Saturday, January 07, 2012

Two More Things I Love about IRISES (or, A Brief Comment on Economic Diversity in YA, Women's Wanting, & Writing Across Identity)

I wanted to follow up my previous post by noting two more things that make Irises extraordinary. First, I saw a blog review earlier this week that called the atmosphere of the novel, especially in the first half, "suffocating." That is true, and the reason it is suffocating is because the girls are poor. Their father was a minister in a working-class neighborhood; their mother requires ongoing major health care; their home (a rectory) is dependent upon their father, so after he dies, they're without a place to live, or any other options for support; and many of their friends prove not so much so (sometimes for reasons of Kate's own making, admittedly). Irises makes real the hard, indeed suffocating choices that people with limited financial resources are forced to make every day, which is a very rare thing in a YA fiction world that mostly focuses on teenagers in the middle class or above.

Second, I think my mouth fell open when I read the following passages, from three different points in the book:

"I always knew you had a selfish side, but I didn’t know how bad it was. It’s not just me. You’re going to go away and leave your sister with your mother? You don’t think that’s selfish? Why this place Stanford? You can pursue your dream of being a doctor here. Do you give a damn about anybody other than yourself?”
     Kate listened to Simon without responding. He wasn’t telling her anything new. She had questioned herself endlessly about whether her desire to go to Stanford was selfish and she had never been able to resolve the question. Every time she thought about it she became more confused.
Mary wanted to remind Aunt Julia that just a few seconds before she had thought Kate “capable,” but maybe you could be capable and selfish at the same time. She remembered all the moments when she thought Kate was selfish: when she told Mary she had to give up her hour of studio after school, when Mary found out she was going away to college. Now that feeling came to her again, but more confusingly:  Was Kate selfish, or was it Mary who was being selfish, wanting Kate to give up what she cherished most? And Aunt Julia? Was she the one who was selfish, wanting Kate to marry Simon so that they’d be off of her hands? This selfishness thing was very hard to figure out.

Kate looked at her hands. Then, raising her eyes, she said, “Am I selfish for wanting to go to Stanford?”
      “I don’t know. Are you?”
      “I promised Mother that I would be a doctor. I even promised her that I would go to Stanford. She wanted me to go there.”
     “You know,” he stopped to swallow his coffee, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I have a good idea of how your father was with you. I’ve seen it many times before. Fathers like yours want a household where everyone is a saint, and a saint always sacrifices her interests for others. Saints are taught to think that wanting to go to the best college or wanting to have a high-paying job is a kind of ambition that God forbids. You’re not selfish because you want to go away to Stanford."
What stunned me about this was that, as a woman, I wrestle with the idea of selfishness all the time, and I know many of my girlfriends do too:  how much time, energy, and money we give to our jobs, our partners, our families, or our other commitments, vs. how much we keep for our selves, especially our secret selves -- the ones that want, hungrily, a big dream or frivolous shoes or time to write. It can be very, very hard for women even to admit we have those wants, much less to say, as Kate does, "I want to go to Stanford," and then to insist upon that dream even in the face of difficulty for other people. (The girls live in El Paso.) And having someone affirm the righteousness of the want -- "You're not selfish because you want to go away to Stanford" . . . In a wholly egalitarian world, women wouldn't need permission for or affirmation of their desires; but in the world we live in now, holy crap, that feels important and satisfying. (In fact, I think this is becoming one of the most important markers in a romance these days -- #5, 6, 11 and 12 in this list, maybe, in the specific form where the hero sees, understands, and supports the heroine's ambition, whatever it is.)

I have to say -- obviously speaking hugely generally, as I already am -- that men seem to take wanting, and getting or taking what they want, much more for granted, and the idea of selfishness is not as much of a preoccupation for them. And yet Francisco introduced this idea in Irises, and explored it in a depth that I've never seen from even a female writer, which is what astonished me so much. This is why I will never say "A X writer cannot write a Y character," where X and Y are two different genders, races, cultures, economic backgrounds, etc., because it is possible for it to be done well, as Trent Reedy also proved earlier this year. But it absolutely requires the writer to approach that difference with humility, respect, the willingness to listen and to let go of preconceived notions, all his/her observational skills and insights . . . all in service of making the Y character as human, real, and round -- as flawed and as worthy of love -- as the X person the writer already is. And I'm proud Francisco achieved that here with Kate and Mary, just as he had with Marcelo, Pancho, and D.Q.


  1. Wow...I was so touched by the segment. It really does reflect how a lot of us (women) were raised. Being worthy of letting yourself achieve your goals can make you feel like you are selfish. Sad, but true. Thanks Cheryl.

  2. Interesting post, Cheryl. As a mother and wife, I believe I'm supposed to be selfLESS. As a teacher, I was always wondering if I was giving up enough of myself to give to my students. This is something I believe women and even men struggle with, if you are a caring person who wants to please others. May we all find that peace, joy, and balance in 2012!

  3. Stunning post. Ironically I vlogged today about my favorite traits in heroines and I talked about how I like them strong and selfish. I think selfishness is a very interesting gray-area, because it's definition relies so heavily on relationship, which is, of course, an intriguing area of literary exploration in and of itself. ; )


    Gabrielle Carolina

  4. Great post Cheryl! Your list of the most important elements in romance hits the mark. It's my impression that today's men are more attracted to strong, ambitious women as well...really to be anything to anyone we need to take care of ourselves otherwise we become martyrs w/o a life to continue...

    It's not as emotionally cathartic as the Irises story perhaps, but I always liked Kahlil Gibran's description of a good relationship in his "On Marriage" poem.

    I also wonder if the "partnership" term more commonly used these days for long term relationships will help foster/normalize a more balanced amount of give-and-take, personal growth or this type of 'selfishness' as you say

  5. I'd love to hear you develop your thoughts a little further on the topic of cross-gender and cross-culture writing. That would make a great conference talk or panel, don't you think?

    I've given it considerable thought myself and I think humility (that woefully undervalued virtue in American culture) is the key.

    And humility on both sides of the equation matters. I know that I am most blind to the cultural experiences that are closest to my own. I may be able to describe all the details richly, but I'm always looking at the experience from the inside.

    For example, as much as I love Shakespeare and admire much in British culture, I never look at the British without the lens of their brutality to the Irish. I know I am not capable of writing an unbiased book set in the British Isles. If my heritage were, say, Swedish I might be better able to give a real and round and flawed and fair description of the British. (but then I probably wouldn't be able to dance a jig. :-) See, it's tricky! Which is why it would make such a good panel discussion.

    Thanks for the reminder that Irises is out. I'll go pester my local indys and libraries about about it right now. :-)

  6. It's my hope (as a woman and as a mother of three daughters and just as a hopeful human) that these issues will be less onerous for the next generation, but so far I don't see much evidence. Books like this, which put what many girls may be only vaguely feeling, into high relief, and encourage discussion, are invaluable. (Plus, I love the writing)

  7. I'm so excited about those excerpts, because girls/women are definitely called selfish for having---let alone expressing---their needs far too often, and it all starts so young. How intuitive that this is being brought to light in this YA book, and in this way. You're right, often YA books center on upper middle class, college-bound girls who are coping with the pressures of needing to succeed, and that's definitely important; but I don't see the whole "selfish" thing addressed enough, and every woman I know has dealt with that at one time or another. Interestingly, I once read a psyche book on child development in which researchers conducted interviews with many hundreds of children under the age of ten. According to the study, the girls' foremost preoccupation was,"How will I do what I want, and still be loved? How can I keep everyone happy?" while the boys' preoccupation was, "When I do what I want, how will I do it well?"

    And I do love that the general trend in YA seems to be leaning more toward girls being depicted as complex, empowered, and multidimensional, and that it seems more the norm these days for the female characters to hold the disrespectful guys in their lives accountable. That being said, even the empowered real-life women and teens I know are often called selfish for having a dream which differs from their family's. So happy and glad that an author is addressing these things with such skill and sensitivity.

  8. Very glad to see these issues being addressed in YA books. Ashley Hope Perez's "What Can't Wait" addresses a similar topic of whether a girl can overcome her family's pull (for economic reasons) to keep her in town instead of going away to college.