My body arrived back from ALA12 two days ago but I think my mind has only just joined it. What an amazing experience. I’m kind of glad my first ALA was as a lurking nobody rather than a signing author with commitments and expectations because I’m sure I would have lost my mind somewhere in there with the piles of books and long snaking lines of fans.
Being the USA always makes me think of many things. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about race and multiculturalism in YA and MG literature. Kate Hart’s incredible graphical analysis of YA covers for example, and Zetta Elliot’s mind bending blog. So my eye is drawn to the multicultural tapestry of the USA more than usual. Vancouver, where I live is also a patchwork quilt of cultures with strong “white Canadian” and “culturally Chinese” themes among other smaller groups. What there is not is a strong presence of people of African or Hispanic descent. So being in the LA area was different that way.
The first night I was there my sister and I were having a drink near the convention center when I ordered the wrong tequila. I didn’t know it was the wrong tequila until the two gentlemen next to me kindly pointed it out. “It’s cheaper” I argued, at which one of the gentlemen promptly insisted on paying for the good stuff. Turns out he owned the company, 4Copas, an organic tequila. I have to admit, it was pretty good. He and his friend were speaking Spanish to each other and chatting with us in English. His friend a lawyer, soon got on our bad side however, when he told us “at least Canada has a good president”. First of all, as anyone who isn’t hopelessly ignorant about world affairs knows, Canada doesn’t have a president, but a prime minister. Secondly our current prime minister, Stephen Harper, is hardly the kind of leader anyone I respect would call good.
ALA Multicultural Lesson #1 – Not all people of color have tolerable politics.
Later, after the two gentlemen left, a couple of African American women seating nearby gathered their shopping bags and also made their exit. Now my sister and I had already, since we boarded the plane that morning, been playing a game called “spot the librarian”. It even worked in our favor when we spotted two librarians at LAX and arranged to share a cab with them. So as we watched these two women leaving my sister said, “Librarians.” To which I replied, sincerely “Really?” Then she said “Black women can be librarians too.”
ALA Multicultural lesson #2 – My own sister thinks I’m a racist.
I had not made my judgment on the librarianism of these women based on their race, but based on their attire. They LOOKED like locals, Americans, well put together Orange County ladies, not rumpled interlopers living out of half empty suitcases (one must leave room for books after all). They were both wearing tailored shorts and heels, plenty of jewelry and were each carrying at least three luxury boutique shopping bags. They looked too RICH and attractive to be librarians. Maybe this is its own kind of prejudice, but against librarians of all colors and creeds. I’m an equal opportunity type of gal.
At any rate I expected to see librarians of every color at ALA. As it turned out I certainly did. There was even, I learned at the international librarian’s reception on the last night, a large contingent of librarians from various African countries, who were on a State Department sponsored tour of various institutions throughout the USA. The Ethiopian gentlemen with whom I spoke on the shuttle back from the reception voiced his dismay at the destruction of books from the New York Public Library’s overloaded shelves when African libraries were struggling to find books. We are often told not to send items to the developing world, to send money instead. Frankly I think this gentleman would have been happy with a box of books. It’s something to think about.
ALA Multicultural lesson #3 – There are real people behind the numbers and edicts that are spouted to us about the developing world.
Earlier that day I had taken a heartbreaking tour of the Los Angeles Juvenile Detention Center. A librarian volunteering there had expressed the same thing – we need more books. More books? I couldn’t believe it. Having just spent three days trying NOT to take free books from publishers eager to give them away. If I’d known I would have brought a whole box. I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about that.
The saddest part of our visit to “Juvie” was when the boys were let out of school at three o’clock just as were heading back to our bus. They walked in groups of about twenty, their hands linked behind their backs, all wearing baggy grey sweat pants far too large for them. Few of them looked like they were even full grown. The quadrangle where they were preparing for “rec” was dry and dusty, the hot sun beating down on them. I expected there might be some camaraderie, some playful banter, some smiles at least, but they were emotionless, silent. None of them even looked at us. Maybe these were rules. Maybe not. We weren’t allowed to take photographs but I didn’t need to. I can’t get the image of these boys out of my head.
We were told that the majority of boys were either Hispanic or African American and that was borne out by what I saw. There were a few white faces though and I’m ashamed to say that I think I felt the most sorry for them. Partly because they were in such a small minority I suppose. I know how racial politics work in detention, one of the few places in the world where it often sucks to be white, where white privilege turns back and bites you in the ass. Also I guess these white boys reminded me of my nephews and the sons of my friends. I wondered where they had gone wrong.
ALA Multicultural lesson #4 – The harder the times the harder it is to disconnect yourself from your race.
I was a million times more upset about bombs going off in London than I was about bombs in Baghdad or Mogadishu. I just was. It’s not right and I don’t like it but I’m not going to lie. If the shit came down and I could rescue a few boys from that detention center with no time to consider would I take the white boys first? It’s a revolting thought but maybe I would.
I’m going to post again about ALA and all the fun I had there, the people I met, the swag I scored, but I needed to get a few things off my chest. The USA is a strange and beautiful place and never more so than in the Los Angeles area where abject poverty lives cheek by jowl with obscene wealth. The beauty and splendor of the Hilton Hotel versus the desolate bleakness of Juvenile Hall. The wonderland of books that was the exhibition hall versus the garish candy coated gates of Disneyland one block down. The piles of pancakes at IHOP, the skinny boys at Juvie, the busy brown workers, the fat white tourists, money flying in every direction but the right one it seems. Books everywhere but in the hands of those who need them most. Librarians and teachers and writers of every color valiantly swimming upstream in a river that seems to just get deeper and wilder.
ALA Multicultural lesson # 5 – Our work may never be done.