‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’ – YLG conference session

Anyone who has ever attended a professional conference knows that such events are a mix of the good (catching up with friends after one of you has moved on, being able to look round the room at other attendees and know that you share a passion for the same type of work, FREE STUFF), the bad (trying to sleep in an unfamiliar bed in a room next to the lifts, being reminded of the ever-increasing pressure of working in your field, endless queues for tea and coffee), and the ugly (a full buffet breakfast is inclusive but the packed schedule means you’ve no time to linger and enjoy the spread). Few aspects of the conference experience, however, are as dreaded as those two little words:

BREAKOUT SESSION.

The horror of potential interaction with our fellow attendees – being forced to participate in ice-breaker activities, being asked to share anecdotes, being close enough to the facilitator to make eye contact – nothing can make one break out into a cold sweat faster. Or maybe that’s just me?

It was, therefore, a relief to find that the first breakout session I attended at this year’s YLG Conference (Reading the Future, at the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly, 21-23 September 2018) required none of these things. Titled ‘Cultural Appropriation, Unconscious Bias and Colonial Aspects of Collections’, this session took the format of a panel discussion followed by a Q&A, introducing me to creators whose excellent work I had not previously encountered. Ably guided by academic Chloe Germaine Buckley, Senior Lecturer in English and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, authors Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy each introduced us to their most recent novels before engaging in a discussion of why and how, even nearly two decades into the 21st century, publishing and libraries still struggle to present readers with a choice of books that accurately reflect the enormous diversity and reality of the world in which we all live.

Buckley began the session by quoting some hard numbers, drawing from data collected and reported by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE): of the 9,115 children’s books published in the United Kingdom during 2017, a mere 391 – just four percent! – of these featured Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) characters. Even more shocking, over half of this paltry total were what is often referred to as ‘social issues’ books – giving the strong impression that BAME characters and lives aren’t thought of by many authors – and therefore, many readers – as ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’ or otherwise ‘unremarkable’, but rather disrupted by racism, violence, or other incidences of social disorder. After allowing a moment for the audience to fully absorb this information, Buckley introduced Miriam Halahmy, author of numerous books, poems and short stories for children, teens and adults.

Those who follow the Youth Libraries Group blog on the CILIP website may recall Halahmy’s recent opinion piece ‘What is on our Bookshelves’, in which she discussed her experience as Head of Special needs in a Camden secondary school during the period in the early 1980s when The Rampton Report ‘on the education of children from ethnic minorities’ was published. The recommendations of this report had far-reaching effects on, in particular, school libraries across the United Kingdom; librarians and teachers, horrified by the exaggerated and stereotyped depictions of children from non-Anglo backgrounds, discarded enormous numbers of books in their attempts to embrace a multicultural society, but often did not have the funds to adequately replace these castoffs with new books reflecting positive depictions of other cultures and peoples. Halahmy says that the question is often asked, is the lack of BAME representation today because ‘[her] generation of teachers threw them all away?’

Of course, the real answer is much more complicated; overcoming the current deficiency of representation will require the cooperation of authors, literary agents, publishers, media reviewers, readers and librarians. Halahmy is certainly doing her part: as a Jewish woman with four Polish grandparents, married to an Iraqi Jew, different languages and cultures (including Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic) have always been a part of her life – in her words, she ‘cannot help but write multicultural characters because this is the world I inhabit.’ Halahmy’s beliefs complement my own primary philosophy as a librarian – that all children deserve to be able to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. Her newest book, Behind Closed Doors, is about two teenage girls on the verge of homelessness for very different reasons, and features a cast of characters from a range of backgrounds, including Black British schoolboy Dom and Japanese-American swimmer Jordan.

Next to speak was Filipino author Candy Gourlay, whose 2018 novel, Bone Talk, originated when the author was conducting research into Filipino immigration for a non-fiction book on the subject, and came across a photograph from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. This photo, depicting a woman dressed in the customary Edwardian fashion of the time, standing alongside a man naked but for a G-string, piqued her interest, for alongside the spectacular displays of scientific and technological progress – including the first electrical socket, incubator, x-ray machine and Ferris wheel – the sights advertised by the Fair’s organisers also included ‘exotic peoples’. Gourlay went on to explain how the subjects of these grotesque living exhibits included a number of displaced people; in this case, the man in the G-string was a Native Filipino, a member of a group of highland people known at the time as the Igorot – but better known to Americans as head-hunters. [Note: in my research for this piece, I learned that the exonym ‘Igorot’ is considered somewhat of a pejorative by the people whom it describes, and that the tribal people of the Cordillera region prefer a number of other terms; hereafter, I shall use the term ‘Cordillerans’.] A number of Cordillerans were brought to St Louis following the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in anticipation of the World’s Fair; once there, the Native Filipinos duly reconstructed a mock village as part of the wildly popular ‘Philippine Exhibition’, in which they lived in plain view of gawking fairgoers, staging daily shows for the entertainment of their Western audiences.

Gourlay’s research into these people and how they came to be part of the 1904 World’s Fair took her from archives in St Louis all the way to the mountain provinces of the Philippines, where she made two important determinations. Firstly, the story of the Cordillerans was one she wanted to tell; secondly, although she herself is Filipino, this was not her story – and writing it as such would be cultural appropriation. Gourlay went on to clarify this point, saying that to an extent, ‘all fiction is cultural appropriation’; however, the problem with writing a story from the perspective of the Cordilleran people at the turn of the twentieth century is that no authentic record of their voices survives – only American versions. For this reason, although Bone Talk takes place amongst the Cordilleran community – specifically, the people of the Bontoc – it does so during the period of the Philippine-American War, thus enabling Gourlay to draw from those American chronicles of life amongst the Bontoc people at that time and thereafter as she constructed her work of fiction.

Gourlay’s mention of cultural appropriation reminded her audience of our reasons for attending this session in particular, and the subsequent discussion between the authors was fascinating, so much so that I must admit I rather abandoned my note-taking. Particular highlights, though, include:

  • Gourlay’s explanation of what she calls ‘The Lack’ – specifically, the something-that-is-missing at the beginning of every story, which is filled in over the course of the narrative – and how it is our job as librarians and authors to help promote authentic voices to fill that missing element;
  • Halahmy’s reminder that authors have to ‘murder [their] darlings’ – characters should have more purpose than just ‘representation’, and if not furthering the plot, they are just weighing it down; and
  • Gourlay’s discussion of how her writing critique group is made up of cisgender white people authors, and how she had to ‘knock back’ certain aspects of Bone Talk as a result.

Halahmy pointed out that ‘we are very much on the cusp of change’ in terms of elevating lesser-known voices within libraries and publishing, though there still exist ‘a lot of barriers to be broken down’. Gourlay concurred, going on to say that what will really help increase diversity is ‘not having diversity panels’ but instead making the effort to ‘move in the realms of the people you want to invite in’ to the conversation; Halahmy nodded in agreement, musing, ‘the number of book launches I go to where I’m the darkest person in the room…’ before declaring that ‘this is not a box-ticking exercise’, a statement that was met with applause, and brought the panel to a close.

I could not agree more with these sentiments. After nearly two decades of librarianship, I have learned that establishing diverse representation in my collections and avoiding (as much as possible) unconscious bias in my reading is only possible through hard work, constant education, and an open mind. As a white man – and an American one, at that! – stories about people like me have been front and centre for far too long; it is my responsibility to use the privileges afforded to me as a member of that demographic to elevate and promote the voices of those who may be overlooked, and who may struggle to find and connect with readers or books featuring people like themselves. I was still in grade school when Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, children’s literature scholar and Professor Emerita from The Ohio State University, published her seminal essay ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors‘ (Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, No. 3. Summer 1990), in which she introduced teachers, librarians and other educators to a framework with which we can build and foster multicultural literacy. Nearly three decades later, I firmly believe in Sims Bishop’s philosophy; our primary duty as librarians is to provide as many different mirrors and windows as possible, in order to enable all of our users to both see themselves reflected, and to learn about other cultures. Gauging by the number of my colleagues who attended this panel, I am not the only one.

As a first-year judge for the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals, I was especially gratified to see so many of my fellow judges in attendance; frequent readers will recall that CILIP has recently released the final report summarising the Independent Review of the CKG undertaken from June 2017 and has, or will shortly be, implementing a number of changes to the process as a result of these findings. I feel enormously lucky to have joined the judging panel at this point in time, as the various training opportunities made available to us will be of great use to me both personally and professionally; indeed, I can already identify a subtle shift in how I evaluate this year’s nominated titles against the awards criteria. (Time spent on said evaluations – and the sheer scale of the 2019 nominations list – may explain why this piece is being published some two months after the annual conference. Oops?) My heartfelt thanks to Chloe Buckley, Candy Gourlay and Miriam Halahmy for their time in presenting this panel, to all of the conference organisers for a fantastic experience, and to Caroline Fielding for the extremely late submission of this report….

Emerson Milford Dickson

Emerson is a secondary school librarian living and working in NE London. He represents London as a judge for the 2019/20 CKG Medals, and tweets about libraries, politics, cats and more at @microfichetaco

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the ‘mirrors and windows’ theory to another individual, when in fact it is Dr Rudine Sims Bishop to whom we librarians owe a debt of gratitude for her lifetime of scholarship in the field of children’s literature. I wholeheartedly apologise for this error, which I hope will serve to remind all reading that no matter how much effort any of us may put into ‘getting it right’, our work is never truly done! – EMD 19/11/2018

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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