Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Bowllan's Blog
Inside Bowllan's Blog

Writers Against Racism: Jo Ann Yolanda Hernández

“Books that tell stories about a child’s own unique history becomes a liberating force for children’s creativity while validating them in the larger society.” -Javier J. Silva, Director of Communication, Latino Institute, Chicago, IL
                wbc 600res Writers Against Racism: Jo Ann Yolanda Hernández
Jo Ann Hern
ández is an award-winning author of White Bread Competition (Piñata Books, 1997) and The Throwaway Piece  (Arte Publico Press). At her blog, BronzeWord Latino Authors, she promotes and supports Latino/a authors and writers in achieving their publishing goals.

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

I’ve had a different experience.  In my childhood, I led a sheltered life in Catholic school for twelve years, and the last four were spent in an all-girls Catholic academy.  The students were mostly Latina.  The white girls were usually smarter than everyone else.  We assumed that was just the way things were.  I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the world.  I didn’t get a handle on all that until I attended Burlington College as an undergraduate and a single mother in my 30s.  There a professor handed me a one-page list of books written by Latinos/as.  I was stunned.  I didn’t know we could write!  I met my first educated Latino when I was thirty-three.  Of course, this was in Vermont in the 1980s; my two sons and I were the only people of color in the entire state!

 

I had always written but never thought there was a place for my voice in the world.  I wrote my first novel when I was seventeen (a biracial romance); I handed it to my favorite nun (all the nuns were white), and I asked her to tell me if she liked the book.  The next morning when I ran up to her for her answer, she sent me to the priest for confession.

 

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?

 

I published in magazines and journals all the short stories in my first book, and won awards under a white [Anglo] pen name. At one university press as the book was going to print, I asked the editor if I could put my own name in the journal.  He said yes.  I told him my name.  He emailed me the next day and told me that the printer couldn’t fit all the stories that he had collected, and mine had to be deleted from the journal.  I have queried agents and magazine under both names.

 

The biggest question I’ve been asked – even by people of color – is why do I write about white people?  Even my publisher eliminated all my references in my book to my character being white.  My answer is two-fold: 1. White people are who we watch.  2. My stories are about people: in pain, loving, being, yearning, achieving.  Period.

 

I feel that my manuscripts are not accepted because it is hard for the powers that be to accept a person of color writing about them.  Also, I didn’t grow up in a gang, or as a migrant worker, so I have no background to write those kinds of stories.  That is also unacceptable to many publishers.  They think only those kind of stories [about Latinos/as] make money.

 

They tell you to write what you know yet when I do, I am penalized. My parents believed a good education was important. I write what I know.

  

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

 

I think Manning Marable, an African American scholar, said it best:

 

"There are many ways that we see stereotypes degrade people, but perhaps the most insidious way is the manner in which stereotypes deny people their own history… Nothing generated by people of color is accepted as historically original, dynamic or creative. This even applies to the way in which people of color are miseducated about their own history… The most insidious element of stereotypes is how people who are oppressed themselves begin to lose touch with their own traditions of history, community, love, celebration, struggle and change…”

 
What the word needs now is Love. Yeah, with large doses of Respect.

Comments

  1. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Thank you Ms. Bowllan for allowing me to post along side of such talent as you have had here. I am glad you are visible about this topic. Each of us have a piece of this puzzle. Once we combine all our efforts, we’ll get results. When they hear us speak, one of us after the other, they can’t deny we are humans just being.
    Thank you for your invitation and acceptance.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors
    authorslatino.com/wordpress

  2. Mayra Calvani says:

    Very revealing interview! Thank for sharing.

  3. George Edward Stanley says:

    In Memphis, Texas, in the late 40’s and early 50’s, I remember two things about Octobers: the blanket of cotton gin smoke that covered the town and the influx of Mexican families who came to Hall County to pick cotton. No one complained about the smoke, because it meant good crops, and no one gave a second thought to the living conditions of the Mexican families who crowded into the shacks behind the gins (no heat, no running water, maybe a single light bulb overhead). This was normal. On Saturday nights, the town square was crowded with white farmers and their families, Mexican laborers, and the blacks who lived in Morningside, across the tracks (who not only picked cotton but who also took care of the houses and the children of many of the white residents). You could hardly walk down the sidewalks, they were so packed with shoppers and strollers. It was a heady experience for me, this mélange. What fascinated me most, though, was the fact that the Mexicans were speaking Spanish (or at least a version known in Texas as Tex-Mex). I wanted to speak Spanish. (I had an aunt in Amarillo who taught Spanish, and she was the one who made me realize what I wanted as my lifework: teaching world languages). I wanted to understand what they were saying. I wanted to know more about their lives. I wanted to know their stories. As I look back now, I wonder how many Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandezes were among them. I know this is not the life she led, but how many of these young people I saw back then could have become writers if society had believed that they needed to go to school so they could have lives other than moving from town to town to gather the nation’s crops? Amy, your series, WRITERS AGAINST RACISM, not only gives us a history of what should not have been but a blueprint for a future that should be. Thank you!

  4. Agy W says:

    Thank you for this article Amy, and thank you Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandez. I have to say when you look at the most beautiful tapestries, they include all the threads and all the colors. People and their histories should be the same way, for a whole cloth, not one moth bitten and shredding before your eyes. I think it’s the strength of all those threads and hues that gives the tapestry (and human kind) its strength, beauty and definition. Further, I hope you’re telling children they can as well. If you can dream it, then the possiblity exists you can be it.

  5. Doret says:

    I recently read White Bread Competition and loved it. Its a shame that authors are limited as to what stories they can tell. White authors are free to write novels featuring people of color, but for some reason this doesn’t work the other way around. Even though like Hernandez says “White people are who we watch.”
    We are exposed to White culture everyday, enough so that authors of color can create viable White characters. Like a reader an author should be free to go beyond themselves.

  6. George Edward Stanley says:

    You are so right about this, Doret! I’m white and yet in my recent NIGHT FIRES I created several black characters that reviewers thought were “right on the mark.” Why was I able to do this? I observe, and I HAVE A BRAIN! Writers can do this, writers of any color, and people who think otherwise shouldn’t be in a position to make any decisions about a person’s writing. Women writers have dealt with this for a long time. Look at the number of women writers who use initials and a last name, so that readers won’t know if they’re male or female. (How can a woman write tough male-oriented fiction???) When I created M.T. Coffin for Avon and wrote about half of the SPINETINGLERS titles, there were people who believed I had signed a pact with the devil because I was writing scary, sort-of-horror stories. That’s when I would explain the word IMAGINATION to them. But I think this happens in a lot of fields. Years ago, when my wife started teaching German and Russian right out of college, she had high school students ask her, “How can you teach German if you’ve never been to Germany?” (She didn’t have the money for such a trip before graduation!) Well, she has a brain, and she studied really hard!

  7. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Jo Ann, it took me by surprise when i read that you write only about white people. i have your books on my list and thought your characters were Latino, like mine. i always ask Latino writers i come across if they Speak spanish but haven’t found one who does and i’m DYING to meet one. do you speak Spanish?

  8. LaTonya says:

    Jo Ann, you are one of the most committed people I know. I am glad we met and am encouraged to know someone else who spends a whole lot of time online spreading the word about POC writers and their work. You are amazing.

  9. tanita says:

    Ooh, been there, heard that.
    “What? You’re writing a White character? Why aren’t you representing!?!?” And then, when writing a character of color, you’re sometimes coaxed away from the way you want to express the character. Other comments are made that confuse you, and make you wonder if ANYTHING you write is ever right.

    *sigh*
    Thank you for sharing your story, Ms. Hernández, and I look forward to reading your book.

  10. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    Thank you for your honesty, your insights, and, above, all your continued efforts to smash stereotypes.

  11. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Agy W Tapestry is a beautiful word in this context. As I learned about racism, the words I grew up with were “stew” (you know the melting pot) and “salad”. I don’t know about you, and I rather eat a salad than be a salad. lol

  12. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Doret, I agree with you. Writers should be able to write whatever. As the lessons in writing say: write what you know. We know white people.

    I know there is this huge dialogue about white people writing about POC. The question I have for a writer who writes a book about POC is do you have any friends of that race? Do you have a POC friend that can look over your work to make sure you have things right and you didn’t do more harm than good? In “The Throwaway Piece” the social worker is Black and I had my girlfriend go over those chapters with a fine tooth comb. I’d expect an author who writes about Latino/as that isn’t Latino/a to do the same. And “I had a best friend once in high school who was Latina” doesn’t count.

  13. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Mayra Lazara Dole, The characters in “White Bread Competition” are Latinos. The main character in “The Throwaway Piece” is white, and the publisher deleted all the parts where I refered to her being white. How the students who befriended Jewel turned out to be Latino/as I don’t know. They just came out that way.

    As for my speaking Spanish, I’m getting better every day. My parents made me stop speaking Spanish when I was 4. However, I tell people I am an Equal Opportunity Language Mangler. I speak both English and Spanish badly.

    That answers you!!!!

  14. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    LaTonya, My hat is off to you. You touch the ones I’d love to reach: the teens. That’s where all of use need to focus on. They are at the crossroads. As the other commenter said, how many of those kids could have gone on to be great at whatever they chose to do. Well, you make that difference to your teens. I am humble in your presence.

  15. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    tanita, what you wrote about your name, reminded me of the nun slapping the palm of my hand with a ruler because I was spelling my first name wrong according to her. Funny how some people are never satisfied with others. Maybe it’s symbolic of their not being satisfied with themselves.

    I’m ordering your books too. I’d love for all of you to write reviews of my books and post them and send me the links. I was ill when “The Throwaway Piece” came out and I am playing catch up in promoting that book.

    I’ll let you know when I read and post a review of your books.

    The thing for me in “representing” my race is that I feel so unable to do so. I have a middle class background so I lack a lot of knowledge about what’s “street” or “real.” In fact, with one manuscirpt I had I wrote the whole book spelling one word in a certain way. I read a book by another Latina author and had to go do a search and replace. I spelled “batos” to mean “vatos.” I didn’t know!!!!

  16. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    Lyn Miller-Lachmann, thank you for your kind words. However, sometimes I feel like I’m flapping in the wind all by my lonesome shouting for the wind to take off with my words. No one is listening. Or at least the ones who can make the changes aren’t listening. That’s why I was so surprised and overjoyed when the publisher changed the cover to “Liar.” Granted there is much to say about that cover, yet we were heard. Thank you Lord. One small step. And I know I’m impatient and could You speed things along!!!! Thank You.