Yesterday was a big day for me. I submitted my first query for the manuscript I just finished (so now you know why I haven’t posted in the last year or so…writing), and my husband was taking us out to dinner to celebrate. Then Cover to Cover, our new independent children’s bookstore, announced Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely would both be visiting. Because my husband loves me, he rescheduled our dinner reservations. I emailed all the writers I know at the high school, but, as I suspected, you were all swamped with homework (Assigning so much homework kids don’t have time to see an amazing author visit is a subject for another post). So I want to share with you the incredibly valuable things these writers said.
Brendan, a graduate of my alma mater Miami University, spoke about what he said love really is—learning to listen. To be truly present with someone and just hear them, without trying to fix anything or make excuses, this kind of listening, he urged, is something we urgently need today. Even in the neighborhood where we live—predominantly white and wealthy, conversations are beginning to unfold about diversity and, beyond that, equity. On the news we continue to hear daily reports of violence against people of color, of sexual harassment allegations, of conflict fueled by subverted religious convictions, and people crying out to be allowed to be both themselves and safe. When we wonder what we can do, Brendan urges we listen.
Perhaps this is why, as he described, he is trying to write a new kind of story. The individual hero is an age-old tradition in storytelling. Brendan explains he is writing, instead, stories of collectives working for the common good. It reminded me of Buffy and the Scooby Gang. It reminded me of all the times I am frustrated with my community, and my husband says, “What would Barack say?” Organize. We've seen a lot of that happening in the last year and a half. Brendan and Jason model in their friendship exactly this—a coming together based on listening that makes positive change.
This is why I asked about their advice for us, as a community, but their response speaks to a radius far greater than the blocks I drive through when I take my daughter to school. Their words are words for our country, our time, our world. Before I tell you what they said, let me give you a bit of their backstory, because they are living their words.
First Some Backstory
A couple of years ago, Brendan and Jason were put on a book tour together. Reports of police brutality hung in the air like a smog. It wasn’t the polite thing to talk about, but these are two people who don’t dwell on pretense. As they joked last night, “Hope you came here for a little discomfort, right?” They broke the silence, they listened, and they forged a friendship. The last time I saw Jason speak, I asked him how he was able to have what had to have been some hard conversations with Brendan in order to write All American Boys. His answer? Brendan listened. He listened, and he didn’t try to fix me or make it better. Last night, Jason explained it was Brendan who had the idea for All American Boys—their novel in which two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a violent act that leaves their community divided by racial tension. Brendan reached out: what if we wrote this? Jason trusted him: You better show up. Now, with their book, they travel listening to kids across the country.
So, their advice? Everything, Brendan said, is about authentic relationships. Have authentic relationships. Yesterday I also read an interview of Bryan Stevenson in which he challenged white people who want to make a difference to “get into proximity” with the issue. Our town is pretty darn white, but diversity is not nonexistent here. In the school parking lot, in the bleachers, in the grocery store, have we really reached out—not with an agenda, but as human beings—to say hello, to start friendships with people who are different from ourselves? Authentic relationships.
Welcome People As They Are
And Jason’s advice. You want to make your community more welcoming, welcome people as they really are. Referring to himself as the only black person in the room, he let us in on something. He said, when he’s around other black people, word is white people don’t really want black people to show up as they really are, that we can’t handle a real conversation about race. Jason said he can only show up as himself. To do otherwise would be an insult to himself, but also an insult to the white people in the room. His advice is welcome people as they really are.
Why do I share all this with you? To the young people, it was agreed upon in the bookstore last night that kids are listening, they do not tolerate fake, and they need to be listened to. Because of this, you are a valuable resource in the conversations unfolding. To everyone working in our community for change, I simply want to pass on the wise words and stories of two people who are living what we’re hoping to achieve. It was a small, small group of people at the bookstore last night taking advantage of the human treasure that is these two men and their friendship. Why not a community read? Why not an invitation to have them back to speak as a part of the Upper Arlington Author Series?
The Unparalleled Power of Stories
Lastly, why does a post like this show up on my author website? In her book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the protagonist of a story is our portal into another world. Scientific research has shown, when we experience what the protagonist experiences, the same parts of our brain light up as would react if we were in that situation in real life. We have essentially slipped on this character’s skin and are walking around in their shoes. We may say to ourselves, “That feels different than I thought it would,” or “Maybe we are more alike than I thought.” In this way, story rewires our brains for empathy, and we are changed. This, Lisa Cron says, is the unparalleled power of story. These listeners who spoke last night are storytellers. Their books enable us to slip into lives different than our own. That sounds like a pretty powerful form of listening to me.