and the forthcoming Saving Maddie (Delacorte, 2010).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Like most people of color, I dealt with all the usual examples of racism—slurs, bullying, etc. But as a child of the South, racism didn’t surprise me that much. I grew up knowing what to expect: I knew what neighborhoods to stay away from after dark, how not to make sudden movements if I was pulled over by the police, how to deal with salespeople whose only job was to watch me like a hawk (to make sure I didn’t steal the latest pair of overpriced sneakers).
What surprised me more was when I moved away for college. I excelled academically in high school (was the co-valedictorian of my class) and had thus received numerous scholarship offers. I was confident that once I moved away from home—once I was surrounded by other “intellectuals”—I’d be more than “the black kid.” My actions and ideas would mean more than the color of my skin.
Suffice it to say, I was wrong. I was still yelled at when I jogged in the wrong neighborhood. I was still followed and questioned when I went into an expensive department store. I was still called a nigger.
I was also surprised by the indirect racism. I don’t know how many times I struck up conversations with people where, after I indicated that I was a scholarship student, they would say, “Oh, you must play basketball.” Or football. Or track.
It made me wonder—is the idea of a black kid being on academic scholarship really that implausible?
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I think my personal experience with racism does affect my writing, though perhaps not in a tangible way. I’m more aware of my personal experience with racism during author events and book signings where I’m the only author of color in attendance. In situations like these, I know that when I speak and answer questions, I’m speaking for more than myself.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Literature has always provided a way to experience another culture, another way of life. However, I’m really excited about novels where, while the ethnicity of the character is stated, the character’s race isn’t pivotal to the plot (for instance, the wonderful Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork). We’ve done a good job of using literature to explore the differences between our cultures, but I think there’s a place for novels that remind us that we’re more alike than different.
Varian is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program for Writing for Children and Young Adults and is a member of The Brown Bookshelf, an online community charged with highlighting established and up-and-coming African-American authors of children’s and young adult literature. You can find out more about Varian at http://www.varianjohnson.com.