(T)Racing Finnish children’s books with Mona Eid

Marianna Koljonen

’Everyone is allowed to write whatever they want about whomever they want as far as I am concerned’, tells Mona Eid, Head of Administration at Ruskeat Tytöt (’Brown Girls’) writing Academy. Ruskeat tytöt aims to educate and empower racialized non-whites by writing fictional and non-fiction texts. I have just asked her how she feels about white people writing about immigration and racialized groups. This is a very current topic, since there has been a lot of discussion in the United States about this and quite a few are of the opinion that only blacks are allowed to write about blacks. ’As long as the writer is careful about not reinforcing stereotypes’ she adds emphasisingly. We drink coffee in the Moomin Café in Helsinki, close to the headquarters of Ruskeat Tytöt Media and Academy. We discuss various topics ranging from anti-racism in children’s literature to the representation of racialized groups and individuals in literature as well as in society.

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Mona Eid

Mona is a teacher and a journalist who currently works at Ruskeat Tytöt and University of Helsinki. She is enthusiastic about representations and their critical evaluation and follows the field of immigrant and racialized peoples’ representation in literature, childrens’ literature in particular. Eventhough our topics are severe and grave, Mona talks about them cheerily and professionally.

In Finland, no childrens’ books have been written about immigration by an immigrant so far. This is of course a serious shortcoming, however, Mona says that the background of the writer isn’t the most important aspect. She thinks it is more important to critically and constantly evaluate the writer’s own position and to be cautious of ”the white gaze”.

White gaze means looking at the world through a white person’s eyes. It is a world as told by white people for white people. Therefore, writers and illustrators of childrens’ books, and eveyone else for that matter, should ask themselves questions like: What do I know about this that isn’t a stereotype? How do I know this is true? Could someone else, from a different position and background, feel differently about this? Here Mona refers to writer Chimamanda Adichie who has talked a lot about how impressionable and vulnerable people, especially children, are to stories. Stories make up the world for children. In western countries, there is an abundance of stories written by and about white people which is why we don’t think all white people are the same. However, Asian, African and Latino people, as well as minorities living in Western countries, tend to be marginalized under one single story, a stereotype. Stereotypes are incomplete, they emphasize differences, highlight negative aspects and rob people of their dignity.

In Finland, the history of recognizing, and especially challenging, the white gaze is relatively new. If the white gaze goes unrecognized, it can lead or leads to colour-blindness, a tendency to ignore or discount discrimination and its effects. One example of colour-blindness can be found in the Finnish public school system, which, as Mona states, aims to treat everyone the same and insists on not seeing the skin colour or the race of pupils. This is something I recognise in myself, I don’t want to think about the skin colour because I don’t want to be racist. And because I, as a white female, do not encounter or even witness racism, it makes it difficult to understand how much it affects racialized people’s lives.

As I talk with Mona, however, it becomes alarmingly clear how widespread racism is and how it exists on individual level as well as in societal structures like schools. This, in turn, effects the pupils. For example, teachers recommend less challenging careers and occupations to young racialized people than their white peers, Mona tells me. Sometimes the racism comes very close to the schools in another way. A shocking example of this was the anti-islamist protest in front of a Helsinki secondary school in 2017 which was warranted by the police in the name of freedom of speech.

That is why Mona calls for anti-racistic pedagogy into Finnish school system, she wants to provide all children with the skills for recognising and stripping down racistic hierarchies. Everyone needs to be educated, not just minorities, she adds.

Anti-rasist approach is also needed in childrens’ literature. Mona says that immigrants and people of colour are still placed in the category of ’the Other’ in Finnish childrens’ books. Racialized characters have almost always been born outside Finland and thus represent first generation immigrants. That does not resonate with many actual brown children in Finland, many of whom have been born in Finland and regard themselves as Finnish. Furthermore, the depiction of racialized children has mainly relied on stereotypes, and if the children themselves are portrayed without stereotypical features, it’s very likely that their parents are not. They remain representatives of a foreign and exotic culture. Nina Hakalahti’s Tuukka-Omar books are one example of this phenomenon. Tuukka-Omar is an eight-year-old boy whose mother is Finnish and father Syrian. Tuukka-Omar is an ordinary child with ordinary issues but his father has a flying carpet and smokes a water pipe like a character from One Thousand and One Nights. Stereotypes do not limit to children’s literature, of course. Laura Lindstedt’s Finlandia Prize winner Oneiron also raised the issue of how she has depicted the racialized characters stereotypically in her work.

So, what kind of childrens’ literature is needed in Finland according to Mona? It seems like the answer is all sorts: Books that depict a multicultural and multiethnic Finland and show that all Finns are not only blue-eyed blondes. Books that do not make a fuss about race but instead deal with completely other issues. And books that do take a stance on racism, show racism and what it means and books that are anti-racist. Moreover, it is important for brown children and young adults to have books that reinforce their identity and they can identify themselves with. For example, there has seen a rise in English speaking literature that celebrates black, curly hair and gives tips to how to manage and take care of curls. No one should grow up hating or being embarrased about their hair or skin colour, Mona says. As a teenager, Mona too was desperately looking for images and stories of people who looked like her in Finland. That is why there is also Ruskeat Tytöt media, ’an ordinary media from brown people to brown people’, covering topics from fashion and beauty to culture and politics.

As long as there is a treshold to cross through, brown people, especially girls, women and other genders outside normative male, separatist spaces like Brown Girls’ writing Academy are still needed. Writing Academy project creates a safe space that is also inexpensive, enabling unprivileged girls and people who have suffered abuse and hatred to attend.

Empowering young, racialized women and people outside gender binary is an important part of the project but teaching writing and critical literacy and to lower the threshold for future writers is equally important. The aim is not to educate representatives of minority groups who will, in time, write about minority groups and immigration but to enable future writers to learn about writing good literature and making good journalism. However, Mona doesn’t promote maintaining separative structures and spaces forever. They should be just one of the stepping stones on the way to a future where they are no longer needed. For a future where everyone is allowed to exist in literature and in society, which is one of the values at the heart of IBBY. Another core value is that literature should teach something new, open new windows and worlds, and that is not achieved by repeating the same story and representation over and over again. Any great writer can achieve this, and greatness can come from anywhere.

About Ruskeat Tytöt

Ruskeat Tytöt started as a blog under the same name and was written by Koko Hubara, a published author and a journalist. The writing school project received funding from three foundations (Kone foundation, Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation and Finnish Cultural Foundation)  in a Builders of the Century challenge. It is targeted towards 14-29 year olds that are racialized in the Finnish context: the Same, the Roma, people of African, Arab and Asian descent and also Russian and Estonian people. So far, Ruskeat Tytöt has launched a 6-month-long class for creative writing in Helsinki with four published, brown authors instructing them. Finished texts are published e.g. in Ruskeat Tytöt media and possibly by publishing house S&S. In autumn 2018 Ruskeat Tytöt will host a class for journalism and writing non-fiction texts. In 2019 Ruskeat Tytöt spreads out to the city of Turku.

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Ruskeat Tytöt also offers various short-term workshops for writing. Hassan Blasim has instructed asylum seeking men and Warda Ahmed has instructed cartoon making at Tyttöjen talo (’Girls’ House’) in Vantaa during ’Women of Colour’ day.

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