November 02, 2018

Alex Gino

“I think that discussing privilege and recognizing ourselves and others in the world is crucial.”
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Alex Gino’s You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! introduces readers to the thoughtful, ever-curious Jilly, whose new baby sister has arrived. Jilly’s sister is deaf, and in no time at all, she and her hearing family come face-to-face with a host of decisions to make about how to communicate with her. Jilly reaches out to her friend, Derek, also deaf, whom she met online. At the same time, Jilly learns from her black aunt and cousins about what it means to live a life of privilege and the ways in which she can be open to growth. We asked Gino a few questions about this thought-provoking, conversation-starter of a second novel.

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Alex Gino’s You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! introduces readers to the thoughtful, ever-curious Jilly, whose new baby sister has arrived. Jilly’s sister is deaf, and in no time at all, she and her hearing family come face-to-face with a host of decisions to make about how to communicate with her. Jilly reaches out to her friend, Derek, also deaf, whom she met online. At the same time, Jilly learns from her black aunt and cousins about what it means to live a life of privilege and the ways in which she can be open to growth. We asked Gino a few questions about this thought-provoking, conversation-starter of a second novel.

You address hearing privilege and white privilege in this book, amongst other things. Did you always know the book would tackle both subjects or did the story evolve that way as you wrote?
Writing is a long and windy road. Jilly P started as an intergenerational story of deafness—Jilly’s grandmother was losing her hearing and a lot of the book was about how her story was different from Jilly’s baby sister Emma, who was born deaf. But that plotline didn’t really give much for Jilly to do—a problem for a main character, so my editor told me. But as I was revising, Derek (a deaf black kid around Jilly’s age) started to take a large role in the story. Jilly had a hard time seeing him as a full person at first, rather than as a stand-in for his black and Deaf identities. From there, the story turned into one of Jilly making sense of her privilege and how to use it well.

I spent nearly a decade as a sign language interpreter, and I especially appreciate this part in the story: Derek tells Jilly that he was annoyed by people staring at him signing in a restaurant, and she responds with “signing is pretty,” as if that excuses stares. Or as if that’s all American Sign Language, a bona fide, complex language in its own right, has going for it (“prettiness”). As someone knowledgeable of sign language yourself, have you experienced this firsthand?
Yes, and as someone who has struggled to master a language full of nuance and regionalisms, I’ve been frustrated by people who say they’ve been thinking about learning ASL because it’s “so pretty,” or they’re “so expressive” and so they’d “be great at it.” Or people who tell me they know how to sign when really they know some isolated nouns and adjectives. Do you say you speak Spanish because you can order at a taqueria? I can’t even imagine the range of inaccuracies and misunderstandings Deaf people have to deal with, even (or especially) from people who think they know more than they do.

In many ways, Jilly’s family is being tested with regard to the decision-making in their lives that they’re so used to. Derek, for instance, tells Jilly it’s not his call, nor her call, whether or not her sister should get a cochlear implant. The family is learning a lot about the deliberateness of their decisions—and the whos and whys behind them. Is this something you consciously wanted to address?
Absolutely. Parents want to do everything “right” for their children. Hearing parents of deaf babies face a lot of decisions on behalf of their infant children, often without access to information or understanding of the Deaf community. Audiologists focus on decibels and megahertz, and while many doctors now encourage families to sign, some do still advocate for oralism and lip-reading to the exclusion of the deaf child’s natural language. Cochlear implants and hearing aids are valuable tools, but they don’t turn Deaf people into hearing people. As Ella Mae Lentz says in her beautiful ASL poem “To A Hearing Mother,” “he is your son, but he is my people.”

Aunt Alicia explains microaggressions to Jilly: “It’s like the difference between stepping on someone’s foot by mistake and kicking them. Only one is mean, but they both hurt. Sometimes you don’t have to be trying to hurt someone. You just have to say the wrong thing.” In the school visits you’ve done, have you ever run across or heard about curricula that discusses racism, white privilege, etc. with students? Do you think it’s a good idea to have that as part of a curriculum in schools?
I think that discussing privilege and recognizing ourselves and others in the world is crucial to develop empathy as well as critical thinking. I tend not to talk curriculum details on school visits, but I can tell when I’m in a room with kids who are encouraged to talk candidly. One of the best things I think a teacher can do is sit with students in discomfort and complexity without trying to have all the answers. So I guess it’s not a curriculum I’m looking for so much as a class ethos that can be applied to just about any subject matter.

Jilly learns a lot about the different challenges people face—and that her responses to such things can make a difference, for better or worse. What age were you when you very first realized this in your own life?
I don’t think of it as a switch—I can’t name the first time I realized that my actions are rooted in my experience and that their consequences lay out differently based on our marginalizations. That’s something I’m still learning. And to try to name the first time feels like I’m trying to tout myself as someone who always knew. For so long, I didn’t know. But one early realization was in middle school when I realized that my “A” class was about two-thirds white, while the “B” classes were pretty mixed and the “C” classes were mostly black. And yes, they were called A, B and C tracks. I knew something was skewed, but no one talked about it, other than to lay the responsibility of where they had landed directly on them because “education is fair.” But it’s not fair when racism and class dominate the way they do in the United States.

I like the world-building of B. A. Delacourt’s Magically Mysterious Vidalia trilogy, Jilly’s favorite books. How much work did you put into detailing that world for yourself? Are you tempted to write a fantasy trilogy now?
Not even a little bit. Plot is really hard for me, and fantasy books are filled is adventure and plot twists. This way, I got to do some of the world building and character creation without having to worry about what actually happens in the books or creating a strong story arc.

Are you working on any new books?
Always. The project I’m focused most on right now is a companion novel to George. It takes place two years later, and focuses on the bully’s best friend. It’s time for Rick to get out from under his “friend”’s thumb, and junior high is a great opportunity to discover who you are and how you want to be in the world. There’s also a queer student alliance, and, of course, Melissa is in the background, happy as can be, with not a bit of the kind of adversity that a plot requires.

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