Since I wrote and published our review of Julián Is a Mermaid (see it here), there has been much online discussion about this book. Dr. Laura Jiménez has just published a personal and profound essay—entitled Trans People Aren’t Mythical Creatures—and, in the hopes that her writing will generate more of this important discussion, I asked her for permission to reprint portions of her essay here and she generously consented.
Dr. Jiménez’s essay begins:
In research we often provide what is referred to as a positionality statement. It helps our readers understand who we are, how our experiences and identities effect our understandings of the subject we are writing about. Positionality statements help avoid the fiction that research is neutral. In the age of #OwnVoices I have come to realize, or maybe I have come to admit to the realization, that I believe an author’s identity, community, and experiences informs the work they produce.
Then, Dr. Jiménez calls attention to the ramifications—of this story and its author/illustrator and its publication and the publishing industry—on the queer community and especially on queer young people. She writes,
Literacy is a social act, and I find that my reading of the world is better when done in collaboration with others who do not share my view of the world, my history, or my identity. So, I talked to teachers who are Dominican, to librarians, and finally, to a trans girl named Indigo.
Had I known then—when I read and loved and wrote about Julián Is a Mermaid—what I know now, I would not have published the review as I wrote it. What I felt then was the power and love that Julián’s abuela felt in encouraging her young grandson to grow into his authentic self. This was apparent to me in the first few pages, in which Julián looks questioningly at a picture book of mermaids that his abuela had given him. As the story progresses, Julián comes out to his abuela, becoming more and more secure in himself and how he “fits” into his community. That, to me, was what empowerment looked like.
But Dr. Jiménez saw something that I hadn’t seen:
The ease in which Julián’s abuela accepts and encourages him to show his whole self might be something the author put into the book as a wish or hope. But, by creating this almost immediate acceptance, Jessica Love negated the real struggle so many Latinx LGBTQ people must go through. Is that is the message the author is trying to send? Probably. But, it lands flat to me. For me, this comes from a place of privilege that would rather a mermaid trope carry the message and ignore the very real issues at work.
Read her entire essay here.
Dr. Jiménez nailed it. For queer children, empowerment—not to mention sheer survival—rarely comes so easily. I fell in love with this story precisely because of what had remained hidden. As a person from outside the queer community—even with dear friends who are queer—I hadn’t seen it. I see it now.
The comments appeared on social media after I had published our review, and I hadn’t taken into account the negative effects that Julián Is a Mermaid, written and illustrated through the lens of a white cisgender author, might have on those who are empowering themselves to speak out—and those who are still not able to speak out. Jessica Love is extremely talented, and the book she’s created is lovely—but it’s not enough.
I would never write a story from outside my own community. It would be wrong. And I was taught by example, long ago, that those of us who evaluate books from outside of our own communities or experiences must listen to those from inside.
In Professor Jiménez’s piece, she quotes Librarian Angie Manfredi, who wrote:
Our library copy of JULIAN IS A MERMAID has finally arrived and it is adorable but I NEED everyone in #kidlit to acknowledge it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC—it might not even have been published.
When that comment first appeared, I pushed back. I loved this story and, in many ways, still do. But in retrospect, I agree that such a story “written by a gender-nonconforming queer IPOC” probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Because, for the most part, large and mid-sized publishers accept only “agented” manuscripts, and, in order to get through the door of a publishing house, authors and illustrators not only must be talented, but must be “marketable” as well—they must represent a certain “image” in the publishers’ collective consciousness. And, at this point, while #OwnVoices is being touted as the new “multiculturalism,” the door to publishing is still pretty much slammed shut to queer authors and illustrators (especially Indigenous / People of Color) who write and illustrate stories for and about queer children (especially Indigenous / People of Color). We all have a lot of work to do.
So, many thanks to Dr. Laura Jiménez and all those who have exposed an obvious problem that many of us had not seen. Because moving forward is sometimes painful—but the pain of ignored and underrepresented communities is far worse.