Dear Meg Rosoff,
When I was nine years old, a tragedy shook the United States of America. Lives were lost, hopes and dreams and security shattered. One of my plainest memories about that day is a visit in my backyard from my mother’s friend. She has a newspaper spread over her lap, and I’m leaning over her shoulder.
Every headline is centered either on the tragedy, or on people like me. It’s not even been a full day yet, and the speculation is writhing, hateful, embittered. Two girls walk down the street, and upon seeing us — our scarves, our saddened expressions, our fear — one of them cups her hands around her mouth and bellows, “Hey! Your people did this!”
My mother walks up to the fence, and they take to their heels. The confrontation is in their hands, on their terms. We are not allowed defense. We are not allowed our own dialogue. The newspapers do not feature quotes from people like us for weeks. When they appear, they are small, buried under paragraphs of hateful rhetoric, assumptions and stereotypes.
The victims of the tragedy that look like me are pushed to the late night news coverage. A widowed wife, weeping and heavily pregnant, is witnessed by hundreds of people like me with tears in their eyes and wounded hearts. No one else sees her. No one knows her story.
Even I, who heard that she had been interviewed at all from a secondhand source, cannot remember her name now.
When I was fifteen years old, Ms. Rosoff, I read your story How I Live Now. I think I liked it because of the title. It felt apt. It felt poignant. It had a clear, piercing agenda: how the world is now, as compared to what it was then.
How the world is now, with my eyes open and my dreams shattered, as opposed to the blissful idyll of childhood and fresh hopes.
I thought you understood me.
Now, I think I was wrong.
This is how I live now. This is how I try to cobble together my understanding of myself and scrape my ever-bruised heart off the hospital tiles as a Fox News reporter calls for the death of all Muslims, her eyes wide, her teeth bared. It is nearly two o’clock in the morning, and the few occupants of the Emergency Room won’t meet our eyes.
My father asks the nurse to change the channel. She says they don’t have a remote. She won’t meet his eyes, either.
This is how I live now. I wander through the shelves at my local library, tugging out new titles at random. One book features a joke at the expense of the silent, shrouded Muslim girl who has no spoken line to her name. Another caricatures the only black child who made the final cut. They are lampooned, debased, ultimately die first.
I push it back in its spot, and, as an afterthought, turn it around so its spine is hidden.
I move on, trying to find a place to settle, to land, to find a welcome harbor where my wing-thin defenses will not be battered and torn through by these microaggressions. I leave the library with a few old favorites pressed to my heart and a feeling of dissatisfaction.
This is how I live now. I argue with a friend who insists that the death of Mike Brown, a young man — a wonderful man, a man who had a future ahead of him — was justified. The local news channel has aired an interview with his killer, red-rimmed eyes and mask-like stare.
“The poor man, he’s so wracked with guilt,” she sighs. My stomach lurches.
My younger cousin is African-American. He is the only African-American boy in his school. The other boys have a name for him. It is “the black Iraqi”, because they are aware his cousins are Muslim and what his race is and that is all that matters.
The newspapers and magazines have taught them well.
And so have books, Ms. Rosoff. Books from well-intentioned authors like you, who have so duly and rightfully taught them that there is a certain status quo, a certain group of children who may be represented as being part of a world where they may be “different or be brave”.
It is not different or brave, after all, to be the only child of color in a hostile school. It is only a distraction from the real agenda, a truly philosophical, spiritual, intellectual agenda: the agenda of normal authority being heard in one single voice, and all others falling where they may in the gutters of secondhand, silencing representation.
An agenda that reaches out to a few and joins hands together, united in the need, the hunger to keep all others out of these pleasures, these amusements, these pursuits of literary gratification — of being able to see yourself wherever and however you please.
An agenda that shuns and shoves back and kicks, childishly and cruelly, so many others. That educates children on the warped, mistake-riddled assumptions on who they are, that instructs them that regardless of how wrong this feels, this is the truth.
This is how I live now. I sit knee-to-knee with other castoffs from the accepted literary status quo. We compare the titles where we’ve seen glimpses of ourselves, quick darts of a reflection across the Mirror of Erised, never seen full-face, never given a mouth beneath the wide, hungry eyes.
It feels like a quest, a bitter, life-long venture worthy of an ancient king: trying to find myself, to love myself, to come to terms with myself. The only maps I am given are what others have to say about me, and I fumble through and cross out redundant, nonsensical tripe until I can find glimpses of the truth.
The mirrors I find are not in the magazines and newspapers that supposedly embody the truth. I find them in the voices of those who have been pursuing a new narrative for longer than I have, who are just as tired and frustrated with attempting to find these “thousands” of accurate books you promise us are out there for the taking.
There are books, here and there. There are writers, sucking the nectar of hope that is offered to them and taking up their pens and trying to write down the flavor still lingering on their tongue, so that others can let it soak into their minds and hearts and carry it forward, carry it onward.
I want the narrative back in the right hands, Ms. Rosoff. I’m no longer happy or satisfied with a world where certain characters are deemed satisfactory and certain others are dismissed because there ought to be a pamphlet about that sort of thing — as though being a human, facing a daily struggle, is something that requires a distasteful, absently written brochure to be stuffed into the magazine rack at a doctor’s office.
I agree with you. I really hate this idea we need agendas in books. So, I will be passing on your future works. I will not be revisiting How I Live Now or contemplating your new book deals. I have no time for an agenda that presents my life, other lives, as something that is not crucial and real and needed.
This is how I live now. This is how I survive.