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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 2: Engagement and Dialogue - Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Judith Otriz Cofer
Biography
Work
Interview
Nikki Grimes
Biography
Work
Interview
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
Talking with Judith Ortiz Cofer

How is your personal and cultural perspective reflected in your writing?

I was born in Puerto Rico and came to the United States as a small child when my father was brought here with the U.S. Navy. For the first 15 years of my life, we moved back and forth from Paterson, New Jersey to the island, so I grew up truly bilingual and bicultural. My brother and I were always the new kids, having to adjust to a new language and a new environment. And while I was living it, I didn't like it. But as a writer, I now know that it was my heritage; this is my material, this is what I can write about because I have intimate knowledge of it. So in a lot of my books, beginning with my early poetry and then on to my novels The Line of the Sun, Silent Dancing, The Latin Deli, my theme is: When you are always between cultures and between languages, how do you negotiate the world? And I think that is a very contemporary theme because America is constantly being populated and repopulated by new immigrants, and that is what makes this country unique.

How did An Island Like You come to be? Is it based on your own experiences growing up?

An Island Like You was a project that I began to think about when I was asked if I would write a book particularly for young adults. I knew that I wanted to write about the barrio in Paterson. As far as whether it is based on my experiences, the answer is yes and no. There are characters that are composites of people I knew in my childhood, but I wanted to make these stories contemporary for the young adults now.

All of my fiction is somehow based on my life because I always ask the question: If I were a boy ... If I were fifteen ... If I were living in the barrio ... and if this were happening to me, what would I do? When I write, I try to put my consciousness and my unconscious into the persona of a new being, so they're usually composites of me and many other things.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

Arturo became my favorite character because I felt that there was a lot of me in him: the kid who finds early on that books are extremely good friends and who thinks about situations and tends to be solitary, and also has a sense of humor. I put a lot of effort into making him the outsider who finds satisfaction in literature and discovers his own destiny by being a rebel, but a different kind of rebel than Kenny Matoa. I think that Kenny Matoa is a foil for Arturo: he is the person who takes every opportunity to humiliate others and who rejects things that are offered to him, like his mother's love, poetry, and all these things. And he's not evil, he's just immature and hasn't come into meaning in his life. And Arturo is someone who can actually look into a book and find the answers to life. And to have discovered that early changed my life. When I read books and suddenly saw the answers to some of the questions in my head that I didn't dare ask adults, then I knew that I was always going to have a life among books. And so Arturo sort of became that person for me.


How did you come up with the characters?

It's hard to trace the creative process to one particular starting point. The way I usually start planning a project is I have a stenographer's notebook as well as index cards in my purse, and I let the ideas inhabit me. And I knew that I wanted to write about characters who were all facing a particular conflict. In "Beauty Lessons," for example, I wanted to talk about body image. When I was growing up I was very, very skinny, and the kids would make fun of me. And so I had this idea that I would have a character who would go through this body image problem, but I would let her have her moment of redemption. And so some of my stories are to complete my story. This character is not me, but in my mind she looked like me when I was fourteen or fifteen.

Different stories came in different ways. The story for "White Balloons," for example, was written after I knew about the deaths from AIDS of several people whom I loved or knew. I thought, "What if I try to humanize the face of this terrible disease and have somebody who cares about young people, but who has been rejected by the community because of this dreaded disease?" And so I made up the character of Rick Sanchez and allowed the kids to come up with a moral, ethical solution for bringing him back to the barrio, even though this time it was only in spirit. I want my readers to ask themselves, "Would I have been one of the ones who didn't participate, or one of the ones who did?"

Is it important for young adults to see themselves and their cultures reflected in literature, as well as to use literature as a window onto others' experiences?

When I was growing up, I didn't have stories about Puerto Ricans. The only stories about Puerto Ricans were in Spanish, and they were usually about Puerto Ricans on the island. So I read the stories written by white Americans and black Americans and Europeans, and it never occurred to me to ask, Is Romeo and Juliet for me? It was for me! If I could read it and it made me feel something, it was for me. And I don't write stories for any one particular group. I don't write stories and say, "I think that Puerto Rican people will like this." And I don't write stories and say, "I think I'll show my American readers what it's like to be Puerto Rican." I simply write the stories that I need to write and I hope that they become art. What I mean is that a story is mere entertainment or a lecture or a sermon unless it tries to reach beyond its cultural limits. And so what I hope, and humbly, for my work is that when Puerto Ricans read it, they say, "She's got it right. This is what it's like," and maybe learn a little more about human nature. And that when other people read it, they forget that the characters are Puerto Rican. When I teach multicultural literature, I choose my texts for the same reason as when I teach British literature: because they're the best.


Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading, and who have influenced you?

My reading has always been eclectic. I went to graduate school in the '70s when there were very few women on the syllabuses. And in my book Silent Dancing, I say that although the only woman British writer who appeared on one of my syllabuses was Virginia Woolf, I managed to get a sense of empowerment from that. But I found that I didn't need just women -- I was looking for the wisdom in what I was reading. So from everybody -- the Romantic poets, Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge -- and everything I read, I found that I was completely enthralled by the language. However, in more recent years, as I prepared myself to become a writer, the first people who made me feel that the stories I had to tell were worth telling were women. And the empowerment of the feminist movement brought forth voices like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and many other female poets and writers. My influences keep changing because, I hope, I haven't stopped growing. And every time I read something that excites me, it moves me to want to create something. And so I'm constantly reading and constantly reevaluating my work. Every book that I write, I try to make different from the last.

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