Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Is Authentic, and What Is Offensive?

Soho Teen is publishing a novel in August--Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by debut author Elizabeth Kiem--set in 1983. The novel begins on the day Leonid Brehznev dies, the same day the 17-year-old protagonist and prima ballerina, Marina Dukovskaya, loses her mother to the wiles of Soviet authorities. (Or apparently loses. There will be no spoilers in this blog post.) Marina and her father defect to the United States, where they take up residence in Brighton Beach, an area that was ethnically and socioeconomically mixed at the time.

The novel is written from Marina's first-person point-of-view. The author is a Russian scholar, fluent in the language, and has expertise in both Soviet-era Russia and the burgeoning 1980's Brighton Beach organized crime scene.  Her prose reads as genuinely as any I've ever read. I'm not alone in that opinion; it has already been recognized at BEA for its accuracy, honesty, and beauty by the ABA as one six Fall 2013 YAs in the "Celebrate with Indie Debut Authors." 

All that said, a passage included in the galley was struck from the final after an in-house debate. The passage reads: "The Q train dead ends in Brighton Beach, also known as 'Little Odessa' or 'Russia by the Sea.'  About a half a mile west of us, America begins, speaking English, Spanish, and Black."

The last word raised red flags among several of my colleagues. The author did not choose it lightly. And as her editor, I felt it was authentic both to Marina's experience--having grown up in a particularly closed world within the Soviet Union--and to the Brighton Beach times, where African-Americans might seem to speak a different language from their Caucasian or Latino counterparts. Marina is someone who hadn't had a lot of experience with people of color, and whose grasp of English was tenuous. The word choice acknowledged Marina's reality, as she saw it.  But my colleagues raised the very good point that such a stark definition didn't come up anywhere else, and that taken out of context, it might appear racist.  

In the end, I acquiesced. We changed the word to "slang"--accurate, and true to the times, but perhaps not as powerful.  Or perhaps better because of its broader inclusiveness. There was plenty of slang of all kinds spoken in 1983 west of Brighton Beach.  

I am very curious to hear what other people think of our decision. Is the term "slang" better than "Black" in terms of authenticity?  I've come to believe it is as far as Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy is concerned--and I also know the author wrestled with this decision as much as I did. 


  1. I once got written up at work for talking about Black English. Now, for context's sake, I was doing a master's degree in linguistics at the time. Because Black English was a technical linguistics term. As was Spanglish, Franglish, etc.

    But taken out of context -- I was working in an apartment rental office -- my white manager found it racist as hell. Which is its own set of problems.

  2. Every culture has slang, so I can't say it totally fits. But I agree with the decision to do away with "Black," which is not a language, but a racial descriptor.

  3. I can understand why people feel uncomfortable with the term "speaking Black," as it's completely inappropriate, but given the context I find it very plausible that the character's ignorance to other cultures and racial groups (not by choice necessarily) and the time she was living in made it seem as if such descriptors were part of everyday discourse.

    We cringe today, but the 80s wasn't really friendly to minorities, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise. I remember growing up hearing phrases like, "she's speaking Mexican," the difference between now and then is that more people are willing to say, "That's offensive," and dissuade such discourse. Back then, I remember being called "the Wetback" in school and was told I "spoke Mexican" at an elementary school. That just wouldn't happen today and if it did the adults who allowed it to happen would be reprimanded. Back then, my mother wasn't taken very seriously when she brought up these complaints.

    The other closest example I can think of would be the term, "That's so gay." There was a time people could say that in reference to silly or dumb things and it never once occurred to people back in the 90s that such comments may be harmful to the gay and lesbian community. Today someone who makes the same comment would be seen as ignorant. Even the teens I teach barely use that phrase as opposed to the teens and adults from the 90s.

    I may be in the minority, but I think in fiction, especially in young adult literature, we have to present the world as it is. As much as I liked the 80s and 90s, I remember there was still a lot of racial tension and discrimination. In between The Cure and No Doubt there were a lot of racial tragedies that occurred. The 80s and 90s was fun, but it wasn't perfect.

    Her descriptor would make a reader today uncomfortable- but was she being true to how people behaved towards minorities whether it be intentional or unintentional? Absolutely.

    This was a hard decision. If you felt the context behind the history wasn't set up for a young adult reader to understand why she would use that term it makes sense. You don't want to promote ignorance, but at the same time sanitizing history isn't good for us either.

  4. I think you made a mistake removing it. In context it was original and, I think, appropriate. It stinks that we live in a world where someone might grab it out of context to make a fuss of it. I think leaving it in represents something authentic, while pulling it is just another sad example of PC gone mad. And please don't anyone try and tell me that our current version of PC is a step forward, ask a native American about the Washington "Redskins." Today's PC is just a new flavor of racism.

  5. This is an excellent example of a unintentional offshoot of political correctness. The passage under discussion has effectively been "bleached" for publication. I'm not African American so I can't speak for them, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the very distinctive and beautiful English dialect this culture has brought into the world (this is what the character was referring to with the word "black") has been downgraded to "slang" which is not a dialect but a negatively connoted element of speech used by all languages. When I read the revised sentence I see white people (English), Latinos (Spanish) and hoodlums/kids of no specific color (slang). When I read the original sentence I saw white, Latino and Black, which is what the character and I think the author saw. So great - we have deleted black people from this passage. Aren't we trying to make YA MORE diverse?

  6. I'm Black and I think it should've been left in. Slang is weak, it doesn't convey the point as well. She wouldn't necessarily know what slang is because 1. she's not from the U.S. and 2. slang varies by culture so the "slang" black people spoke might be different from the slang of someone else. I agree with the above poster, sometimes, often we try too hard to be politically correct and end up just missing the boat entirely...this is a great case of that.