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#ReadForChange: Back to School with Brendan Kiely’s TRADITION

ReadForChange copyTeen Librarian Toolbox is excited to be partnering with Marie Marquardt for her #ReadForChange project. Hop on over to this post to learn more about the initiative. Today, she and  Brendan Kiely join us for a conversation about power, feminism, toxic masculinity, taking action, and Brendan’s powerful 2018 book, Tradition. Please see the end of this post to enter to win a signed copy of this book! 

 

 

 

There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless.” There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

– Arundhati Roy

 

“How Can Men be Better Feminists?”

 

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Okay, folks. I’m about to climb up on my soapbox for a little bit, so get ready. (Or ignore this post until you’re prepared for a rant. These are tough times. Please be gentle with yourself!)

 

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world around you, then the claim I’m about to make will not come as a surprise. Many of the terrible ills that plague our society — and, here in the United States, also threaten our democracy — can be traced to a certain sort of privileged man. You know the type – they carry their entitlement as if it were somehow built into their DNA. They simply assume themselves to be untouchable – above the norms and laws and ethics that hold our communities together. And, if we’re being really honest, they pretty-much are able to live above or outside of those shared norms. Why? Because they live deep inside institutions that both grant them this power and protect them from losing it. They abuse their power. They abuse people because they perceive those people as objects, and not as their fully-human equals.

 

But then there are the men we may expect to be “the type” until we find out how very, profoundly wrong we are. They may be the jocks, the prep-school kids. They may be the recovering addicts. They may be the men who have made terrible mistakes, but who humbly seek guidance, looking to other people as models for how to live well. These men seek to understand the difference between right and wrong, and then they try to do what’s right. Sure, they mess up sometimes. But they try, and that means something.

 

They share a few things in common: they listen, they embed themselves in communities of trust. And by listening carefully in these communities, they learn – maybe slow and faltering – how to fight alongside their fully-human equals for what is right and good.

 

Brendan Kiely has astonishing talent. He writes stories that reveal to us both of these characters, while also unmasking the institutions that shape their lives (think: churches, police forces, and prep schools). His first novel, The Gospel of Winter is the gut-wrenching story of Aidan, a terribly broken boy, who struggles to decide whether he should reveal the abuse inflicted by his priest. I won’t claim that it’s an easy read (it’s particularly excruciating for Catholics like myself), but it’s powerful and compelling and – in the end – hopeful. In All American Boys (co-authored with Jason Reynolds), he introduces Quinn, who has to re-think everything he thought he knew about right-and-wrong, good-and-bad, when his mentor and big-brother figure, a police officer, assaults a black teenager from his high school.

 

Tradition, Brendan’s most recent novel, unflinchingly reveals life inside of a prep-school infused with toxic masculinity. More importantly, though, the story celebrates those courageous people who dare to make visible the toxic abuse of power, and of people. Tradition is, like most excellent novels, a multilayered story. But it is, at least in part, the story of how a boy named Bax, burdened by the mistakes of his past, learned to trust that he knew right from wrong and then developed the courage to do what was right.

 

“Before I act, I need to listen.”: Real Talk with Brendan Kiely

Brendan-Kiely-AuthorMARIE: Tell us about the moment when you knew that this story had to be written, and that you needed to address these tough themes head-on.  

 

BRENDAN: I’m hesitant to locate a moment, partially because I’m kind of dense and rarely respond to (or recognize when it hits me!) a bolt of inspiration, but also because I’m associative and nonlinear. Parts of my past resonate with parts of my present and when the emotions seem correlative, I know there’s a story in there. Also, as I’m looking around at the world, I formulate questions I want to try to address through fiction.

By way of example, I’ve shared this story before, and I think it does get at the crux of why I wanted to write Tradition.

Shortly before my senior prom, my high school allowed a tuxedo rental company to hang advertisements in the halls of our academic building. In the poster, four guys in tuxedos huddled around one girl in a prom dress, but the girl was tipped headfirst toward the floor, her legs in the air, spread open. In my all-boys’ high school, the poster reinforced the old trope of prom = sex, but it also signaled a deeper, more dangerous message as well: wear our tux and get what you want, because you are entitled to it.

The reality of that second message became clear to me when, a few weeks before going to college, I got a call from a friend, a girl who had been at that same prom. She’d been raped at the beach that summer. She didn’t want to share the details; she just wanted me to know. I listened. I believed her. Because I thought about that poster. I thought about the graffiti in my high school locker room and bathroom stalls. I thought about the way so many guys joked about sex aggressively, competitively. None of it was innocent. All of it reeked of entitlement.

An environment in which the boys think and are told they are entitled to sex, and all the messaging is about sex as a goal, and none of it is about consent and agency and seeing the human being, is an environment that nurtures, that is, rape culture. And a definition of masculinity that emerges from a culture which silences, shames, and gaslights women is dangerous—it harms women and robs men of the potential to be better human beings.

This all came back to me when in 2015 I saw the video of Emma Sulkowitz dragging her mattress across the graduation stage at Columbia University in an act of bravery and tenacity to remind the world she would not be silenced, that the story of her assault would not go unheard. The boarding school culture Jules and Bax grapple with in Tradition mirrors our broader society—all too many institutions are riddled with insidious and deeply entrenched misogyny—and I wanted to write about people who challenge that status quo. I wanted to write about the strength of women who stand up and speak out about misogyny, and also, especially as a man writing this book, I wanted to write a novel that asked: How can men be better feminists? What are men’s roles in this time of necessary cultural reckoning?

 

MARIE: What actions are you taking in this time of cultural reckoning? How are your actions, and the way you choose to act, shaped by your own identity?

 

BRENDAN: I love this question because it asks us writers to address the notion of accountability in our lives. Regardless of our intentions in telling the story, how do we live our lives?

As someone with a vast amount of social power and privilege, I’m white, male, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and not disabled, action is the language I’m accustomed to. That’s part of the privilege—I feel emboldened to act, I feel free to act. So though action is necessary, for those of us with these kinds of privileges, I think we should practice humility first and always. Choose to listen to the people in our lives, choose to listen so that we can better understand, but also so we can strengthen our empathetic hearts, instead of just telling myself, “here’s what I think I can (or should) do.” If I want to help create a more just and equitable world, before I act, I need to listen.

When my grandmother, a Catholic, and the matriarch of my predominantly Catholic family, read my first book, The Gospel of Winter, a novel about a 16-year-old boy struggling to decide whether or not he should tell people he’s been abused by his priest, I was nervous to hear what she thought. But she said, “Brendan, your book reminds me of Solomon asking God for a listening heart.” Her wisdom was profound and shook me to the core. In my life, my writing, my relationships, and all work I ever hope to do, I try to remind myself of her words, and strive to find, nurture, and practice, a “listening heart” before I act.

So rather than list the things I do (most of which are in organizations working toward more racial justice in various institutions), I’d rather emphasize the work I think we all need to do before we act: listening and believing the stories we hear—and for those of us who are men or white like me, particularly listen to and believe the stories of women and people of color, who have all too often been silenced or unheard.

 

MARIE: I love this wisdom! For readers who have been doing the careful work of developing this empathetic and listening heart, and who think they may be prepared for action, what’s your advice?

 

BRENDAN: I think it is important to remember that if we want to challenge established authority and status quo, there are inherent risks. It is dangerous to think we can affect change overnight, and it is dangerous to forget just how much work so many people have done before us in the work we hope to do today. Before joining or starting a movement, I think everyone should look through a few key texts to understanding to work, the cost, and the history. For example, one might check out these three graphic guides: A Brief History of Feminism by Patu, Antje Schrupp, and Sophie Lewis; March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell; and Introducing Feminism: A Graphic Guide by Cathia Jenainati and Judy Groves.

 

Brendan's Recommended Books (1)

 

And, after reflecting on the work that people have done before us, if you do choose to act, always act in a group, not alone. The most successful action is collective, not individual. By partnering and growing your numbers in your own organization, you can be a lot more effective in your community.

 

In my perfect world, there’d be a Feminist Club in every high school in America. So, if there isn’t already a Feminist Club at the school, I’d recommend students starting one from which to grow and connect to other organizations. And if there already is a Feminist Club, maybe consider researching the kind of actions other organizations (such as the ones below) have done or are already doing and either mirror those plans or find ways to partner with those organizations in your own school.

 

 

Ready to learn more and “strengthen our empathetic hearts”? Here are Brendan’s recommended reads

 

To get us started, Brendan recommend an excellent list of recent articles that “lay out the realities of sexual harassment and assault and rape culture”:

 

“#MeToo is a wakeup call: We need to talk to youth about sexual health and ethics” (Salon)

 

“The reckoning: Women and power in the workplace”  (New York Times)

 

“Your reckoning. And mine.” (The Cut)

 

“What does a lifetime of leers do to us?” (New York Times)

 

“#MeToo creator answers 10 questions and perfectly explains what the movement is all about” (UpWorthy)

 

“Stop telling us how to confront an epedimic of violence and abuse: Rebecca Solnit on the #MeToo backlash” (LitHub)

 

Brendan also points us all toward a couple of powerful feminist books:

 

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

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We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

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And, when you’re ready to take a break from the books, he’s got several fabulous suggestions for documentaries and videos:

 

The Mask You Live Ina Representation Project documentary about the construction of masculinity

 

Nanette – a stand-up comedy act by Hannah Gadsby

 

Why I’m done trying to be “man enough” – a TED talk by Justin Badoni

 

 “Regardless of our intention in telling the story, how do we live our lives?” Ready to take action?  Here are a few organizations doing great work:

 

Creating Consent Culture – An international movement that educates and enlightens the masses on sexual assault and holistic healing to end sexual violence once and for all.

 

Ultraviolet – A community of people mobilized to fight sexism and create a more inclusive world.

 

NOW Campus Action Network – Young feminists bringing activism to their schools and colleges.

 

TRADITION #RFCHead Back to School with #ReadForChange

If you’re hoping to head back to school with a free signed copy of Tradition, here’s a link to the giveaway. We’ll be announcing the winner on Twitter @MarieFMarquardt and Instagram marie_marquardt September 1!

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Marie Marquardt

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Women’s March, January 21, 2017

Marie Marquardt is the author of three YA novels: The Radius of UsDream Things True, and Flight Season. A Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Marie also has published several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives with her spouse, four kids, a dog and a bearded dragon in the book-lover’s mecca of Decatur, Georgia.

 

Things I Never Learned in Library School: Toxic Masculinity and Teaching Boys to Accept No for an Answer, Even in Our Libraries

The first time I ever learned what can happen when you tell a boy no and was afraid, I was a Sophomore in high school. A friend has asked me out and I told him no, I didn’t have those types of feelings for him. Later that night I did go out on a date, with someone else. I know he knew because he called me later to tell me in terrifying and no uncertain terms that he knew because he had sat at the end of my street. He could tell me when I left, who I was with, and when I returned home. He told me what he saw as he sat outside my house and I realized that this boy, whom I thought was my friend, was angry and that I was in danger.

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It happened again at the age of 17 when I got my first job at a movie theater. This time it was my boss, a man over the age of fifty.

It happened again in college.

We live in a world of toxic masculinity which tells boys that they are entitled to women and that women don’t get to say no. We live in a world where men get angry when women say no.

You can search the Internet and find story after story after story of how a woman came to harm because she told a man no.

A couple of years ago, two local boys took something from my then 7-year-old daughter and they held her down. She came home crying, full of fear, as she explained to me that they had asked to play with her toy, how she had told them no, and they had taken it any way. I went to the home of one of the boys and explained what had happened to one of the moms and she looked at me and said, “my boys would never do something like that.” I went home and told my husband that she was raising a rapist. And sure, it seems like an extreme reaction to what can be construed as a normal childhood interactions, but it’s also what happens when we raise boys to believe that they can take whatever they want and that there are no consequences for their actions.

It’s what happens when we try to wave away entitlement and bullying and abuse with a simple expression: boys will be boys.

There is a lot to dismantle in that phrase. In it is the idea that we think that boys have no self control. That rough and abusive behavior is just the way that boys are. That of course a boy should feel entitled, that’s just how boys are.

Part of it is patriarchy. I come from a deeply religious background. I have an undergraduate degree in youth ministry from a conservative Christian college. Many denominations actively teach both boys and girls that girls are less than boys and that the female must be subservient to the men. That they can’t say no.

In Utah, the recently held a school dance where the girls were told they can’t tell a boy no if they asked them to dance.

In a recent discussion on the Teen Services Underground, there was a discussion about a boy asking a girl out in the library and how she had said no and he retaliated. The story is complex, but in the comments one commentor even suggested that the girl should say no but soften the blow by saying something like, “I’m just not interested in dating right now.” The thing is, though I don’t advocate being outright rude, girls don’t have to justify their no. They don’t have to explain it away and make it better. No is a complete sentence. And honestly, sometimes trying to soften the blow does more damage than not because the messages can get mixed up.

We have to teach our boys to learn to accept no as an answer.

This is something the media is horrible about, even the YA books that we read. We romanticize the notion of pursuit, of wooing. If a girl says no, you pursue her until she says yes. We celebrate those stories.

When I was young and just started dating my husband, we used to argue about Romeo and Juliet. It’s so romantic I would say. But they both died he would say. But they died because they loved each other I would say. But they’re both dead he would say.

I understand more now what it was he was arguing for. What we are taught is romantic is often part of the problem. I internalized those messages for a really long time. But then the behavior of the men I said no to really started to terrify me. I realized it wasn’t romantic, it was scary and my well being was in jeopardy.

You become afraid to say no because sometimes what happens after the no is worse than what happens when you just give in and say yes; sometimes saying no is more dangerous than saying yes.

This is part of the nuanced conversations people are asking us to have about sexual harassment and sexual violence.

But at the foundation of all of this is toxic masculinity and how men internalize rejection.

For more on toxic masculinity, please check out Amanda MacGregor’s excellent post here.

This is one of the reasons as a teen/YA librarian I am an advocate for having policies and procedures in place and enforcing them. The policies and procedures should be reasonable and help everyone receive a maximum benefit from and safety in the library. But having rules and failing to enforce them, that can do more damage then having no rules at all. It’s a delicate balance enforcing rules and knowing when to let them slide and give grace, but letting them slide can be damaging. The thing is, we have to do the work of making sure we have the right rules, for the right reasons, and consistently enforce them.

Having and enforcing meaningful rules and boundaries helps our teens learn to accept a person’s no, even in libraries. Sometimes, our failures to have and consistently enforce meaningful boundaries for our patrons can contribute to our cultural problems. Sometimes telling a patron no and holding them accountable is the right answer. That’s not something we always like to talk about in libraries, but we should.