Lesléa Newman is the author of 64 books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK; the teen poetry collection, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD; the middle-grade novel, HACHIKO WAITS and the children’s books, A SWEET PASSOVER, JUST LIKE MAMA, THE BEST CAT IN THE WORLD, THE BOY WHO CRIED FABULOUS, and HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation, the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion, and a Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award. A past poet laureate of Northampton, MA, she currently teaches writing for children and young adults at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.
You’ve said that you wrote the groundbreaking HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES because certain kids and families were being left out of the children’s book conversation. As we observe Banned Books Week, can you reflect on how alternative stories and voices are marginalized in children’s publishing?
Back in 1989, when I first wrote HEATHER, there were no children’s books that showed a family that consisted of a child with two lesbian moms. A woman approached me on the street and said, “My daughter doesn’t have a book that shows a family like ours. Somebody should write one.” And I knew by “somebody” she meant me.
I also knew firsthand what it felt like to not have my own family portrayed in a book, movie, or on TV, because I grew up in the 1950s and never read a book about a little girl with curly brown hair eating matzo ball soup with her bubbe on Friday night. I read books about children being visited by Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, which were things my family did not do. So I felt different. Which is why I wrote HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES.
Things have definitely changed since 1989, when a friend and I published the book together, funded by ten-dollar donations from dozens of people. Several years ago, Tricycle Press actually invited me to write a set of board books for children with two moms and two dads; they also joyfully published my book, DONOVAN’S BIG DAY, which takes place on the day Donovan’s two moms wed. But we need many more voices to truly represent the diversity of our society. You’ve been called a “dangerous” writer by those who disagree with and seek to ban books such as HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. As you formulate ideas for your stories and poems, how does this expectation that your books will be controversial affect how you write and what you write about?
I never think about audience when I write. I always tell writers, if you’re going to worry about offending someone, you might as well put your pen down now (and I actually still do write with a pen!). In fact, I assume someone is going to be offended by what I write (though that is never my intent). You can’t please everyone, and I am not trying to please anyone.
When I sit down to write, what I am trying to do is tell the most beautiful, truthful, and authentic story that I can. Writing and publishing are two different and distinct acts. Though I can’t think of anything that I’ve ever written that I’ve hesitated to publish. I would rather have people have strong opinions about my work (positive or negative) than not to care about it at all. Your new book, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD, tells the story of Matthew’s tragic murder in 1998. You were the keynote speaker at the University of Wyoming’s Gay Awareness Week when Matthew, who was a student there, was killed. How did your proximity to the violence influence the poetry you wrote for him?
Since October 1998, I have been haunted by this hate crime. Matthew Shepard was a member of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Association, and one of the last things he did on the Tuesday night of his attack was attend a meeting to finalize the plans for Gay Awareness Week.
When I gave my keynote speech, there was an empty seat in the front row, and I kept picturing him sitting there (I had seen his photograph in the newspaper). I met some of his friends and promised them I would dedicate all my gay rights speeches from then on to Matt’s memory, which I have done.
As far as the poetry goes, when I started writing OCTOBER MOURNING, my experience in Wyoming came rushing back as though it had happened yesterday. I knew there was no way I could find out what truly happened at the fence that night, so I used my imagination to explore the impact of Matt’s murder in fictitious monologues spoken by the silent witnesses to the crime: the truck Matt was kidnapped in, the fence he was tied to, the moon that watched over him, the deer that kept him company all through the night.
In hindsight, I can see that what I was looking for (and found) was the compassion shown by so many others in the face of such hate. Beginning Monday, we’re observing “Bullying Prevention Week” on the Engage blog. You travel to schools and deliver an anti-bullying message entitled, “He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard.” What have you found to be the most effective way of approaching the topic with students?
First of all, with high school students, as with anyone, you have to be real. I begin by talking about myself and my story: what it was like for me to come out. Then I read some of the poems from OCTOBER MOURNING while showing photos of Matt, so that my audience sees that he was a real person. Before he was “Matthew Shepard” the martyr, the icon, the headline, the cause, he was “Matt.” He was a kid with a family, with friends, with dreams and hopes and fears, just like the kids in the audience.
Then, after I read for a bit, I lead the students through a guided visualization in which they imagine a world that is safe for everyone, and I have them think of one thing they can do to stop the hate. Then I have them make a commitment to the person sitting next to them to do this one thing within a week. And then we have a discussion.
It’s important for high school kids to know that they are the ones who have the power to stop bullying in their schools. It’s got to come from them. Not the adults around them. During your education you had the incredible opportunity to be mentored by poet Allen Ginsberg, who faced obscenity charges for his poem “Howl.” What did you learn from Ginsberg that was helpful or applicable when others have tried to ban or silence your work?
Allen, or “Ginzy” as he liked to be called, was the kindest, most generous person I ever met. When I worked with him, my job was to answer his mail, and he had no concept of hierarchy. Whether the letter was from a very famous writer, a senator, Ram Dass, or a farm boy in Kansas who was gay and didn’t know who else to write to, Allen paid the same complete attention to every single letter. When I was drifting about, he let me stay in his apartment for several months, until I got my feet back on the ground.
So I learned to be kind and generous from him, especially to other writers. He took great joy in the success of his students and I learned from him that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed. I also learned the importance of his writing mantra, “First thought, best thought,” which doesn’t mean that the first thing you put down on paper is perfect and doesn’t need to be revised. It means go with that wild, crazy idea that pops into your head out of nowhere (like “write from the point of view of the fence Matthew Shepard was tied to” for example). And then revise, revise, revise.
As far as being silenced goes, Allen would have none of it, and I will have none of it. If you don’t like what someone else is writing, write your own story in response to it. When I was growing up, the worst thing you could say in my house was “shut up.” It’s important to use your voice, and write your letter to the world, as Emily Dickinson so famously said. Or as we used to say during the AIDS crisis in the eighties, “Silence = Death.” And lastly, in the words of the great poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The world is not made of atoms. The world is made of stories.” And we need those stories, every single one.
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