Thursday, January 05, 2012

Taraneh Matloob on Susan Fletcher's Shadow Spinner

I was at the ChLA conference in June 2011 when I met Naomi Wood, Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University. During the course of a conversation about writers and writing, she mentioned that one of her graduate students had written a paper on Susan Fletcher's Shadow Spinner. Thanks to Naomi's e-introduction, I was able to read that paper and correspond with its writer, Taraneh Matloob.

[Uma] What drew you to consider Shadow Spinner as the subject for your paper?

[Taraneh]  The first time I heard about Shadow Spinner I was in my home country, Iran and I came across an article in a children’s literature scholarly journal. The name of the article was “How I met Shahrazad, the storyteller.” It was an interview with Susan Fletcher by Hossein Ebrahimi Elvand, the translator of the book in Iran. I was fascinated by Fletcher’s respect and passion for a culture different from her own and was inspired to know more about outsiders who set their story outside the mainstream culture. Initially, I started my research in the field from my own reading and writing and continued my study when I was awarded three months fellowship at International Youth Library of Munich. There, I had access to invaluable resources and also had the chance to meet scholars in the field. After being admitted to Children’s Literature graduate program in Kansas State I chose multicultural literature as the main subject that I want to study further, purposefully and passionately. Continuing my research in the field I realized that Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner is the best case to examine cultural authenticity. In my first and second reading of the book I was not consciously aware of the cultural elements interwoven to the story but I was certain that the book is an authentic representation of the Persian culture so I started working on that with a critical perspective.

[Uma] You take the position that rather than place the telling of culturally grounded stories out of bounds for those outside the culture, we should instead recognize writers like Susan, in your words an "outsider, practicing to develop an insider's eye." I'm fascinated by this, because really, this is what all fiction is about, the creation of illusion. In your view, what are the dangers for the unwary writer of navigating that coral reef of culturally grounded story when the culture is not the writer's own?

[Taraneh]I believe there is a serious concern when a book provides an incorrect picture of the other culture. As Edward Said discusses, inaccurate information about the East can change established theories and concepts through the history.  Of greatest concern is that those authors from the dominant culture, mastered in authorship, apply their imagination to create an appealing but an inaccurate and a distorted view of the dominated culture. However, avoiding of everything to do with the West and in other words encouraging anti-Orientalism may have a more negative consequence than Orientalism because it brings a deadly dominant silence. So, although as Alcoff correctly indicates speaking for others is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate the solution is not simply restricting the practice of speaking for others to speaking for groups of which one is a member. Indeed, the fault of the Western authors who fail to respect the rights of people of minority groups cannot be responded by prejudice against any effort to speak because as Fletcher indicates,  if “we don’t share our stories—trading them across our borders as freely as spices and ebony and silk—we will all be strangers forever” (132).

[Uma] Conversely do you have thoughts on the dangers for the insider writer of failing to take the broadest possible audience into account?

[Taraneh] In Iran we are introduced to the Western culture mainly through translation; Iranian authors rarely write about the West from their point of view.  However, it is important to have Iranian multicultural authors who write about the West from the outside position because Western audience needs to know how their culture is viewed from the East. Conversely, this is true for the Westerners who write about the East. Marjan’s story is a tale never told in the history of storytelling in Iran and every culture needs the stories that have not been told. It does matter to hear those stories, both from the inside and outside. It is important to hear Fletcher’s voice who is outsider, practicing to develop an insider’s eye.  Iranian young adults are eager and have the right to know how Western societies have understood and interpreted their life, culture, and country. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility and commitment of outsiders to not write unless they are confident that they know the culture enough and this confidence is achieved mainly through experiencing and having a conversation with member(s) from the other culture. Every culture has very specific characteristics that may not be captured by the outsider’s first attempts and therefore the work needs to be critiqued by insiders’ eye before publication.

[Uma] Anything else you want to add?

[Taraneh] I believe multicultural children’s literature is a new and very fragile field and portrayal of the other culture is the responsibility of every author, who is sensible of the great diversity rooted in different cultures and seeks to develop heightened sensitivity and understanding of others. In so doing, what matters is not to project the sense of nationality but to promote the sense of humanity, what is in danger of being lost in a battle between cultures.

[Uma] Thank you, Taraneh, for shedding this new and interesting perspective on an old and often contentious debate.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Ensorcelment By Story: Susan Fletcher on Shadow Spinner

Hardcover edition, Shadow Spinner
 I first heard Susan Fletcher speak about her writing journey with Shadow Spinner when she was an alumna guest speaker at VCFA and I was still relatively new on the faculty. At first I was skeptical. Sure. Another white writer romanticizes the Middle East--what's new about that? But as I heard Susan speak, I became more and more convinced that she was about to make me shift how I thought about the telling of story across cultures. Here was a writer, I could see, who had done the work and done it with humility, serving the story and not herself. I was moved, and that was something I hadn't expected. I'm happy to say that Susan is now a friend and colleague on the faculty at VCFA.

It's my great delight to open 2012 with this interview. Welcome, Susan Fletcher.

[Uma] What were the delights and dangers for you of daring to place this coral reef of a story on the page?

[Susan] When I remember what it was like to write Shadow Spinner, I can’t help but think of the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m not saying that aliens took over my mind – exactly – but I definitely felt in the grip of an obsession. It started when I was still drafting Sign of the Dove, and entire paragraphs of Shadow Spinner sprang full-blown into my head. I would minimize the page I was working on, take down the words I was hearing, then go back to Sign of the Dove. The obsession kept hold of me throughout the year and a half it took me to write Shadow Spinner and didn’t release me even after I finished. So I wrote a speech about Shahrazad and the importance of stories. I sketched out a sequel. I took a class in storytelling. It became annoying after a while. I couldn’t wait for the obsession to let go, so I could move wholeheartedly into my next project. Confession: Now I’m longing to be ensorcelled like that again.

I did worry about the fact that I was writing outside my culture. I read a lot of books, took a class, and asked for feedback from an Iranian friend and an Arabic woman who had worked for a princess in a royal harem.  Also, I had the stunning good fortune of meeting the sister-in-law of renowned Persian scholar Abbas Milani, who is now Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford. Abbas was generous way beyond anything I expected or deserved. He vetted the manuscript for accuracy – twice – and recommended more books for me to study.  He read Shadow Spinner as if it were an emergent poem, directing my ear to the faint ringing chimes of local metaphors and suggesting that they might resound throughout the whole.

[Uma--aside] And they do, they do! Watch this blog for an interview with Taraneh Matloob, whose research led her to Susan's work and who, like me, was taken with the loving care that Susan exercised in her research and her literary choices.

[Susan] Another thing that gave me the courage to write this book is that the 1001 Nights, on which Shadow Spinner is based, is such a cultural mélange.  Some scholars claim that the tales originated in India; many others believe that they originated in a lost, pre-Islamic Persian book of fairy tales called Hazar Afsaneh, or “Thousand Stories.” From Persia, the collection moved to the Arabic world, morphing into new cultural articulations and accumulating new tales.  The various translations we have today include stories from ancient Mesopotamia and India, early medieval Persia and Iraq, and Egypt of the late Middle Ages.  A couple of the most famous tales have no known precedents before Antoine Galland translated the Nights into French around 1704. So the 1001 Nights is imbued with the perspectives and contributions of many different cultures over more than a thousand years.  Moreover, it is a story about a woman who tells stories from many different cultures.  In a way, those of us who have retold or re-interpreted parts of the Nights (including  Robert Louis Stevenson,  Jorge Luis Borges, and John Barth, among many others) are simply adding another layer to these many-layered tales…and carrying on the tradition of Shahrazad.

[Uma] In juxtaposing the tale of young Marjan with the story of Shahrazad, you open it up to the world--there is a world of young girls in the kingdom, anxiously waiting to see if the Sultan will like each night's story, and spare its teller's life, and thus possibly their own. By implication, and by giving agency to a young girl who has herself been deeply wounded in body and spirit, you offer hope to all young girls everywhere. It was a transcendent moment in the book for me when I arrived at that understanding and yet it came very simply and naturally; it came from within the story. What was the line you had to walk between story and message, and how did you manage to stay true to story?

[Susan] I usually have no idea what the themes of my books are going to be until I’ve worked my way through to a story that seems to hold together.  Then I ask myself, “What is this book trying to say?” With Shadow Spinner, I knew that “Stories can save your life,” would be one of the themes.  But the idea of giving agency to a girl who’s been deeply wounded came through working out the story. 

I thought about the world of Shahrazad, in which the king takes a new girl as his wife every night and kills her the next day.  I thought about the mothers of girls inside the city and wondered what desperate measures they might take in order to protect their daughters.  I thought about Shahrazad’s having to come up with a new story each night for nearly three years. What if she got storyteller’s block?   What if she forgot which stories she’d already told? 

As a writer, I’m always more interested in story situations in which a child is the primary actor.  So I imagined a girl who begins collecting stories out of admiration for Shahrazad, whom she idolizes for having saved the lives of so many girls in the city.  And I imagined that the girl’s mother does what she feels she has to in order to protect her daughter.

[Uma] Would you like to say something about the process of having this book translated into Farsi and published in Iran?

[Susan] The first I knew about the Farsi translation was when Abbas Milani called to tell me about it.  The Persian translator knew how to contact Abbas – but not me. The translator, Hossein Ebrahimi (penname: Elvand), invited me to a conference in Iran, but for various complicated reasons, I was unable to attend. I was thrilled to learn later that Shadow Spinner was popular with children in Iran. And eventually I went to Iran to research my other Persian novel, Alphabet of Dreams.

Over the years, Elvand and I became friends. He was an extraordinary man. Both Elvand and Abbas vetted Alphabet of Dreams.  Elvand and I corresponded by email as he translated Alphabet of Dreams into Farsi.  I’ve written about Elvand in The Horn Book Magazine, March/April, 2009.

More on Shadow Spinner before the end of the week. Look for an interview with Taraneh Matloob, writer of a children's book in Farsi, and currently a doctoral student in children's literature at Oakland University in Michigan.