This post — my first in a long, long time — is my contribution to #kidlitwomen, a month of posts about gender and other inequities in children’s literature. Join the conversation at KidlitWomen on Facebook and by searching #KidlitWomen on Twitter.
There’s this recurring dream I have: Something is happening, something bad. I need to scream, it’s life or death, but when I open my mouth, take a deep breath, there’s…nothing. No matter how hard I try, or how desperately it matters, I cannot make a sound.
Listen: I’m not really writing this post. Me, I would never write a post like this.
My most recent post, of any sort, was a year and a half ago….and that post was simply to say that I’d be taking a break from posting until April, 2017 (how easy it was to never come back!). I disappeared from Twitter and Facebook a few months ago, too. I couldn’t understand what I was doing there amid all those big ideas, all those opinions, all that wit and insight and self-assurance and self-promotion and vitriol scrolling by.
I tried. I typed out tweets, then erased them. I typed more, erased again.
Once upon a time, I wrote a book. As I put those words down, I knew exactly what would happen to them: I knew they’d end up a stack of pages crammed inside a box in the corner of my attic. (Someday, perhaps, my kids might find them. Maybe they’d read a few pages.) It was — this is no exaggeration — the greatest surprise of my life that the book found any audience at all, let alone a substantial one.
But that one book? It was an accident. A fluke. Or maybe a weird dream from which I haven’t woken up.
It isn’t real. And by extension, neither am I.
(There’s plenty of evidence for this, by the way, in the form of a second book I can’t seem to finish, and words I don’t have, and questions that pelt me like spitballs every time I try to make them come: Who am I to write a book? Who am I to write a tweet? Who am I to write a blog post? Who am I to say anything at all?)
About a year ago, while staring at the empty pages of a composition notebook, someone showed up. He just appeared, poof, from nowhere. It was a man, a young one, fresh from his MFA. He was bearded and sneakered and Warby Parkered. He, too, was writing a book. Unlike me, he didn’t doubt whether he had something to say. To the contrary, he was certain that his book would be groundbreaking, an award-winner, a sensation.
Pretend you’re him, I told myself. Pretend you have his self-assurance. What would this guy do with these blank pages? I picked up my pen, and I started to write.
A few weeks later, sitting around a kitchen table with some friends — Jackie Davies, Lita Judge, Molly Burnham, Leslie Connor, and Grace Lin, each of them extraordinary, funny, brave, inspiring — I told them about this visitation. “Sometimes when I find myself paralyzed by doubt,” I confessed, “I try to invoke that guy. It helps.”
Across the table, Jackie leaned forward. Her eyes danced. “I think you need to give him a name,” she said. “Maybe something like…Julian.” And just like that, Julian became real. Now, when I can’t find my confidence, I try to draw on Julian’s (he’s got plenty to go around).
I know what you’re thinking: Why a man? Isn’t relying on some dude — some decades-younger, less experienced, smug, rockstar-aspiring guy — kind of messed up? Isn’t this just a new form of internalized misogyny layered upon the old internalized misogyny? Wouldn’t it be better/healthier/more forward-thinking, to hold up an example of, say, a woman? One who overcame obstacles and triumphed? Nevertheless she persisted, and all that?
Could be. But Julian is the one who showed up. And the truth is, I find a glorious freedom in Julian’s confidence.
After all, Julian hasn’t spent the last four and a half decades knowing his clothes, his hair, his shoes, his voice, would be scrutinized endlessly. He’s never been talked over, dismissed, objectified, ignored…only to be assured that none of these things actually happened, and please stop being so sensitive. Julian didn’t spend nearly a half century watching every brilliant role model he ever had be called shrill, grating, aggressive, emotional, strident, bitchy, a cunt, and, by the way, who does she think she is? He didn’t endure professional meetings that became, in an instant, a hand on his thigh, unwelcome hot breath on his neck. He never had to smile and laugh while trying to figure out how the hell do I get out of this? He never once scurried down his own street clutching a key between his fingers, knowing that dark things — the darkest, even — lurked around corners simply because he existed in his own body.
Julian never learned that the best way to keep himself safe was to become silent, invisible. So when he shows up, I get to experience, just for a moment, what that might be like.
I followed the #metoo conversation with a pounding heart. I didn’t participate, even as I felt that familiar scream (there it is again) rising, then sticking, in my throat. I watched as the conversation turned to children’s literature. I read Anne Ursu’s essay carefully, and then I read it again. I read the SLJ piece, and all that followed. I read Gwenda Bond’s brilliant pledge, and all the comments that followed that, too. I thought about my own interactions with some of the men named in the conversation. Even as a newcomer to children’s literature, I’d crossed paths with some of these writers. I thought about how I felt when I met them, how I never doubted for a minute that they were the rockstars and I was just some tag-along who was lucky to travel in their wake.
Mostly I thought about the half-century of bullshit that’s tangled up inside my brain, the fact that I could spend the rest of my life trying to unravel it, strand by strand, and never get it all completely unknotted.
I kept quiet.
When plans for #kidlitwomen began, I spoke with those smart, funny friends of the kitchen table. I tried to explain why I didn’t feel comfortable participating in the public conversation. I was an outsider to the kidlit world, I said, just a single book to my name. Besides, so many others were saying such smart things. What could I possibly say that wouldn’t be better said by someone else, someone more established, some real children’s author?
Jackie’s response, again, was swift. “Ali,” she began. “Do you think a man who had written a bestselling novel with five starred reviews and who was a finalist for the National Book Award would be wondering if he was a ‘real writer’? Is it possible that your feeling like an outsider comes because women are taught they need to earn twice as many points as men to even be allowed in the door?”
Ah. I understood what she was saying. She was suggesting I reframe my view, try see things through different eyes. She was asking, What would Julian do?
So here I am, invoking Julian. I do have things to say, actually — a lifetime of things. For the moment, too many of them remain stuck in my throat. I haven’t figured out how to say them. Yet.
But I do know how to say some things. I know how to say thank you.
Thank you to those who have been stronger and braver than I.
Thank you for leading where I couldn’t.
Thank you for finding words where I found only silence.
Thank you for pushing for change, for being fierce and wise and honest and clear and good.
Thank you for working toward a better world for the next generation.
And to that next generation, those coming up behind us, I say this: I hope someday you read this post and you have no idea what I’m talking about. I hope the things described this year — all those #metoo posts, all these #kidlitwomen conversations — seem to you not merely obsolete, but unfathomable.
I hope you never, ever feel your own voice stuck inside your throat. I hope, sincerely, you never need a Julian of your own.
Here is my wish: that Julian and the world that made him necessary vanish, poof, like a soap bubble that pops mid-air, revealing that for all the space it occupied, it turns out never to have been all that substantial after all.
May that world no longer be real.
P.S. If you understand what I’m talking about in this essay, know this: Julian travels. Use him if you need him. When you’re ready, I’d really like to hear what you have to say.