2010 National Book Award Winner,
Young People's Literature
Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group
Interview by Eisa Ulen
Eisa Ulen: The female protagonist in your novel, Caitlin, has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition your daughter also has. In Mockingbird, Caitlin must struggle to get along with classmates who marginalize her. Are Caitlin’s experiences similar to your own daughter’s experiences? What does your daughter think of your depiction of Caitlin’s inner world?
Kathryn Erskine: A few of the experiences are similar, but mostly I did a lot of research—reading, going to workshops, talking to people affected by Asperger's—because I wanted to make the story as universal as possible. Every kid is different, just like every kid with Asperger's is different, although there are certainly traits that are similar and are used to define the condition, such as (over)reactions to noise or touch, lack of eye contact, difficulty in social situations, etc. I was glad, though, when my daughter read the book and said she thought it was a very accurate depiction of the way a child with Asperger's sees the world.
EU: The Oscar-winning 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird figures prominently in your book. Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee on which the film is based, Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman that explores themes of courage and compassion, or what Caitlin calls empathy. When did you first read To Kill a Mockingbird and why do you think Lee’s novel has meant so much to you?
KE: I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was about 8 years old. My older sister, a born teacher, had read it and insisted that I read it. I loved it. I think we both identified with the book because, like Jem and Scout, she was a few years older than me and was a do-the-right-thing kind of older sibling, like Jem, and I was more the sometimes-gets-into-trouble tomboy, like Scout. Also, we'd recently moved from South Africa, under apartheid, and we understood the injustice of that racial separation. I remember feeling so proud, upon discovering I was an American, and announcing to my mother that we didn't have apartheid in our country. I'll never forget her answer: "Oh, yes, we do. We just don't call it that." And I'll never forget how devastated I was to discover that truth about my own country. In fact, it's the theme of the novel I just finished writing (tentatively titled Facing Freedom).
EU: You’ve said that the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings compelled you to write Mockingbird. Because the shooter had a history of mental illness, many Americans used this incident to highlight the problems in our health care system, especially with regard to mental health treatment. Is your novel, in some ways, a response to that public discourse?
KE: I do feel strongly that early (and continuous) intervention is the best way to handle any problem, health and mental health issues included. I can't help but think that if the shooter had been given attention earlier, and been monitored throughout his childhood and adolescence, maybe things wouldn't have escalated to such a horrifying conclusion. That's also why I make Mrs. Brook a prominent character in Mockingbird, because I want to send the message that, especially in this time of budget cuts, we need counselors in all of our schools because they help all of us cope with and understand each other.
EU: I have a cousin with Williams Syndrome, and her mother does not allow people to use what she considers offensive language. For example, if someone jokingly says “That is so retarded,” she calmly tells them that she finds their language unacceptable. I thought of her when I read the gym class scene in your chapter “It’s a Girl Thing” and whenever Caitlin questioned the meaning of words like “special” and “autistic.” Is it your hope that readers will be thinking about language and labels differently after reading Mockingbird?
KE: Yes. In fact, I love what my pediatrician said upon my daughter's diagnosis: "It doesn't matter what we call it. Let's just call her by her name." I love the idea of focusing on the person, not on any label that person might have attached to them. Labels de-personalize the person. It's easy for kids to use words like "retarded" or "special" to poke fun at people. When they get to know the person and understand why the person acted that way, it's not as easy. In fact, I have to relate this story told to me by a mother who read Mockingbird to her kids. When her twins were at camp with an autistic boy who reacted in a situation that surprised the other campers, the twins not only accepted him for who he was but also defused the situation by explaining his reaction to the other kids. That story was so gratifying it made me tear up—because that's exactly why I wrote this book.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com, TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.