There have been undercurrents for the past few months reacting to the forthcoming When We Was Fierce written by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo (Candlewick). Charlton-Trujillo’s previous novels include Feels Like Home (Random House/Delacorte), Prizefighter En Mi Casa (Random House/Delacorte) and Fat Angie (Candlewick Press; ALA Stonewall Award Winner). Charlton-Trujillo is known for her realistic fiction that presents struggling, marginalized characters. Of late, she’s grown a reputation for traveling the country working with urban teens to teach them how to express their voices in writing. She’s also created a documentary film, “At Risk Summer”.
While many, too many, reviewers have praised When We Was Fierce for its language, many are finding the story—particularly its language—as a problematic portrayal of the African American community. During an email exchange with Jenn Baker regarding the book, I asked if she would be able to write a review for this blog. She agreed and her work follows.
This books raises many concerns regarding how African Americans are still being portrayed in children’s literature, how language, an expression of a culture’s perceptions and of its power, is stripped bare and reconstituted according to the author’s whim. This is an egregious act to perpetrate upon an existing culture in a contemporary society. Yet, it has been done and it has been praised.
Let’s spend the next few days, or however long it takes, exploring this book and how it’s being seen by members of the African American community. Let’s collectively consider the power of language, the representation of age old stereotypes and the dynamics that accurately reflect the African American community because African American lives do matter and while we do all agree that we need more diverse books, we need to be wise enough to understand we need quality over quantity, we need accuracy over mockery. Otherwise, we’ll continue to marginalize African Americans, and this same concept holds true for all people of color, those in the LGBTQIA community, Native Americans and those with disabilities.
Jenn’s review is here today. There will be another review posted tomorrow, and several coordinating pieces on Reading While White. We hope to maintain a dialog that will explore issues presented through this book and to collectively move us forward.
Thank you Jenn, for making the time to write a review that considers and explores much of what makes this book problematic.
[note: all references are made to an advance copy of the book.]
When We Was Fierce (by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo) focuses on and is narrated in the Brokenest of Manifested English (examples to come) by T aka Theodore (or as I like to call him T-Bone). At the start of the book T-Bone is hanging with his friends Catch (or as I shall call him Catch Me If You Can, the resident hothead of the group), Yo-Yo (whom I like to refer to as Puddin’, the softie to Catch Me’s hard a**), and Jimmy (aka Hoop Dreams, who also has a “grimy” girlfriend or so the narrator pigeonholes her for the reader). The group watches as Ricky-Ricky (I call him Pretty Ricky, the resident lackey with a stutter we’re to feel sympathy for) attempts to talk to a rival gang thereby getting jumped. This sets off an unsavory chain of events leading to more jumping, people like T-Bone being marked, and others getting “flat-fixed” (aka murdered). Not only that but Pretty Ricky’s beat down ultimately escalates and incites a gang war. As it turns out, the head of the gang the Jives (aptly named considering the speech construction) and Pretty Ricky’s tormentor is T’s older brother, whom I imagine is parodying Tupac’s overzealous rabble-rouser in Juice. The rest of the book resorts to your usual tropes/stereotypes of what one assumes is a “gang banger” life for an all Black cast. We have the wise veteran; the impregnated teenage girl who aspires to more; the hardened yet fragile single mom working multiple jobs in the ‘hood; the abusive (albeit seemingly alcoholic father figure); multiple casualties; kids who are interested in basketball, DJing, graffiti; one-dimensional love interests strategically placed for being possible love interests; racist cops (aka “Pigs”); someone ending up in the penitentiary to make up for their sins; as well as a Come to Jesus moment and a quick Hail Mary save for the protagonist/narrator.
And let me not forget that there is also a scene with a literal whipping of a teen to the back (pp. 123-124). If Pinky (the abuser) is in fact a white man than this symbolism is not lost on me and further reflects the down and out, violent, and abusive history of Blacks When We Was Fierce leans on to show the “hard knock life” that is, apparently, so ingrained in Black culture that no one can escape it or has no choice but to accept this fate.
Beyond the overly clichéd characterizations my biggest issue with this text is the audacity in the constructed Ebonics. It’s not only inconsistent, it’s abhorrent without much understanding or even consideration for the structure of Ebonics (aka African American Vernacular English, AAVE). In this text the author goes beyond to present, as I said, the Brokenest of Manifested English to be perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as “real.” This narration strikes me as deeply offensive and extremely hard to read without having to re-read, not for interest but for comprehension.
Here are some examples of the Brokenest of Manifested English in When We Was Fierce. If you can decipher much of this, I salute you.
Brothers get beat down
fifty-nine times worse
and got their sneaks under
the kitchen table for meal same night. (p. 49)
Broad on the daylight (p. 67)
I was midspeak when I got an interrupt. (p. 73)
My think go to racing (p. 82)
So, you aren’t worried about Catch in speak with Nacho? (p. 129)
We just holdin’ time. (p. 129)
Don’t talk slaves to me. (p. 7)
Text like “speak” and “think” and “truth” are not used in a way that recognizes it’s tense and form in a sentence’s construction. When you read lines with “my speak, our speak, her speak” (not my speech, her speech, our words) and “my think” (I dunno why “My thoughts started racing” isn’t enough in this instance) are not cohesive in any way. I find it incredibly hard to believe that not only do the children/teens in this book speak this way all the time but so do the adults (notable exceptions are the cops).
Looking at slang such as “chill,” “woke,” and “I’m dead” they all have stirrings in textual cues that make their meaning evident. These terms adhere to the basics of American English grammar while adding a particular zest and definition to the urbanized vocabulary. The narration in Fierce shows a blatant disregard and lazy vocabulary creation that’s continually insulting in the hopes that it’s avant garde. This linguistic framework of butchery is new, the attempt to create new sounds is not.
Let’s look at other examples of speech in texts by Jason Reynolds and Mitchell S. Jackson from “down and out” Black protagonists that retains slang and doesn’t attempt to reinvent, or slur, the wheel. And thus sounds/feels/is more realistic and in line with AAVE giving a strong voice to the protagonist by not resorting to caricatures of perceived “uneducated” Black youths.
When I Was The Greatest
“You moused up, man!”
“Aight. Well, let’s start from the beginning. Why did they jump Needles? Last I checked, he was chilling in the corner, out of the way.” (p. 152)
The Residue Years
Homeboy’s all of five feet nothing—no lie, we’re talking centimeters off a certified dwarf. With hands no good for shooting pool or poker…” (p. 25)
Take my girl: She’s a good woman, one of the best I’ve been with…., but sometimes, no lie, I wish instead of always accusing me, always threatening me, instead of doing that, I wish sometimes she’d just leave.
Not threatens to bounce, but sashays right out of my life for good, those lustrous tresses waving good-bye, so long; have a cursed life. (p. 146)
See the difference?
In terms of structure, the attempt at a novel-in-verse is not cognizant of the format. Understandably these forms of narration are “hot” right now, but they’re “hot” because of the poise and control those who have used it applied to personal and not, here’s that word again, stereotypical stories (e.g., Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Margarita Engle most recently). When We Was Fierce would’ve been slightly better in straight prose.
Here’s an example of the disruptive break in this text in “verse.”
When We Was Fierce
Catch ain’t said one thing all the way over
from his place. We ain’t say nothing either.
Gotta respect a brother after a beatin’ like
that. (p. 126)
Here’s a section from Kwame Alexander’s Booked for comparison’s sake of how/when it works. (Keep in mind Booked is close 2nd person while Fierce is 1st person narration.):
The library door
just as you and Coby arrive.
The twins grit hard. (p. 41)
Also, there’s the attempts at dramatics at the end of every chapter in Fierce which, after a while for an almost 400 page tome, wears on you and relies too much on the heaviness to invoke feelings of concern from the reader:
I think Catch in edge. I
think we all was.
We just couldn’t know it yet.
Not in the way that would make me know to
r u n . (p. 147)
Going back to Booked, Alexander uses this method of emphasis sparingly so it has more effect when it does show up:
Shut up, she fires back,
and gives him a shove
that only makes him laugh more,
and makes you
WANNA. SHUT. HIM. UP. (p. 104)
When We Was Fierce is also hard to finish based on the affronting conventions and portrayals of Blacks in the ‘hood. As I mentioned in the plot summary, each character serves their purpose. In all honesty, this book made me think of a mash up of Juice and Boyz N’ the Hood based on the general premise, the quartet of boys, as well as the lives lost and the thinly rendered female characters. Hilda and Monica (T-Bone’s mother and sister, respectively) get the most screen time but don’t stretch beyond images we’ve seen before. Hilda being the new widow wanting to protect her children and Monica the honor student who “unfortunately” and “accidentally” got impregnated. Nia, the underutilized love interest and “urban” manic pixie dream girl, serves one purpose and one purpose only: to give T-Bone someone to talk to and admire beyond the sketchier ladies buzzing around that he judges harshly. For someone who says he likes to “feel up some girls” I lose sympathy and empathy for T-Bone and his crew with this permissive “boys will be boys” attitude towards young women.
We’re told so much more than we’re shown. No one really “gets out” of where they are and I have no inkling beyond a few convos of what people want is not to die on any given day. Now, that’s a suitable life goal, but this also adds to the bevy of texts we already of have books with perception of gang life, or urban life, of ‘hood life for African Americans in particular with little levity that also utilizes the worn-out interests of partying, sex, and power. The simplest things can be the strongest and Fierce misses the mark without allowing T-Bone to be anything but physically hurt or rage filled, but mostly he is an observer and descriptor in a language that pushes us as readers away rather than bringing us in to who he is and wants to be.
Here’s an example from When We Was Fierce of the protagonist’s attempt to woo Nia:
When we hit the door, I kick attention to Nia.
Smile out real large.
And know this: she didn’t give me much,
But I think she into my step. (p. 110)
Here’s an example from, you guessed it, Booked of the main character talking to his friend about how to approach the girl he likes:
Just for a minute. I don’t know what to say.
Just talk about the weather or something.
Nick, it ain’t that deep. Talk about what you know.
Yeah, talk to her about the Dallas Cup.
Good idea, but what if she thinks it’s boring?
Then she’s crazy, in which case you don’t want her anymore. (p. 130)
What adds to the perception of the characters in this story being marionettes is the quick and not at all insightful references to Black Lives Matter and those lost. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray are brought up as a way to show anger by citizens and a distrust in the “po-lice” (author’s spelling, not mine). However, Fierce does not recognize that there’s always been a deeper distrust there and to throw out the names of these deceased without any real discussion/understanding on the long-standing issues between state and citizens is irresponsible and frankly dismissive of the larger problem of anti-Blackness. It feels like a carrot dangled to make the characters seem more real but for those of us living this life and this fear in real time it’s another flippant element in a text rife with insult and lack of awareness.
This review is already longer than I’d like, yet I have so much more to say. I’ll leave it at this and with the note that, on a personal level, I was incredibly hurt by the depictions in this text, particularly the jive-ish, broken language. Having provided sensitivity reads where Black characters sounded like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind and then this in a kid’s books it makes me realize how much work there is to be done. And while I assume much trust was put into the author’s work because of her own marginalization as well as occasional work with Black teens, it doesn’t dismiss how off-the-mark this work is in scope and execution. And it doesn’t dismiss that throughout the whole creation and production process not one person recognized, or sought council/feedback potentially, from Black people to see how this would make members of this community feel. Thinking of the young reader demographic I’d like someone to sit back and consider work created by so many marginalized artists that seeks to show an alternative while also showing truth and tell me if you would actually feel comfortable showing When We Was Fierce to a group of Black children and saying ‘This is how I see you.’ How much do these reflections really say more about the state of publishing rather than the state of progress where the industry I work in continues to covet Black pain?
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, panel organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Poets & Writers magazine, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to Forbes.com and Bustle among other online publications.