Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts

Friday, 8 January 2021

My 'issue' book, by Keren David

 I have written an 'issue' book, and it is being published on January 21.

Normally, I'd do anything rather than describe it as such. I'd talk about 'themes' and 'ideas' and insist that story, characters and plot matter far more than anything else, no matter how weighty the topics discussed.  I know, you see, that 'issue' books are often mentioned in a less than respectful tone. I know that many in the world of children's literature prefer books which are escapist and imaginative, in which information about our world is prettily disguised in fairy costumes, universal truths are spoken by talking dogs and there's a hopeful, happy ending in which the shy, bookish child finds a trusty friend. 

Not this time. Not this subject. Not this week.  I have written an issue book, and although I have furnished it with (I hope) engaging characters and an exciting plot, I do not care about those half as much as I care about the issue I am writing about. 

My book is about antisemitism -  my 'issue'. It's about an ancient hatred that murdered my great-grandfather and all his family, including a little girl that my grandmother told me about when I was a child. They'd visited my great-grandfather in Warsaw, in the 1930s, and they were begged to take the girl home with them to Wales. They refused: 'How could we take her?' She had no papers to come to Britain,' my grandmother explained, still haunted decades later by the sure knowledge of that child's fate. 

This is a picture of my great-grandfather, with his first wife, and his two daughters (taken in about 1913, we think).By 1940 the women had all died, and he was an old man. His sons lived in Wales  and he had married again and had a new family. Step-children and step-grandchildren and maybe even step-great-grandchildren.  They all died, murdered for being Jewish. I used to think their stories were far away in the past. Now it feels horribly close.  His name was Abraham Buznic. I can only hope that he died before he reached Auschwitz. 

There are many children's books about the Holocaust (and one famous one that shamefully buries its truth in a 'fable'), but my book is about modern day antisemitism as well. About hate that flows through the open sewer that social media can become. About nasty girls making snotty, hurtful remarks about their classmates. About tropes and fantasy and denial, conspiracy theories and lies. And bricks through windows, assaults in the street and  attempts to murder Jews in Jewish places.   

When I was thinking about the book, I wondered if I could find enough to write about. I sat and made a list of all the ways that antisemitism could affect my characters and their friends. I didn't lack examples. I ended up leaving things out. 
For two chapters towards the end of the book, I commit the ultimate crime against fiction of handing over to a real person, telling her absolute truth. Mala Tribich, who is now 90,  shared her story with me, a story of hiding, of surviving again and again against all the odds, of the terrible murders of her mother and little sister, of what it was like to be a child slave labourer, and to arrive in Belsen, where bodies lay in piles all around and the air smelled of rotting flesh. 

I'm possibly not selling my book very well, so let me assure you, there are plenty of laughs as well, because comedy is a time-honoured way that Jews deal with the trauma of generations of persecution. And Mala and I would break off our conversations and talk about haircuts and clothes, families and friends, because everyday life is the best antidote to hatred and murder. It's no accident that the traditional Jewish toast is 'l'chaim' -  'to life'. 

It was not easy, writing this issue book. It was not easy because antisemitism is not an issue to me, it is my greatest fear, the monster in the forest in my worst nightmares, the subject that for most of my life I have tried to avoid thinking about. To write this book-  What We're Scared Of - I asked myself again and again, what are we scared of? And I tried to answer it, as best I could. 

People sometimes try and separate different sorts of antisemitism.  There's 'left' antisemitism, and  'right' antisemitism. There's 'mild' antisemitism and 'serious' antisemitism and then there's anti Zionism, which some people love to assure me is not antisemitism at all. But for me -  and for many Jewish people -  there is really very little to choose from in the toxic chocolate box of hate. The flavours may be different but the poison is the same. 

Among the mob that charged through the Capitol yesterday was a man wearing a shirt that read 'Camp Auschwitz' . Another was a podcaster infamous for Holocaust denial. America's alt right hates Jews alongside Black people. (Of course, you can be Black and Jewish). It's absolutely no surprise to see Jew haters among the fascists that assaulted American democracy this week. 'The Jews will not replace us' the white supremacists chanted at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Neo-Nazis are on the rise across the world, and the shocking scenes at the Capitol were part of that narrative. But there are other sorts of fascists as well as white supremacists, and frankly, I am scared of all of them. 

Normally, I hold back from the hard sell when it comes to my books. I have proper British reserve, I don't like to push myself forward (Actually, forget British reserve, I have a  cringing, choking fear that you're going to think I'm pushy and greedy and money-grubbing, because that's what internalised racism does to you) But this time I am forcing myself. This time I am giving you a link, (HERE, or, if you are not in the UK HERE ) and I am asking you to please, buy or borrow my book. Read it yourself, give it to young people, give it to old people, tell people about it.  Review it, teach it in your classrooms, hand sell it in your shops. The 'issue' is pressing and important, and urgent and terrifying.  The book may help people understand why antisemitism is frightening and wrong. It's tragic that I need to say that, but I do. 

My hope is that this 'issue' book will help young Jews feel proud and strong. That it will create allies in the fight against hate. That it will help people think about fear and the part it plays in fueling prejudice, anger and anxiety. That it will combat racism of all sorts, against all groups. And then I will feel that I have done something to  -  as Mala puts it - 'not be a bystander'. 

Perhaps next time I will write a book about an enchanted prince and his talking bear. Perhaps I will clothe my imaginings in fantastical garb. But this time, I could not. I wrote an issue book, and all I want from you is that you read it. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Global Citizens by Keren David

Two very cheering bookish things happened to me this week.  

First, I was proud to play a small role in the magnificent auction organised by my wonderful friend Fiona Dunbar -  Authors for Refugees. 
Fiona, known among her many friends for her warm and generous heart, threw herself into trying to make life better for the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and oppression. 
She went to Greece as a volunteer, helping to build a home for refugees. Then she worked hard to set up the auction, organise a website and cajole as many authors, agents, editors and others to donate their books, their time and their expertise. The auction raised more than £22,000 and yet again -  after auctions for Japan and for the Philippines  - showed the strength of the writing community when we come together to do good stuff. 

Second, I was rather startled to receive a very public apology, not just to me, but to the whole Jewish community. This came from Jo, a book blogger, who I know to be a very thoughtful and hard-working person who reviews, interviews and themes her blog in ways to make her readers think. Last year she reviewed my book This is Not a Love Story, and expressed frustration at my use of 'Jewish' words, which she didn't understand and had to look up, it got in the way of her enjoyment of the book. 
Last week, Jo had read a blog post about diversity issues in reviewing, and realised that her original review could be construed as racist and offensive, because it presumed that a minority group should educate and translate for the majority. Jo therefore took the courageous act of calling herself out as a racist, apologising in public, and changing the wording of the actual review. 

Now, I didn't find Jo's review offensive, although I did notice that she only mentioned the 'Jewish' words - some Hebrew, some Yiddish, some slang -  and not the Dutch ones (the book is set in Amsterdam). I would never have called her racist or antisemitic. In fact her review prompted me to write a post about the language that I used in the book, and I was glad to write it. I was even gladder to be free to write and publish a book which included Jewish characters and Jewish words, and hopefully did it in a way that bust some assumptions and stereotypes for readers.  

These two things were particularly cheering because, like many other people, I was shocked by Theresa May's attack on the idea of being a global citizen this week. I'm sure Mrs May didn't mean to sound offensive, but she certainly managed to offend me. My kids were pupils at an international school, they were brought up to be proud of all their identities. English, British, Jewish, Amsterdammers, Europeans and global citizens. Here they are (front row) at the school's Global Village day 2006, representing England and the UK in the annual parade of nations.  

  It was chilling to hear our Prime Minister speak against the values of internationalism and understanding that an international school celebrates, not just on global village day, but every day. 

So thank you Fiona and thank you Jo! May your actions speak louder than Mrs May's words. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Censoring a Children’s Book - John Dougherty

Censorship is a tricky area, isn’t it?

Generally speaking, it’s a Bad Thing. I fume as much as the next author when I read one of those articles about a US school board voting to remove To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the library because of some imagined unsuitability. I thought the Daily Mail was a bit off with its recent suggestion that teen fiction dealing with issues like terminal illness or self-harm qualifies as “sick-lit” (and, no, I’m not going to provide a link; it’ll only encourage them to do it again).

And yet, occasionally, I’ve found myself censoring children’s books.

I don’t mean that I go through them with a marker pen deleting the ‘unsuitable bits’; and I certainly don’t mean that I remove books from my children’s book shelf, but… well, let me give you the most recent example.

I’m currently reading Watership Down with my kids (they’ve got older since the photo was taken, as have I). My daughter, now aged 10, wasn’t sure about it at first, but they both seem to be really enjoying it now. And so am I; I loved it when I was about their age, and I’m loving reading it again. But a few nights ago, I ran into a sentence that made me feel a little odd when I first read it, and makes me feel extremely odd now.

For those of you who know the book, when Hazel & his companions are in Cowslip’s warren, their hosts ask if one of them will tell a story. And the next sentence reads:

“There is a rabbit saying, ‘In the warren, more stories than passages’; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight.”

When I encountered this sentence as a child - well, I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I know it made me pause. I’m Irish - Northern Irish, to be specific - and I’ve never felt particularly inclined to physical violence. Yet here it was, in a book - a terrific book, at that: just an aside, here’s something we all know about Irishmen. They’re violent. Why on earth should the author say that?

So it made me a bit uneasy then. It makes me more uneasy now, not least because in my first proper job - in England - I worked with a colleague who was convinced that Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, was a horrible violent place. A lot of our clients were troubled young men, but my colleague took it as read that being Irish - or, in the case of one client, merely having an Irish father - would mean a particular predisposition towards violence. It was a dreadful belief to find in someone who was generally thoughtful and intelligent, and in the end it rather poisoned our working relationship.

So the sentence I’ve quoted above is, for me, problematic - as problematic as would be a sentence suggesting that Jewish people are prone to parsimony or black people to idleness. But I’d forgotten about it until… well, until I reached it.

If either child had been leaning on my shoulder, silently reading along with me, as they sometimes do, I’d have had no option. But it so happened that they were reclining at opposite ends of the sofa with their feet on my lap. Which gave me a choice, and a second in which to make it.

I went for the easy option. I censored. I read the second half of the sentence as “no rabbit can refuse to tell a story” and read on.

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. Perhaps I passed up an opportunity to talk about prejudice. My children are sensible enough to question this sort of statement. Probably both of them would say, “that’s silly’; my son, now at secondary school and becoming more interested in societal issues, might say, “that’s racist, isn’t it?”

And to be honest, I still don’t know quite why I did it, or even for whose benefit it was - theirs, or mine.

What would you have done?

John's website is at
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig