Militant Journalism

Palestinian-American children’s book writer responds: ‘Our stories matter’

On July 13, Liberation News interviewed Razan Abdin-Adnani, a Palestinian-American educator, children’s book writer and speaker. When the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international professional organization for writers and illustrators, issued a statement condemning anti-semitism in the midst of Israeli aggression against Palestine, Abdin-Adnani spoke out against the one-sided, sometimes explicitly pro-Israel stance of the SCBWI and its executives. Her comments sparked both pro-Palestinian support and vehement right-wing backlash, eventually being covered by international media. We spoke with Abdin-Adnani about media distortions, bad-faith “anti-semitism” smears against pro-Palestinian activists, and the need for cultural change in children’s literature and professional organizations.

Liberation News: How did the controversy with the SCBWI start?

Razan Abdin-Adnani: I would say it became a “controversy” instead of merely a “conversation” when SCBWI’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer denied that violence against Palestinians and Muslims (not to conflate those two identities) was a real concern globally. This was hurtful and shocking. She then proceeded to delete my comments from both Twitter and Facebook. This behavior created an environment in which I felt diminished and that felt inherently hostile to me as a member of their organization who happened to be Palestinian.

LN: Why did you feel the need to speak out over the SCBWI’s statement on anti-semitism?

RAA: To be clear, I was in no way opposed to SCBWI’s statement condemning antisemitism. However, given the timing, after Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, in Silwan, and after three generations of a Pakistani Muslim family was murdered in an anti-Muslim hate crime in Canada, I felt the need to speak up — as a Palestinian, Muslim member of the organization, who was hurting amid tragedy and felt largely unseen everywhere I turned. Violence against our Jewish siblings is real and should be condemned. So, too, should violence targeting Palestinians. And Muslims.

LN: The SCBWI is taking a stance as an “apolitical” organization while leadership has also voiced explicit support for Israel. Is it possible to be both?

RAA: I don’t believe so. They have asserted they are “committed to equity” and, for me, that seems incompatible with an “apolitical” position. 

Only condemning the violence that affects the communities to which you belong while denying others seems political to me. Denying Palestinian members of your organization the right to meaningfully participate in the life of the group because you are pro-Israel feels political to me. 

Also, how can that which is political be deemed “inappropriate” by a group pertaining to children’s literature when there is a multitude of political subjects that can and should be addressed in the books children read?

LN: What sort of racist tropes have you encountered in the online attacks against you? How do these tropes exist in larger racist, colonial frameworks around Palestine and Palestinians?

RAA: There is so much rhetoric circulating that is rooted in anti-Palestinian racism and anti-Muslim hatred. The same Orientalist and Islamophobic tropes used to dehumanize us and justify our colonization for decades.

Racist stereotypes portray us as violent subhumans incapable of reasoning, devoid of feelings. My politely phrased comments and questions were characterized as vicious “attacks.” I became a “harasser.” There were even mentions of “terroristic” threatening, which in addition to being a lie, is unbelievably dangerous. This rhetoric puts Palestinians and Muslims globally in danger.

This is why our stories, as dictated by us, matter.

LN: How has corporate media distorted your words and positions on Palestine?

RAA: There have been gross mischaracterizations of comments that I’ve made — messages taken completely out of context. The weaponization of anti-semitism. This is a tired, racist tactic to discredit me and the critical narrative I bring to the table regarding Israel. It happens to Palestinians often.

They search for any ammo they can find in a desperate attempt to paint you as a hate-filled monster unworthy of sympathy, justice, being heard. They seek to intimidate you out of speaking out or to ruin your livelihood by smearing you as a raging anti-semite or a terrorist, as opposed to someone who is resisting colonialism. 

LN: What is the perceived importance of groups like the SCBWI to young writers? Why is the fight for Palestinian liberation important to push in these spheres?

RAA: To my knowledge, SCBWI was THE international professional organization for those who write and illustrate books for children and young adults. It seemed like the next step in the process of trying to become a published author.

I think it is important to speak out on behalf of Palestinian liberation in all spaces. The violence inflicted on Palestinians is only escalating. I felt it especially important to use my voice at SCBWI because it claims to be an organization that stands for all children and all people who create for them — that ended up not being the case. Anti-Palestinian racism is so normalized in our society, but it should no longer be acceptable.

I have every right to not give my money to businesses that are hostile to me, businesses that ask me to leave part of who I am at the door in order to be accepted.

LN: What messages and narratives are missing from children’s books that you hope to address?

RAA: Palestinian stories barely exist and that must change. I have recently completed two picture book manuscripts centering Palestinian protagonists and I’m really looking forward to sharing them with the world.

There are few books about Arab people in general and most are written by non-Arabs. In my opinion, this is unacceptable. We are actively reclaiming our own narrative and telling our own stories. Stay tuned!

LN: As a Palestinian-American writer, how do you feel that your background affects your consciousness in writing and in “professional” spaces such as literary organizations?

RAA: I am always conscious of my Palestinian identity as I navigate any space or group. Being Palestinian is an inherently politicized identity and I’ve noticed people are inclined to say some awful, insensitive things — perhaps unconsciously? Folks have asked me, “How can you be Palestinian when Palestine doesn’t exist?” How does one handle this situation in any professional or personal setting? I’ve also had people ask where I’m from, and when I tell them that I’m Palestinian, they say, “Oh, I don’t want to talk politics.” I’m a person. This is my identity. Being Palestinian is such a tricky identity to occupy.

LN: What advice do you have for anti-colonial, anti-racist writers?

RAA: Keep writing radical and revolutionary content. Stories that disrupt the status quo.

Even when they attempt to silence and discredit you. Especially when they attempt to silence and discredit you. It means they’re scared. It means your message is working. 

LN: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RAA: This experience of being systematically silenced as a Palestinian and an aspiring children’s book author has only made me more determined to share our stories with the world. It is time the world gets to see Palestinians in a representative, nuanced, positive manner.

There are two things that the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators will most certainly NOT prevent me from doing: one, continuing to speak out about the violent colonization of Palestine, and two, writing children’s literature.

In a system that actively tries to erase our identities and silence our voices, our culture is resistance.

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