E. Katherine Kottaras is originally from Chicago, and now she writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area. She holds an M.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine and teaches writing and literature at Pasadena City College. She is an active member of NCTE and SCBWI, as well as a proud board member of the Children’s Literature Council of Southern California. Katherine is interested in the stories we tell, the stories we are given, and the ways we can redefine our worlds by discovering which stories are true.
She is the author of the critically-acclaimed YA contemporary novels, HOW TO BE BRAVE (2015) and THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER (2016), both from St. Martin’s Press/Griffin Teen.
On Love and Resistance, or Why I Write Stories About Girls
E. Katherine Kottaras was born in a booth, or at least that’s what her mother always said. She spent a good majority of her childhood at Dyner’s Restaurant, located on the corner of Grand and State in Chicago, Illinois. Her daily after-school snack was French fries and feta cheese. She took piano, violin, ballet and tap; she still doesn’t know how to play an instrument, but various personal trainers have commented on her innate coordination and ability to freestyle. She spent her high school days shocking plants for the science fair, researching early twentieth century architects for the history fair, and planting trees for the Eco-Club. In other words, she was a nerd – and a proud one at that.
Though she began her time at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as a Bio-Triple-E major (Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution), within a matter of weeks, she realized that she missed her English classes, which had always been her favorite. By her second semester, she had announced her desire to become a high school English teacher. She loved to read and write, and she wanted to encourage this love in others.
Urbana-Champaign was also where she met the love of her life, Matthew, who’s now her hubby and who she still thinks is as cute as the day she first spotted him in his striped shirt. She convinced him to leave the very cold Illinois winters for the mosquito-free, sun-filled, bougainvillea-laden world of southern California. She has spent the last fifteen years completing her graduate degree, teaching literature, rhetoric and creative writing at both the high school and community college levels, and working hard at becoming a real L.A. hippie. Yes, she gardens, goes to farmer’s markets, and teaches yoga.
She also writes and writes and writes. She loves projects, especially if they involve freshly sharpened pencils, a glue stick, and chopping onions (not necessarily all at the same time.) Her young adult novels are both set in her hometown of Chicago.
On Love and Resistance, or Why I Write Stories About Girls
February 14, 2016
I write stories about girls.
I write stories about girls who are searching for their voice.
I write stories about girls who are searching for truth.
I write stories about girls who are searching for love – and not just the idealized, romantic version – the girls in my stories are searching for something different: a strength of self that is rooted in their own worth, a kind of love that requires both courage and humility, confidence and vulnerability.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and talk of love swirls all around. It’s a day to celebrate what I see as the highest form of truth: a feeling about both self and others that stems from respect, kindness, and a desire for connection.
There is also the swirling talk of resistance – and yes, I’m talking political resistance against the new presidential administration. I, like many of you, have been struggling the past few months, especially in terms of my creative life. The days before a book release are exciting – there are reviews, blog posts, giveaways, and of course, the party itself. After that wonderful energy subsides, I like to return to the quiet, creative place of writing. My second book released on November 1, and then eight days after, much of what I thought I understood about the world was shattered by the results of the election. Instead of choosing a leader who embodied a hopeful future and who was committed to the values of equity and social justice, many in my nation chose a leader who is unquestionably racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, greedy, and narcissistic. When my ten-year old daughter asked how he could have won and what the future held, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to explain how the world could have chosen such man and worse yet, what it means, for girls like her, that our newly-elected president continuously and unapologetically disrespects women, minorities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, those who live with disabilities, and the poor and struggling.
I couldn’t explain it to myself.
(I write stories about girls who are searching for their voice.)
In the days after the election, I was lost.
And so, I stopped writing.
It really didn’t seem like there was any point.
Like many, I spent my time reading obsessively, trying to understand what it meant that white supremacists, billionaires, and fringe bigots who justify their positions in pseud-science and all-out manipulation of facts, would soon hold influence in our White House. There were no good answers, no logical explanation or solution. I couldn’t understand. Many of you know about my lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety. I fell into this place again. I was utterly hopeless and desperate for change.
Thankfully, as it has many times during my life, a book saved me. (And, I must add, loads of self-care, check-ins with my health care professionals, my practices, and –yes – medication.) In January, I read HOPE IN THE DARK by the amazing Rebecca Solnit, which she originally wrote in response to the Second Gulf War. In it, Solnit delineates the many victories of social justice that are often ignored by history books, and she calls for a rhetoric of hope, defining hope as the very thing that will change the world for the better:
“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine….The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act….Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
Solnit also talks about the power of story and highlights the very fact that positive change starts with story. She quotes George Orwell, who wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” and then she adds: “Controlling the past begins by knowing it; the stories we tell about who we were and what we did shape what we can and will do. Despair is also often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as of certainty.”
It was the exact thing I needed to read. It was the exact thing I needed to hear. Hope matters.
Our resistance matters.
I was reminded of why I became both a teacher and a writer. Both are rooted in my desire to effect change and empower others to live with dignity and freedom.
Solnit’s book (as well as her Facebook feed) also propelled me to act; I started making my daily phone calls to my representatives, attending political action groups, and marching in the streets. I also spoke at two school board meetings about the need for a safe zone resolution to protect the rights of undocumented families and other vulnerable communities in this new age of fear. In the process, I’ve been finding beautiful connections my community, finding strength in my friends, both old and new. I’ve also been finding some newfound strength in myself.
(I write stories about girls who are searching for truth.)
I’ve also started writing again. This new protagonist is searching for her place in a world that thinks of her as less than:
which is to say she is searching for truth,
which is to say she is searching for justice,
which is to say she is searching for love.
Much has been said about not normalizing the rhetoric of hate. The thing is, for many – women, minorities, queer folk, immigrants, the poor – this is nothing new – the world has always contained hate and fear. We must also acknowledge that every day presents a wealth of struggles – confusion, sorrow, despair – that is the story of being human. However, the newly established regime that seeks to turn back the progress of the last century is new, and it must be resisted.
When I was sixteen, an older relative laughed at me. I was president of the Eco-Club, a devout environmentalist, and an unapologetic idealist. He said, “Wait until you grow up. One day you’ll learn how the world really works, and all of your idealism will be destroyed.”
That’s one choice. It’s a pretty easy one, deciding that the world is hopeless, that we are powerless, that we just need to sit back while those with selfish ambitions take over the world.
I turned forty this year, and I have to say: it’s still not the choice for me.
(I write stories about girls who are searching for love.)
Rebecca Solnit writes: “Pay attention to the inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage or change the contents of the drama onstage. From the places that you have been instructed to ignore or rendered unable to see come the stories that change the world, and it is here that culture has the power to shape politics and ordinary people have the power to change the world.”
We are the ordinary people who have the power to change the world.
I am an ordinary person who writes stories.
I write stories about girls.
And what I write matters.
I choose hope. I also choose idealism and the unknowable. I choose to act, today and tomorrow. And above all, I choose love.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friends! May you be filled with courage and humility, as well as confidence and vulnerability, and may your day be filled with love.