Little Willow rounded up a number of readergirlz to discuss our February pick, No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia.
Lorie Ann Grover: No Laughter Here was brought to the divas' attention by rgz SALON member Sharon Levin. She issued a challenge: "This is the kind of book that should be featured at rgz!" We instantly got our hands on a copy and agreed. The protagonist is younger than we usually feature, but we believe the writing is exquisite, and the topic must be brought to light and discussed. Kudos to Rita for her contribution and publisher Amistad, HarperCollins for giving it voice!
Shelf Elf: I think this is such a good pick for readergirlz because it's a book that begs to be talked about. It touches so many themes that can connect to girls' lives, no matter where they come from: growing up, following your parents' wishes, being strong and supporting your friends, forming your own opinions and taking action. It certainly inspired me to find out more about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), and to think about the place of rite of passage rituals in society.
Holly Cupala: I think this book reflects what readergirlz is all about: gutsy girls in life and lit. I hope girls will pick this one up and be inspired.
Little Willow: What would you do if your friend had a drastic personality change?
Shelf Elf: Worry and then try to get to the bottom of it.
Little Willow: I would do the same. I think I'm a pretty good sense of character and mood, and I always check in with people when I sense something's wrong with them.
Holly: I could relate to Akilah's approach - trying to engage her friend and bumbling through it a little bit, worrying and being frustrated, but in the end showing her true friendship. I would hope to just skip to the true friendship part, though!
Lorie Ann: Definitely confront them with gentleness and concern.
Little Willow: Definitely. I never pry - if they want to talk, they'll talk - I just let the person (or people) know that I'm there if they need an ear or a shoulder. If your friend clearly had a secret that was weighing heavily on his or her shoulders, would you try to find out what it was? Would you respect his or her privacy?
Lorie Ann: I'd make sure my friend knew I was available to share the load but not pry beyond that. I loved how Akilah sat quietly next to Victoria.
Holly: I agree, there's a fine line between supporting your friends and respecting their privacy. I think it would depend on the existing relationship. First I would worry a lot, like Shelf Elf! But then I would let the friend know I would be there to support her and am willing to listen. If it was someone I was very close to, I would dig deeper.
Shelf Elf: I would try to find out what was on her mind, because I'd feel like I was not supporting her if I didn't at least ask if she needed help or needed to talk. Talking to someone who cares about me has always made a difference whenever I've faced a problem in my life, so I'd want to be able to offer that to her, as an option. In the end, I would respect her privacy because I believe that there isn't just one way to deal with something and what might work for me (sharing my worries) wouldn't necessarily work for my friend.
Little Willow: How do you feel about what was done to Victoria in No Laughter Here? Would you do such a thing if it was your family, your culture, your tradition?
Lorie Ann: It breaks my heart. Even knowing it is a cultural act does not soften my reaction to it. I just can't accept it. No, I would not participate if I had any power.
Holly: To be honest, I didn't want to read the book at first because I knew all the questions it would raise: how can we deeply understand another culture? Is there a universal line that shouldn't be crossed? Who am I to judge? All of that went out the window as Victoria's story was revealed. And I felt sick to my stomach. Angry. Heartbroken. I wonder that a mother could make that choice - there is almost nothing I wouldn't do to protect my child.
Shelf Elf: I find it really hard to think about what happened to Victoria without focusing entirely on how it was traumatic for her. I know that this ceremony is a part of her culture, and I think it is important to remember that as an outsider to that tradition, it might be easier to take a firm stance against the practice of female circumcision, because I am not tied up in what my community and family might believe is important. Answering from my heart, I regard this ritual as brutal, and the idea of it completely horrifies me. It disturbs me that any girl would be forced to go through this at an age when she is not given any power to choose for herself. I just wanted to reach into the story and take hold of Victoria's hand.
Little Willow: Was it difficult or uncomfortable for you to read this book or to discuss it now?
Lorie Ann: The book was only uncomfortable in that it raised my anger about FGM. I didn't find I was embarrassed to speak of it, but I was emboldened to shout.
Shelf Elf: This book made me want to talk about FGM with other people, because I think it is so difficult to try to work out your opinion on such a complicated issue without getting other points of view. It was challenging, that's for sure, because it made me angry and then made me question whether cultural sensitivity is possible in all situations.
Holly: Exactly! While reading the book, I looked up as much as I could about FGM and am glad to have a chance to discuss it with other readers.
Little Willow: How can we heighten awareness of certain practices some may think outdated or strange while respecting cultures that feel such things necessary, or wonderful, or holy?
Lorie Ann: I think it's very difficult to draw the line of demarcation between ritual and suppression. Obviously, we must do so at certain points, cannibalism for an example. Finding the motive behind the act can be a help. As well as searching for damage to individuals who don't have a choice.
Shelf Elf: I think that it comes down to getting information out there, in a way that is as non-judgmental and respectful as possible. How can people decide what is right for them, for their families and communities, unless girls and women who have undergone FGM share their experiences and perspectives. I think it's their voices that need to be heard, because they can speak with a deep understanding of their own cultures.
Holly: Respect and sensitivity are key, especially in challenging ideology.When researching the subject, I was amazed to discover its prevalence in so many cultures and religions. What is it about women's bodies that inspires so much fear, that it would result in rituals of mutilation? Ms. Williams-Garcia challenges the practice with such courage and grace.
Little Willow: I always say I respect the rights of others to do or say whatever they like as long as they don't hurt themselves or anyone else. I freely admit that I worry about people or groups that do things that could kill themselves or others - especially kids - anything that puts lives in danger makes me really worried. With traditions and beliefs, where do you draw the line?
Lorie Ann: I really think the line has to be drawn at harm to self or others who don't have a voice.
Holly: I agree, absolutely.
Shelf Elf: This is such a complicated question. How do we measure what is most important: a girl's right to make choices about her sexual freedom versus a culture's long-held traditions? Also, what happens to girls who do not undergo this ritual? What place do they take in their society? In my view, it's an issue of fundamental rights for children - to be protected from harm, physical and emotional.
Little Willow: Do you feel as though you belong to a certain culture? Do you wish you knew more about your heritage, or other cultures?
Holly: I don't realize how much my culture shows until I contrast it with others - which, being part of a mixed-race/culture couple, is often! I always find it fascinating how people around the globe can share values but have entirely different ways of living them out in practice.
Lorie Ann: I don't have a strong sense of culture as a Caucasian U.S. citizen. Although, I do identify with southern culture a bit. It would be nice to grab hold of and experience my Swiss and German background. But it would feel contrived for me to do so in some ways.
Shelf Elf: It's practically a joke the way Canadians are always trying to define and describe Canadian culture. I can't say that I do feel like I belong to one particular culture. I have a strong, loving family, with traditions that we value, but I don't feel that they're tied much to a certain culture. Someday I'd like to know more about my family tree, my grandparents and great-grandparents. I've always been envious of people who have a stronger sense of their histories and of the cultures of their ancestors.
Little Willow: Akilah and Victoria value the meanings of their names, and so do I. I love my name, and I cherish the ownership of my name. You see, I go by a derivative of the first name I was given at birth. I was quite tiny when I selected my nickname and its spelling. What does your name mean? Do you consider that meaning often, or at all? Do you think your name suits you?
Lorie Ann: I guess not as I had to go look it up again: Laurel Grace Keeper of the Trees. I hope that it suits me somewhat. Books are made from trees. :~)
Little Willow: My online username is tree-based!
Holly: I'm a tree, too! My middle name means precious, beautiful, light. I almost changed my name when I moved because I think identities are so tied up in names, and I was ready to change mine. In the end, though, I am who I am. I worked a job for a little while where I had to have a unique first name. There was already a Holly, so I had to choose something else - a variation of my middle name. So there are still some people who call me Lane.
Shelf Elf: I'm named after a county in Ireland, since my dad was born there. I haven't visited County Kerry, but it sure is gorgeous and green in all the pictures I've seen and someday I'd love to go. I like that my name ties me to my father's past. The name Kerry means "the dark one," which has always cracked me up, like I'm Darth Vader's long lost cousin or something. I can't say there's much dark about me - in appearance or temperament.
Little Willow: Now I'm tempted to sing the Star Wars theme song. Did any of you undergo any coming-of-age ceremonies? Sweet Sixteen, bat mitzvah - anybody? I didn't, but I did have great birthday parties when I turned three and ten.
Holly: Not that I recall - though sixteen was a tumultuous age. I felt like I changed a lot that year.
Lorie Ann: No, I had no coming-of-age ceremonies. Although, I felt it happened when my father left our family.
Shelf Elf: Nope. I did get a beautiful gift on my sixteenth birthday, but there wasn't really ceremony involved.
Little Willow: I ate rice with cream of mushroom soup on my sixteenth birthday. That was my lunch today, too. Have any of you read Rita's other novels, Every Time a Rainbow Dies or Like Sisters on the Home Front?
Lorie Ann: No, I haven't, but I can't wait to read them!
Holly: I look forward to reading them.
Shelf Elf: I haven't - but now they're all on my list!
Little Willow: Closing thoughts?
Lorie Ann: Many thanks to Rita for presenting this important work in such a powerful way!
And thanks to Little Willow for organizing and moderating the discussion! Check out the full issue here, and come chat about this powerful book at the readergirlz forum!