By Marcia Sarnowski
Dr. Seemi Aziz, an assistant professor of reading and literacy education in the Oklahoma State University College of Education, addressed a group of education students, faculty and staff, librarians, and community members at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Murphy Library, on Monday, April 16.
Dr. Aziz, a native of Pakistan who has lived in the US for 18 years, came to La Crosse to discuss issues within children’s literature that represent Muslims. She began by inviting the audience to do a word association exercise with the terms “Middle East,” “Muslims,” “Islam,” and “MidEast Culture, History, Religion, and Society”. A great variety of impressions were shared about each term on the list. Then we all completed an “identity intersection”, filling in a grid with information such as age, gender, faith, family heritage, family unit, and ability/disability status, and conversed with the people around us to reveal that we were ourselves a very diverse group. The lesson is that people from the Middle East and the people who practice Islam, in many cultures, are very diverse. Within the macro culture, there are many micro cultures.
Dr. Aziz began her discussion of children’s books by reminding the audience that in the world of international children’s literature, as with most publishing categories, books are written with their sales factor in mind. Titles that describe exotic settings, and situations that demonstrate the differences (rather than the similarities) between foreign cultures and western cultures, are often the ones selected by the publishers with high-powered agencies and sales forces; and authors tend to write what will sell.
Stereotypes and inaccurate representations are common, such as depictions of cultures which are frozen in time, rather than portrayed as current and up to date. Characters are shown as struggling for survival, rather than living ordinary lives; there is often a Western perspective on Eastern gender roles. Dr. Aziz remarked that Eastern women are not always fighting the men in their families, or fighting society; many lead happy and satisfied lives.
She suggested that while the melting pot analogy is often used to represent that people from many cultures have come together to form one group, a more realistic and accepting image might be a “stir fry”, in which people form a community but still maintain their shape and character. She urged the listeners to go beyond the “Five F’s” of culture (food, festivals, fashions, folklore, and famous people) when introducing children to multicultural studies – but, she said, “It’s not a bad place to begin.” Yet we need to go further in finding and sharing culturally representative books, to ask, “Whose voice is heard here? And whose voice is missing?”
Dr. Aziz recommended a website called Worlds of Words (http://wowlit.org/) for access to news and reviews of books written by global authors. She also shared two bibliographies with the group: the first includes pictures of the book covers and a page of web resources: Aziz annotated bibl of books respresenting Muslims 1-1; the second is a more extensive list of titles identified with specific countries, which displays the diversity among Muslim cultures: Aziz annotated bibl books Muslims, Middle Eastern countries, Islamic cultures 2-1. Both lists will be useful for expanding classroom and library collections.
This event was another in the excellent series of presentations highlighting children’s multicultural literature, which have been sponsored by Murphy Library, Campus Climate and Diversity, and the UW-La Crosse School of Education.