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Friday, 24 February 2017

Hidden Figures - A Review

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were very honored to have been invited by dear friends to the USC Scripter Awards. That evening, we struck up a conversation with a couple we encountered in one of the Library exhibits. Later, as the awards ceremony got underway, I realized that the woman with whom I'd so enjoyed discussing evening gowns and Virginia and Mexico was Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book, Hidden Figures. She was at the Scripter Awards as an honoree, along with the screenwriter for the film based on her work, which my family had just seen two nights before.

After dinner, Ed and I sought Margot and her husband Aran again so I could properly gush about her work. I had loved the movie, Hidden Figures - a deft weaving together of the threads from three of the women's lives, layered in the subtle and glaring racism, and painting a vivid picture of life as an educated, professional black woman in the early 1960s - but after the conversations we had with Margot and Aran, I was inspired to read the book.

I read on a kindle for 3am wake-ups, but I also splurged on the whispersync audiobook so I could listen while I drove, walked the dog, and cooked dinner. My younger son caught several parts of it on our drives to and from swim practice, and we sometimes sat in the car long after arriving home to finish the chapter. My older son heard the book on the way home from robotics, with the same fascination for the science and possibilities of the future that had gripped the women at NASA. 

Hidden Figures is a story about being black in America during a time of social upheaval, when resistance to change was almost as strong as the resistance to affect change. It's a story about being a woman in a world that needed women to work during the war, and then pushed back when they wanted to keep working. It's a story about fighting for an education in a world that offered few opportunities to those who weren't white and male. And it's a story about the grace, strength, and fierce determination it took to be a black women with math, science, and engineering skills, and a desire to make a difference to their country, their community, and their families, in a world that could only see their gender and the color of their skin.

“Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.” 

Margot Lee Shetterly spent six years peeling back the layers of their stories and reassembling them into a book that was bigger than the women and their journey, and yet so intimate and personal it felt like being allowed into someone's living room to listen to their tale first-hand. She then took the stories of the women and placed them against the backdrop of a time in America that our contemporary eyes can look back on with wonder and nostalgia, but also see, with deep, abiding shame, the injustice, the discrimination, the blatant racism that riddled the integrity of our democracy, as if the very foundation of our freedom was run through like wormwood.

"Who knew American democracy more intimately than the Negro people? They knew democracy’s every virtue, vice, and shortcoming, its voice and contour, by its profound and persistent absence in their lives. The failure to secure the blessings of democracy was the feature that most defined their existence in America."

One of the most striking elements of the book, which also permeated the film to great effect, was the unrelenting grace with which the women faced the adversities that seemed to come from every possible direction. In the face of educational discrimination, inherent workplace sexism, and overt racism, the black female mathematicians and engineers comported themselves with exceptional strength and dignity. The women knew that every step forward they took was one more step forward for their community, and any misstep could have the potential to set the community back with just as much impact.

Margot Lee Shetterly wrote an exceptional book. Her choice of language, her expression of ideas, her weaving of personal stories through the grand tapestry of the history of NASA - all were exquisitely wrought and vividly shared with the reader. Hidden Figures opened a door to a time I only knew by reputation, and it spoke its secrets with directness and honesty. And through the women's stories, the idea that stood out as a beacon among all the shining starpoints of light was at the heart of all that Hidden Figures stood for:

“Katherine Johnson knew: once you took the first step, anything was possible.”  - Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Libraries, Scripters, and Vanquishing Dragons

These are interesting times.

These are times that call for stories - all the stories. Fantasies for escape, romances for dreams, histories for lessons, fiction for truths, fairy tales for strength, and comedies for the will to climb out of bed and face each day.

I've been reading Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats in bite-sized chunks. It's a library book that I keep on the table between the Moroccan sofas on which my boys sprawl (boys don't sit - they sprawl) when the TV is on, Sometimes the best way to connect with busy boys is to put myself in the same room with them. And if I can't convince them to watch an episode of Sherlock or Poldark with me (the face that's made when Poldark is suggested is approximately equivalent to a "the dog just farted on me" face) - that's usually when I pick up Gaiman's book.

I find Neil Gaiman to be ridiculously and excessively quotable. Perhaps he's just that relevant, or maybe he has found access to channeling the deepest, least-able-to-be-coherent thoughts of most of the literate world. In any case, I find that he always says what I mean.

For example, this - from his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard:

        We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.
        And that is why we write.

The last book in my YA time travel series was published in January, and a couple of readers have written me to say that some things I wrote really resonated with them. One reader thanked me for writing a Jewish character, because she could see herself in my books. Another reader appreciated my young heroine's growing confidence with her own feminism, and can't wait until her daughter is old enough to read the books herself. These are the highest compliments anyone could give me as an author, and the generosity of my readers blows me away. I'm not sure why I'm so stunned that others can find their own stories in what I've written - I've done the same thing with books my whole reading life. I wasn't a musical prodigy forbidden from my instrument because of my gender, like Menolly was in Anne McCaffery's Dragonsinger, but her defiance was mine when I tried out for the boys' basketball team because there wasn't one for girls. I didn't accidentally impress a clutch of fire lizards who hatched during a storm to become her most loyal friends, but my own most loyal friendships felt just as accidental and impetuous, and I still feel the magic and wonder of them.

When I graduated from eighth grade, the librarian at my elementary school gave me the school's copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths because I had checked it out twice a year, every year, since fourth grade. The Trinity Library in Dublin is my idea of what heaven looks, feels, and smells like, and I just visited the British Library in London, where the original Magna Carta is on display just a few feet away from the handwritten lyrics of The Beatles. These things all speak to my soul. I find myself in libraries. My curiosity grows wings, my questions find a multitude of possibilities, and the words of the dead find new life in my imagination. Libraries are the places where stories have caretakers who share their gifts with anyone who seeks them.

Libraries are repositories of the ideas that, once written, no amount of censorship, or book-burning, or budget cuts will ever take away. Ideas burrow into our minds, and weave their ways into our hearts where they sprout and grow big enough to catch the light and shimmer in the sun. When our stories contain hope, they give hope, when our heroines are strong and our battles are just, they inspire strength and a desire for justice. When children read fairy tales, they learn they can vanquish dragons, and just believing something is possible is the first step to making it so.

My husband and I are very privileged to be able to attend the USC Scripter Awards this weekend. It's my favorite awards event of the season, and not just because it's the ultimate date night in black tie and an evening gown. The Scripter Awards are about stories and storytellers - and the awards honor the screen and television writers as well as the authors of the original source material. But even more than that (and that's pretty much the pinnacle as far as this author is concerned), the Scripters is an event to fund-raise for the USC Libraries.

These times are as uncertain as they are interesting, and common wisdom holds that savers will fare better than borrowers when uncertainty strikes. But what if the savers are the ones who protect the information from the ones who would borrow against our future? Who knew that the next romantic hero could be a rogue park ranger who refused to be censored? Or that the artwork of a resistance could be so powerful? The writers and the thinkers, the artists and the scientists - they make the work that fills our libraries. But libraries aren't bunkers for books. They're living, breathing, transforming spaces that require infusions of new ideas and technologies to progress and evolve.

My eighth-grader and I took a tour of his prospective high school campus the other day, and even more striking than the new pool, the robotics and STEM wing, and the art gallery, was the library. It was literally the heart of the campus - the center around which all other wings radiated. Everything was circular, and in the middle was a space for students to gather and share ideas, to work on projects, to research and discuss and learn. It was a place to read, but much more than that, in the best tradition of all libraries everywhere, it was a place to seek and discover oneself among the pages.

Einstein once said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Go to the library. Give to the library. Find your fairy tales there, and let them inspire you to reach beyond the dragons of fear and uncertainty. Because not only do fairy tales teach us about those dragons, but they tell us how to beat them.