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#InConversationWith: Lawrence Schimel

Portrait of Lawrence Schimel with his book Micsoda Scalád

'I am proudest whenever a parent complains that their child demands they read one of my books every night before bed.’

Lawrence Schimel is an American writer and translator residing in Madrid, Spain. A bilingual author, he writes in both English and Spanish, and also translates into both languages. Thus far he has published over 120 books as an author or anthologist, and has translated over 100 books in many different genres: fiction, poetry, essays, graphic novels etc.

When and why did you start writing?

I started writing when I was a teenager and ran out of books to read! So I started to invent my own stories.

Who do you write books for?

I write books for both younger readers and adults. I don't always write for the same audience because, much like readers, I’m not always in the mood for the same kind of book. Sometimes I write to escape from reality and other times I write to inspire or educate.

Your books for children often include diverse characters.

When working on a book, I ask my publishers to make sure that the artwork reflects the diverse world in which we live and not to make all the characters white and cisheteronormative (heterosexual following the binary system of assigned sex/gender at birth) by default. Also, some of my books will actively try to tell stories that tend to be overlooked or suppressed. For example, my picture book ¡Vamos a ver a papá! tells an immigration story from the perspective of the people left behind, and my book Somos iguales features an adopted child without the story being about adoption.

Why do you think it’s important to feature these characters?

I believe it’s vitally important that all kids can read about the stories and experiences of all the people they share the world with. We need to stop normalising the absence of certain characters or stories. Children are like sponges that absorb everything they see, so what will become of the world if they only read about boys having certain adventures and not girls, or if LGBTQIA+ lives or disabled people are never featured at all? We need to think about that.

What do you think other writers could pay more attention to, when it comes to diversity?

While writers do play a part in the diversity of the book sector, I believe that now is the time for publishers to increase their efforts. For example, they could hire more diverse editors, so that the books that are chosen for publication don’t just cater to and educate the white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered readership.

You write and translate both in English and in Spanish. What are the pitfalls of translating LGBTQIA+ books? Are there certain things you have to be careful about?

In terms of translating, you really need to think about how the language works. Spanish, for instance, is a highly inflected language meaning that every noun is gendered, traditionally male or female – although there are now various currents of non-binary or inclusive language in Spanish. In English it’s much easier to write characters as genderless or undeclared. Also, it’s important to not translate from a heterocentrist perspective or from your own orientation.

How do you think translators can contribute to diversity in literature?

One way to ensure more good and diverse translations, I think, is to diversify the supply of translators. That way, when translators impose their worldview on a translation it will be done in a respectful manner. Also, translating is a process of learning and practising. With every text you translate, you become a little better at it and after a while you will be making those texts less racist, homophobic, misogynistic etc. by default.

Can you describe what happened in Hungary with your books Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime? How did those events make you feel?

The day before Hungary’s anti-LGBT law was to go into effect, a bookshop that sold those two books was fined for failing to warn customers that the stories contained families that were ‘not traditional’.

I was concerned for the wellbeing of the people involved in the publishing of the books in both Hungary and Russia. In those countries the books were attacked in the media and on social media, and individuals were the subject of hate and abuse. It was exhausting and terrifying.

However, there was also a tremendous outpouring of support for the books and for us. In Hungary, for example, people posted pictures on social media of their children reading the books with the hashtag #civildisobedience. That shows there really is a need for books that feature fun and joyful stories about same-sex families.

You were also involved in the Publishing Triangle. What is that and what was your role in it?

In the 1990s I was co-chair of the Publishing Triangle, an association of LGBTQIA+ people in publishing. At the time, we wanted to create National Lesbian and Gay Book Month in June, and that led to both good and bad things. On the one hand, books featuring LGBTQIA+ characters were available all across the US, including cities and small towns that previously didn’t have access to these types of books. On the other hand, LGBTQIA+ sections in bookstores made it easier for heterosexuals to ignore our books. On top of that, many mainstream publishers published books about LGBTQIA+ lives only in June, even though such books should be published all year round.

What project are you most proud of?

Every book has an impact in its own way, so I can’t pick just one project. The books Found Tribe: Jewish Coming Out Stories and Kosher Meat, which explore the intersectionality of being homosexual and Jewish, are only one example. Although they were never big sellers, they were meaningful to many people who were coming to terms with their sexuality while maintaining a strong religious faith. In general, however, I’m proudest whenever a parent complains that their child demands they read one of my books every night before bed.

Is there a book you’re still dreaming of publishing?

A few years ago, I worked with a Mexican publishing house that specialized in braille printing. We aimed to create a series of books that featured blind characters but were not about being blind. It’s very rare for blind readers to encounter books with blind characters having adventures like anyone else and we need to change that. Unfortunately, the publisher lost one of its major funding programs and we had to cancel the project. I would love to find a way to recover that series of books.

Which inclusive books would you recommend?

- Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

- Un viejo gato gris mirando por la ventana by Toño Malpica

- Guthli Has Wings by Kanak Shashsi

- A Saree for Ammi by Mamta Nainy


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