those conversations. I think this is what my gut knew all along, and why it kept quietly telling me to go. Inserting ourselves into privileged spaces and speaking our truth is a powerful act, I’m realizing.