"Keep cool" became my mantra in December 2005, when the phone rang for the third time and I knew a short message would be left expounding the caller's disappointment in me. The first two calls had been surprising rants that made my invisible antennas, not unlike the antennas of ants, start vibrating. I, a poet, was suddenly controversial over my chapter novel Marisol, a 140-page story of a little girl (Marisol) living in Pilsen's mainly Latino area of Chicago. The fictional Luna family plan to move from this area to the suburb of Des Plaines, twenty-five miles east of Pilsen and which, it so happens, is also noticeably Latino. Marisol is not happy about their in-state migration--a drawing on page twenty shows her, hand on chin, frowning. She'll have to say goodbye to friends, school, neighbors, her neighborhood and Rascal, her cat, who had mysteriously disappeared the day before the move--childhood drama but, alas, nothing like the drama that followed the little book's publication.
A little history: In 2003 I was contacted by an American Girl editor asking if I would be game to write a chapter novel for their series of books about preteen girls. I listened with the heartbeat of a tree sloth, calmly, because I was a veteran writer--how many times had I heard of writing projects that would bring me fame and fortune? The editor explained that the book would accompany a doll, or, more accurately, the book would be one of the doll's accessories, such as costumes and matching clothes that real ten-year-old girls could wear. This doll, yet unnamed, would be 2005 Girl of the Year. My heart, with its freight of blood, picked up speed--this wasn't a prank call after all. I suggested Fresno, my hometown, and the editor said Fresno was not an available locale--the Doll of the Year for 2004 was Kailey, a California surfer girl. The editor said that the narrative should be set either in New York City or Chicago. The girl should be a dancer.
A ballet folklorico dancer, I suggested. I pictured Marisol in a flaring dress the colors of the Mexican flag.
Possibly, the editor remarked. In the end, however, Marisol would do tap and jazz.
I agreed to the project. I wrote the novel in a month, tinkered with the prose, and listened to the parent company (Mattel) about elaborating details so that Marisol would be hip--she needed a cell phone, for instance. She could also use a carrying case for her dance costumes; so could I, then, mention the carrying case once or twice in the narrative? I was getting the picture. I also dutifully added a purse and necklace--merchandise in other words. Most certainly I realized that this doll was a commercial project, but why was it necessary to sell the glittery top hat as an extra?
Once I was finished writing Marisol, I didn't think much about the manuscript or the doll. I was at work on a new book of poems titled "A Simple Plan" and which included "Bean Plants," possibly the best thing I've written, a longish effort lamentable in tone, a poem about how even a short-lived bean plant suffers--arms out like our crucified Jesus. I quote the beginning:
You say you were four and suffering insomnia,
That you lay in bed and sometimes crept
To look at your brother, then returned
To struggle with the sheets, thumb in your mouth
For the taste of something solid. You say it was summer,
That you could smell the iron-scented
Ruins of the junkyard next to the house,
And then pick up the scent of wet straw--
Down the alley, a factory was making brooms.
You were four, and already thinking of the past.
I wrote this favorite poem of mine about the same time I was working on Marisol. I'm a writer who can compartmentalize. Each project is mutually exclusive, the frivolous and the serious, the small press and the commercial press, the poetry that requires close reading and the prose that can make sense while I am eating an ice cream cone.
The doll was born November 2005 in an edition of 240,000 units. Good god, I thought blasphemously, a book of mine, however simple, with the publication run of a major author! My palms became itchy, a sign that I would finally make money in this industry? Of course, I didn't expect the girls to read it; no, the book would be tossed aside as the girls immediately began to comb Marisol's hair.
My own hair stood up in alarm, both the black and grayish strands, when an electrical storm swept westward and hovered above my house in California. The first of nearly hundreds of calls began, calls from the mayor of Des Plaines, aldermen, Chicano activists, an art director, Time, BBC, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, NBC's "Today Show," ABC's "World News Tonight," a journalist from Spain, students, professors--all because I had written a controversial piece of dialogue uttered by Marisol's mother. She, in her motherly reasoning, argues that they had to move out of Pilsen. The mother spouts, "Dad and I think it's time that we move out of this neighborhood." The mother follows up in the same paragraph saying that it was dangerous and there was no place for their daughter (Marisol) to play. This was caught by Andrew Herman of The Chicago Sun-Times, who brought this apparent slight to the public's attention. Mr. Herman was among the first and last callers. I didn't pick up.
I'm a loudmouth at times, but my antennas were rotating cautiously. I watched the blinking red light of my answering machine as the journalist requested my response. I erased his message with the light touch of my index finger. The media wanted a fuss and I wasn't about to buy into it.
Pilsen was not good enough for Marisol the doll--or so the logic implied. In truth, the mother comforts the daughter with a sighing heart. She argues that it's too dangerous because her daughter has no place to play except an urban street busy with traffic. The mother also says that the neighborhood is dangerous--this phrasing, I admit.
Activists, not the community, came out swinging. They gleefully bought into The Chicago Sun-Times article, "outraged" at the dig at Pilsen, perhaps Chicago as a whole. What will parents say when the little girls discover that their neighborhood is not good enough for this doll? The furious Congressman Luis Gutierrez wrote the American Girl company president, who, in turn, wrote the congressman defending the book. Was Congressman Gutierrez again outraged a letter from a major company meant that he had to respond to company's president? Did he have time for this kind of thing--letter writing? District 25 Alderman Daniel Solis set up a meeting with representatives of Mattel. I was not privy to the meeting, but the gist of the outcome was that Alderman Solis was not inclined to outrage. Perhaps he saw the calamity of a fictitious character speaking her mind as benign. He said the description was "probably an unintended mistake."
At eight years since the publication of the book, I will say that it wasn't a mistake. As an author, I come clean. I made the mother say this--she's my character, right? She's speaking her mind, right? She can read newspapers, right? Chicago's Pilsen area is surrounded by mayhem--the mother knows this, the father, too, the good people walking down the street know this. The mother argues that urban life is not for her. It's her house and her daughter, and in her own house it's reasonable that she would say what she feels. This is called fiction.
But this is not fiction. Chicago is statistically dangerous and Pilsen is surrounded by painfully unfortunate incidents. Here are figures: from 2005 through 2012 Chicago has averaged over 450 murders yearly. Moreover, by April of every year, 100 murders have occurred, except 2012 when 100 murders were committed by March. The novel is a light, sugary narrative set right in the middle of Chicago where murders occur and have been occurring for decades. In 1991, for instance, 941 Chicagoans were killed. Do you think mothers, fictional or real, would be clueless? Do you think that they don't warn their daughters--and sons--to keep safe when they leave the house? And let's not speak of rapes, burglaries, the wounded caught in cross fire, carjackings, arsons, muggings, domestic violence, old fashioned stick-ups, wretched litter, verbal nastiness, mindless and dispiriting graffiti. Since 2005, when Marisol was Girl of the Year, until now at the beginning of fall 2013, 3500 Chicagoans have been murdered. The grief must be overwhelming.
How could elected officials from Chicago, especially aldermen in the southern districts, argue that its neighborhoods are safe? Moreover, some of these elected officials have bedded down inside prisons for crimes. Four of the last seven governors of Illinois have served--or are serving--jail time. It's lawless at the top--or near the top. Isn't Jesse Jackson, Jr. ready to shed a designer suit for jail attire and do thirty months in jail for scheming to spend campaign money on personal items? And his wife, Sandra Jackson, wasn't she an alderman in Chicago--she's doing a year in jail for something.
I could have had the mother really go off and tell the daughter in strong terms, "Sal si puedes! Get out of here if you can!" Instead, mother explains tenderly their move by saying that the family wants another kind of life for themselves, a yard for instance. Migration makes sense for them, just as migration from Mexico to Chicago, Houston, New York City and my hometown of Fresno also makes sense for others. Life is not stagnant. Pilsen of 2005 is not the Pilsen of 2013; isn't gentrification in the works? Moreover, didn't I just read that thirteen were shot in one park in two weeks, and in another part of Chicago four were killed in one incident just a few days ago?
The controversy didn't go away--the red eye of my answering machine kept blinking. It went on for months. On March 28, 2006, fifty students from an alternative high school appeared at the American Girl's Chicago store and restaurant to protest Marisol, the book and the doll. With the encouragement from teachers, possibly activists seeking attention, students chanted "Stop the racist doll! Respect us like you want us to respect you! Marisol don't mix with white people!" There were plenty of local television stations present, and newspapers journalists waiting for a melee? A few six-year-old girls cried and were led away by their mothers--with their daughters hugging their American Girl dolls Samantha, Kailey, Sara, and my creation, Marisol.
For five months, I stared at the phone when it rang. Stared and let the message machine kick in. Did this book--this author--deserve the over-the-top outrage? What nerve had I touched? Was it possibly the truth?
Someone came to my defense: in my files I have a Sun-Times columnist reporting on April 1 2006, "Why shouldn't a fictional character in someone's book be allowed to say whatever they like? Frankly, the only one who comes out looking good here is American Girls Dolls owner Mattel, which, in a rare moment of corporate courage, didn't simply give in to the extortion of demands (15 scholarships, plus jobs programs, plus more--I'm surprised they didn't ask for ponies, too) but stood by its author and its book." The students were also asking for donations to their school.
I received a message from a professor at Loyola University inviting me to come and debate the issue. That would be loads of fun! Fly five hours across the country to be tarred and feathered and shipped back as cargo? I stared at our answering machine, the number of messages mounting like the daily murders in Chicago--teenagers shot right out of their shoes.
I kept quiet. I kept to myself. At night, we unplugged our telephone.
Marisol, the Girl of the Year, aged very quickly, and was gone after the Christmas rush. I have one doll on a shelf in the garage. A collector's item, she's prone and never sits up from her coffin-like box. Now and then I visit her and view her face through the cellophane window--she sleeps and sleeps but when I stand up the box she awakens and opens her eyes. She doesn't accuse me at all. She's a cute doll with a carrying case over her shoulder.
In 2005, Marisol, the sixteen-inch doll shaped from plastic, was ten years old. She looked life-like, a girl like any other prepubescent girl. If she had been real, as in flesh-and-blood real, she would now be eighteen, grown to five-seven, a freshman at the University of Chicago, her major psychology with the secret desire to write poetry. On a Saturday in October, she's hurting from failed love. I picture her, our bereted beauty, at a used bookstore. In the poetry section, a columbarium of dead and live poets reside, all unread. Once poetry books are shelved in a used bookstore--remaindered, resold, given away, etc.--only would-be poets visit them. If they fan the pages, they cough from the dust. I see Marisol reach for my poetry collection, "A Simple Plan." It was published three years after Marisol and received no attention, not a single review. The book sold poorly (327 copies) and went out of print.
Marisol picks up my book and thumbs through its eight-eighty pages until she comes to "Bean Plants." She reads it, sighs, and re-shelves it. She goes to another book, and then another--more sighs through a pliable mouth, not the plastic mouth of a doll that couldn't speak for herself in 2005. If only flesh-and-blood Marisol could have told the "outraged" to mind their own business. If her family wanted to move, they could just pack up and watch Pilsen get smaller and smaller in the passenger's side mirror of their rental truck. The neighborhood would become a dot of memory, a place once home. She gave up dance shortly after the move. She mourned her cat Rascal, probably struck by a car. Her new best friend was Guatemalan, and another was Illinois white. She ran when the phone rang in her new house in Des Plaines.
Marisol returns to my book "A Simple Plan." She opens it again, reads another poem, and sees enough there to take it to the front counter. The young woman takes my book home, me the lost father who brought her to life.
I have stopped writing children's literature. At my age, the genre is too dangerous.