Peter Marino is an English professor at Adirondack Community College in Queensbury, New York
where he teaches writing, speech, and the occasional literature class. He won the SUNY Chancellor’s Award in 2006 for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activity.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
The very first time I can remember being aware of racism was when I was in first grade in 1965, and a Black girl invited everyone in the class to her birthday party. Our teacher, Sister Margaret Mary, made it clear we should attend.
My mother made sure I was there. The next school day the nun asked us if we had gone to the party and if not, why (a risky tactic…). At one point a very blonde boy with a deep, croaky voice said, “My mother said I’m not going to any black person’s house.”
I don’t recall any repercussions to this–the girl was not there to hear it–but I do remember being amazed that he had boldly stated what we had been warned not even to think. In trying to promote equality our teacher may have been manipulative, but her intentions had been honorable, including sparing the feelings of our classmate. This encounter was typical of the racial tensions that existed even in my tiny Catholic school in a small city where there were relatively few African Americans.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I have Italian and Irish ancestry, but I was not a direct victim of racism, because by the time I was growing up, my ethnic origin wasn’t very controversial anymore. There were some derisive terms like “guinea” and “mick” in use, but they didn’t mean anything to me because I was never disadvantaged by them.
Though I have not personally been a victim of racism, my Sicilian grandmother was. I remember her telling me how hard it was to deal with the derision directed at her about the way she dressed, the way she decorated her house, the smell of her cooking, and her fluency with English.
Her experience has helped me to see racism more clearly, and this has definitely influenced my professional and political identity. When I hear someone with an ethnic background like my own making generalizations–often negative–about Puerto Ricans or Blacks or Asians, I’m tempted to remind them of their ancestors’ experiences in the New World.
Sometimes I do call them out and sometimes I’m too much of a coward. But that’s what’s nice about being a writer: you can live your life over and over again, and your characters can be brave in ways that you were not.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Someday those who are now young adults are going to look back at things like the backlash to our first bi-racial president and the obstacles to marriage equality and be amazed that they were alive when those things existed. It will be much like people my age looking back in wonderment that we were young teenagers when Jim Crow segregation finally died. Hopefully the literature they are reading today about racism and homophobia will seem like period pieces to them in their old age.
But since literature is about truth–subjective human truth–I hope young readers will see that there is a constant thread in the lives of those who have fought against the intolerance of their times. And thus younger generations have the gift of identifying with that thread in their own struggles to make a better world.
Peter’s first young adult novel Dough Boy, about a fat and self-conscious but very funny high school sophomore, was published by Holiday House in October 2005 and is now available in paperback. It was nominated for the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2006. His latest young adult novel, also with Holiday House, is Magic and Misery, about a teenage girl trying to balance her life with her best gay friend and her new boyfriend. It has been nominated for the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2009 and is on Booklist’s Top 10 Romance Fiction for Youth: 2009. His third YA novel, Alice Blunt, will be published in 2010.