ALA Virtual Conference 2020

Surrounded by Story: A Conversation with Minh Lê, Siman Nuurali, Bao Phi, & Kao Kalia Yang. Facilitated by Sara Park Dahlen

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Let me set the scene. My dog ate a sock last night, so I was up for hours with a soundtrack of puppy upchuck. In preparation, I had my pumpkin spice coffee ready to go this morning. I signed in to the morning session, and the chat box was booming and participants were excited.

Well, my coffee sat untouched, because this conversation pole-vaulted me into the morning. Sara Park Dahlen, Associate Professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University, facilitated the initial session about unimpeded truths. Its afterglow is still swirling around the air in my office.  

As children, all four of these authors were surrounded by story. Kao Kalia Yang’s grandmother used to lift her arm and state that every piece of hair on it is a tree, and the veins were rivers. Minh Lêparticipated in “storytelling by necessity”: he made up stories because his stories weren’t on the bookshelves. Siman Nuurali, born and raised in Kenya, had a formal experience with books and read crime detective fiction and literature from the UK, as Kenya is a former British colony. Bao Phi was born during the war in Vietnam and fled the country a few months after he was born. He fell in love with books before he fell in love with writing.

About halfway through the discussion, the chat box went as still as tree stumps. Why? Words moved from literature to life. The exchange turned to asserting our aliveness. It was about necessary progress, interconnectedness, and the blueprint of family and culture. Each speaker shared a story about searching for themselves in terms of individuality and creativity. Kao Kalia Yangopened up about growing up in a refugee camp, where the #1 cause of death was suicide. She said it took a long time to rid the secrets of her life. “Every time I meet the world,” she said. “I meet people with everything that I am.” Bao Phi discussed the dissonance between attending school in the American system, then coming home to a place that was not reflected in that American system. Siman Nuurali discussed her family’s resilience, sharing that her house was often packed in the evening with stories and laughter. Even in times of grief and illness, she never experienced adversity on her own.

What about kids now?, Sarah Park Dahlen asked. How do we tell children the truth in our literature? There was a moment of silence, where I could practically taste the Zoom energy travel between these authors. Because their answers were en pointe.

“There are no safety nets for the truth,” Kao Kalia Yang said. “The ghost of racism haunts my children as much as it haunts me.” All authors emphasized truth telling, and that pretending children don’t have profound feelings is doing them a disservice. Children’s lives are complicated. “We have to support them without scaring them,” Bao Phi said. “We tell ourselves that they don’t have the language to understand or express their thoughts and feelings,” Siman Nuuralisaid.  “So we do it for them. We don’t have to. For them, it is instinctual.” Minh Lê stated, “Racism is not a thing of the past. Kids experience the world in a more complicated way that we give them credit for. Simplify the truth is doing a disservice to them as individuals and readers. They will experience it whether we have it in a book or not.”  Why do kids need to hear the truth? Because they are living it.

What can librarians do? Here’s what the authors said: Provide books that aren’t white-centric. Expose non-BIPOC kids to BIPOC books. Use your influence to demand that more books reflect all children that come through the library doors.

My own thoughts about what we can do: remember what it was like to be a child and adolescent. As a child and tween, I felt like I was straddling the world. Trying to understand my internal condition and the world around me, I often felt more at home in books that in my own home. We need to remember how it felt to wade through childhood, and that children are the seedbeds of our world. Librarians can help in the wading.

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