Launch Day Video Fun!
This year Stephanie Burt and I have the same publication date! So we made a video talking about our books. Hers is Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, and mine is In the Silences. You can find out more about both in this video (and see below the video for the transcript):
Key moments in the video (in case you’re looking for something specific):
2:17 — Rachel describes her novel, In the Silences
5:30 — Rachel’s cat Seeley interrupts the video and Stephanie insists they keep this footage in. (Rachel’s note: my older cat had three canines removed and is now nicknamed “Captain Holepunch” for his one remaining canine; this cat is not Captain Holepunch.)
6:23 — Stephanie describes her book, Don’t Read Poetry
11:54 — Stephanie talks about why writing about poetry felt like writing about comic books
16:06 — Rachel and Stephanie talk about de-centering whiteness, fighting implicit/systemic racism, and white people talking to white people about racism.
For more info about Rachel’s launch events, check out this post. For more info about Stephanie’s launch events, follow her on Twitter: @accommodatingly. And stay tuned for more information about both of us being at the Boston Book Festival in October!
Rachel Gold: Stephanie Burt, [pointing to self] Rachel Gold, we have been friends since 2012. We met because Being Emily came out then, and you were my moderator on a panel. Then we really jelled as friends on a number of topics that included comic books, and because that’s central to my book, I wanted to bring that up in our introduction. For the people watching, our plan getting together to do this video, is that this year is special, because we have the same book birthday.
Stephanie Burt: Yes, May 21st.
Rachel Gold: That’s why we decided to get together and do this video, even though we have books that are different in a lot of ways, but similar in some really cool ways.
Stephanie Burt: They’re connected far underground, as it were, at the roots. They’re both about how you get to know people you have a lot in common with who aren’t totally, overtly like you, and about how you mobilize communities, and enter communities in ways that help you understand and accept difference.
Rachel Gold: Yes, I love this. That’s even in my notes. This is how well we think together.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah, that’s a fairly high level of generality, because your book involves these amazing teens having adventures, and my book is just, “Here’s a lot of poems, here’s how to read them, you can go read your own now.”
Rachel Gold: I feel like there are a lot of amazing teens having adventures who could read your book, though, and enjoy learning a lot about poetry, and understanding what poetry to share with each other after that.
Stephanie Burt: When I get asked, “Who is supposed to be reading your non-academic criticism, who do you imagine is your ideal reader?” I always give more than one example of a person, but one of the people is always a teen.
Rachel Gold: I’m going to say that at least one of my characters, I’m pretty sure reads your book. I suspect it’s Aisha because of the … I reference in my book actually one of the poets in your book with the poem Wife of Bafa, because read it in your book, and I was like … I read about her in your book, and I’m going to screw up her name, will you say her name?
Stephanie Burt: Patience Agbabi.
Rachel Gold: Excellent. We should probably describe our books, I think, before we continue to geek out too much, because there’s some viewer who’s thinking, “Yes, but what are these books about?”
Stephanie Burt: Should I describe your book, and then you describe my book, is that how it works?
Rachel Gold: I was going to say we describe our own, but then we say something about each other’s books.
Stephanie Burt: That works better.
Rachel Gold: Unless you want to describe my book.
Stephanie Burt: No, no, that works better, describe your book.
Rachel Gold: My book is about two very cute teenagers. We meet them at 14 and 15. One is a white nonbinary kid, one is a black bi girl, and they’re smitten with each other, and they’re dealing with issues of gender identity and implicit racism in out-state Minnesota. The key way they deal with this, in addition to just loving each other, is through the lens of comic book superheroes, so they’re really … They’re both comic book geeks, and they’re thinking about how do we take what we know about being a hero, what we know about what works in comic books, and apply it to fighting the racism in our school system.
Stephanie Burt: Mm-hmm. Which is harder than you might think if you’re not used to fan communities, and people bringing comic book metaphors, superhero metaphors through everyday life because fighting implicit racism effectively means fighting a system, and recognizing a thing that’s bad that’s kind of everywhere rather than identifying one bad actor and taking that person down.
Rachel Gold: Yes, exactly, that’s why I wanted to write a book that was about implicit racism, because there are wonderful books that have been written about the explicit qualities, and other wonderful books about implicit racism, but really to think about how do we as diverse communities of people deal with something that the white people in those communities aren’t seeing and don’t know how to deal with.
Stephanie Burt: Yes, literally aren’t seeing.
Rachel Gold: My other experience is that a lot of times as a white person, I felt like I had two moves on the chessboard of life when conversations about racism come up, particularly implicit racism, which is either, “Oh, I’m being called a bad person, I’m going to get defensive.” Or, “I’m being called a bad person, I’m going to slink away in shame.” I’m actually not being called a bad person, and neither of those moves is a particularly good move. I wanted to, through the perspective of teens, particularly the main characters, think about: what are the other moves that you can make when you’re trying to really be a great ally?
Stephanie Burt: Kaz—that’s the white non-binary kid—has a set of things that they need to figure out and explain to others around them, and in a less interesting book, that would be the book. But the thing that they then need to learn is how to de-center themselves, and how to be there for Aisha in a part of her story where Kaz can’t take center stage.
Rachel Gold: Right and literally to the point where—I’m spoiling a little bit—but towards the end, we get to see some scenes where Aisha is center stage, and Kaz is very much not.
Stephanie Burt: Yes.
Rachel Gold: I liked figuring out how to do that, because we’re not getting Aisha’s point of view, so how do I make this interesting to the reader where we’re not in the point of view of someone who’s center stage, but they’re very much the person who needs to be center stage.
Stephanie Burt: Yes.
Rachel Gold: We may need to pause for a second, and I will edit this out, because Seeley is walking around the side of my computer, unless you think we should have a cat in the video because that makes it more realistic.
Stephanie Burt: I think people who watch cat videos also watch author videos, and this is really—
Rachel Gold: Seeley has come to say hi.
Stephanie Burt: This is better. Now, Seeley has what number of teeth right now?
Rachel Gold: Oh, he has quite a few, he’s not Captain Holepunch, Seeley’s The Shredder. Captain Holepunch is the other cat, Bears, who is I think asleep over on the chair.
Stephanie Burt: Aw. Seeley, you have to keep Seeley there.
Rachel Gold: All right. I’m going to go kick him out, then I’m going to come talk about your book.
Stephanie Burt: Aw, bye Seeley. Greetings, readers! Cats are great.
Rachel Gold: Tell us about your book.
Stephanie Burt: Okay, so my book is called Don’t Read Poetry, and the subtitle is A Book About How to Read Poems. It is an answer to a need and an answer to a problem. The need is that there are books about how to read poetry that are pretty good books, some of which are by my friends, who have been writing books for longer than me, and some of which are by people who wrote these books decades ago that don’t really go up to the present. The examples are not necessarily contemporary, or they’re not broad enough, or they’re not diverse enough. There are other books, and articles, and websites about why contemporary poetry is great that don’t address the poetry of the past. It seems to me that there are some continuities, and that there should be a book about all the things that you can get if you want to start reading poems that are out there for you, that includes and addresses poems by people have been dead for a really long time, and poems by people who have many different kinds of backgrounds, and styles, and approaches who are writing right now.
Stephanie Burt: That was the need. But I also address a problem, which is that there are other books, and interviews, and articles, and poets sort of declaiming on the radio about how to read poetry, and why we read poetry that get up my nose. They get up my nose even when they’re helpful and well meant, because they say, “Here’s why we need poetry right now, poetry will save your life, poetry brings people together, poetry empowers your inner self, poetry connects you to spirituality, poetry is what we need in the age of Trump. True poetry can demystify, and disenchant, and dispel your illusions. Poetry can help you get to know yourself. Poetry can help you get to know people who are completely nothing like you.”
Stephanie Burt: Poetry is this, poetry is that, and sometimes they’re accomplished poets saying that, and sometimes they’re very talented high school teachers, and sometimes they’re TV hosts. These people who say that poetry is this, poetry is that, are all 55% correct because the word poetry refers, at least for me, to many, many different ways of putting words together, and many techniques for putting words together in ways that are interesting. Different techniques produce different sets of words that do different things. Some sets of words are when you are feeling hopeless, and shattered, and need a way to go on. Other sets of words are when you want to have a puzzle to solve that will slow you down and help you approach life in a way that’s more intellectualized.
Stephanie Burt: Some sets of words are prayers. Other sets of words are calls to action. Some sets of words are a song that tells you what’s in your heart, and you’re singing them, like sheet music, almost. Or like when you sing along to something really good on the radio. Other sets of words introduce you to people, characters, ways of being that aren’t like you. There’s no way one poem, well, it’s very rare for one poem to do all of those things.
Stephanie Burt: Different poems can do different things, you might want them in your life for different reasons. Learning how to read those poems, and where to find them, and why you might like them involves stepping away from the idea that there’s a thing called poetry, and when it’s good, it’s always good for the same reason. That’s the problem I want to solve, the unhelpful insistence that we should read poetry for one big reason. That’s why it’s called Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.
Rachel Gold: I will say that as a person who’s somewhat oppositional, I really love the title. Your book was super helpful to me as a person who has read and enjoyed poetry, but not thought about it tremendously—other than using poems for many of the reasons that we do when we’re younger, to woo someone, or to feel a feeling with someone else.
Stephanie Burt: Yes, which are some of the best reasons to use poems, but only some poems work that way. Poetry is like music, or like comic books. This is the set of techniques. Comic books are great.
Rachel Gold: I’m going to intrude on you on about comic books, because you said the magic phrase. I remember being a teenager, and the fights about Marvel versus DC, which I’m sure still go on, but the notion there are different kinds of comic books that are doing different things, and you read the kinds that you want at a particular time, and I thought that was part of what was wonderful to me about Don’t Read Poetry is you’ve got these six chapters that are like six tremendous reasons that people read poetry, and that poetry persists over thousands and thousands of years, and it made it much more straightforward for me to think about what poems are doing. It’s doing one or more of these six things, how well is it doing these things?
Rachel Gold: I felt so much smarter about poetry reading it.
Stephanie Burt: Aw, thank you.
Rachel Gold: You’re welcome.
Stephanie Burt: That’s the idea. There aren’t a whole lot of comics Easter eggs in there, I guess there are a couple.
Rachel Gold: I found some.
Stephanie Burt: There are a couple, yes. But it did feel, this is one of the ways I sort of thought, “Well, I’m doing this right,” it felt like writing my comics. It felt like here is a shared set of techniques that if you want to talk about why this comic works, and why this comic doesn’t, or if you want to make comics yourself, you should know what a panel bleed is, what different kinds of panel to panel transitions are, what foreground and background are, some things about placement. But, that medium, and that set of techniques has so many different kinds of stories, you can tell them so many different kinds of styles and worlds that it can encompass.
Stephanie Burt: A great thing about the comics world is that most people who read lots of comics did not encounter comics first in school. Their first experience of comics, whether it is X-Men 121, which was mine, Uncanny X-Men 121, the first appearance of Alpha Flight. Or, whether it’s Fun Home, or Maus, or something, or … what’s a superhero comic that is perfectly fine but I don’t care about? Like an ’80s Incredible Hulk.
Stephanie Burt: If it speaks to you, then you want to know how it’s put together, and you might think about how to make it without worry about whether you’re going to get an A in a test, not how it’s made or what it’s history is. If you research it, it’s ’cause you are already interested. There’s none of these dreadful, institutional counter incentives to saying what you believe, and institutional incentives to say or internalize stuff you don’t care about and don’t believe, and where poetry is in our culture is almost the reverse. You have middle and high school teachers who do a unit on poetry who don’t enjoy poetry, who want to get it over with so they can go back to Fitzgerald or whatever they’re really into, and students who see it as a chore.
Stephanie Burt: I think classical music people have this problem as well, ’cause if you’re really in the composed music world, they both use violins, but of course Vivaldi and Schoenberg, you listen to them for different reasons, but you have to overcome music appreciation nonsense to get there.
Rachel Gold: It’s interesting that poetry is one of the least expensive arts to pursue, in a way, and I think we all naturally do it. I wrote poems when I was a teenager. I’m never showing them to you, by the way, but I wrote them.
Stephanie Burt: I wrote some too, and I’m never showing you.
Rachel Gold: All right. That’s fair enough.
Rachel Gold: The point I was going to make was, we actually start out doing poetry at about the same age that we’re doing comic book scripts. Then the problem that you’re pointing to is that at some point we become persuaded in high school or college that you can’t mess with poetry, poetry is this canon, and it’s this fancy thing, and you shouldn’t mess with it unless you’re a serious poet. I like how much your book broadening out the sense of what poetry is and what it’s meant to do is like, “No, it does all these things, you can do any of these things and combine them, and have a good time.”
Stephanie Burt: Yes. I feel like there are people out there whose relationship to poetry is like my relationship to comics, which is 7th grade I’m just reading the hell out of these things, 11th grade, I don’t have peers who are reading these anymore, and it’s not a particularly good moment for comics. Then I’m an adult, and I come back to it, and it’s gotten better and more diverse while I wasn’t looking.
Rachel Gold: That’s very true. Speaking of that, that’s on my list of things to ask us. I was going to say, in addition to other things I liked about your book, it’s not just about white dude poets.
Stephanie Burt: Well, yeah
Rachel Gold: Which I’m about to bring up again, and the fact that you said, “A poet who uses form well is playing a game.”
Stephanie Burt: Yeah.
Rachel Gold: We’ll maybe circle back around to games in a bit, but speaking of the not just white dudes, we both, I think, went through a lot of work to create books that are not just about whiteness. I figured we should talk about that.
Stephanie Burt: We should, we should. For me, that’s partly making more diverse friends, and more political friends, and having more of my friends who are white be people who think about how to be an ally, and how to recognize and de-center whiteness. Also, to some extent, having friends, making more friends in the poetry world who were not white and having my friends in the poetry world who are people of color be more willing to talk to a white lady like me about how to do anti-racist stuff.
Stephanie Burt: De-centering whiteness, and doing anti-racist work, and you were asking me how I ended up trying to do that. I’ll finish that and then ask you the same question. I was sort of trained to do poetry criticism and poetry reading on a canon that was, and a body of work, that was much more white than what I read now, and grew up mostly among white poetry people who were reading other white people who didn’t understand, because whiteness is unmarked, that that was a choice, and it’s a bad choice. It’s crucial to be reading people who are not like you in terms of race.
Stephanie Burt: It wasn’t like I figured that out, and the rest of the world of white poetry critics is still swimming around in their bath of non-worldliness. The entire part of the American poetry world that is white people, that was making this mistake before, began to think about how to not make this mistake about five or six years ago around the time of Black Lives Matter, around the time that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen became clearly the most often discussed, and most influential contemporary poetry book, which was also around the time that it became clear that if you’re just looking at formal talent, and making conventionally constructed short poems in verse—which is not a thing Claudia Rankine does—that the major people who everyone else looks up to on technical grounds, that small set of people includes, in particular, black poets, and that contemporary white poets who aren’t putting black poetry at the center of how we see American poetry are really screwing up and not understanding where we are.
Stephanie Burt: For me, that’s Terrence Hayes, who’s just the best, but there are other poets who are really significant in that direction, also. Fred Moten, and Kevin Young, lots of people. The other thing that I really am trying to take account of as a reader, and that that book tries really hard to center is that many American poets, and many non-American poets are not black and not white. Race is not just black people and white people. There’s so much interesting formal innovation, not just representing kinds of people who weren’t often seen before by white readers. Just stylistic things you can do that come from first people’s identities, and different kinds of multiracial identities, and from East Asian, and South Asian, and Chicanics, and Puerto Rican, and so on.
Stephanie Burt: There’s just a lot of backgrounds out there, and you’re not doing poetry criticism right if you’re not paying attention to the forms those backgrounds make possible.
Rachel Gold: Cool.
Stephanie Burt: [Talk about] the work that In the Silences does, and how you came to do it.
Rachel Gold: Way before I actually started writing the book, and by way I mean a year or two, but that’s a long time in writing time. Before I started writing the book, some of the inspiration came from some implicit racism that I saw and was unable to stop, and was surprised that I could not stop it, that at the time where I actually said to a few people in this environment, “This is racism, we have to stop doing it.” It still didn’t stop. That really showed me how big the situation was, and how even with my white privilege, and this is an environment where I had some power, I still could not fight it the way I wanted to. I wanted to figure that out, and a lot of times when I have to figure something out, I write a book about it. I was like, “Okay, let me figure this out by redoing this with teenagers in a school system, and see if they can figure it out for me.” I read a lot of books, I’ve started listing them on my website for people who are interested, on the In the Silences page you can start to see the research I was doing. To figure out, whoa, this is a way … I was kind of in that, “Okay, this is still a problem in some places, but we kind of handled racism in the United States.” No. We really … Now that’s super obvious, but this was before 2016. This was happening before that.
Stephanie Burt: Not long ago.
Rachel Gold: Yeah. And then 2016 happened, and I was like, “Holy crap.” I wanted to do this book, and then I wrote most of a first draft that was not good, that did not de-center whiteness, and I threw it away. So, yeah, you never saw that draft. Hopefully no one’s ever seen that draft, where it just … I kind of wrote, I don’t know, I wrote half or two thirds of it, and it just fell into a hole, and I realized that the hole was that I was going in a completely wrong direction. That got tossed, and it is hard to throw away a large chunk of words.
Stephanie Burt: I’ve written half a lit crit book that’s like that, where you get to 40,000 words, and you’re like, “I don’t believe this anymore.”
Rachel Gold: Right, right, and you’re like, “Something is really wrong with this, and it’s not fixable.” That got tossed, and I basically started with the same premise, and I started again. I think there is no scene from that original draft that’s in the published version of In the Silences. I tried to keep some of the scenes, and you’ve seen a couple, and no, they’re just gone. It just didn’t work. Yeah, then it was an interesting question, I have a white main character, which I need to have, because in a lot of ways, it’s a book, among other things, that’s about white people talking to white people about racism, which needs to happen, and is happening a lot.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah. Hi.
Rachel Gold: Yeah, exactly. How do I do that and still have Aishabe a very vibrant, rich character with a lot of agency, who gets to do a lot of things in the story, and have her family be really central and vibrant. So-
Stephanie Burt: Without turning Kaz into just someone who watches stuff happen.
Rachel Gold: Exactly, exactly. I didn’t do Aisha’s viewpoint in part because there are so many good books by black authors with black main characters that readers should just go read them, rather than me trying to also do that. Yeah, I think that that … Hopefully it’s become a book that … It de-centers whiteness, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t whiteness in the book. In some places, I think I have the opportunity, more so than in Don’t Read Poetry where you really can de-center it because you have so many examples, but in a way, in In the Silences, I have to actually center it and magnify it in the sense of, “This is what implicit racism sounds like inside your head.”
Stephanie Burt: Yeah, and it really works. Don’t Read Poetry, if I got it right, it’s clearly a book by me, but I’ve got some parts of me turned almost all the way down. I feel like what it’s like to be an effective poetry critic is you recognize that there are all these parts of your experience, and you don’t try to pretend that you’re not coming from anywhere. You try to take certain kinds of dials that are about what generation you belong to, and where you are geographically, and the dial that’s about what you’re allowed to ignore if you’re white. Part of white privilege is having a dial that allows you to ignore things, and turning those dials to a setting that makes you maximally open to voices, and backgrounds, and approaches to language that are unlike yours.
Stephanie Burt: There are significant American Poets who aren’t in the book just ’cause they happen not to provide ideal examples of things, and sometimes people who add them arguing they’re more important than you think. Like Frederick Goddard Tuckerman is not in there. But, there are also significant American poets who are not in that book because I can’t do them justice, I just can’t. I can’t get there, and it would be unfair for me to pretend.
Rachel Gold: Mm-hmm. But I think also you did a good job of taking the set of tools you’ve already got around poetry criticism and applying them to a lot of poets who are poets of color.
Stephanie Burt: It’s not like I’m the only one doing that, but yeah.
Rachel Gold: Yeah, but I think that’s like, in a way, sometimes as white people we miss the elegance of that. Where it’s like, we already know some things about the things we know, we just need to expand the scope. That’s technique one, and then my technique one for In the Silences was partly to focus the lens back on whiteness, and make it a marked condition. You said earlier, it in America has been unmarked, which means that you, if you’re white, get the privilege of ignoring your whiteness and make it so that Kaz, my main character, can’t ignore their whiteness. They have to really shine the spotlight on their whiteness, on the racist thinking that they grew up with, and it’s not dramatically racist.
Rachel Gold: One of the big problems for me is that we know how to spot dramatically racist thinking. At least all of us liberals, we know that, but we don’t see the really subtle pieces. Just, for example, if you’re comfortable as a white person making eye contact and grinning at another white person, but you’re not comfortable doing that with a person of color, that’s a thing you got to work on, and that’s something Kaz has to deal with. I think it works, certainly I hope for white readers, and I have heard from some that it does, to spotlight those, okay, this is in your head, and you don’t have to think of it as being you. That’s my other innovation.
Rachel Gold: Back to comic books, that the sense of implicit racism Kaz then describes as being the evil supervillian Apocalypse, and his terrible mind control.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah, it’s Apocalypse rather than anybody else, because you needed an X-Men villain who exists in the X-Men movies, because otherwise it’s too niche. One of the things that literally criticism, at its best, can do when it’s socially engaged, not necessarily poetry, that In the Silences does really well is finding a third answer that is better than the two wrong answers to, “What do you do about racism?” The two wrong answers being it is a matter of bad individuals choosing to be bad, and you fight them, and, it is about a system that we’re all inside, like capitalism, or like air, so you as an individual can’t do anything in your day-to-day life about it, unless you make it your professional goal to destroy all racism everywhere because it’s this large system.
Stephanie Burt: It’s not like that. It’s not like gravity, it’s not even like climate change. It’s kind of like homophobia and transphobia.
Rachel Gold: I think so, very much.
Stephanie Burt: We, as queer people, are sensitized to that just by being in our heads already. As a white person, I am still learning to be sensitive to the way that everyday language, and habits, and assumptions are not only cis-hetero-sexist, but also kind of racist.
Rachel Gold: It’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot, especially because In the Silences, Kaz, the main character is non-binary, and eventually uses they/them pronouns, doesn’t start out there. But, I was thinking about the … Especially early on doing the research and trying to write this, I would get a lot of mental fatigue just thinking about it, because I’m not used to thinking about race that much. I’d be like, “Oh, whoa, I’m really worn out.” Then, that moment where I’m like, “Oh, this is how people feel when I talk to them about gender.” I can talk about gender all day, but cis-gender people are like, “We’ve been talking about this for 10 minutes, aren’t we done?” And I’m like, “Are you serious? I just got started.” I’m like, “Oh, so that’s how my friends of color feel like talking …” if they’ll even talk to me about race, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, we can talk for way more than 10 minutes about this if you will listen to me, if you’ll be present and listen.”
Rachel Gold: It’s neat to have that comparison. I think most people have that in some areas of their life, where it’s like, “Okay, you’re really good at getting this thing,” whether it’s about mental health, or disability, or class, or any of those. Like, “Oh, I have so much strength in this area because I grew up with it, and I had to deal with it, and then I have zero strength in this area.” Which just means you got to build the muscle. It’s just building the muscle.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah. One of the strengths not only of novels in general, but of the kind of novel that this is, where there’s a lot of conversation, there are events that are not conversations. There are multiple plot threads, and supporting characters who are not terrible, most of them. One of them kind of is. The rest of them aren’t, they’re sometimes supportive. Because it’s YA, and because it’s 2019, and this is a story about queer teens and love, there is the expectation that at least some problems will at least temporarily or partially be solved. Because of all of those things, I feel like it’s easier and more fun to stay in the head space where you’re listening to race and implicit racism get explained than it would be in a non-fiction book, or in a work that was more a work of Afro-pessimism.
Stephanie Burt: Afro-pessimism is a really valid, interesting thing, but it shouldn’t be the only discourse about race, or the only literary register about race available to white readers. We need something that says, “Here is how sometimes some people can ameliorate some problems so you can be with the person you love.
Rachel Gold: Yeah. On an interesting side note, one of my beta readers, who is black, towards the end of the book actually messaged me and said, “This is good, but it’s a little too optimistic. I don’t think this would have happened. This is a little better than what would have happened in real life.”
Stephanie Burt: Did you make changes in response to that or not?
Rachel Gold: No, actually, I mean I tweaked it a little bit, but then I was like, “Yeah, I’m doing that on purpose, because my fiction is 85% real and 15% optimism.” The events in Being Emily are a little bit better than what happens for a lot of people in real life, too. Or at least a little better than what used to happen for people in real life.
Stephanie Burt: Right, right.
Rachel Gold: I get to make a slightly better world, that’s what I want to do with fiction. Once I explained that, she was like, “Yeah, as long as you get that this is slightly better than what would probably happen.” I was like, “Yeah, I know, but I want to leave people in a good place.”
Stephanie Burt: The characters know that they are living in a really good scenario, and worse scenarios are possible, and they’re aware of the worse ones.
Rachel Gold: Yeah, and I did turn it a little bit for her, but it still is pretty optimistic.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah. There’s also, I feel this is a different problem in different kinds of problem novels, before literally you started writing, all of the trans people in all YA got beat up. There was this after school special thing where the way that cis readers learned about trans stuff, and the way white readers learned about racism was—and “fridged” is maybe too strong of a word—but you have a supporting character who’s there for the purpose of getting physically injured so that the cis character, the straight character, the white character, or the documented or citizen character learns how terrible it is to be this other kind of person. You need to learn how terrible it is to be the other is not the way to de-center privilege.
Rachel Gold: We’ve talked about this a little bit before, but also just one of the challenges is that, yeah, of course these things happen in real life. Yeah, plenty of trans people get beat up. Lots of black kids get shot, well, proportionally to the number of white kids who get shot.
Stephanie Burt: We’ve got newspapers for that.
Rachel Gold: Right, exactly, there are newspapers. We know this is happening, you don’t have to always put it in fiction, and sometimes you do. Obviously The Hate U Give is a great example. Absolutely that needed to happen for that book, great. We need some of all the different kinds of books. We need some of the kinds of books where the cops do not show up and shoot the black kid, and it’s still terrible.
Stephanie Burt: The first time I read that scene, I was like, “What is now going to happen that is more narratively interesting than either police initiate serious violence, or, surprise, the police are nice?”
Rachel Gold: Yes. Yes. Because we’ve seen both of those, and a lot of times I think once something’s been done well, or been done well a few times, I don’t want to do it. Other people may still be able to do it well, I’m going to move on, because I’m kind of oppositional.
Stephanie Burt: Yeah.
Rachel Gold: So in thinking about both our books together, one of the key messages that runs through them is there are better ways to encounter poems, and there are better ways to encounter people then to think that there is one right and natural way to do poetry or to be a person.
Stephanie Burt: Right, and different people want to be encountered in different ways. Even all the people you’re close to, if you’re treating them all the same way, maybe you’re not as close to them as you think.
Rachel Gold: Right, it’s not a compliment to treat everyone like a white person.
Stephanie Burt: Right. Right.
Rachel Gold: I mean, it is a compliment to treat everyone like a full, realized human being with their own background, and culture, and experience, but that’s not the same.
Stephanie Burt: But that doesn’t mean you’re treating them the way white people already treat white people, because that would be not de-centering whiteness.
Rachel Gold: Yeah, exactly. I thought there was … In the end it was very cool that the way you handled poems and the way I handled people came out very similarly.