This is the second of a series of 3 interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This week's guest is Rita Williams Garcia author of No Laughter here (Amistad 2004).
No Laughter here sees Akilah and Victoria who is from Nigeria, who happen to be best friends and whose friendhip seems suddenly lost forever after a summer vacation. When school closes Victoria goes back to Nigeria to spend her holidays , this is what Akilha thinks. But the reality is different. Only after some time Akilah will know the real reason why Victoria went home that summer and why she had lost her laughter. Moving, inspiring. It is also a courageous book because Rita Williams Garcia gives voice also to those who supports FGM or at least justify within cultural relativism. This has surely been a challenging book to write, backing the outrage for the practice and providing a space of confrontation.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Rita you’ve wrote No laughter here, a YA novel which is about teens entering womanhood and FGM. How did you think about this story? Why Female Genital Mutilation?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Even though technically No Laughter Here is labeled as YA, it is at its heart a younger story. I couldn’t imagine writing Akilah and Victoria as older characters once I learned most females are cut as children. When I learned of the rite as a young woman long before No Laughter Here, I always knew I’d write about FGM. I also knew I wasn’t ready to write it as a young twenty-something. About a dozen years later, I attended a forum at the Sheraton in New York City on the subject. It was hosted by author Alice Walker, who had recently written Possessing the Secret of Joy. The chapter in NLH titled “Ayodele,” meaning “joy has come home” in Yoruba, is a small shout out to Walker’s novel. Gloria Steinem also spoken at that conference, as had a woman from South Africa, women’s health professionals and numerous activists. I listened to them speak on the abuses and rights of women, but I heard no mention of circumcised girls or babies. If someone spoke on those realities, I missed it. I wanted to know more about young girls and FGM, however with a full-time job, grad school, two small children and a husband frequently away for work, the timing was wrong for me to delve deeper—and this would need time and devotion. Maybe two or three years later I was at a baby shower where my then 8 year-old daughter developed a fast friendship with another 8 year-old who was half Nigerian. I watched the two whisper and giggle like they’d known each other all their lives. I remember enjoying this sight of what makes girls truly girls and just like that, it occurred to me: Not all eight year-old girls are laughing and sharing fun secrets. I’d found my way into Akilah and Victoria’s story and I set out to tell it. The protagonists of the story are two girls friends, Akhila and Victoria. Victoria comes from a country where FGM is practiced. The time Victoria returns from holiday, spent in her own country, Nigeria, things change between the two friends and this because Victoria underwent the ritual cut. You say she has lost her laughter. How did you empathize with the fact that a similar experience occurred to Victoria would have brought a change in her relationship with her best friend?
True friendship between girls is a unique bond. Friendship between two truly connected friends is long-lasting. You share everything and constantly pour your likes, loves, hates, fears, and secrets back and forth into each other to confirm your likeness and trust. I imagined these girls teased each other about everything and found the same things funny. Conversely, I knew the two would rally for one another and find the same things horrific. When Victoria no longer brings herself completely to their friendship, her one true friend, Akilah, can only feel confusion, anger, and loss. Friendship bereavement can be profound for children, especially when coupled with confusion and unexpected change. Although Akilah didn’t undergo the cut, she, like Victoria loses her laughter because she is missing Victoria, who has become a part of own herself. Akilah cannot help but feel empathy for Victoria.
VALENTINA MMAKA - I found very interesting and compelling that you brought to the reader also the other side of the issue, the side of who practice FGM. So Mrs Saunders, the girls’ teacher, is sympathetic towards Victoria ‘s experience. Actually she is the only audible voice that sympathize with her experience. What was you real intention on portraying such a character?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Even a practice as inhumane as FGM must be understood. We don’t have to agree but we should understand what is behind it. To just say, “No More” or “No” doesn’t work effectively if we don’t understand why it exists on cultural, gender identity, psychological, and economic levels. We must understand the thoughts and feelings of the people before we can suggest alternatives or even move to eradicate. To truly be effective, teaching or mandating alternatives should align with the psychology and culture of the practicing people. For the record, I am against the cut or any other form of ritual mutilation. It is important to not just push my own agenda or beliefs, but to also show the reader the other point of view, or in this case, to at least strongly hint at it. While I was writing, I didn’t believe Victoria’s family would sit down and explain it to her or to Akilah; custom trumps children’s rights and it was too personal and none of Akilah’s business (from the family’s perspective). I made use of her teacher, who’d asked the students earlier in the story how far did they travel over the summer? In other words, “What did you see or experience that was different from your familiar? What did you learn about the world?” I felt Ms. Saunders would have the experience, world view and sensitivity to talk to an angry Akilah about FGM. I also knew she’d understand that Akilah wouldn’t keep an open mind because FGM wasn’t an abstract or foreign ritual—it had profoundly and permanently harmed her friend. Still, I had to put it out there for Akilah and the reader to consider. If not now, perhaps later when the subject, or a similar subject appeared.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Don’t you think that FGM should be discussed out of cultural relativism and if so, how would it be the best way to do so?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - It’s hard for me to separate FGM from culture, gender and psychology. They’re all entangled. But as subject matter, yes, I believe FGM can be discussed beyond culture. A willingness to have the discussion must come first, and is without a doubt, the greatest obstacle. If there’s a gathering of interested parties, then any thoughtful and open discussion can be had. I usually start by breaking down the terms: female, genital, and mutilation and go from there.
VALENTINA MMAKA - When the book came out did you have difficulties in being on media, in libraries, in school visits because of the topic?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Forgive me if I laugh. The only media coverage for NLH included a few book reviews and an online discussion of whether the book was appropriate for school aged children. One book review deemed this book about fifth graders appropriate for juniors in high school. (Had they read the book?) The publisher sent the book to a known feminist and anti-FGM advocate who then sent a scathing letter about how the book was filled with lies and that they (Harpercollins/Amistad) should not publish it. Was there trouble in schools and bookstores? You can’t have trouble if the book isn’t on the shelf. There were order cancellations once decision-makers learned the subject matter of the book. I’ve had a few school invitations rescinded. If I was invited to a school to do a workshop, upon occasion I was told I could not use NLH as a basis for the workshop. This wasn’t always the case, but I was never shocked or outraged when it happened. I knew there would be pushback and forms of censorship. I didn’t care at the time. The book found its allies primarily available through libraries and many librarians made displays so readers could find the book.
What was the feedback from your young readers?
Thank goodness for young readers. They handled the subject matter well and many were stirred to activism. My first reader was my friend’s twelve year-old daughter who went on to make FGM her seventh grade school project. My first letter was from another twelve year-old who, after having read the book, told her mother to stop what she was doing and to read the book, so they could talk. I’ve had letters from boys who talked about their own circumcisions. A lot of these letters relayed personal stories that I was entrusted with. It was huge! They wanted more information. At the time I kept a text file with titles of books (The Fattening Hut, No Condition is Permanent, Desert Flower, Who Fears Death), films like Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget, and web sites like Waris Dirie’s foundation. The young readers I heard from connected with a human struggle and not with the sexually taboo subject that adults immediately associate with FGM. I received an email from an 8th grade student who invited me to her class to talk about NLH. I said I would come if it was all right with her teacher. Shortly, thereafter, I was in her classroom where she shared that she had been circumcised as a baby. She didn’t quite put the pieces together until she read NLH. Her classroom applauded her. A few of the boys shared stories—one, whose family was from a practicing country that fled to the US to escape FGM for his sisters. I’ve received many letters for this book, and made a few appearances to speak about NLH, but this was the experience that had made writing No Laughter Here worth every book return. Let me also note that I did get letters from readers who didn’t understand what the book was about. These included a letter from a 16 year-old female, and one from two eighth grade girls.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Why do you think publisher are not open to publish YA novels on FGM?
RITA WILLIAMS AFRICA - Publishers are reticent to publish a book on this subject for young people—teen or younger—because the market won’t bear it. Well, so far. I’m hoping a writer will come along and compel the market with a story on this subject that can’t be denied. I’m hoping we can keep an open mind and care to know about the plight of people who might seem distant from us, but are not at all. We all want the right to our own bodies, don’t we?
VALENTINA MMAKA - Sometimes authors and teachers fear to “touch” topics like sexuality though sexuality is often misrepresented on media, tv etc…what could be the relevance of books in providing “spaces” to raise an equal dialogue?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA -Remember that for adults, FGM is an impossible subject to broach. I am used to being met with blinders, pained faces, and covered ears, whereas children will ask questions. Children make faces and noises, but once we start talking, they find the subject relatable in many ways. I gauge the audience and tend to not give more than I think they can handle. That goes for adults as well, although, adults are harder to talk to. And mention “clitoris?” Young people who might know the term will snicker or turn red, but adults flee.
A few things must be in place for schools to have a safe space to have dialogues about topics with sexual content. The school must have the support of the community—not so easily won, but well worth it. The discussion leader or teacher must feel comfortable in leading or guiding the discussion. Just as people in FGM practicing countries deal with issues of shame if they try to circumvent the brutality of the ritual, people who are charged to talk about it must also deal with issues of shame and discomfort. I believe it also boils down to consent. No one should be forced to read my book or any other book with sensitive or sexual content. Safe space must be a safe space, free of judgement. By the same token, no one should be barred from reading the content or exploring it.
VALENTINA MMAKA - I spoke to many educators in different parts of the world and some told me that talking about FGM in school would raise a new form of discrimination. How would you reply to this?
I’m not sure which form of discrimination these educators refer to. Is that if we speak on female genital mutilation, then we must also speak on foreskin circumcision performed on males? If a discussion on male circumcision arises as a result of reading books about FGM, then let the discussion commence! Or are they mean who can participate in the readings and discussion? If that’s the case, make participation elective. Offer a selection of books that speak on human rights issues to choose from. I always knew my book was special and that it would have to find its reader. I didn’t expect it to have meaning for everyone. My point is that the reader who shows interest and seeks this book and wants to know about its subject matter should not be denied access.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What can we authors do to encourage parents teachers, publishers to open their schedule to more diverse books and topics so that young readers might be able to find mirrors and windows to quote Zetta Elliott?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - We have to recognize what our roles are. Everyone has one or two roles to play in fostering a society that expects and includes diverse books. Authors must do what we are primarily charged to do. We must write good books. Books so compelling their stories cannot be denied or hidden from view. Publishers must stop underestimating the marketplace. My dear friend and colleague, Coe Booth, was met with pushback from book buyers in different parts of the country because they felt their primarily white teens wouldn’t read fiction about a young black kid growing up in the Bronx (Tyrell). Her editor from Scholastic got on the phone with these book buyers and convinced them otherwise. Her books are doing quite well in these markets. So, publishers must not only publish, they must push. Parents and grandparents should simply mix it up a bit when they’re stocking their children’s home libraries. At the heart of a book is always a story and a reader waiting to read it. Schools are under siege. Teachers are always digging in their own pockets to bring books in the classroom. If schools aren’t up against financial hardships, they are dealing with time and testing. Arts and music are scrapped from the budget and/or the schedule. If books are next, then what are we preparing our children for? How will they experience the inner lives of people who don’t live in their neighborhoods? How will they experience commonality that can only come from stepping into the consciousness of another? No solutions or suggestions here. We just need books. Diverse books. Good books.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Being an activist and a writer not coming from FGM practicing communities, sometimes I had the feeling that I had to justify myself because we touch topics that do not relate to our live directly. Did you ever had a similar feeling, perception from outside?
RITA WILLIAMS GARCIA - Good question! How can I not feel this? I knew I was stepping into this territory uninvited. I had to do it anyway. I knew I couldn’t simply represent my own sense of outrage. I had to know more before I began. Not merely the factual information, but the point of view that makes such a practice vital to a people. For this small story, I listened to women across the spectrum to try to grasp why women would perpetuate a practice that would end in death, hospitalization—if available, irreparable psychological trauma, the inability to reproduce, urinate, menstruate or to fully engage her sexuality. Whether I agreed or not, I felt I had the responsibility to present the possibility of a different point of view. I also thought it would be helpful and necessary to deal with attitudes between Africans and African-Americans just to have that discussion of perceptions and realities. I grew up during a time when claiming your African heritage was vital to our struggle for identity period. People renamed themselves, wore African prints and learned Swahili. And then I befriended a few Africans in college and learned that I was an American. Rude awakening, for sure, but enlightening. But on the subject of entering this subject uninvited, an outsider with no direct personal stake in this plight, I entered as I’ve been taught to enter a place. With respect.
No Laughter here was published first in 2004 and I believe that 11 years later it should be read and taught, now that even young readers might know more about FGM and human rights issues.
Rita Williams Garcia is the author of several award winning novels. Known for her realistic portrayal of teen of color, Williams Garcia's work has been recognized by the Coretta Scott King Award, Pen Norma Klein, Americal Library Association among others.
You can find Riuta Williams Garcia here