This is the second entry in the Power of the Pen series in which writers describe how they are coping with the impending Trump presidency.
What was your emotional response to the 2016 presidential election?
I was stunned, shocked, saddened, and frightened (and continue to feel this way). I cried. A lot. During the days that followed the election, it took all the energy I had to just put one foot in front of the other, which is very unlike me. I am known by some as the “Energizer Bunny.” These days I keep asking my spouse, “Why am I so tired?” Weary is the operative word.
Did the election impact your productivity?
Yes, in a negative way. It is very difficult for me to get to my desk. It’s hard to shake off the “what’s the use?” feeling that I have. What’s the point of writing another book if despite all that I’ve done, hate has lead the way?
Have you pulled back out of the funk?
I have pulled back out some, but I am definitely not working at full capacity. What has helped is being with loved ones who feel the same way I do and knowing I am not alone. We are all in this together. Also we recently got a cat (after our beloved 20 year old Princess Sheba Darling passed away) and that has helped tremendously. This small sentient being knows nothing about the political climate. I can spend time with her and experience pure affection and love. And that is very healing.
Your groundbreaking picture book Heather Has Two Mommies was first published in 1989 and has been republished several times since. You've written a number of other children's books which also have themes of same-sex marriage. Will you continue to write these books?
I will absolutely continue to write books like HEATHER and DONOVAN’S BIG DAY, which takes place on the day that Donovan’s two moms get married; FELICIA’S FAVORITE STORY in which Felicia loves hearing her two moms tell her the story of the day they adopted her; and the board books, MOMMY, MAMA, AND ME and DADDY, PAPA, AND ME. Books that celebrate families and individuals of all types are needed now more than ever! Children need books in which they can see themselves in order to feel validated (mirrors) and children need books in which they can see others in order to learn about the amazing diverse world we live in (windows). My newest children’s book SPARKLE BOY which will be published in April celebrates a little boy who loves shimmery, sparkly, glittery things. I fear for “sparkle boys” in this political climate. I hope that my book helps them feel treasured and celebrated, and that they have a place in this world. And I hope that my book helps their peers realize that everyone has the right to sparkle.
I've received all sorts of hateful responses to my own writing about LGBTQ issues, including death threats. Have you been similarly targeted?
I have not been targeted in this way since HEATHER first came out. In the early 1990’s Alyson Publications often received letters from people who were very displeased by the book. Of course there were also many letters from lesbian moms who were extremely grateful to have a book to read to their kids that showed a family similar to their own. The book was called by some “the work of the devil” and there were many attempts to ban it. In Wichita Falls, TX, the book was taken out by a library patron and brought to her minister. He refused to return it, despite being reminded of the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” A huge battle ensued in which the city councilors, the ACLU and the courts got involved. In the end, justice prevailed and copies of the book remained in the public library (Actually when word about the minister’s action spread, about 25 copies of the book were donated to the library). In New York City, which has the largest public school system in the country, HEATHER became part of the Rainbow Curriculum and such a brouhaha developed, that the Chancellor of Education lost his job over it. The book was even read into the Congressional Record by Senator Bob Smith as part of his argument to stop federal aid to school districts that “carry out a program or activity that either has the purpose of or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative.” But nothing like that happened when the book was reissued by Candlewick Press in 2015. I was interviewed by NPR, the BBC, MTV, and many others and nothing hateful happened. The focus was more on “look how far we’ve come since HEATHER was first published.” That seems very ironic now.
Your picture books also frequently feature Jewish themes. Have you encountered anti-Jewish sentiment because of this work?
I have not encountered anti-Semitism as a response to my Jewish children’s books. I hope that never happens. The earlier children learn about the beautiful diversity of the world, the better. I firmly believe that children who celebrate people of all nationalities, races, and religions will very likely grow up to become compassionate adults who embrace all.
October Mourning is a novel in verse which deals with your reaction to Matthew Shepherd's murder. Do you have any thoughts about that event in relation to what we see in the news today?
I wrote OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD as a response to that hate crime and tragedy. I was the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming in 1998 and arrived on campus the day Matthew Shepard died. He was a part of the LGBT Association that planned my visit and I would definitely have met him if he hadn’t been murdered. This affected me enormously and while I was out in Wyoming, I made a promise to Matt’s friends and teachers that I would do something to help make sure he was not forgotten. The book explores his murder from various points of view including the fence to which he was tied, the stars that watched over him, and a deer that kept him company throughout the night.
What we are seeing in the news today truly frightens me. When someone reduces a human being to a derogatory label such as “fag” that’s a violent act. That’s the first step towards seeing that person as a “something” not a “someone.” And once that happens, things can quickly escalate. It is vital we all do everything we can to make the world a safer place for all.
What are you currently working on?
I am putting the finishing touches on a children’s book called GITTEL’S JOURNEY: AN ELLIS ISLAND STORY which is a fictionalized account of some of my ancestors’ journey from what my grandmother called “the old country” to America in the early 1900’s. When I started the book, I had no idea how timely an immigration story would be. It will be published early next year. I also continue to travel and give readings from all my books, particularly my newest poetry collection, I CARRY MY MOTHER which explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and how she carries on without her. My mother died four years ago and I miss her terribly. She was the smartest person I know, and she would have a lot to say about the current political situation. I wish more than anything I could discuss it with her.
Is the political climate feeding or forming your current work in any way?
While I have been having a hard time putting pen to paper, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of “tikkun olam” which is a Hebrew phrase which means “repairing the world.” Every Jew is given this task at birth. We are told it won’t be accomplished in our lifetime, but still we are each responsible for doing our part. My aim is to write books that repair the world by making it a safer place for everyone, especially those of us who are considered “different” in some way. And especially children, who are so vulnerable. I have also been thinking about the fact that the Chinese symbol for crisis is “danger plus opportunity.” These are certainly dangerous times. And there is certainly ample opportunity to do so something to improve matters.
What are you doing to fight against the forces of oppression that are threatening?
After the election I immediately signed up for a self-defense and active bystander (“upstander”) workshop. I am also making a special effort to be kind (I have a bumper sticker that says, “Be kinder than necessary.”) I think we all need to see each other as what we are: individual, vulnerable human beings. Simple acts of kindness go a long, long way. During the holidays, I gave out tins of cookies to people who work at all the places I frequent: the copy shop, the post office, my veterinarian. People were visibly touched, some moved to tears. The other day, I let a woman buying only one item move in front of me at the grocery store line. She was very grateful, more than was necessary. When people are feeling under threat, small acts of kindness are big reminders that there is still goodness in the world. And that gives people hope. As Anne Frank, who obviously knew a great deal about oppression so famously said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” So besides making the phone calls that need to be made and writing the letters that need to be written, I truly think that the world can be repaired if we all remember every day to perform random acts of kindness.
What would you like to see other authors doing?
I would like to see authors double down and make a commitment to doing their work (I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone). As Meryl Streep recently said, “Take your broken heart and make it into art.” Literature (or film or music, or painting, or dance) moves us and teaches us compassion. Creating art is a vital part of creating positive change. I would like to see authors create art that is inclusive and risky and noble and smart. I vow to do my best to do just that.
Read more entries in the Writers Resist series here.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Rumplepimple, a hilarious illustrated story book featuring a misunderstood doggy hero and his two moms. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.
Rumplepimple paperback version
Rumplepimple e-book version
Rumplepimple audio-book version