Ann: I am very pleased to speak with Alex Gino, the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of George (Scholastic 2015), about their new release, You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! The book has already received three starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and the School Library Journal. For more information, visit their website at alexgino.com. Be sure to follow Alex’s #30DeafArtists series on Twitter at @lxgino.
I recommend great books like George at the children’s reference desk and teach accessible, intergenerational ASL classes at the library. My middle-grade novel, Show Me a Sign, will be published by Scholastic in Fall 2019.
Alex is originally from Staten Island, NY, but now lives in Oakland, California. I’m originally from Long Island, NY, but now live in Gainesville, Florida. We spoke via direct message on Monday, August 20, 2018.
Ann: Your sophomore middle-grade novel, You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!, is another remarkable, groundbreaking book. How much of you is in the character of Jilly?
Alex: There’s a lot of me in Jilly, or a lot of Jilly in me, however that goes. We’re both white, hearing people with Deaf and Black family and friends. Jilly and I are both on the path of recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it.
Ann: Did it organically come together that you would write a book that addresses ASL and Deaf culture and racism, including the killing of African American youth and Black Lives Matter?
Alex: To be honest, I started off writing a story about a girl whose baby sister was Deaf and whose grandmother had recently become Hard of Hearing, and how those situations are so different.
Ann: Those are very different situations. While your original storyline is good, it seems much too conventional for you!
Alex: While I was writing, another Deaf character took prominence – Derek, a Deaf, Black teen. And just as Jilly is learning her place in the book, I did some work in figuring out that it wasn’t mine to tell a story of Deafness, but a story of privilege. It took a lot of story-weaving to draw all the threads together, but I’m proud of how it turned out.
Ann: That’s a real turning point, and it creates a multilayered book. Maybe more so than George, which is a single-issue book.
Alex: It was more judgmental from the outside, where Grandma was “bad” for not wanting to sign. It was also a lot more anti-cochlear implant, which was me judging other peoples’ tools. I’m glad the story changed.
Ann: Where did Derek come from? You have mentioned Black and Deaf family and friends. You must have been aware of how little Black Deaf rep exists in kid lit. Jackie Woodson’s superb Feathers is the only other title that comes to mind in traditional publishing.
Alex: Oof. Yeah. There is so little Deaf, Black rep in publishing. And I’ve got some guilt, yeah, I’ll name it, that I’m another hearing, white person writing about marginalizations I don’t share. Deaf people in traditional publishing are nearly exclusively written by hearing folks.
So, hopefully, without being a plot device, Derek is my answer to some of that. I’m not writing the perspective of a Deaf POC. Instead, I’m writing about a white hearing kid who has people like Derek in her life. Derek is empowered but also deserving of support from Jilly.
Ann: I think that was a smart approach, and I think it works. Derek is much more than a plot device. I recognize him! We need resources. I do, as a youth library person who works with a diverse group of Deaf kids. It may not be fair that they have to see themselves on the page for the first time written by hearing white folx, but it’s still critical.
Ann: We’re typing at the same time, but it will come together. Sorry I didn’t wait for you. We’ll have to GA, like with the old TTYs!
Alex: I remember GA! AND SK!
Ann: Tell me about your grandparents.
Alex: My fathers’ parents were Deaf. My grandfather grew up in a hearing family but learned to sign from other Deaf folks. My grandmother grew up with oralism and didn’t learn to sign until her late teens, I believe. My grandfather co-founded the Staten Island Deaf Club, and my parents and I used to go there a lot as a kid. Being surrounded by a bunch of Italian-American Deaf folks who yelled and liked to pinch my cheeks? It was a lot!
But my grandparents were wonderful, and one of my regrets is that I didn’t learn to sign more than a few words until after my grandfather had passed. Like in a lot of families where grandparents don’t speak the dominant language, I was never expected to learn ASL.
Ann: It’s an amazing background that covers a lot of issues and changes in 20th Century Deaf culture and community. You were lucky to be exposed to that. Oakland seems like a central character in the book. Why was it important to set your story there?
Alex: Yes! Oakland, and Piedmont, play a major role in the story. Oakland is an important African-American center of culture. There is a history of race and tension here. This is the home of the Black Panthers. It’s also the home of Oscar Grant. And within that, Piedmont is a rich, largely-white enclave. With California School for the Deaf-Fremont down the road, it was a perfect setting for the story.
Ann: Initially, I was ambivalent about Jilly P. I loved George. I was waiting for a follow-up. Then I saw that the new book contained my history, culture and language. I became concerned and anxious. “Will they do it right?” The majority of hearing authors don’t get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong in big ways that hurt, even as an adult.
Alex: As a trans person who would prefer never to read another story about a trans person by a cis person ever again, I can relate. Your fear was so founded.
Ann: I feel I can be done well, very rarely. Like Jilly P, Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. There are some aspects of the culture and history I would prefer were not touched, and explained to readers, by outsiders.
Alex: There are a lot of people who want a sequel to George, and it feels like they want an inside scoop into transition.
Ann: Oh, that’s interesting! Where do we draw the line? Not just in describing experiences that are not our own. But things we feel necessary to keep private, to not commodify?
Alex: Yes. I don’t want to show a sanitized version of a culture, but I also don’t want to air someone else’s dirty laundry (or mine, in the case of trans stuff.)
Ann: Your perspective as a writer?
Alex: I don’t think we should only write characters like ourselves, but I do think that the perspective of the book should reflect ourselves as writers.
Ann: Let’s talk about your evolution about cochlear implants (CI). Once a very contentious issue in Deaf culture–it is still a concern. But, the fact is, most Deaf kids and teens I work with have them. They work to varying degrees. They are often a tool rather than a cure-all. Many outsiders take insider hardline views on the subject.
Alex: My understanding of CIs has changed. So has the technology of CIs themselves. The idea of wiping out Deaf culture and language scares me. So, when people see CIs as an alternative to signing, that’s a problem. But it’s pretty high and mighty of me to say that people shouldn’t use all of the tools at their access that they wish to.
Ann: It is scary. I feel on a precipice sometimes. I love my language and those who advocate for it as a first language, a natural language for the Deaf. Then there is the oddity that ‘baby signs’ and a hearing interest in ASL has made it more popular than ever. I don’t get stared at as often while signing in public. But there are many audist doctors, like Dr. Slapp in the book, giving parents all the wrong advice.
Alex: Yes! When it is more acceptable for a hearing person to take an ASL class than to teach a Deaf person in ASL, we are looking privilege in its rotten face.
Ann: Thank you for not including a diagram of the manual alphabet, and for not extensively describing signs in written words. And for not trying to imitate the grammar of some Deaf ppl who code switch with each other into sign-speak, or don’t always get English grammar right. And thank you for not describing the origin and history of Black ASL, which isn’t my right either.
Alex: Someone criticized me that they couldn’t figure out the signs from my descriptions. My response: “You’re not supposed to. I’m not a dictionary.” And about fingerspelling, I remember being a kid and so mad at kids who would tell me they could sign but what they meant was they knew the alphabet.
Ann: No, that’s right. You’re not a dictionary. And fingerspelling isn’t the same as ASL. That’s a frequent misunderstanding.
Alex: It was an important decision to not have Derek “write Deaf” in the chatroom. He makes an early mistake, so that it can be addressed, but for me, representation is more important than some notion of objective accuracy.
Ann: I think it’s good you address it, because it’s real. But you don’t labor over it.
Alex: My goal was for the details to be right for people who know, but for it to be unremarkable for people who don’t. for example, Derek’s username: profoundinoaktown. There’s the rhyming word play, there’s the casualness of “oaktown” but there’s also “profound” sitting in there.
Ann: Yes! Thank you. I love profoundinoaktown. It hit me right away. I love the authentic touches. I love that Vidalia has a built-in name sign, ‘onion.’
Alex: Yes! Of course, it does!
Ann: What did you learn from your Black Deaf sensitivity readers? And let’s talk a little bit about intersectionality.
Alex: Sensitivity readers, or vetters, come in very late in the process, after most of the drafts of a novel are complete. Their job isn’t to fix the book, or to OK it, but to point out places that don’t ring true, could be offensive, leave something out, etc. The good news is that by the time my book got to our Deaf, Black sensitivity readers, most issues had been addressed. It was mostly about details and accuracy.
However, one important note that came from a hearing Black person who read it was to focus on Derek’s hurt as much as his anger. That was really important, both for me in writing him, and in representing a young Black man, that he be humanized by his hurt.
As for intersectionality, as named by Kimberlé Crenshaw, it’s not a checklist of your woes. Instead, it’s about the ways that our different identities impact, influence, and form one another. I am never queer without also being white. And when our identities are marginalized, the effects pile up.
Ann: Thank you for not making Derek “funny.” I think it’s a device abled and hearing authors use to make young readers like them more comfortable with disability. There are some disabled authors who write humorously, like the great Shane Burcaw. He has a right to it and you can always feel the tension behind his jokes. It’s a tool and a weapon, not a cute plot point.
Alex: Disabled folk are often funny as coping mechanism to make people more comfortable in real life too. Derek’s not like that. Which puts him into the potential for “angry Black man” tropes.
The trouble with tropes and stereotypes is that they do come from places, but that they often become simplifications of the issue. My goal was that Derek not be simple. He’s just a kid who loves the same book series as Jilly does and that’s a connection point that has nothing to do with either being Deaf or Black.
Also, the stereotypes are often an effect of culture, not of the marginalized identity, so they loop right back on themselves when we use them in literature.
Ann: That’s so true. I am going to take a bit of a turn here. What would you say to critics or readers who find your writing didactic, or dismiss serious ‘issue’ books for middle grade readers?
Alex: First off, they tend to be adults. So, I’m not impressed when they think my book is “over the top.” It’s not that kids need things to be simple, but they have less experience with everything, and so it can help to be a little more direct.
Kids deserve tools to talk about the world, especially since so many adults are afraid to talk with them directly.
Ann: Agreed. I like to give young readers the benefit of the doubt too.
Alex: Also, I’d rather be didactic than long-winded. Have you seen how long grown up books are? *shudders*
Ann: Yup. I love the middle grade format too! In essence, with this book, you are not only teaching and enriching today’s kids, but those to come. You are also reaching back and giving your grandparents a book, which they didn’t have in their youths. That’s so touching to me.
Alex: Awww shucks. Thank you. That fills me with warm fuzzies.
Ann: When any writer puts their characters, which are pieces of themselves, out into the world, it’s risky. In your case, they’ve been treated brutally. You’ve got guts.
Alex: Thanks for saying that, but it’s just me living. I grew up in the 80s, and I’m still regularly surprised that my book about a trans kid has gotten as generally positive reception as it has.
When I was in HS, “It’s Pat!” was a regular skit on SNL. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but the entire “joke” is that no one knows whether Pat is a boy or a girl. So, I kind of grew lizard skin when it comes to larger culture.
Ann: Oh wow. Pat. That was a cultural reference for my trans girlfriend too.
Alex: Yeah, Pat was painful.
Ann: I have one more important question. You will be graded. Is there a past tense in ASL?
Ann: Thank you! Another hearing author who wrote a YA Deaf MC didn’t know that. You pass.
Alex: Ugh! I can think of two ways to show past tense. With “finish” or “past/later.” Or “a long way back.” There are so many tenses in ASL. Sorry for my unclear description.
Ann: No description needed. GA to SK.