Behind an Orange Mustache: A Narrative of Self
Pulling a large carton of milk down from the second shelf of the refrigerator, I rummaged around for my favorite porcelain bowl. I poured the milk into the bowl, and as the coolness touched my lips, I became a farmer: a fourth grade farmer with a cow named Cheddar. A mildly offensive name for a cow that would make a college professor’s Marxist sensibilities shudder, I separated Cheddar the cow from her means of production. In my story, Cheddar was the cow, I was the farmer, and the chilled milk a product of both. Carefully sealing a crumpled manila envelope, I delivered my story of Cheddar the cow to my fourth grade teacher. Cheddar the cow was my entrance into the storytelling world: handwritten, messy, and full of punchy adjectives.
Storytelling became a means of survival, a way for me to unearth feelings too scary and big for my child’s hands to hold. Quiet and introverted, I turned to stories as a way to construct a vibrant space separate from people. Conspiring with animals, talking to imaginative creatures, and imitating the characters of my favorite stories allowed me to interact with the real world through my relationship with an imaginary world. These stories were not merely for the sake of entertaining or moralizing, but were literary life rafts, pulling me out of a pool that always felt deep and cold. Stories were interpretive measures by which I read the world around me, both the good and the bad. As I grew older, stories grew with me. Perhaps less fearful and quiet, but still overly anxious, I related to storytelling as a form of preservation. Things A, B, and C made me feel as though I could be Thing D without the Cat even noticing.
At a certain age, most young adults renounce children’s literature and stories in favor of lengthier works of adult prose. Instead, I stood theatrically at the front of my first college English class, reciting The Lorax amidst a sea of Sylvia Plath. I did not know what it felt like to exist outside the realm of storytelling because I had always lived my life through the lens of imagination. Lasting beyond childhood, storytelling became a coping mechanism, both personally and academically. I turned to children’s stories as a way to comprehend the strangeness of my adult world, and as a portal through which to view my academic work.
Invested in narratives of imagination, I began to write fables and children’s poetry based on my own research in order to facilitate a connection between academia and artistry. Discovering feminist politics, and my inherent need for a form of resistance to gender-based oppression, storytelling became the medium through which I explored painful issues related to the human body, sexuality, and consciousness. In my second year of college, storytelling was no longer merely a mode of survival; it became a form of resistance.
Rather unexpectedly, I found myself in a queer theory class; my first introduction to any form of theory, and my first detailed look at issues of sexuality from a theoretical perspective. While not advocating a similar course of action for serious scholars of gender studies, I decided to rewrite the textbook as fables in an aversion to the required research papers. Somewhat of a bold endeavor, coupled with a lack of prior approval from my instructor, I turned in my first collection of stories, introducing myself as being “widely published in my own academic journals” and the author of Men Are for Schmucks. I held my breath as my professor gave me license to rewrite the rest of the book in a similar fashion. “You all need to read Sally’s fables!” she said with a flourish, as she peeled open the bent window blinds to let the sun in. I proceeded to crawl under my chair and stay there.
After my initial exploration of the combined potential of academia and creativity, I found several opportunities to create similar projects in other courses. I continued to write fables in a variety of disciplines, as well as short stories and children’s poetry. Whenever I needed inspiration, I turned to the collected works of Dr. Seuss I kept on the corner of my desk, along with the handle of Jack Daniel’s next to the collected works of Dr. Seuss. Tracing my finger along the outline of the Lorax’s mustache, it seemed as though this imaginary character had done more for me than any real person ever had. Anthropomorphized and burnt orange, he was furrier and rounder than me, but somehow dearer than any friend.
Each time I flipped through the pages of the collection, it felt like I was seeing a family photo album for the first time. Each character contained a memory, an emotion that impacted me throughout childhood and into adulthood. I never comprehended, though, that the characters carried with them codes of ideology passed down by their creators. When I began to examine the families present in the stories, and the relationship between humans and creatures, I discovered that in the name of “fun,” the Cat babysat Sally and her brother, and in the name of fun they all cleaned the house together. I did not know that my feminist politics would infiltrate the stories I relied upon for survival as a child, and that I would come to resist the very narratives I had loved so well.
Prompting an investigative project into the work of Dr. Seuss, I became a better journalist in a short span of time than I had ever hoped to be while clacking around the California legislature in my nude pumps. I thought I had been defending women’s political rights in Sacramento; instead, I was just getting my heels stuck in the sidewalk cracks. “This is where the real change happens,” I thought, as I examined the text and illustrations of Dr. Seuss’s treasured works. I spent hours on The Cat in the Hat, examining the ways in which the family was constructed, and the role of imagination in disguising labor. Writing frantically and desperately, I scribbled down everything that felt wrong, everything that felt like it was cheating children into unknowingly accepting a specifically gendered ideological code. Frazzled and slightly tipsy, I decided to dedicate my scholarship to the deconstruction of gendered narratives in children’s literature, potentially leading to a creative intervention of my own.
Since the age of thirteen when my mother suggested all women have a maternal instinct, and that maybe I should discover mine, I have strongly opposed ever having children. Perhaps it seems silly, then, that I would be invested in working with literature whose primary audience is children. While I challenge the notion that children’s literature is designed specifically for children, I am aware that psychologically, something occurs in a child’s brain while reading narratives that place humans in a hyper-imaginary realm alongside imaginative creatures. The effects of society upon the humans do not travel with them into their interactions with the creatures. Instead, they lose their gender, race, sexuality, and recognition of labor. Everything is silenced in the name of “fun.”
My contribution as a researcher has been to study the implications of popularized narratives in children’s literature, but that often does not feel tangible enough. I began writing often and ferociously, seeking to create alternate narratives through stories of my own. As natural storytellers, humans have an obligation to tell safe and kind tales. How, then, do we tell stories to children while maintaining an awareness of the ideologies we may be perpetuating? How do we do this while also resisting censorship?
As one of the delicate wonders of the world, literature touches everything we do from a young age. Every voice deserves the chance to narrate, but we must learn to read carefully and consciously. To learn that, as humans, we owe each other the courtesy of reading as if we are alive, as if the pages beneath our fingers breathe in and out in the form of phrases and sentences. Storytelling can be as strong as a march, a protest, a refusal. The stories I tell, and the stories I encourage others to tell, are not a loud pop or a sounding fizzle, but a quiet heartbeat behind melon green eyes.