I wrote a letter to the editor to my hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, about this opinion piece, and they printed it this morning. I’m practicing my strong wording.
Last week I read the transcript of an NPR interview with Louis Sachar, author of the incredible Holes. His new book Fuzzy Mud just came out. In the interview, Sachar discussed his main character’s name:
[ARUN] RATH: I’m curious about the name of our female protagonist here ’cause you – arguably, your most famous character was Stanley Yelnats. His name’s a palindrome.
RATH: I was wondering if there was something I was not getting about Tamaya Dhilwaddi.
RATH: Sounds vaguely Indian (laughter).
SACHAR: Right. It was – I didn’t want to name like Sarah or Vanessa or – you know. The world’s getting much more diverse. And I wanted her to sound more ethnic, but I didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind. So I made up a name that, like you said, sounded vaguely Indian. It could be vaguely Japanese. It could be a lot of things. There’s nothing more to it than that.
Sachar’s response bothered me. He starts out by implying that he wanted his main character to contribute to diversity in children’s literature, which is all well and good and very in the spirit of We Need Diverse Books. But then he says he “wanted her to sound more ethnic,” where ethnic obviously means non-white/Anglo-American (because of course only people who are not white/Anglo-American have ethnicity). I don’t like this wording, but I wouldn’t have minded if Sachar had then decided to make his main character Mexican-American or Vietnamese-American or some such and given her a name accordingly.
Instead, Sachar admits that he “didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind” and so “made up a name” that he thought could be “vaguely Indian” or “vaguely Japanese” or “a lot of things.” I’m uncomfortable with this. First, the name itself: Tamaya Dhilwaddi. Tamaya doesn’t strike me as Indian or Japanese or anything particularly, though it suggests a non-white character more than Sarah or Vanessa does. It also sounds like a name that real people probably have, and indeed, a Facebook search shows there are Tamayas out there. Dhilwaddi, on the other hand, immediately looks Indian to me. If Sachar hadn’t said he’d made it up, I would have assumed it was an actual Indian last name. It’s mainly the initial dh, which looks like it represents a voiced aspirated stop, a type of sound that’s common in Indian languages and not so common in other parts of the world. There is no way that Dhilwaddi could be construed as Japanese to anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese names. I can’t imagine what else it could be construed as either. Googling reveals that Dhilwaddi is truly made up; the name doesn’t exist except in Fuzzy Mud.
It’s notable that the NPR host, Arun Rath, says the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi “sounds vaguely Indian” because, as far as I can tell, Rath is himself Indian-American. He may have said “vaguely Indian” because he knew Tamaya Dhilwaddi wasn’t a real Indian name. Someone like me, on the other hand, would have believed that Dhilwaddi, if not Tamaya, was an actual Indian name. This suggests to me that Sachar’s imagined audience is “non-ethnic,” i.e. not Indian-American or Japanese-American, among other things. If he wanted his protagonist’s name to sound “vaguely” X or Y to readers, those readers must necessarily not be X or Y themselves or they would recognize that the name is not real.
I find it puzzling that an author would try to contribute to diversity in kidlit by making up an ambiguous but “ethnic” name. Sachar clearly took inspiration from Indian names, but the problem with trying to make up a name from a particular language/culture instead of selecting a real name is that you might be perceived as having gotten it wrong, either because the name doesn’t exist or because it’s actually phonotactically (linguistically) wrong no matter what language you claim it comes from. Or perhaps it somehow violates the naming practices of the culture you think the name “vaguely” comes from. You may end up insulting people.
I also don’t understand why an author would try to make a character “broadly ethnic” instead of specifying their ethnicity. The fact that Sachar thinks Tamaya could be a lot of things indicates that he doesn’t know what her ethnicity or heritage are, but there’s no such thing as being generically ethnic in the real world. The interview makes it sound like Tamaya’s name is the only thing that marks her as “ethnic,” but if she were actually Indian- or Japanese-American, that should affect more than just her name. (I have not read Fuzzy Mud, so I can’t be sure Tamaya’s background, whatever it is, doesn’t affect her worldview or her family life or the foods she eats, but I’d be surprised if it did.) If Tamaya’s name is the only thing that makes her not a white/Anglo-American character, then naming her Tamaya Dhilwaddi isn’t contributing much to diversity in children’s books; it’s mostly window dressing.
It sounds to me like Sachar hopes “ethnic” readers (whatever that means) will see themselves in Tamaya or somehow feel more represented because she has an “ethnic-sounding” name, but I’m not sure this will happen. Most readers won’t recognize her name as being like theirs; certainly no Japanese-American child will think Tamaya might be Japanese-American too. And Indian-American children might think her name sounds sort of like theirs but be disappointed that it’s wrong or made-up. Why not just choose a specific ethnicity and an authentic name for the character so that some children see real representation of themselves and everybody else knows exactly what kind of person is being represented?
To be clear, I think all this matters because Fuzzy Mud is set in our world. It’s different in fantasy, in which there are different considerations; I’ll talk about this in Part II tomorrow. I also understand that parents make up names for their children in the real world and that you can write a book with characters whose names reveal nothing about their ethnicities, but I don’t believe either of these is Sachar’s intention in Fuzzy Mud.
I’m curious what others think. Am I off base? Does Sachar’s reasoning about the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi make sense to you? How do you approach character naming and diversity?
I’m excited to announce the time and place of my release party for Sparkers: Friday, September 26th, 2014 at 6:30pm at Red Balloon Bookshop in Saint Paul, MN! I lived just a few blocks away from Red Balloon last year, and its proximity was one of the best parts of living in that neighborhood. Red Balloon is where I met Eoin Colfer (when I was…12?) and Maggie Stiefvater (when I was 21). Back in October 2012, as Maggie Stiefvater dedicated my copy of The Raven Boys, I couldn’t have imagined that two years later I would be celebrating the publication of my first book in the same store. The party is still a ways off, of course, but feel free to mark your calendars.
Now for the (entirely unrelated) mini-rant. Last week, Slate ran a piece about young adult (YA) literature, something to the effect that adults should be ashamed of reading YA books. If you haven’t already read the article and want to, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding it (though in addition to the article itself your search will undoubtedly turn up scads of rebuttals–the piece hit a nerve). A new commentary lamenting the choices of the reading public and/or expounding on what’s wrong with YA literature appears every couple of months, so this wasn’t exactly surprising, but I think this deliberately provocative article particularly irked readers and writers of YA and middle grade (MG). Others have already responded to the Slate piece more deftly than I will be able to, but I can’t help sharing some of the thoughts I had as I read the article because it was so astoundingly condescending and at times so blatantly wrong that I was practically sputtering at my computer screen as I scrolled through.
First off, it alarms me that the author casually dismisses all genre fiction out of hand in order to focus on the only kind of YA books she is even willing to consider as potentially worthy of adult consumption, namely, YA contemporary. There is no reason why realistic fiction should automatically be elevated above science fiction, fantasy, etc. in either the adult or YA/children’s realm. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of genres. There are excellent books and less excellent books in every genre.
The author states that she didn’t cry when she read a certain bestselling YA novel about two teenagers with cancer. Great. Neither did I. She is entitled to find that novel occasionally eye roll-inducing, but there’s no need to be smug about it and imply that she’s more sophisticated than those adult readers who genuinely enjoyed the book.
The author sets up a clear dichotomy between YA novels, which have “uniformly satisfying” endings, and adult novels, which presumably have complex, ambiguous, or open-ended endings. This is kind of ridiculous. There are YA and MG books in which not every loose end is tied up*, and there are in fact whole classes of adult novels in which satisfying endings are de rigueur. Of course, it’s pretty clear that when the author talks about books for adults she’s only talking about serious, literary fiction (Literature with a capital L–however you define it), but if that’s the case, why single out YA novels for disparagement? Does she think adults should be equally ashamed of reading category romance or cozy mysteries (examples I give with caution, since I know very little about them)? My hunch is she does think so, but she doesn’t talk about it because it would undermine her argument that adults reading adult books = good and adults reading YA books = bad.
Then I got to this: “These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” At this point, it became obvious that the author simply didn’t know what she was talking about. She can’t have read many books for teenagers or even for children. Because this sentence is flat-out false. When I read it, the first work that leaped to my mind was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I am fascinated by these books in large part because they’re practically the epitome of “the emotional and moral ambiguity” that the Slate writer claims doesn’t exist in YA. A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t even YA, it’s MG, which means it’s for even younger children.
For those not familiar with it, A Series of Unfortunate Events is about three siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, who are delivered into the hands of a villainous guardian after their parents perish in a fire. The first few books chronicle their woes as they move from one incompetent guardian to the next, always being pursued by their first guardian, who is after their parents’ fortune. Part of the charm of the books is the narrator’s constant warnings to the reader that this tale is not a happy one. Many installments in the series end in the Baudelaires’ failure to accomplish what they had hoped. The guardians who love them die; their new friends are torn from them or betray them. As the series progresses, the line between heroes and villains blurs, and what previously seemed black and white collapses into murky gray. The Baudelaires find themselves making choices of dubious morality and even hurting others to try to escape their enemies and save themselves and their friends. They doubt their past decisions and are no longer proud of or comfortable with themselves. I’m afraid I’m making this sound very dry; the books are not, and you should read them! The point is, A Series of Unfortunate Events is rife with moral ambiguity.
I also point to this series to refute the claim that all books for young people have neat, satisfying endings. As I read Books 10, 11, 12, I wondered how Lemony Snicket was going to end things. He couldn’t come through with a happy ending in the final book because the whole premise of A Series of Unfortunate Events was that it was an unhappy story. An ending in which all was resolved would destroy the integrity of the series. But surely he couldn’t end with the Baudelaires’ ultimate defeat or even death because he had legions of young fans who would be crushed, right? I seriously wondered how Lemony Snicket was ever going to pull off a fitting conclusion to the series. But guess what? He did. The last volume ended not happily, not unhappily, but ambiguously. He left so many unanswered questions. And it was so right. It was the ending the series called for, and it proves that not all children’s books have simple endings.
When articles like the recent one in Slate come out, people sometimes respond by quoting Madeleine L’Engle (“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children”) or Philip Pullman (“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book”). This makes me uneasy too. Not the quotes themselves, but the way in which they’re sometimes used, defensively, or sometimes even smugly. In such a context, these quotes imply that, actually, it’s books for young people that are superior. This strikes me as playing the same game as articles that exalt adult literature and denigrate YA or MG literature. Why should we even have this debate?
I read books for adults and books for children and teenagers. Admittedly, the vast majority of what I read is YA or MG. I feel like I never really left the teen section of the library. When someone tosses out that statistic about how half of all YA books are bought by people over 18 (some of whom may be buying the books for teens, of course), it usually takes me a second to remember that, oh, right, they’re talking about me. I’m one of those adult buyers now.
The thing is, reading YA doesn’t prevent you from reading adult literature too, and neither is inherently superior to the other. Why don’t we just respect everyone’s right to read what they like? If a sixth grader wants to read War and Peace, let her. If adults enjoy books for young people, more power to them. If you’re having snide thoughts about someone else’s choice of reading material (I know I have), that’s okay, but maybe keep them to yourself.
Did I say this was going to be a mini-rant? I guess it wasn’t so mini. Ah, well. Happy reading to all.
*Incidentally, School Library Journal‘s recent review of Sparkers counts my book among these when it says that “[n]ot everything is wrapped up neatly” in it. I was honestly a bit surprised, but I’m delighted someone might consider my novel a counterexample to the Slate piece’s claim that all YA and children’s books’ endings are tied up in a bow.