This is the last of a series of 3 interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
This week's guest is Pat Lowery Collins author of The Fattening Hut , Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005
Pat Lowery Collins has been teaching Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is a writer, painter and illustrator.
Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon—and gorge on rich meals for months, until she’s heavy and round, like a good bride? Like her mother and sister before her, like all the women of her tribe. When she learns the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, Helen becomes even more defiant and confused. Lonely, scared, and feeling confined by her family, culture, and tradition, she fights for a chance to be educated, young, and free.
VALENTINA MMAKA - When did you first encountered FGM in your life and what made you decide to write a novel for young readers?
PATO LOWERY COLLINS - I first heard of FGM from my daughter when she was a young physician. She worked in an area where there were Somalians and other immigrants who came to her to be treated for complications from the procedure. She also told me how in America it was grandmothers who continued the practice, often performing the cutting themselves on their grandchildren when the parents were absent. I did not have an urgency to write about this then but only later when I learned about the fattening rooms. Some of my adult friends had teenaged children at that time who were anorexic. I wanted to write a story about the dichotomy between our Western idea of beauty and the ideals of beauty in other cultures. When I found that the fattening practice also included FMG, I knew I needed to address this issue as well.
VALENTINA MMAKA - FGM among other forms of child abuse and violations of human rights, is not so much seen in literature. There is a long list of anthropological/ sociological essays and memoirs, but in terms of novels, short stories and poems or plays, there's very little on a global scale. Can you reflect on the reasons of this?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It has been my experience that young adults do not want to read about this. My book has been assigned in schools, but I don’t believe a young woman would pick it up of her own accord. Most have not heard of FGM and do not want to think about it.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What was the feedback like from your young readership? Did you ever confronted with readers from FGM practicing communities?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I’ve had very little feedback from a young readership. The book received wonderful reviews, and a number of adult readers have told me that it is a beautiful book and they felt the subject was handled with sensitivity.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Why according to your view Young readers do not feel like reading a story about FGM? What do you think is the idea behind not picking a certain kind of book? And would this choice be different if the reader comes from a FGM practicing country or for example from the US?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It's been my observation that young women in this country are just exploring their own sexuality and are uncomfortable with the subject of FGM. They are not personally threatened by it and don't think any concerns about it apply to them or their world. Perhaps FGM information should be included in their sex education classes.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What would you like to say to our fellow writers across the world to encourage them to write about FGM to sensitize readers?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - It seems to me that the subject needs to be handled delicately and presented to a young person in the presence of a trusted adult who is capable of answering their questions. The story itself must be gripping enough to encourage someone to read it all the way through. Perhaps it would profit from the immediacy of a more contemporary setting.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Against those who assume that we cannot write about FGM because no other than a survivor, understand what is it, what would you say? (it's just a provocative question as there are some "radical" activists who oppose people who are not from a certain culture to speak out about FGM).
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I have seen a few remarks and reviews about The Fattening Hut that would suggest I don't understand the cultural context. As far as not being able to write about it because I haven't experienced FGM, there are many things I haven't experienced such as slavery and rape, but I can be outraged by them.
VALENTINA MMAKA - As an artist, what kind of researches did you do for Fattening Hut? What did you keep in mind while writing? Did you want to convey a specific feeling towards the issue?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I read whatever I could on the subject. Some books were very graphic and alarming; others were personal stories of living with the disfigurement. For the setting I invented a multi-ethnic tribe that lived on an island. This was primarily because I didn’t know enough about any particular area where FGM is practiced and because I didn’t want to offend any specific race or people. Because I saw that the island of Anguilla had the topography I needed for my story, I spent time there learning about its flora and fauna and history, which included a history of shipwrecks and the absorption of survivors into the tribal population. Although I knew FGM was accepted in many societies as a necessary rite of passage, I felt its roots were firmly set in paternalism and ignorance. Naturally, my intent was to convey it as a highly negative practice and to show how the women of a society were often the ones who performed it and caused the practice to continue.
VALENTINA MMAKA - In your novel Helen, the main character, fights to receive and education to free herself, how much is important education in allowing children and teens to stand against bad cultural practices?
PAT LOWERY COLLINS - I think education is essential in teaching girls to value their bodies and themselves. That’s why I introduced a renegade, Helen’s Aunt Margaret, to show how mentoring and support from a trusted adult is an important key.
The Fattening Hut is another YA novel to read in schools and to add to any teen's bookshelf.
You can find Pat Lowery Collins here