Lyn Miller-Lachmann is Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review, a position she has held since 1994.
She is the author of the award-winning reference book Our Family, Our Friends, Our World: An Annotated Guide to Significant Multicultural Books for Children and Teenagers (Bowker, 1992), and the editor of Once Upon a Cuento (Curbstone Press, 2003) a collection of short stories for young readers by Latino authors.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1960s, a time when legal barriers had started to break down, but many people’s attitudes hadn’t. It was really a divided society and not a place I wanted to spend the rest of my life. In the 1980s I had a boss who had left South Africa over his opposition to apartheid, and I was amazed by the similarities of growing up in apartheid South Africa and in the U.S. South during (and even at the end of) Jim Crow.
The civil rights movement frightened and angered most of the older white people I knew because it meant that their good life based on the subjugation of others might come to an end. But most of the older African-American people I knew could tell me of a relative, friend, or acquaintance who had been killed by a white person. By the age of ten, I began to get a sense of what it meant to be powerless and vulnerable at any time to arbitrary acts of exclusion and violence.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work?
My personal experience of growing up in a place where I didn’t fit in and didn’t feel comfortable affected where I ultimately chose to live and my decision to work for justice. In the early 1980s I started teaching high school in New York City. I enjoyed learning about my students and their lives, and they responded to the fact that I listened to them and considered their thoughts and experiences important. In class, we talked about books written by authors who shared their heritage, and I often gave copies of these books away as prizes for attendance or doing well on a test.
Knowing from experience that it’s crucial for young people to see themselves in books–and for white kids used to seeing themselves in books to know that the world is larger than themselves–has led me to become a commentator on multicultural literature and ultimately the editor of MultiCultural Review. And my recently-published multicultural YA novel, Gringolandia, grew out of the stories I heard from my students and adult friends, people who were forced to flee dictatorships in the Americas and create new lives in the United States.
One of the issues we regularly address in MultiCultural Review is that of outsiders writing about diverse cultures. My ambivalence about doing so was one reason why it took me 22 years to write Gringolandia. Even though my Chilean friends encouraged me to write the novel, helped me with the research, and pestered me when no novel appeared year after year, I had to acknowledge my outsider status and my limitations. The character of Courtney—protagonist Daniel’s “gringa” girlfriend—reflects my own experience as a cultural outsider, what I’ve tried to accomplish as well as the mistakes I’ve made over the years.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Literature can serve to combat the effects of racism by reflecting the experiences and achievements of people who have fought various forms of exclusion and discrimination. Books honor those struggles, validate the lives and experiences of those who have been excluded, present role models, and encourage the development of new voices.
For those who have grown up with a sense of privilege, multicultural literature offers a deeper understanding of the world and the perspectives of people whom readers might not have met personally, but whose lives are on some level intertwined with theirs. It’s crucial for young people to be exposed to the perspectives of others, to develop not just tolerance but empathy and the capacity for critical thinking—as well as the ability to live in a global society in which white, English-speaking people are the minority.
The reviews and articles in MultiCultural Review address all of these issues. Most of the articles focus on multicultural literature and the teaching of that literature at the K-12 level. While children’s and young adult books comprise about a third of our reviews, the reviews of adult materials offer a crucial knowledge base to teachers who often do not come from the cultures depicted in the literature or the cultures of their students.
In May 2009 Curbstone Press published her YA novel, Gringolandia, about a refugee teen from Chile and his girlfriend in the United States, who become involved in the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s. Learn more about Lyn.