Francesca Lia Block was born in Los Angeles in 1962. Nurtured by a painter/filmaker father and a poet mother, she was exposed to the power of art and creativity from an early age. She dazzled the world in 1989 with her first novel, a post-modern fairytale called Weetzie Bat, which weaved a beguiling spell of magic and light. Weetzie Bat was written while she was at university in Berkeley, California. After she graduated, she worked in a gallery where a friend read the manuscript and sent it in to HarperCollins, who also liked it and published it.
FLB continued writing about Weetzie and her extended family, and four more books in the series were published (combined, they make up the Dangerous Angels volume). But, before even Weetzie Bat was published, she had already released two books of poetry. Moon Harvest and Season of Green were both published when Francesca was a teenager. Only a few copies of each were ever published which makes them very rare. During the 90s, Francesca also wrote two adult novels, Ecstasia and Primavera, which are now out-of-print as well.
In 1994 The Hanged Man was released. Darker than the Dangerous Angels stories, it is a tale of incest and anorexia, but is still set in Block’s fairytale Los Angeles. The gritty realism of Laurel’s (the main character) life is interwoven with magic, dreams, Tarot, and illusions.
Following that was Girl Goddess #9, released in 1996, a collection of optimistic short stories about girls, and I was a Teenage Fairy, released in 1998, another story that dealt with sexual abuse as one of it’s themes. I was a Teenage Fairy is about Barbie Marks, a young girl caught up her in mother’s glamorous dreams of modeling and beauty pageants while trying to come to terms with the abuse she suffered at the hands of a photographer when she was younger. She is befriended by a small tough-talking fairy named Mab, who may or may not be real.
Also released in 1998 was the non-fiction book, Zine Scene, which FLB co-authored with Hilary Carlip. The book celebrates everything good about zines (and the DIY attitude). And in December of this year, FLB got married to an actor named Chris Shuette.
In 1999 Violet and Claire was released. It is a story of a friendship between two girls. Violet, a wannabe film-maker and Claire, a wannabe faerie, are the photo negative of each other. Together they try to create a film which will show the world the way they think it should be.
FLB gave birth to a baby girl on the 21st of April, 2000. Her daughter's name is Jasmine Angelina. Francesca also released two short story collections. The first was Nymph, a collection of short erotic stories. The second was The Rose and the Beast, a collection of fairytales retold.
She is still living in Los Angeles (whom she calls her muse) with her family. In the past, she has written feature articles for Spin magazine, including an interview with Tori Amos. More recently she has been developing a television show for MTV called Shadow Grove.
During 2001, she released a book called Echo, wihch was a novel told in short stories. There were also rumors that another book of short stories entitled Safe Love would come out, but it has yet to surface. 2002 promises the release of a book called Gaurding the Moon in October. There is little information about it available now, but I think it's going to be a non-fiction book about her daughter.
Something about the Author:
Francesca Lia Block
Francesca Lia BLOCK 1962 (Hollywood, CA) – Present
Francesca Lia Block has carved out a unique piece of young adult turf for herself and the characters she has created in a series of novels set in Los Angeles. With the publication in 1989 of Weetzie Bat, she set a new direction in young adultnovels: stories of Los Angeles subculture replete with sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll – for the nineties. With a cast of characters ranging from Weetzie Bat, a punk princess in pink, to her lover, My Secret Agent Lover Man, and her best friend Dirk and hisboyfriend, to their common offspring, Witch Baby and Cherokee, Block's novels create postmodernist fairy tales where love and art are the only cures in a world without adult direction. In a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece, Ron Koertge wrote of Block:"I admit she's not for everyone. But that's what makes her unique. If she was more homogenized and safe, she wouldn't be herself. And that's her message to her reader. Be who you are – gay, straight, fabulous, literal. She can't cut corners and pander to book clubs and she can't compromise and bowdlerize her own work or she wouldn't be Francesca Lia Block."
Block is still somewhat in awe of her instant success and of the stir her books are creating. "I wrote Weetzie Bat as a sort of valentine to Los Angeles at a time when I was in school in Berkeley and homesick for where I grew up," she told Something about the Author (SATA) in an interview. "It was a very personal story, like a love letter. I never expected people to respond to it the way they have. I never imagined I could reach other people from such a very personal place in me." Musing on her success she added: "The whole experience is magical."
Block's own life shows elements of magic here and there. Born in Hollywood, the center of the modern fairy tale industry, she was exposed to the power of art and creativity from an early age. Her parents were both artists: her father, who died in 1986, was a well-known painter, teacher, and one- time special effects technician and writer for Hollywood studios; her mother is a poet who once wrote a children's poetry book. "My parents taught me that you could be creative in this world. That it was possible," Block remarked to SATA.
A teenager in the late 1970s, Block was fond of going into Hollywood after school accompanied by her friends. "When I was 17 years old, my friends and I used to drive through Laurel Canyon after school in a shiny blue vintage Mustang convertible," Block wrote in an article for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "The short distance of the canyon separating us from Hollywood made that city a little enchanted." Once in Hollywood they would hang out at Schwab's soda fountain, check out the street scene with all the punk costumes, cruise Sunset Strip, shop along Melrose Avenue, or frolic at the Farmer's Market.
It was on one such trip that Block first saw the prototype of Weetzie: "A punk princess with spiky bleached hair, a very pink '50s prom dress and cowboy boots," as she described her in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It was a momentary glimpse of a hitchhiker that stayed with her over the years, and later a name came to the apparition, for she saw a pink Ford Pinto on the freeway with a driver who looked like that hitchhiker and with a license plate spelling "WEETZIE." The character of this punk princess would ferment for another six years before coming to full bloom in Block's first novel. She continually made up stories about Weetzie and drew her innumerable times – Block came to know Weetzie long before she first wrote about her in a novel.
"I lived a little bit of the Weetzie lifestyle in those years," Block said in her SATA interview. "Being around creative people, a little bit on the edge, listening to bands like X, being a part of the punk scene because it was something different and expressive." But when the punk scene began to exploit its violent edge, and the specter of AIDS appeared, Block left Los Angeles to attend college in Berkeley, California. There she fell in love with the modernist poetry of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the magic realism of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "College was a very intense time. I took a course with Jayne Walker in modernist poetry my first year and loved its mix of concrete images and classical references," she told SATA. She also took a poetry workshop with Ron Loewinsohn, developing her poetry into short- short stories and then longer short stories, all with a minimalist influence to them. "And then came my father's illness, and I got increasingly homesick for L.A. and stressed out at school," Block remembered. "I started to write Weetzie at that time. It's a nostalgic look at that time and place. A sort of therapy for me."
The therapy worked. Block graduated from the University of California, returned to Los Angeles, took a job in a gallery, lived alone, and wrote. It was a very productive time for Block, during which she completed the manuscript of an adult novel and another young adult title, as well as several pieces of short fiction. Block had no idea at the time that she was writing "young adult" works. "I just wrote," she told SATA. "Never mind the genre. I would write maybe with a friend in mind as the reader, but never gave a thought to whether the books were for adults or not."
In 1989 a friend at the gallery where Block worked, children's illustrator Kathryn Jacobi, read the manuscript of Weetzie Bat, was impressed, and sent it off to editors Charlotte Zolotow and Joanna Cotler at HarperCollins. Zolotow and Cotler - continuing the magic - liked the book, told Block that they wanted to bring it out as a young adult title, and also encouraged Block to go further with the characters, that there seemed to be more stories there. "I was incredibly lucky that the manuscript went to Charlotte and Joanna," Block said. "I loved Charlotte's books as a child and here she was liking mine in return."
Weetzie Bat tells the story of Weetzie and her gay friend Dirk – the only person who seems to understand her – who set up house together in a cottage Dirk's grandmother has left him in Los Angeles. Soon they fill it with a loving extended family (Weetzie Bat's divorced, booze-ridden parents have left a vacuum in this regard). Dirk finds the surfer Duck, Weetzie finds My Secret Lover Man, and even their dog Slinkster brings home a mate, Go-Go Girl. Together they make underground movies and much more. Soon a baby they name Cherokee is born, and the extended family take it as natural that it should belong to all of them. Even the abandoned Witch Baby, reminder of a dalliance My Secret Lover Man has had, is taken in after being left on the doorstep. Love is the connecting rod, the one thing that makes life possible. "I hear that rats shrivel up and die if they aren't like, able to hang out with other rats," Duck says at one point. This band of punk, hip youth learn that lesson well. "I don't know about happily ever after," Weetzie muses at the end of the book, "but I know about happily."
"In Weetzie Bat," wrote Diane Roback in Publishers Weekly, "Francesca Block has created a technicolor lovesong to Los Angeles, a `land of skating hamburgers' with `pink flamingo skies' with fountains `that turned tropical soda pop colors,' a city `hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels.'" The book blends Block's love of modernist poetry with magical realism – there's a genie granting three wishes and an evil witch – to come up with a potent narrative of love and loyalty in an age of pessimism and AIDS. Using her signature blend of L.A. slang and inventive personal hip talk, Block created an "off-beat tale that has great charm, poignancy, and touches of fantasy," wrote Anne Osborn in School Library Journal. Likewise, New York Times Book Review contributor Betsy Hearne praised the author's style: "Block's far-ranging free association has been controlled and shaped into a story with sensual characters. The language is inventive California hip, but the patterns are compactly folkloristic and the theme is transcendent." Elsewhere in the New York Times Book Review, Jim Gladstone concluded: "What Ms. Block managed to do with her wacky wordplay was create a country where the language felt like teen-age secret code, a land with borderlines drawn in Clearasil. The apparent indecipherability of her prose to anyone but the hippest of hip kids lent her books a magnetic allure."
In spite of such glowing reviews, Weetzie Bat still caused a minor uproar among other reviewers and some librarians. Patrick Jones, writing in Horn Book, summed up and put the criticism into context: "It is not that the sex [in Block's books] is explicit; it is not. It is just that Block's characters have sex lives. . . . In the age of AIDS – whose ugly shadow appears – anything less than a `safe sex or no sex' stance is bound to be controversial." Jones pointed out that the homosexual relationship between Dirk and Duck was also hard for some reviewers to countenance, as was the communal rearing of the baby, Cherokee. This alternate family lifestyle, so validating for teenaged readers whose own lives seldom fit the stereotype, became a sore spot for some. Others, such as Harford County, Maryland librarian Frances V. Sedney, came to the novel's defense after reading it carefully. "This short novel epitomizes the `innocent' books where the reader's mind and experience make all the crucial difference," declared Sedney in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Weetzie Bat sold through several printings and was shortlisted for the ALA Best Book of the Year.
Following the advice of her editors, Block has gone on to enlarge the stories of other characters from Weetzie Bat. In 1990 she published Witch Baby, a novel "reminiscent of a music video," according to Maeve Visser Knoth in Horn Book. "Scenes and sensory images flash across the page; characters speak in complicated slang and create a safe haven for themselves in the midst of a shifting, confusing world." Witch Baby stumbles and sometimes crashes through the book, searching for her own identity, trying to understand her place in the scheme of things, looking for an answer to her own poetic question: "What time are we upon and where do I belong?" Witch Baby, endowed with tilted purple eyes and a Medusa head of black hair, collects newspaper clippings of tragedies in an attempt to understand the world. Ultimately Witch Baby is able to find her real mother and then can deal with her place in the extended family of Weetzie Bat. As Ellen Ramsay noted in School Library Journal, Block is "a superior writer and has created a superior cast of characters," and in Witch Baby she "explores the danger of denying life's pain." This assessment mirrors what the author herself says about her work. "My books talk about tolerance," Block explained to SATA, "though I never consciously think of themes like that as I write. I guess my general theme is the value of love and art as healers. That you must face the darkness, acknowledge it and still have hope. I think that is what is important in life."
With the next installment of the Bat family saga, Block further pursued the theme of family loyalty and the importance of love and a balance of spiritual powers in the world. Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys opens with the "adults," Weetzie Bat and others,off on a filming expedition in South America. Teenage Cherokee and Witch Baby are left under their own direction. They team up with Raphael Chong Jah- Love and Angel Juan Perez to form a rock band, the Goat Guys. These four receive and depend on powerfulgifts from a Native American family friend, Coyote, to perform. They are an instant hit, but quickly the euphoria goes to their heads and "everything begins to fly apart in wild and outrageous ways," according to Gail Richmond in School Library Journal, as the band loses itself in sex and drugs. "The group descends into the bacchanalian hell of the nightclub scene with tequila and cocaine, skull lamps and lingerie-clad groupies drenched in cow's blood," noted Patty Campbell in a New York Times Book Review article. When Angel Juan slashes himself while performing, Cherokee figures it is time to return their magic totem gifts to Coyote and "be cleansed of the pain and guilt," according to Campbell. "An emotionally charged story with a contemporary message," Richmond noted, and Roback and Richard Donahue, writing in Publishers Weekly, similarly observed: "This latest effort provides yet another delicious and deeply felt trip to Block's wonderfully idiosyncratic corner of California." In her review, Campbellcommented: "Ms. Block's distinctive style [takes on] breadth and sureness in a story that resonates with arcane animal symbolism and explores the dark power of unleashed sexuality."
This distinctive style and idiosyncratic tinge to Block's work have prompted the most criticism. Ramsay praised the books in general but wondered if Block was not "just a tad too Southern California cool for broad appeal." Campbell, however, in an overview on Block's work in Horn Book, argued that "many novels are set in New York, and . . . no one thinks those books are strange or labels them as depicting `an alternate lifestyle' because the characters ride to work on the subway or shop at Bloomingdale's. . . . Why should the second largest city in the United States be perceived so differently? It is doubly puzzling considering that America sees Los Angeles every night on television." Richard Gehr offered further praise in the Village Voice Literary Supplement. "Block writes for the young adult in all of us, without flinching or condescension," he noted. "Always able to separate the fascinating from the phony, she addresses what I assume are girls' real fears and passions with a sassy brand of magic realism and private language. . . . Block's lyrical and resonant fables . . . always point back to the primacy of family, friends, love, location, food, and music. At once modern and mythic, her series deserves as much space as it can command of daydream nation's shrinking bookshelves."
Block moved the action of her next young adult novel, Missing Angel Juan, to New York when Witch Baby's boyfriend, Angel Juan, takes off for his own musical career in Manhattan. Witch Baby misses him and soon follows Angel Juan to New York. The book is about her search for him – aided by the ghost of Weetzie's father – through the city's nightmare world. Her search ultimately takes her into the subways of New York, with "strong echoes of Orpheus' descent into Hades," noted Michael Cart in School Library Journal. But in the end Witch Baby realizes she has to leave Angel Juan to find his own way, as she must find hers. "Love will come," she muses, "because it always does, because why else would it exist, and it will make everything hurt a little less. You just have to believe in yourself." Like its predecessors, Cart remarked, Missing Angel Juan is "an engagingly eccentric mix of fantasy and reality, enhanced – this time – by mystery and suspense." And Judy Sasges, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, likewisecalled the story "imaginative, mystical, and completely engaging."
Baby Be-Bop, Block's 1995 novel in the Weetzie series, is rather a prequel to the original Weetzie Bat. In Baby Be-Bop, Dirk faces the difficult challenges his homosexuality brings in an often homophobic and hostile society. After he is taunted and beaten by a gang of skinheads, Dirk receives a magic lantern that helps him to see past, present, and future. The discovery that he will someday find love and belonging help him to appreciate himself and to have the courage to face the hostility. Addressing the themes in her novel in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Block wrote: "I believe that during adolescence we are powerfully in touch with two realms. Still close to our childhood, we are innocent enough to perceive the fantastic all around us – in the music we hear, the movies we see, the books we read, even the foods we eat and in our relationships with others, mostly when we fall in love for the first time. But we are also almost adults and very aware of the harsh world we are about to enter, a world that has become increasingly volatile, where the young are exposed to ever-greater dangers."
In addition to her books for teenagers, Block has published two adult titles, Ecstasia and Primavera. "My adult titles explore much the same ground as my young adult ones," Block explained to SATA. "Greek myth plays in these as well, and they deal with my eternal theme of art and love as healing forces. They are a longer format, though, with more poetry and actual song lyrics in the text, poetic fantasies set in mythic landscapes." Block plans to continue writing in both fields but finds particular satisfaction in her young adult titles. "There is a certain openness and receptivity in young readers," Block said. "I've found a real depth of feeling from kids who have written to me. It's so hard for these kids in the time of AIDS. And they are still so full of hope, though I see a lot of despair, as well."
In her fifth young adult title, The Hanged Man, Block explored yet again these mature themes, this time looking at the "descent of a woman into madness of a sort," the author told SATA. Set in the same L.A. club scenes of the Weetzie books, The Hanged Man is about the darker side of the lifestyle. "There is lots of fairy tale imagery," Block said, "but there is also an ominous side. It's about obsession and being haunted by the past. This time the cure, the healing power, is much more art than love. In that sense I feel I am in a sort of transition in my writing. So much of my earlier stuff was about searching for love, and in fact love was missing in my own life. But now that exists for me. The result is less of a yearning tone in my books."
The poetic imagery has not disappeared, however. "I hope my work is poetic," Block said. "I want my books to be contemporary fairy tales with edge. And I love magical realism. It's not as if you can escape the world. You're in the world. You're part of it. But there is solace and hope through the magic. There is something of another world. Hope, but in a grounded way." It is exactly this sense of hope that Block has given to her readers. She has validated their experience by writing about it. "I hope Weetzie Bat has given readers freedom to take their own contemporary culture and write about it seriously as fiction or poetry," she concluded. "In letters from my readers I see that I have done something of the same service as my mother did for me when she wrote down my early stories. My readers discover it's okay to write about whatever is important to them. Writing has saved my life in a way. Being able to express myself creatively was how I could survive at certain parts of my life. If I can give others that message, that their lives and experiences are worth writing about, I would be happy."
From Romance to Realism Excerpts
The following are excerpts from a book called From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, by Michael Cart and published by HarperCollins in 1996. The book traces the history of Young Adult books and is a fascinating read. I've only included the parts that are directly about Francesca Lia Block and her books, which means that some of the extracts may not make as much sense, given that they've been taken out of context.
Excerpt 1 is about The Hanged Man:
Francesca Lia Block’s The Hanged Man is equally angry but beautiful as well, in its language, its imagery, and its arresting ambiguities - in its art, in short.
Unlike the other two, Block’s novel is told in the first-person voice of the victim herself, a young woman named Laurel, like the California canyon that soars above the mean streets of Hollywood and that provides the green-flowering semirustic setting for Block’s celebrated Weetzie Bat novels. This time, however, “the sky is swollen and dirty” and the lush greeness is overripe and verging on decay, though Laurel herself, refusing to eat and living on coffee and cigarettes, is wasting away - trying to starve her emotions as well as her physical body.
Part of the bleak darkness of Block’s vision comes from the black void at the heart of her character’s life, a space that - in a proper world - would be filled by the light of love. But through the violence of his physical abuse the father, who dies of cancer as the book begins, seems to have murdered his daughter’s heart, to have destroyed any opportunity for joy and fulfillment to flower there. “I will be thin and pure,” she thinks, “like a glass cup. Empty. Pure as light”
He has also murdered her womanhood - she no longer has her period - and has left her obsessed, as her mother is obsessed with cleaning and purifying. Both teeter on the brink of madness, a condition of being that blurs the line between dream and reality; the mother, for example, sees white moths everywhere and thinks they are they are the spirit of her dead husband.
This particular image invokes the spirit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the magical realism that enriches the Weetzie Bat books, although Block told me in a recent interview that there is more of the authentic fairy-tale ethos in this book than of magical realism - the grim fairy tale, that is, full of darkness, danger, violence, and passion. There are echoes, too, of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales (Harper, 1979) and its infusion of masculine abuse and sexuality into the world of fairy tales. Consider that Laurel says, “I feel like Hansel and Gretel.” Her mother calls herself a gypsy witch, and the daughter thinks of both her and the mother of a friend as being witches (the equation of the witch with womanhood, nature, and the wildness is also an operative factor here, according to Block; note, too, that later in the book Laurel describes herself and her friend Claudia as “riding the tree like witches on brooms” [they’re sitting astride the branch of a eucalyptus tree].) Laurel’s bedroom is in a castlelike tower into which her lover climbs at night like the swain in Rapunzel, prehaps; a clown at Venice Beach paints Laurel’s dreams on her face; Laurel makes love in the ruins of the magician Houdini’s house; she divines the truth about people by equating them with characters from the magical tarot deak and sees herself as the Hanged Man, a figure that symbolizes renunciation and self-deprivation (she denies herself food, remember) and is suspended in illusion.
Is the illusion magic or madness? At one point Laurel thinks, “All the magic we believe in is becoming madness. Delerium”. This is surely the reason that Laurel’s friend Claudia abuses drugs - to find her own sense-delighting delerium. But in the process she visits even more unreality on Laurel’s life. What is ultimately real in Laurel’s life? Is her lover Jack real or is he a dream of her dead father or is he the killer who is roaming the hills, breaking into houses, raping women, and cutting their throats? (There is an equation, by the way, between this killer and AIDS, which Laurel thinks of as “a nightmare demon coming in through bedroom windows”.). Has her mother been driven mad by her silence about and, thus, tacit complicity in her husband’s offense, or is it Laurel who is mad and misinterpreting her mother’s actions? Is the recurring figure of a tiger a real animal, or is it the embodiment of Laurel’s memory of her abuse that is clawing her to pieces.
Ultimately for Laurel, as for Voight’s Tish, confrontation is liberation: Laurel’s lover Jack forces her to confront the truth of what her father has done to her. Or prehaps - another ambiguity - she has imagined this entire episode; we remember that earlier she has said to her friend Claudia, “I wish you could climb in my mind with me”, and significently, in this context, Jack’s confrontation happens at night after he has climbed into her bedroom/mind; once Laurel has faced the truth, she finds that he has mysteriously gone, and she does not see him again thereafter, though she dreams of the tiger and discovers that it has Jack’s eyes. In her dream she releases the tiger and watches it limp away - its power to hurt her has been vanquished.
Laurel’s redemption derives from more than confrontation, however; it also stems from her new commitment to art. On the last page of the book she realizes, “I want to paint. I want to paint things that make people feel their pulse…I will paint a Tarot deck - my own”. She will create herself anew.
Again, Block told me that at the end of The Hanged Man “there is no warmth of love - only the redemption of art.” She also reminded me that Laurel’s father had been a gifted artist who gave up his art, and that art became his essential damnation - and that of his wife and ultimately of Laurel, too. After all, as Claudia has pointed out to Laurel, the Hanged Man is in hell, condemned to eat his own waste. Self-poisoning. More importantly, however, the character also symbolizes resurrection.
Only by purging herself of the decay that fills her - essentially the abusive acts that her father has performed on her - and embracing the transformating power of art is Laurel able to rise from hell and also to resurrect herself and her womanhood. Waking from her dream, she finds that she is bleeding, her period has been restored, “the way it’s suppose to be”.
These are complexly mature and subtle ideas and themes, and I think they are as much the reason as the powerfully dark material itself for the relatively cool critical reception this book has received - in contrast to Voigt’s and Woodson’s more accessible titles, which have garnered universal critical acclaim.
It’s a pity, because The Hanged Man is actually a more mature work of literature than the other two in its imaginative and poetic use of symbol and image and in its artful employment of ambiguities to invite thought, speculation, rereading, and the rewards of new discovery. The book speaks not only to victims of incest but to an audience of all older young adults, people for whom too few books are being written and published. ***
Excerpt 2 is about Missing Angel Juan and the other Dangerous Angels books:
Another powerfully gifted new writer for young adults is Francesca Lia Block, who, as we have seen in the case of her novel The Hanged Man, invests her work with thematic weight. But she also bestows two other literary gifts both on her readers and on the reviewers and critics of her work: the most richly realized settings in contemporary young adult fiction, and brilliant originality in 1. her choice and treatment of material, and 2. her literary style and tone, which are perfect matches for that material in poetic imagery, unselfconcious wit, and offbeat whimsicality.
In her first novel, Weetzie Bat, Block wrote a modern fairy tale about punk life and culture, set in a Los Angeles that, to outsiders, must have seemed like a magically imagined netherwork but that, to those who live here, is as thoroughly real as a trendy Melrose boutique or a raucous West Hollywood club or a flower-covered Venice bungalow. Her characters speak a hip argot that sounds so authentic, it invites sociological or linguistic study but that, in fact, has been wholly created by the author.
Her characters have their roots in the motion picture business or the world of rock music or the Pacific Coast surf culture - all of which, to outsiders, must also seem like a magical fairy-tale kingdoms but which have real-world universailty in the pursuit, but those who live there, of love and the nurture of nature. In fact, stripped of the trappings of their closely observed settings and the charming eccentricities of their characters’ “slanguage,” all Block’s books are, at heart, love stories, but with an idiosyncratic, added factor: For her there is an inevitable equation between love and magic. As one of ther characters, Witch Baby, muses in Missing Angel Juan (Harper, 1993), “Maybe magic is just love.”
In fact, Block told me in a 1993 interview, “Magic and love - that’s the equation, finally. I’ve seen it in my life and I believe that out of love there emgerges transformation and transcendence. Every time I write about it, I discover new things - there are so many expressions of it.”
When I pointed out to her that love finds expression in most of her books through the interactions of extended, and very nontraditional families as well as through magic, she observed, “I was an only child. I had a loving but small family and sometimes I felt isolated from the outside world. I think as I got older, I started finding people who were really my brothers and sisters and unlces. It’s made me so much stronger and that’s what happens in my books, too.”
Though Block’s unconventional and large-hearted acceptance of love in all of its various forms - heterosexual and homosexual - has infuriated some adult critics, young readers embrace her attitudes. She may, for example, be the only young adult author whose work is celebrated by a teen “zine” (Weetzie Bat, the Zine, published by two fans in Stamford, Connecticut), and Marjorie Ingall, book review editor of the teen magazine Sassy, wrote in a letter to Publishers Weekly that, “Sassy readers love Francesca Lia Block because she offers a distinctive voice and emotional honesty.”
Block and her characters also love the earth, and humanity’s mistreatment of the environment brings them as close to despair as they ever come - prehaps because for them the earth is a living being. In Missing Angel Juan, Block, meditating on the L.A. landscape, writes that from Weetzie’s house “you can see a few blue pools like the canyon’s eyes and waves of palm, eucalyptus and oleander like the canyon’s swirly green hair.”
Part of this respect for the earth drives from Native American tradition - personified in the recurring character of Coyote - which provides particular thematic underpinning to Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (Harper, 1992) (note the significents, in this context, of Cherokee’s name), and part of it derives - as we have seen in The Hanged Man - from the ancient tradition of Wicca, and the earth-rooted role of woman as witch. Not surprisingly, then, Block’s favorite character is not Weetzie but her “almost daughter” Witch Baby, who is the product of an early indiscretion between My Secret Agent Love Man and Vixanne (Vixen) Wigg.
When I asked Block why she chose to tell Missing Angel Juan in Witch Baby’s first-person voice (the first time she has employed this device), she answered, “I really wanted to get inside this character because I feel more connected to her than any of the others. She keeps developing on her own. I wanted to give this story more life by using her language. I tend to like first person best, anyway, coming from a poetry background, and I feel that, using it, I can go deeper in some ways.”
Indeed, in this book, she did go deeper - she descended into the very earth itself, symbolized in a realworld way by New York City’s subways, but culturallyas well, in her story’s unstated invocation of the Orpheus legend.
As we’ve already noted, much of Block’s work is enriched by its association with fairy tale, myth, and magic. She has told me that her late father, the screen-writer and artist Irving L. Block, used to tell her many of these stories when she was a child, and obviously that experience had a powerful formative influence on her imaginative life as a writer. It also explains, I think, her attraction to the Latin American tradition of magical realism. (In The Los Angeles Times she has even described her work as “pop magic realism.”) When I asked her about this aspect of her work, she explained, “I’m drawn to two elements: the magical and the very - almost grittily - realistic. They appear together in almost everything I do. But it’s hard for me to say that I’m a magical realistic writer and put myself thereby in the company of my favourite writer, Gabrien Garcia Marquez, especially since I’m coming from such a different culture. The word “pop” softens that comparison, I think.”
Her two adult fantasies, Ecstasia (ROC, 1993) and Primavera (ROC, 1994) are the most purely magical/fantastical of her books, but the work that most clearly marries the grittier aspects of the real world and the mythical/magical is Missing Angel Juan, in which the character Witch Baby goes to New York in search of her lover, the musician Angel Juan, who has earlier gone to Manhattan to find himself and to make his own music.
In this novel - her best since Weetzie Bat - Block discovers a radically new setting, New York City, where the canyons’ man-made faces are constructed not of exotic flowers and green-leafed trees, as in Los Angeles, but of steel and concrete, both as cold as a corpse.
“Flowers look like they’re wondering what they are doing in this city,” Witch Baby observes, were “the light is chilly and the color of lead,” “where “men” [are] crumple-slumped in the gutters like empy coats” and “kids…look harder than everybody pretends kids look.”
It would be an oversimplification, though, to imply that New York City is simply an impersonal, frozen hell to Weetzie’s summertime Los Angeles heaven. After all, Witch Baby quickly finds a loving friend and guide in the wistfully charming ghost of Weetzie’s father, the late Charlie Bat, whose old apartment she is staying in. Her elderly neighbours - and “almost uncles” - are a devoted gay couple named Meadows and Mallard, an older analogue to Dirk and Duck.
“I’ve had this bond with gay men all my life,” Block told me, “and my life and work are so interconnected that while I don’t consciously think I’m going to put gay characters into my books, they’re a part of my life; they’re my friends, and so they’re naturally in my work. But I’m also interested in breaking down barriers and if my work reaches people who aren’t familiar with the gay world and if it helps them become familiar with that world and with gay people, then I think that’s great.”
Despite the coldness of the City, there is warmth and beauty in the relationship between Meadows and Mallard and, indeed, in all the love that Witch Baby sees manifested around her. But still unable to find Angel Juan, she feels her own lonliness, “attacking all of her cells like a disease.” The smell of death is in the air, and when Witch Baby first descends into the underworld of the subways in search of her musician lover, there are strong evocations of Orpheus’s own descent into the underworld in search of his lover, Eurydice (although the roles are reversed here). A later, even more dramatic descent reinforces this notion, whlie adding to it the nightmare quality of another underground: Alice’s Wonderland, where a psychedelic tea party is in progress, attended by mysterious, soulless mannequins and a menacing “demon ghoulie ghoul,” the book’s antagonist, who is improbably named Cake.
Ultimately, if Weetzie Bat was about finding love, Missing Angel Juan is about letting it go, for only by refusing to possess the beloved, Witch Baby learns, can you truly know love.
Like Weetzie Bat and Block’s other, earlier novels, Missing Angel Juan is an engaging mix of fantasy and reality, but enhanced this time by mystery and suspence. It is also magical, mystical, moving, mischevous, and - literally - marvelous. It establishes, once again, that Block is one of the most original authors of her generation - a brilliantly visionary writer with a talent strong enough to imagine worlds where paradise is a possibility; where every sight and sound of the natural world is a blessing; and where love, in its infinite variety, is both humankind’s natural estate and heart-magic strong enough to redeem any loss. Reading this author’s lyrical prose and engaging her refreshingly innocent and romantic sensibility is like being brushed by wings and kissed by angels.
Excerpt 3 is about Weetzie Bat:
What the best of them also demonstrates is captured, I think, by Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (Harper, 1989). But of course this book demonstrates many things with marvelous art and insight; one is the technical matter of point of view: It is not told in the first-person voice of the gay character (Dirk), nor of the gay character’s friend, the eponymous Weetzie Bat. Rather it is told from the omniscient point of view - from that of the author, if you will. And it is obvious to any reader that the author not only knows her characters intimately but that she loves and respects them deeply.
Accordingly, Weetzie Bat epitomizes what all of the most successful and satisfying books about homosexuality have in common: They deal with it not in terms of sex or even success but in terms of love- and acceptance and respect.
For me the single most moving moment in twenty-five years of gay-themed young adult literature is also the simplest. And it occurs in Weetzie Bat, when Weetzie’s boyfriend Dirk, comes out to her. Here’s how it happens:
‘What were you going to tell me?’ Weetzie asked.
‘I’m gay,’ Dirk said.
‘Who, what, when, where, how - well, not how,’ Weetzie said. ‘It doesn’t matter one bit, honey-honey,’ she said, giving him a hug.
Dirk too a swig of his drink. ‘But you know I’ll always love you the best and think you are a beautiful, sexy girl,’ he said.
‘Now we can Duck hunt together,’ Weetzie said, taking his hand”.
In Weetzie’s wonderfully hip argot, “Duck hunt” means to search for your true love. And, mirabile dictu, both Weetzie and Dirk succeed. Weetzie finds her Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk finds his - Duck, a boy his age who is actually named Duck.
And they all live - well here’s what Weetzie thinks at the book’s conclusion as she looks at the circle of her loved ones surrounding her, “all of them lit up and golden like a wreath of lights: I don’t know about happily ever after…but I know about happily, Weetzie Bat thought”.
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An Interview with Francesca Lia Block
With Los Angeles glittering in the background and fairies, genies, magic, and ghosts shimmering in the forefront, Francesca Lia Block's stories offer a beautiful, hopeful mix of the ethereal and the utterly down-to-earth. The Weetzie Bat series - now compiled in Dangerous Angels - and the short stories in Girl Goddess #9 have earned the highest praise, not only from adoring fans of all ages, but also from critics. Amazon.com's Brangien Davis spoke with Block about her vivid, unique writing style and the inspiration for her wild and wonderful characters.
Amazon.com: Many of your stories have a fairy-tale quality about them - with witches, sprites, genies, lots of magic, and even "happily ever after" endings. Did you read a lot of fairy tales as a child?
Francesca Lia Block: I've always loved fairy tales. The reason I'm fascinated by them, partly, is because the original stories have a dark sense to them, which I think was kind of bleached out over the years. But that dark, intense, emotional aspect is just as important to me as the more delicate parts. Sometimes I'll take something directly, a myth or a fairy tale - and use it as a structure - for example, Missing Angel Juan has some of the myth of Orpheus as the structure. But I'll do both - either consciously work on a fairy-tale theme or let it filter in from my subconscious.
Amazon.com: Were there other books from your childhood that were influential in your writing?
Block: Children's books? Yes, The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. I loved that book. It's about a hunter and a mermaid who start a little family. But it's really poetically written - a really beautiful, mysterious kind of book. And Charlotte Zolotow - my original editor at Harper - I liked her books when I was a little girl. And that made it exciting to have her publish me. I also liked Rumer Godden, and some fantasy stories: A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia books, and The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
Amazon.com: Many of your characters, especially in the Dangerous Angels collection, have very magical and surreal experiences. Do you remember having experiences like that when you were growing up?
Block: I haven't had actual fairies come talk to me, but I have had some sort of mystical things happen. Later in my life when my dad died I had a series of really magical things that happened, sort of related to his spirit. But I think if I allowed myself to fully go there in my daily life, I wouldn't be grounded enough to write these stories. I have a friend who says she sees fairies, and I'm a little jealous, but I know that there's always part of me that keeps away from that - stays on this side of the line in order to remain in this world and write about what's in my imagination. So it becomes more metaphorical, I guess - the witches and the fairies and the genies are aspects of the self more than realities. Like the fairy in I Was a Teenage Fairy - it represents that part of the girl character that will stand up to conflicts and adversaries.
Amazon.com: I read somewhere that Witch Baby was the character that felt the closest to your heart.
Block: I think so. I mean, I certainly identify with Weetzie, on and off, more than with Witch Baby. But especially when I've had really rough times, I've identified a lot with Witch Baby - that feeling of being the outsider, and all those passionate feelings that get twisted up because there's just too much - and I always will, in a way.
Amazon.com: All of your books that I've read feel very cinematic - were you influenced by the fact that your dad was a filmmaker?
Block: Well, my dad started as a filmmaker and then was a painter, so the visual was really almost the religion in our house. And I drew and painted a little, earlier in my life. When I'm writing, it's almost like I'm watching a film - I describe what I'm seeing in my mind - it's all very visual and in color as I'm writing it.
Amazon.com: You can tell! Along those lines, are there plans for any movie adaptations?
Block: We're working on Weetzie Bat. Julie Hixon did a lovely script of Witch Baby, but I think we're going to try to start with Weetzie and then do Witch Baby. And I've been talking to David Lynch about some other stuff - there's a lot of buzz and I'm very interested. It's been a lengthy process, but hopefully something will happen soon.
Amazon.com: Your writing is so poetic and original. Did you have writing role models when you started out, or were you intent on being wholly unique?
Block: I read some magical realism in college - The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude - those books hugely influenced me. And that's what I kind of wanted to create, but I kept writing these really short things. Those books are these massive, all-encompassing, humanitarian visions and histories, and my stuff is so personal and small, compared to that. But I was certainly influenced by the way those writers combined the magic and the real - in almost every sentence of those books you get both. The same way you have the dark and the light of life. I was also moved by poetry. I read H.D. and Emily Dickinson pretty intensely, and those really spare, concrete modernist, imagistic poems were a big influence. And then that all got mixed in with the myths and the fairy tales and the punk subculture that I was interested in and the music I was listening to. I guess that's why it came out that way - in that combination. Also, I was encouraged to find my own voice by my parents, not to blindly follow something or somebody else. Maybe that was part of it, too.
Amazon.com: How do you come up with such great character names?
Block: I just try to look everywhere for a name - unexpected places. Like "Weetzie" - when I was 16 years old I was driving on the freeway and I saw this pink Pinto and the license plate said "Weetzie." And I'm not sure if I saw the driver or if I imagined it, but somehow I have an image of this girl who has bleach-blonde, short hair, wearing these pink harlequin glasses. And from there it became a character. To me, names are really powerful, like the whole "primitive belief in the power of the name," as in, once you know someone's name you have this power over them. That's something I always think about with names. Once I have the name of a character, then the character can sometimes come to life just based on the name. "My Secret Agent Lover Man" came from one time when I was in the ladies' restroom at the Berkeley library and between the grout and the tile someone had written, "My Secret Agent Lover Man, you will never read this." And I thought that was brilliant - that's where I got the name. I really have fun with it. Sometimes names will come completely subconsciously. I'll be writing and I'll need a name for a character and it will just appear, and then later on I notice it has all these weird subconscious meanings. Sometimes it will almost be embarrassing - too revealing - and I have to change it! [laughs]
Amazon.com: The Dangerous Angels collection is about this amazing, ever-expanding, makeshift family of writers and artists and poets and musicians. Is that something that you experienced when you were growing up?
Block: I had a close relationship with my mom and dad and they're both artists. I had my brother, but he was my half-brother and he didn't live with us very much because he's a lot older. So I felt like an only child, kind of isolated, and my companion was my writing. I think I was yearning for that sense of community - a really safe, loving community. It's interesting - this just popped into my mind for the first time - my mom always wanted to live on a commune. My dad was not into that at all - not that he was conservative, but different from my mom in that way. And I had these coloring books from the '60s about this little girl, Rainbow or something. And the books were all about how she lived in this commune and how everyone took care of each other and there was all this love. I think it was something I partly wanted and partly didn't, because I like my privacy, too. But maybe that's what Weetzie Bat is, yearning for that kind of community and trust. I'm always looking for a group of people I can completely trust - the way I feel with the very closest people in my life. When you feel that you can expand that closeness out, it's the most secure, joyful feeling.
Amazon.com: What is your sense of who your audience is, and what does the label "young adult" mean in your eyes?
Block: Well, when I was published as young adult the first time with Weetzie Bat I was a little surprised, because I didn't really expect it - I hadn't intended it. I was in my 20s at the time and I sort of thought that would be the age group of the readers. But being published as young adult actually worked really well, and I have been fortunate because I get to have a relationship with young people - they are so inspiring. A 17-year-old girl showed me a letter she wrote when she was 11 that said, "Your books let me know it's okay to be gay." And now she seems really confident with her sexuality. And with The Hanged Man, a girl who had been sexually abused told me, "This book helped me talk about a subject that I could never reveal before." I never would have had those experiences without the Y.A. publishing label, so I'm really glad of that. But then on the other hand, as I continued to write the books and do readings I encountered a lot of people in their 20s, and they were saying, "I never can find your book! It's hidden in the Y.A. section or next to the little kids' books. I only found it through word of mouth." "Y.A." is just a marketing device. There are books for adults that are about 14-year-olds, and there are books for kids that are very sophisticated. It's all about breaking down boundaries between people and finding that we all have children inside us, and children have a lot of sophistication, too. We're trying to find a way to market these books that crosses those boundaries.
Amazon.com: What was the inspiration for the new book I Was a Teenage Fairy?
Block: One thing was those photographs taken by the little girls in the early 1900s, where they took the pictures of fairies. I've always been fascinated with fairies but I've always had trouble writing about them. They're very ephemeral and they just won't stay on the page! I've screwed up a few times trying to write about fairies, because they can end up sounding too cute, or I've gone the other way and done the darker kind of description, and then they lose the human connection. So the fairy in this book, Mab, just kind of came to life. She's based on a few people in my life - advisors and protectors who've been funny and approached really serious, heavy things with a lightness that is healing.
Amazon.com: What about your forthcoming book, Zine Scene: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Zines?
Block: Yeah, we wrote it a while back and then there was a little delay because the previous publisher changed, but now we're with Girl Press, which is perfect. Have you seen Cool Women? That's an amazing book - Girl Press is wonderful. And this book about zines is really about the do-it-yourself, hands-on movement and the small press and all that. It was a really fun experience. I had been reading zines and they had been inspiring me. Hilary Carlip, my coauthor, knew a lot about them - she has a whole chapter about riot grrrls and girl power. The message behind the book is that creating a work of your own expression is extremely empowering. I think that's what's so beautiful about this movement - these kids are doing whatever they want to do; however it looks, whatever it says, they're doing it. And not only that, but they're getting it out into the world.
Amazon.com: Why do you think you touch so many people with your writing?
Block: Well, if I think about it too much that would screw me up and I couldn't write anything. I write from such a personal place that I am surprised that it touches people, but I think that is why it touches people, because of that link between us all. If you go to that really personal, private place that you kind of want to hide, and you share it, you find that there is a connection.
Amazon.com: Is there a message you're trying to get across to your readers?
Block: I think the stereotypical young adult book is the "problem novel" where there's a moral message. And you know, you wouldn't do that in an adult novel - you'd never get away with an adult novel that says, "Be this way" or "Do this." So why should we do it for kids? I don't set out to make an example for somebody. I just want to tell a story, and it's informed with beliefs that I naturally have. Those always seem to be the healing power of creative expression, and the healing power of love.
- by Brangien Davis
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A Conversation with
Francesca Lia Block
WP Conversation with Francesca Lia Block, the award-winning author of the endlessly cool Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, and most recently, The Hanged Man.
In tight black jeans, cowboy boots, a pale lace shirt and a black leather motorcycle jacket with pink and blue angels and birds painted on it, Francesca looks like the embodiment of her characters. As she reads from her books, the audience is hushed and listens intently as the fantasy comes to life. They are awed by characters with offbeat names like Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, Duck, Cherokee and the rest and they are enveloped by a world of glitter and paint, music, candles, basketballs, incense, surfboards, and rubber chickens. Magic is always around the next corner and love is the access around which the stories spin. These books blur the line between reality and fairy tales, and once you find yourself there, you'll never want to leave.
"As the daughter of a film-maker turned painter," Francesca told Writes of Passage, "I learned to see the world through my senses; when I was growing up everything was about color and feeling, emotion and creative expression." In junior high she was admittedly shy and reserved, spending most of her time writing. But in high school, she claims, "I discovered my wild side. My friends and I dressed up and went out all over LA." Her favorite haunts can be found in the pages of her books, which are a veritable homage to the City of Angels. An English major at UCLA and Berkeley, she knew she wanted to be a writer and took creative writing and poetry classes. She said, "Weetzie evolved in high school when my friends and I used to make up characters that were really our alter-egos. In college I started writing about Weetzie Bat and the whole series evolved from there."
The slang in the Weetzie books is unlike any you've ever heard, but somehow it fits perfectly. Francesca is often asked where she came up with terms like slinkster cool, and rockin' slink-chunk, slam-dunk band. She said that she and her friends made most of it up over the years in Los Angeles. Although she does write books for adults, Francesca asserts, "I never want to lose touch with the young part of myself - the positive, optimistic Weetzie part." She admits that some pieces of each novel are autobiographical, and each one heals a different part of her, and that Witch Baby is closest to her heart. Francesca encourages young people to write from their heart, not to censor themselves or to write what they think people want to hear. She says, "Write what turns you on, what electrifies you."
When asked who some of her favorite writers are, she rattled off D.H Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Wolfe, Jannete Winterson, and all the fairy tales and myths. Her favorite musicians right now are her boyfriend Teddy, Sinead O'Conner, Tori Amos, Jane Siberry and REM.
If you haven't read Francesca Lia Block's books yet, you have a great adventure ahead of you. Like liquid poetry, these books will melt into your consciousness, turning your world a little more like Weetzie's, where seeing through rose-colored glasses will show you everything you need to find.
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All Things Considered Chat With Francesca Lia Block
((August 30th, 1997)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST: And I'm Jacki Lyden.
The characters in Francesca Lia Block's young adult fiction live in an acid-colored fantasy land called Shangri L.A.
Witch Baby and Weetzie Bat carry plastic palm tree wallets and tomahawks, eat cheep cheese and bean burritos at places like El Coyote, or get something called a macro-erotic at I Love Juicy on Sunset Boulevard. They have unusual families, gay or extended or split.
Block has written a series of Weetzie Bat books, but the 34-year-old writer's latest work is a collection called "Girl Goddess #9".
Girls of all ages, three to young adulthood, learn about love and redemption and self-acceptance overall. And they have names out of a modern-day fairy tale, like Peachy Pie and Tweety Sweet Pea, Lady Ivory and Tuck Budd.
FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK, AUTHOR, "GIRL GODDESS #9": I've always been fascinated with names. I think names carry a great deal of power, even on a spiritual level. I think this idea of if you know someone' s true name, you know, you have some understanding of who they are.
And so, I love names and I love poetry and sounds and imagery.
So, I think that has to do with it. And I like to find names in unusual places. Like Weetzie, the name of the character in Weetzie Bat, was on a car license plate that I saw when I was 16-years-old.
And I look at graffiti and signs and just unusual places to find names.
LYDEN: Two of the girls in this book start a 'zine, a fan magazine, to their idol, and they call themselves Lady Ivory and Alabaster Duchess. And I thought what happens to them when they meet their rock idol was very funny, cause you probably, what exactly would happen if you ever really got a chance to have that fantasy? It would, you would be humiliated afterward, of course.
BLOCK: Well, they have a bit of a revelation about that, I think, in that story. So, it was a very fun story to write to, because I have been really inspired by these girls making these ' zines. That's what got me to write that story, that idea.
LYDEN: The things that happen in your stories for young girls are not always very happy. I mean, you have a sort of a fairy tale aspect around things like homosexuality, the loss of a parent, the death due to drug overdose, the idea that life is often going very much to the edge and you might just tip over it, something that probably scares adolescents.
BLOCK: I've always been very inspired by fairy tales, not only the beautiful magical aspects, but the very dark aspects. A lot of early fairy tales were very dark and, I think, that's something that kids are interested in and need to find in literature as a way to kind of get through the darkness in their lives, especially if there's some kind of a resolution to that darkness at the end.
LYDEN: Why don't you read us some of what you're talking about from one of the stories in this collection. You pick.
BLOCK: OK, this is a story called "Orpheus," told in the first person. This is actually an unnamed character. And it plays on the myth of Orpheus.
You know, in Orpheus, he has to go down underground to rescue his wife through his music. And actually, in that story, he isn't able to bring her back and it's a very sad story, but in this I try to make a twist on that one, where she does find her voice and she become Orpheus in this story.
"My voice is louder and my heart beats with and my blood runs with it. My throat opens. I am making white skeleton junkie trees dance and flower. I am bringing lost girls back from underground." But first I will go away, somewhere where it's cooler.
Somewhere where I'm less afraid. I will write a book of stories. Of girls becoming goddesses and goddesses becoming girls. They are all a part of me."
LYDEN: You speak about a young woman's finding her own voice.
And this does seem to be a recurrent theme in your short stories and novellas. And in Girl Goddess #9, the story I really liked about that, is about the girl whose mother commits suicide and she has a special friend who's a blue elf who lives in a closet. And this imaginary friend turns out to be really her muse.
BLOCK: Yes. That's, actually, one of my favorite stories and it' s definitely about when this girl experiences this great loss, she deals with her pain by creating this creature, or you don't know if it's real or not, but it's sort of a figment of her imagination who is called Blue, and this androgynous creature that lives in her closet.
And eventually, she finds her voice through writing. Then, her pain is somewhat alleviated and she doesn't need to have this character anymore in her life. She can express herself through her writing.
LYDEN: Now tell us about Witch Baby and Weetzie Bat. They live in Shangri L.A. and I have never seen anyone cram quite so many fantasies about Los Angeles into a few pages, as you have.
BLOCK: Well, yes, a very big part of the Weetzie Bat series is Los Angeles. It's almost a character in its own right. And this is a group unusual characters who kind of create their own family in Los Angeles.
Weetzie is the character in the first book and then her almost daughter is Witch Baby. She's a changeling that is left on the doorstep by her mother who's a witch, so, it definitely follows the fairy tale tradition in that sense.
LYDEN: But you also have a lot of redemptive power of love in these things. I mean, as far out as things get – Weetzie Bat, for example, loves to run around with an Indian headdress on and creates her children in an unusual situation which we will not give away, but which is hardly customary -- no matter how iconoclastic these people are, and sometimes maybe even, in terms of cultural mores, they are not ethically immoral. They are always talking about loving each other.
BLOCK: Well, that's the main theme of all the books – the healing power of love, also of art and creative expression. And, even though the books have been somewhat controversial, for the younger audience – in some ways, because of dealing with sexuality, drugs, death, you know, these themes – at the same time, usually, people begin to feel more comfortable with the books when they become familiar with this idea that they really are about love and connections between people, and humanity really. I mean, that's always something that I'm thinking of in the back of my mind when I'm writing.
LYDEN: Francesca Lia Block is the author of Girl Goddess #9 and the Weetzie Bat series.
[Jacki Lyden, Robert Siegel, Girl Goddess #9., All Things Considered (NPR), 07-30-1997.]
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The Scribe of Shangri-La
They face each other from across a card table, Francesca Lia Block and a jury of her protagonist’s peers. The girls, all 12 to 15 years old, sit in folding chairs in the back room of the Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, paperbacks in hand.
Everyone looks shy. They’ve came across town on a school night to grill Block, the author of five below-adult-radar literary hits known collectively as the “Weetzie Bat” books. Sweet, angry, cool and always a back-handed celebration of L.A., her novels make you want to throw on a taffeta dress and drive to Pink’s for a chili dog.
But know this: Sex, AIDS, drugs, coming out, global warming and anorexia all figure into Weetzie Bat’s world. And so do magic lamps, Tiny Naylor’s, fairies, Burt Reynolds’ toupee and the guilty pleasure of smoggy L.A. sunsets.
Sarah: Do you write your books to be different?
Block: If you listen to your inner voice, the work is going to be different. I had to write a pitch for a movie adaptation of one of my books. The woman said, “Oh, this is very dark. Really, we want something lighter.” (Laughter and shrugs) As my editor said, my characters go through stuff. But I also see magic in life. I totally believe in that idea. And I see the dark stuff. Both need to be there for the story to be complete.
Forty years ago, coming-of-age novels were mostly formulaic morality tales meant to dampen unruly hormones. In the ‘60s, the so-called “young adult” publishing niche took off alongside divorce, drugs and experimental sex. S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” became a genre classic. Judy Blume and Richard Peck, among others, also nailed the adolescent point-of-view. Block clearly wants to move beyond the YA label. Her last “Weetzie Bat” title was published in 1995, and she released the more grown-up “Violet and Claire” this fall. Yet she cannot shake the skinny girl with the bleach-blond flat-top and sugar-frosted eye shadow. Weetzie Bat is a bona fide underground hero, the subject of countless zine articles, far-flung fan mail and plenty of pointed questions.
What the girls of the Mount Washington book club don’t ask this night at the bookstore is: How did this character emerge?
Block had left her native Southern California in the early ‘80s to study English literature at UC Berkeley. “I was lonely,” she says. “As I was walking home from school, I would tell myself these stories. I really thought of Weetzie Bat as a love letter to Los Angeles.
In the grout lines between the tiles is tiny little writing
Weetzie Bat hangs out with her best friend, Dirk, who is gay. Together they go duck hunting – Buff Ducks, Skinny Ducks, Surf Ducks, Rasta Ducks with dreads and Ducks in Duckmobiles racing around the city. One Duck inflicts bruises on Weetzie Bat’s wrists. Another, Alcoholic Art Duck with a ponytail, talks about his dead girlfriend. Later, Dirk sees him kissing all the boys at an all-boy party.
Love and acceptance elude Weetzie and friends but they never stop searching.
“I just want My Secret Agent Lover Man,” Weetzie says to Dirk.
Block says the name for the fantasy boyfriend who ultimately materializes was spelled out for her at Berkeley.
“I’m in the library bathroom,” she recalls. “In the grout between the tiles is tiny little writing. Somebody has written, “My secret agent lover man, you will never read this.”
As for Weetzie, she says, “When I was 16, I was driving and saw this pink Pinto with the license plate WEETZIE. I think the girl driving had bleached-blond hair, but I don’t remember.”
Followed all The Rules at first
She used three names well before the era of Jennifer Love Hewitt. She is writing a nighttime soap for MTV. And she knows enough about operating successfully in Hollywood not to divulge her exact age.
We're sitting in the 17th Street Café on Montana Avenue, at a Westside bistro where, when a cell phone rings, everybody except Block grabs for a pocket.
“Do you consider yourself cool?” I ask this because the others in the know have written that she is.
Block laughs softly. “I would never say it if I did.”
Nora: How much of your books are based on personal experience?
Block: Some of the experiences are from my life. Some of the very heavy are not. All of my books have some qualities from my life, but I also take great liberties. I also use Tarot cards, legends and stories from other people to tell my own story.
Block grew up in the San Fernando Valley in an unstructured hippie household where her mother wrote poetry and her father painted. When Francesca was a teenager, he illustrated two volumes of her verse, published by Santa Susana Press. “It gave me confidence,” she says.
She also grew up with ties to Hollywood. Her father, Irving Block, wrote and did special effects for the film “Forbidden Planet.” Her grandmother, a screenwriter, lived for a time at the Garden of Allah, the legendary Hollywood apartment complex.
Block’s mother would tell stories of her childhood – living at the Garden of Allah, hopping up to the counter at Schwab’s for lunch.
“My dad, who was 20 years older than my mom, would go there, too,” says Block.
“They were probably sitting next to each other.”
As a teenager, Block rebelled from her free-expression parents by cutting her hair short, bleaching it white and escaping the Valley in her engineer boots for punk rock clubs on the Sunset Strip, adventures that found their way into her fiction.
While she was telling herself L.A. stories in faraway Berkeley, Block didn’t know she was writing a young adult book. “I clearly wrote for people my age,” she says. When a friend sent the story to HarperCollins, however, the manuscript got picked up as a young adult book.
“Is this right for a young adult audience?” she asked. Her editor, Charlotte Zolotow, said yes.
That was 10 years ago. Block isn’t one to snub her constituents. Her work enjoys the kind of steady buzz generated by parental disapproval, which is all the blessing kids need. Still, there’s always the oaf at the cocktail party wanting to know when she’s going to write a “real” book.
“It’s frustrating,” Block admits. “You get good reviews. But there are times when, if I tell someone I write young adult books, their face just goes blank. They’ll say, when you write a book for grown-ups, let me know. Should I go on my little soapbox and tell them how these books actually cross over?”
She glances around the room as if looking for something taller than her sparkling platform sandals on which she might stand to make her point. Clearly, she’s in a bind – a velvet one, perhaps – but a bind just the same. Block longs to count on more adult readers, but without betraying the YA audience that has afforded her a writer’s life.
“A lot of my favorite books marketed as adult fiction have young protagonists,” she adds. “It’s very arbitrary.”
Her publicist calls to remind me that adults read Block’s books too.
Connie: I don’t have a sense of your characters’ ages.
Block: I think there’s a lot of division in our society. They say when you’re one age you’re going to feel a particular way, and when you’re older, you’ll feel different. When I was a kid, I had a lot of the feelings I have now…both the joyous and the insecure. They don’t totally go away.
He kissed her. A kiss about apple pie a la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat. A kiss about chocolate, when you haven’t eaten chocolate in a year. A kiss about palm trees speeding by, trailing pink clouds when you drive down the Strip sizzling with champagne. A kiss about spotlights fanning the sky and the swollen sea spilling like tears all over your legs.
Some kiss. But for all her frank discussion about things sexual in the Weetzie Bat series and in a collection of erotic short stories due out this spring, Block jokes about her own love life. She points out that she resorted taking her brother to a party for L.A.’s 100 coolest people, of which she was one, thrown by now-defunct Buzz magazine.
Soon after, she went on a blind date arranged by friends with the man who would become her husband, actor Chris Schuette.
“A friend had lent me that book, ‘The Rules.’ I looked through it and thought, this is horrible. But I’d had such bad luck being open and getting really close right away that I decided to try it. I followed all ‘The Rules’ at first. And he was a little bit confused. He’s say to his friend ‘Do you think she likes me?’ ”
They were married in December 1998.
“I was raised in this free-spirit, express-yourself environment,” she says. “But I think I would raise my children more carefully in this way. I’d teach my daughters some of these things because, I don’t know, I didn’t learn any of them.”
A cowboy riding a little plastic white horse
Much of Block’s writing has to do with what she calls magic realism, a style embraces by Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here Block describes Weetzie Bat’s father as he dies of a drug overdose:
Charlie was dreaming of a city where everyone was always young and lit up like a movie, palm trees turned into tropical birds. Marilyn-blonde angels flew through the spotlight rays, the cars were the color of candied mints and filled with lovers making love as they drove down the streets paved with stars that had fallen from the sky. Charlie was dreaming of a giant poppy like a bed. He had taken some pills, and this time he didn’t wake up from his dream.
Block believes in magic. Not like fairies and potions, really. But she has felt what she can only describe as magic in art. And love.
When she speaks of her own father, her face softens and her voice goes limp.
“Whatever is going on in my life usually comes out in my books,” she says. “In ‘Weetzie Bat,’ the theme is letting go of fear. In ‘Violet & Claire,’ it’s about the light and dark aspects of oneself – the ambitious part that can lead to destructive situations and the ethereal, delicate part that can be wounded so easily. In ‘Missing Angel Juan,’ it’s about letting go the one you love.”
Block was 23 when her father died after a long illness. “I’ve been so influenced by my dad,” she says, clearly wanting him here, now, at this table.
On the day he died, Block and her mother, Gilda, decide to take a walk through Laurel Canyon. Coming upon the edge of a field, the women look up. A white horse gallops toward them, nuzzling Francesca through the fence.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this was a connection with my dad, “she says.
Block goes back to school. A few days later, as she’s walking down Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Block sees something on the sidewalk in front of her. She reaches down.
“Now why would you pick something off Telegraph Avenue?” says Block of the famously scruffy street. “I never do that.”
But she did. And when she opened her hand, this is what she saw: a cowboy riding a little white plastic horse.
Canyons run through it
In Block’s novels, Los Angeles always gets the best lines. “We live in Shangri-La,” exclaims Weetzie, standing in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood as she watches lights being strung along the street. “Shangri Los Angeles. It’s always Christmas.”
Later, it gets more complicated. Witch Baby, who tapes newspaper stories of nuclear disasters, plagues and train wrecks onto her bedroom wall, calls this place Los Diablos. Devil City. “Sometimes this city feels like an expensive tomb,” mutters My Secret Agent Lover Man. And at one point in “Violet & Claire,” Los Angeles is transformed into a welcome-to-hell party brimming with drugs, alcohol and the debilitating regret of slipped dreams.
“Other than going to Berkeley, I’ve lived here all my life,” says Block. “I have a kind of love/hate relationship with L.A., but mostly in my books, especially the early ones, it’s love. I see the negative stuff, the phoniness. But L.A. also has canyons that run through it, pink sunsets, jacaranda trees. I’m intrigued by that contrast.”
As Block’s character Claire sees it, “Everyone here is so beautiful and well dressed and tan like TV ads and their cars are so new and lunar looking. They have mansions perched on stilts on the top of hills, in spite of earthquakes, and huge gas-slurping cars even though they have to drive an hour to get anywhere, and they wear sunglasses all year long. Many of the flowers here are beautiful by also poisonous – oleander and belladonna. The air is poisonous, too, but deceptive, because at sunset it is rose and it shines, and at night it smells of jasmine.”
Ashley: Some of your characters are kind of, well, ditzy. Is that your interpretation of L.A.?
Block: No, not at all. Some of my characters inhabit a kind of innocence. Witch Baby, for example, has a lot of anger and powerful energy. But I have loving feelings for all my characters. I would never write with condescending feelings towards them.
Although her books have been courted as movie material, Weetzie Bat the film project has yet to get off the ground. “Amblin was going to option it, then Tim Burton did,” Block says, ticking off the list. “The Storyopolis did and wrote a good screenplay with [the book] ‘Witch Baby,’ but when that option ran out I pulled back. I still want it to happen but would like to write it myself. I’m very protective. I don’t have that many babies and I want to keep some of them close.”
She gets letters about her literary progeny. From New York. The Midwest. Germany. Fan letters. Lonely letters. Break-your-heart letters. “I got a letter from a reader who’d been reading my books since she was very young,” says Block. “And she said that my book let her know it was OK to be gay. That was very moving to me. Another young woman who had been sexually molested read one of my books and it helped her to seek therapy. I got another letter that sounded almost suicidal. I called a suicide hotline because I wanted to do something but I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”
And there are letters from grown-ups, both praising her work and taking issue with it. “I get fewer and fewer [critical] letters but I still hear about libraries where my books were banned. And I understand how the parent would feel. As a writer, though, it’s something I can’t think about.”
Stories are like genies
The girls want to know one last thing. How do the books get written? Block doesn’t begin until she fills up with the story. “I do better if I give myself some flexibility. If I don’t write for a few days, I allow that time to do reading and filling up.” When she does sit down at the keyboard, Block describes the process as “walking down a path and whatever is happening in the book, I witness as I write.”
And when she’s not writing, she still walks. For hours, sometimes, through her Santa Monica neighborhoods. “That’s where I get a lot of my inspiration.”
These days, however, her thoughts are not on Weetzie Bat. Block has set her free.
“Stories are like genies, Dirk thought. They can carry us into and through our sorrows. Sometimes they burn, sometimes they dance, sometimes they weep, sometimes they sing. Like genies, everyone has one. Like genies, sometimes we forget that we do.
Our stories can set us free, Dirk thought. When we set them free.”
~ by Debra J. Hotaling
[From the Los Angeles Times Magazine; Dated: 14th November, 1999]
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Francesca Lia Block Is Fun To Read But...
Reading Multicultural Literature in Schools
Bristol Middle School
Until recently, few authors of young adult novels have depicted a social world that easily accepts people with differences. While some novels describe other cultures from a variety of viewpoints, and others portray characters whose identities bridge two cultures, few have modeled a community where cultural differences are equally valued. In her young adult novels, Francesca Lia Block does exactly that. Weetzie Bat (1989) depicts a "live and let live" world where diversities are not only tolerated but welcomed. In Witch Baby (1991) the characters find that tolerance is not enough; they must actively strive to understand and share the problems of people who suffer because of their differences.
The Bat books are set in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, a place where diverse cultures mingle easily and often. In Weetzie Bat Block creates a community representative of this diversity centered on the punk Weetzie Bat, "a skinny girl with a bleach-blonde flat top,...pink Harlequin sunglasses, strawberry lipstick." She is the daughter of Charlie Bat, a Jewish writer from New York City who looks "like a cigarette," and Brandy-Lynn, a Los Angeles B-movie starlet who drinks cocktails and relaxes with Valium. The marriage does not work because Charlie needs New York but Brandy Lynn loves LA and neither will compromise. The clash between these North American cultures - East Coast versus West Coast - leads to the Bats' angry separation. In contrast to her parents' intolerance, Weetzie embraces cultural diversity.
It is her mother's Los Angeles, full of differences, that Weetzie prefers; she feels alienated from her high school because no one understands the wonder of a city where "you could buy tomahawks...plastic palm tree wallets...cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos...and all night potato knishes". She loves this city's diversity "where it was hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels, Los Angeles", but she loves it alone until she meets Dirk, "the best-looking guy at school". They become best friends, and enjoy the city together, but this is not a regular romance:
"What were you going to tell me?" Weetzie asked.
"I'm gay," Dirk said.
"Who, what, when, where, how..well not how," Weetzie said. "It doesn't matter one bit, honey-honey," she said, giving him a hug.
Dirk took a swig of his drink. "But you know I'll always love you best and think you are a beautiful sexy girl," he said.
"Now we can Duck hunt together, Weetzie said, taking his hand".
Dirk falls in love with Duck Drake, a blond-haired blue-eyed surfer, and Weetzie meets My Secret Agent Lover Man, the man she has been longing for. They all live together, visited by a host of acquaintances: the Rastifarian Valentine Jah-Love, his Chinese wife Ping Chong, their son Raphael, and Coyote, a Native American shaman. My Secret Agent Lover Man makes movies, enlisting these new friends as extras and they all become successful.
These diverse cultures are mirrored in their parties, where they eat "Weetzie's Vegetable Love-Rice, My Secret Agent Lover Man's guacamole, Dirk's homemade pizza, Duck's fig and berry salad and Surfer Surprise Protein Punch, Brandy-Lyn's pink macaroni, Coyote's cornmeal cakes, Ping's mushu plum crepes and Valentine's Jamaican plaintain pie". These gatherings, like the community itself, mix these different cultural ingredients into a excitingly spicy blend of fun and friendship.
However, this feast of personalities is not enough for Weetzie; she wants a baby. "The world's a mess," My Secret Agent Lover Man says, "And there's no way I feel okay about bringing a baby into it". But Weetzie is determined and gets pregnant by sleeping with Dirk, Duck, and My Secret Agent Lover Man. She had thought that once she was pregnant, mere love would change her husband's mind. She is wrong. My Secret Agent Lover Man, hurt and angry, leaves. When he finally returns nine months later, Weetzie has suffered from his absence, but is joyous at his return. All seems resolved. The baby that has brought them together is lovely; and oddly enough, she seems to have physical characteristics of all her fathers. They name her Cherokee.
Then another more troublesome addition arrives: Witch Baby, alias Lily. Fathered by My Secret Agent Lover Man while he was away, the infant is left on their doorstep by her witch mother, Vixanne Wigg. My Secret Agent Lover Man wants to return the baby to Vixanne, but Weetzie replies, "If you can accept Cherokee as yours without being sure, then I can accept Lily, even though I know she's not mine; I can accept her because you are her daddy-o". Again Weetzie proposes unquestioning acceptance, but others in the group are not so sure. "I hope she is not a voodoo queen already," Dirk says. "I hope she is not going to hex me if I don't give her her favorite kind of Gerbers," Duck adds.
Soon after Witch Baby's arrival, two other upheavals threaten the family. Duck, distraught with fear because a former friend is sick with AIDS, runs away, and Weetzie, saddened by her father's suicide, crumbles. However, in the end, love prevails. Dirk persuades Duck to return home, and My Secret Agent Lover Man nurses Weetzie back to her former cheerful self: "love and disease are both like electricity, Weetzie thought. They are always there.... We can choose to plug into the love current instead. I don't know about happily ever after..., but I know about happily".
Weetzie Bat (1989) is a novel that's "mostly wild and sometimes woozy, but it's full of life and the author cares for her characters. So will many readers.... Some readers may be offended by Dirk's homosexuality and by offhand references to different kinds of passion, but the book is funny and reads beautifully aloud.... Weetzie Bat probably isn't like anything else you're going to read this year, but you owe it to yourself to try a few pages". These reviewers are talking to English teachers and scholars, readers of the English Journal. We have underlined the "buts," and that's the way most public school teachers feel about these novels.
"Francesca Lia Block's books are wonderful to read, but I wouldn't teach them in high school," declared Brad when we first started discussing these novels, and Suzanne agreed. So did most of her college students, who read the novels in a first-year class, and a few of Brad's former middle school students who read the novels during the summer, outside of school. Almost all of our students felt that the struggles of a gay couple or of teens with drug addiction or easy sex were realistic, describing experiences readily available even to younger teens. But many of our students also felt that these novels were not appropriate for in-school reading. While the issues of homosexuality, interracial dating, and sex outside of marriage are common in the movies, novels, and TV shows they watch outside of class, they shied away from addressing these volatile subjects in school, especially in printed texts, which seemed to lend them some moral authority: "like when you sign a contract to make [a promise] real, when you read a book you make your own realities because you use your own imagination." Dealing with "real" issues in high school seems dangerous to about half our students, and attractive to the other half: "You shouldn't teach these books to students below the eleventh or twelfth grade because they wouldn't be mature enough to accept the topics discussed," vs. "Why didn't you give me these books in the eighth grade? They deal with real life issues I need to know about."
Easy sex, reckless experimentation with drugs and alcohol, automatic and unquestioning acceptance of ethnic and social differences: in its opening chapters, the book seems to encourage the kind of indulgent lifestyles so attractive to teenagers anyway. The style mirrors MTV - technically impressive; superficially glitzy, sensual and attractive; portraying the exciting side of sex and experimentation. Yet soon, Weetzie and her friends find that "Love is a dangerous angel", and as the novel continues, they experience the deep pain of separation from loved ones and the fear of that loss.
Because of its facile tone, the book also seems to fulfill its characters' dreams through magical chance more than through personal effort. Weetzie wants a boyfriend for her, a lover for Duck, and a place to live; she rubs an old lantern and presto! a genie literally appears, and soon she has them all. Her ingenuous optimism is familiar to teachers of young adolescents who feel that most of the problems in the world could be solved if people would "just be happy"..."just do it!" At the end of the first of these novels, Weetzie's ethic seems like this simplistic happy-face kind of love. Like most of us, she would rather ignore the reality of painful effort, hiding her fears under smiles. She fails to remember that love came to her and Dirk only after long lonely waiting, and that the house was left to her and Dirk because they generously befriended an older relative.
Perhaps this simplistic faith in luck is analogous to our early efforts at multicultural teaching. Many of us use books and stories about other cultures to introduce our students to "politically correct" attitudes, assuming (or perhaps just hoping) that exposure to different cultures will breed tolerance and acceptance. One of Suzanne's students admitted, "Yeah, we all say the right words in class and we're nice and everything, but socially we don't hang around with "them" because then we might be considered, you know, ...people would think we were...." In the same class were two international students who had written briefly but poignantly about their desperate loneliness. Tolerating and "being nice" is obviously not enough, yet we are reluctant to discuss the changes we would have to make in our personal lives to form genuine friendships with people who are culturally different.
In her second novel, Witch Baby, Block addresses Weetzie's facile solution: tolerance of everything. By now, the irritable, irritating baby has grown into an adolescent who is jealous of Cherokee's and Weetzie's cheerful nature. Witch Baby insists on covering her walls with newspaper stories about the tragedies of the world, stories of poverty and suffering. Like My Secret Agent Lover Man, she feels that she wants "something strong." She avoids the parties and the easy starlit loving of the people that surround her, insisting on her anger and her sorrow, though she also yearns for their acceptance and love. She recognizes herself as an outsider, a disrupting force to their easy happiness. But when she runs away to find her mother, Vixanne Wigg, she finds that escaping pain is not an answer. Vixanne and her other witch friends live in a creepy mansion where they watch Jayne Mansfield movies and eat candy, lulling themselves and Witch Baby into apathetic anomie. Dissatisfied with this mere half-life, Witch Baby renews her search for a home: "Where do I belong?" she asks. "At home in the globe", says the man who sells her the globe-shaped lamp which she furtively gives to My Secret Agent Lover Man, who mistakenly attributes this thoughtful gift to Weetzie. And Weetzie, distracted by his new hope and cheerfulness, never gets around to telling him otherwise.
When Duck decides to confront his parents with the truth about his sexual preference, Witch Baby accompanies him. She can and does express anger when Duck's mother refuses to accept his message. She sees the mother's selfish motives and forces her to probe into the truth about herself. When Witch Baby returns from her odyssey to help Duck and to discover her true identity, Weetzie has taken the time to reflect on Witch Baby's nature and her own response to it. Like Weetzie, whose "hair is really dark, you know, beneath all this bleach," Witch Baby is a black lamb,
"the wild one who doesn't fit in....[who] expresses everyone else's anger and pain. It's not that they have all the anger and pain - they're just the only ones who let it out.... You face things, Witch Baby. And you help us face things."
Weetzie recognizes that she "gets so caught up in being good and sweet and taking care of everyone that sometimes I don't admit when people are really in pain". In this book Weetzie and her friends realize that love and concern entail active attention to the problems caused by a non-inclusive society.
Block's books, like other utopian visions of mutual friendship among individuals with diverse backgrounds and values, illustrate the kind of acceptance of differences that we foresee in our schools:
"We want our classrooms to be just and caring, full of various conceptions of the good. We want them to be articulate, with the dialogue involving as many persons as possible, opening to one another, opening to the world. And we want them to be concerned for one another, as we learn to be concerned for them. We want them to achieve friendships for one another."
Maxine Greene's vision sounds good to most of us who have been raised to believe in our country's democratic principles and in teaching as a benevolent profession. She is articulating a goal of "multicultural education," a generic term that includes global awareness, cultural plurality, and democratic education. These concepts embrace the need for understanding and respecting cultural differences in an effort to build a world where all people interact harmoniously while enjoying the freedom to maintain their cultural uniqueness.
But how do we create such an environment? Like Weetzie and her multicultural family in Witch Baby, we realize that it is no longer enough to mouth polite wishes for toleration and universal love. Like Witch Baby, we must face the deeper issues of multicultural ethics, doing more than introducing our students to the various foods, costumes, music, and dialects of other cultures. If we believe in the principles of multicultural community, we must acknowledge the worth of people with different values, even when they threaten our traditional habits of thinking and living. But how?
When Suzanne introduced these books to first-year college students, they voiced strong reactions against the discomfort that these issues caused. Several students described their impatience with the efforts of their high schools "to shove multiculturalism down our throats.... I mean, what about `our' [mainstream middle-class] culture?" Perhaps their reaction confirms the need for assigning books like these where the connection among multicultural life styles is made real and possible in print, and where the painful questions raised by meeting different lifestyles are given authority by their inclusion in school discussions. After all, one source of learning is cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable recognition that what we believe to be true no longer fits our definition of truth. If we are serious about participating in a democratic society, perhaps we must undertake the responsibility of acting as ethical guides, encouraging our students not only to tolerate but to welcome and assist people of different cultures to participate equally in the life of the classroom.
Does this mean that we should sanction every uniqueness, encouraging everyone to "do his or her own thing?" In the third novel of this series, Cherokee and the Goat Guys (1992), Block describes what happens when individuals focus on self-fulfillment, ignoring the needs of others. Cherokee and her friends Raphael, Angel Juan, and Witch Baby are at that stage in adolescence when they yearn to test and taste the power of their newly acquired selves. Witch Baby at first meets this urge by burrowing into the mud like "a seed in the slippery, silent, blind, breathless dark..., a secret green dream deep inside". Worried about her stepsister's retreat from life, Cherokee seeks help from Coyote, the adult in charge while the rest of the family is away shooting a movie. Sensing the depth of Cherokee's concern, he helps her fashion a pair of wings for Witch Baby, which raise her from the mud. Then the four friends decide to pool their talents and form a band, The Goat Guys. They work together in wonderful harmony until, venturing into the nightclub scene, they freeze, unable to cope with the tawdry worldliness of the public. Because Cherokee has urged them to perform, she feels responsible for their failure. With the help of Coyote's magic, she obtains a costume for each member: haunches for Raphael, horns for Angel Baby, hooves for herself, and the wings for Witch Baby. These talismans exaggerate the qualities that each member of this rock and roll quartet brings from his or her cultural background, intensifying their individual differences in similar fashion to the costumes or social masks many adolescents use to help define their separate identities. But focusing on their differences engenders self-centered pride and even jealousy which begin to drive these adolescents apart. They begin to think more about immediate self-gratification than the future of their mutual friendship. Only when Coyote resumes his responsibility for guiding his young charges toward spiritual community does this group of four resume their healing circle of mutual appreciation and support.
This novel illustrates the inevitable constraints of a democratic society on individual development, where the actions "of the people" must be balanced by a concern "for the people." This tension forms the crux of the multicultural debate. While tolerating and even celebrating individual differences, we as teachers might remember that our responsibility is to encourage mutual care and cooperation.
Yet we are also concerned that individuals are allowed the freedom to develop and practice their unique identities even while sharing in a community of mutual concern. The fourth novel in the series, Missing Angel Juan (1993), describes Witch Baby's realization that she must develop her own gifts to become whole rather than depend on her friend Angel Juan or any other soul for sustenance. Lonely for her beloved Angel Juan who has gone off to New York to find himself as a musician, Witch Baby convinces Weetzie Bat to let her stay in Charlie Bat's old apartment. There she meets his spirit, a Chaplinesque ghost who guides her through the streets and smells of the city and helps her learn not only to be herself but to like and respect herself. As she admits her own strengths, redefining her identity as an agent for change rather than victim of circumstance, Witch Baby recognizes the need for Angel Juan to be free to define an identity of his own to love and respect. With a new confidence that their friendship is more than her dependent need for his presence, she lets him start his own journey.
As teachers we can help our students recognize that balance between genuine friendship and dependence, between embracing new people and ideas and allowing them and ourselves freedom to define and express individual identities.
We hesitate to hand these and similar books to our younger adolescents who might see only the facile glitzy surface, the excitement of tasting different adventures, and the glamor of knowing colorful unusual individuals without recognizing the complexity of that kind of lifestyle. Already our students are exposed to the language and the images of easy sex and drugs, attractively packaged with only glibly worded tags warning them of the risks. The media our students watch is immediate and flashy; they can comprehend the excitement and the intensity viscerally, from the rhythm and the beat. But grief and pain, illness and death take time to convey.
Block's language enchants her audience in the same way, capturing the flashy rhythms and the glamorous speed of teenage TV. But with this major difference: she also portrays the consequences, capturing the loneliness, the fear, and the yearning of young people who live in a fast-paced world of fascinating ventures. She moves her readers beyond the easy thrills and the superficial excitement toward reflections about the complex nature of love and friendship. For the young adults in our charge who already know the dangers of easy superficial love, we might introduce Block's books as a metaphoric manual for the kind of living where so many choices are available. We might use her books to elucidate the complexities of living in a world where the multicultural ethic dominates. Perhaps it is because our younger students might miss Block's message that we should teach these and similar books.
If we intend to create the kind of community Maxine Greene describes, we must grapple with the difficult issues of living "multiculturally," not only appreciating each others' foods and music and fun, but also listening to each others' stories, hearing the troubles and pain along with the strength and celebration. Hearing these stories, we begin to conceive of friendships where no one is dominant because of their cultural background, where members of a community offer each other both the support and freedom to develop individual identities which can work and play in harmony.
[from The ALAN Review, 1994]
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