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.


  1. Love this quote “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”. Uma and Taraneh, thank you - such helpful thoughts on this sensitive issue.

  2. I love it too, but it also stirs up the debate, I think, which is my intention. Because while such trading is vital, it's also not to be engaged in without great thought and deliberation. After all, if we look closely at historical trade in commodities such as ebony and spices, we have a couple of different models, don't we? One is trade among equals, and the other is plunder. The problem is that the Western world for too long didn't really see the difference. So I'd suggest that in the world of story, we think about all this without sentiment and we leave behind the notion that "exotic" is a word of praise. All the more reason that we need to talk about these sensitive issues.

  3. I think the key, as you say, Uma is to TALK... not simply to defend, or retreat, or hoard, but talk and share, so that the trade is two-way and flowing.

  4. Very interesting cultural discussion.

    I admire writers who are "outsiders," but have a keen sensitivity as well as the curiosity toward a different cultural group. In their stories they often reveal as much about their own culture as they do about the one they're exploring.

    Wonderful post.

  5. What an informative discussion, thanks for posting!

  6. I always learn something when I come here, and I continue to think about it after I leave.

    Scheherazade was my idol, growing up. I had a book about her story (and her stories), and I used to lie awake wondering how anybody could think up a new, utterly gripping story every night and keep people fascinated with them on a regular basis. Even now, if I could meet any famous person who is no longer with us, she'd be one of my top five.

    I like the word 'exotic' -- as long as it isn't one culture poking a stick at another mysterious, inpenetrable culture with strange, unfathomable, 'they will never be like us' ways. I accept that my peanut butter and jam sandwiches can be just as exotic to someone whose rose-flavored sweets intrigue me.

  7. Thanks dear Taraneh with pointing on essential issues of multicultural activity in field of children's literature. It was very useful and I think you may agree with me that sometimes we need to localize some contents to increase the effectiveness and attractiveness of stories for children. However these two items can be inevitable even in East, while you want to do rewriting from ancient literature to modern language.