Friday, December 7, 2018

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

★★

Isabelle read this book for school in 7th grade, but I'm not too keen on it. It's about a very diverse neighborhood coming together in the making of a community garden. Overall, the intent and the message of the book are positive. What troubles me is the delivery. I would not call this book "racist", but the writing incorporates various levels of "racial insensitivity", or a lack of "racial awareness".

Listed below (at the end of this review) are race-related excerpts from the book that I believe are worth discussing, or at least clarifying. Each chapter is narrated in the first person by a different character, and most references are in the narrator's thoughts. No offense is intended in any of these references, but there's a lot to unpack just in reading the words in print. My concern is that the text itself does not provide enough context, and without sufficient analysis, young readers might come away from this book with misunderstandings about race-related concepts. Some of my examples might be nit-picky, but I think when a book is expressly written to showcase diversity, when it specifically shines a spotlight on race, it should go out of its way to get it right.

Having only 69 pages, the book is more of a novella. I was disappointed when I realized that each character gets only one chapter, so we don't see the individual stories developed. The garden itself is like the main character, and it's the growth of the garden that is told through the eyes of different people.

Aside from my concerns about race, the book includes references to a number of other topics that might be worth discussing with young readers as well. For example, death (some of the characters have family members who have died), marijuana, guns in schools, an armed robbery that results in physical abuse and PTSD, and a pregnant teenager who wishes to miscarry.

Anyway, here are the race-related references that caught my attention:

  • Page 4: "Gibb Street was mainly Rumanians back then."

    Rumania is an alternate spelling of Romania.

    According to Wikipedia: "In English, the name of the country was formerly spelt Rumania or Roumania. Romania became the predominant spelling around 1975."

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romania

    As an elderly person, Ana (the narrator of this chapter) would be accustomed to using the spelling she grew up with.

  • Page 5: "Then Negro families in the Depression."

    According to Merriam-Webster online, the term "Negro" is "dated, now sometimes offensive".

    Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Negro

    Ana is still the narrator, and again, as an elderly person, she might be accustomed to using the terms she grew up with. In her old age, she might not understand that "Negro" is no longer an acceptable term to use to refer to African-Americans. She probably does not mean to refer to African-Americans in a belittling way, but if she said it out loud, an African-American might be offended.

    These days, "African-American" and "black" are appropriate words to use. Some African-American / black people may have a preference for which term they prefer.

    Sources:

    https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/say-african-american-or-black-first-acknowledge-persistence-structural-racism

    https://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2013/04/an-african-american-or-a-black-160773

  • Page 10: "She gave me some binoculars and told me all about the Chinese girl."

    Wendell (the narrator of this chapter) is referring to Kim, who is Vietnamese. He probably does not know Kim's ethnicity, so he guesses Chinese. He probably does not mean any harm, but if he said this out loud, Kim might be offended. Vietnamese language and culture is different from Chinese language and culture. Interchanging the two perpetuates the stereotype that all Asian cultures are the same, and not worth distinguishing one from the other. Instead, if you don't know a person's exact Asian country of origin, "Asian" is the appropriate word to use.

  • Page 14: "He doesn't speak Spanish, just an Indian language."

    Gonzalo (the narrator of this chapter) is referring to his great-uncle. Since Gonzalo is from Guatemala, he is probably not using "Indian" to refer to the Asian subcontinent of India. Instead, he means someone whose ancestry is native to a particular place. There is much debate about how we should refer to these peoples: Indians? American Indians? Native Americans? Indigenous? Members of these groups typically have their own preferences regarding what to call themselves. Since Gonzalo is talking about his own family, he is using the word he is most comfortable with.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_name_controversy

  • Page 26: "People bent over like coolies, walking sometimes three or four blocks, a gallon jug in each hand, complaining all the time about the water."

    Sam (the narrator of this chapter) studies words as a hobby, so his use of "coolie" seems particularly unexpected.

    According to Merriam-Webster online, the term "coolie" is "usually offensive".

    Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coolie

    Sam is probably using the word "coolie" to mean "unskilled laborer". However, in America, the word has derogatory connotations stemming from the xenophobic treatment of Chinese immigrants during the mid-to-late 1800s. It's probably best not to use this word casually, except in historical context, especially when speaking about a group that includes Asians.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coolie

  • Page 26: "With a few exceptions, the blacks on one side, the whites on another, the Central Americans and Asians toward the back."

    See the Politico source above related to "Negro". Using "black" as a noun is a subject of debate. The same could probably be said for using "white" as a noun. Saying "black people" and "white people" would be less controversial.

  • Page 36: Sae Young (the narrator of this chapter) is an adult from Korea. Her entire chapter is written in broken English with poor grammar.

    Though other narrators are also immigrants, this is the only chapter written in poor English. It feels like the literary equivalent of the on-screen Asian character having an accent. This kind of representation perpetuates the "other-ing" of Asians in America.

  • Page 43: "They liked to call me 'field slave' and 'sharecropper.' Ask how Massa's crops is doing."

    This is an example of explicit racism. Young readers should understand this type of behavior is not acceptable. Some may need an explanation of "Massa".

  • Page 67: "It had been such a wonderful change to see people making something for themselves instead of waiting for a welfare check."

    Not race-related, but the implication that people who receive welfare checks are lazy is troubling. This type of classism might also be worth discussing with young readers.

  • Page 69: "It was a little Oriental girl, with a trowel and a plastic bag of lima beans."

    According to Merriam-Webster online, the term "Oriental" is "dated, now usually offensive".

    Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oriental

    As with the use of "Negro", Florence (the narrator of this chapter) is an elderly person who might be accustomed to using the terms she grew up with. She probably does not mean to refer to Asians in a belittling way, but if she said it out loud, an Asian person might be offended.
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