Thursday, January 29, 2009

After Tupac and D Foster, Homophobia, and Newbery Reactions

I first read After Tupac and D Foster (Jacqueline Woodson) last fall, when Heavy Medal chose it as one of the shortlist books for the Mock Newbery. I liked it a lot, even if I didn't think it was perfect. But right away I shut my mind to the idea of it winning the Newbery.

I had various reasons to give; I remember saying, during the mock-discussion, "I would never be bringing this up if we weren't analyzing this so closely, because it's a great book, but--" and mentioning some point about the text and plot development. Eventually I even voted for it to receive one of the mock-honors and was pleased when it was chosen.

But a couple of days before the real awards were announced, I recognized the real reason I didn't want to consider After Tupac as a possible Newbery winner. I didn't want to deal with the aftermath if it won.

I'm really enjoying reading discussion about the awards on various blogs, including dissent--is The Graveyard Book a fully-developed novel? what was wrong with Chains? how could they ignore Wabi Sabi?-- even the (to me very odd) suggestion that the non-standard English in After Tupac keeps it from being literary enough. (...would the same argument apply to the non-standard English in, say, Huckleberry Finn?)

But homophobia is hard for me to shake off sometimes. And I really didn't like the idea of reading blogs and even newspaper articles, the day after After Tupac might have won the Newbery, and reading veiled and not-so-veiled opinions about the Newbery committee "pushing an agenda" and choosing a book that "is not right for the children in my library" and that "I couldn't possibly use in my classroom".

After Tupac and D Foster is, at its center, about the friendship of three girls in the 1990s who love Tupac Shakur's music. One of the girls has a brother who's gay, and also in prison. There's a lengthy scene in the book where two of the girls and the man's family visit him there. A sample:

"What's the first thing you gonna do when you get home, Tash?" I asked.

"Girl, you know I'm gonna get my hair twisted, make myself a cute drink and get myself over to the river and see my people!"

The river was where all the gay guys hung out. Sometimes Tash took me and Neeka with him when he went to hang out with his "girls". I loved going because all the other queens always made such a fuss over us, telling us how beautiful we were and how we'd grow up to give somebody "fever" one day.

"Some of the children came to see me last week and they were like Girl, how is you living up in here?!"

I laughed, trying to imagine Tash's queenie friends looking around the gray walls and dirty floor and barred-up windows.

(After Tupac and D Foster, Jacqueline Woodson, p 104)

So let's pause for a sec and talk about voice, because voice is what really makes this novel stand out--what makes it, in my opinion, "also truly distinguished". The narrator's voice is so true and believable throughout the book that it's almost hard to believe she isn't a real person. And I found the voices of all the supporting characters equally impressive--the above is a great example. Doesn't the narrator's response sound exactly like what a comfortable 12-year-old would be thinking? Doesn't Tash feel like a real person that you could walk down to the prison or the river and meet yourself? Can't you see all his friends visiting the prison and looking around the visitation room in horror? And just mentioning "the river" adds another element to how this novel deals with place. Even though Tash is lucky in his family and friends, he still has his own place with his own people. He doesn't belong totally in the neighborhood, the way the girls do.

It doesn't really get more explicit than this. There are some veiled references to the dangers of being obviously gay in prison that I think will probably go over the heads of most kids (but if they don't, I don't have a problem with that, either). But there's certainly no chance of missing that Tash is gay, and his family and friends accept him. And I knew that would be too much for some people.

A lot of people don't like it when the term "homophobia" is applied to them, because, they say, they aren't "afraid" of gay people. But they do show fear--the fear of their kids "becoming" gay, usually, and a fear of having to talk with their kids about what "gay" is and whether it's right or wrong or neither. These are the people who are thinking--for subject matter, anyway--that After Tupac shouldn't have been given a Newbery honor.

I like talking with people about gay issues, usually, whether they agree with me or not. Often I have to hold back laughter when I'm talking with (or reading the blog posts of) people who are well-meaning but extremely naive, or people who have totally ridiculous reasons for their anti-gay beliefs. But I think this year... maybe I've had enough of homophobia. I live in California.

So I didn't want to think about what might happen if After Tupac and D Foster (a book that I would say is appropriate, reading and interest-level wise, for kids about 11 and up) won the Newbery. There's almost never as much discussion about the Honor books (which is too bad, of course). So I'm only hearing the occasional comment about After Tupac being "really for older readers", or, as one blogger put it,
this is most definitely a young adult novel, and deals with gangs, violence, prison, and mentiones homosexual prison affairs. So unless you want to be explaining that . . .

But since this isn't all about my personal comfort, I'm delighted to think of the range of children, parents, and teachers who will be reading this book now and identifying with these girls who embrace their brother's gayness. To my knowledge, this is the first Newbery book (winner or honor) that clearly contains LGBTQ content. (I haven't read that many of the recent honors, so if anyone knows of others, please tell me. I think A Solitary Blue has gay themes, but it's... well, not explicit, but I want to believe it so much that I'm NOT going to write Cynthia Voigt and ask her, because if it isn't, I don't want to know.) Thanks, committee, and thanks, Jacqueline Woodson.


CAS said...

But I think this year... maybe I've had enough of homophobia. I live in California.

Yeah. Who would have thought that would hurt so much?

I'm also so happy about After Tupac... and I'm grateful that it's so perfect for fourth through seventh grade. I've recommended it as a class read-aloud for our fourth/fifth classes, and the teachers can't wait.

I meant to write something genuinely thoughtful and appreciative, because I so love reading this and all your posts... but the day took it all out of me. So eloquence will have to wait for another today. For today, thanks and keep writing!

Sandy D. said...

I haven't read anything about "After Tupac", but your review made me go and put it on hold. It sounds really good.