On Jean Little

I’ve been following my friend, Stacia’s, life closely, because she is going through the adaptations of early motherhood, which interest me, and because I think her writing is beautiful and full of insight. One of her literary foremothers, Lucille Clifton, recently died, and I felt sad that I couldn’t claim her as a foremother in the same way. It got me thinking about my own literary foremother, Jean Little, who is, as far as I know, still alive. I always worry she’ll die before I ever get to meet her, and unlike some of my worries, I think this one has some basis in reality.
I encountered Jean Little in my bedroom in South Jersey on August 12, 1993. I was a week away from turning twelve and was full of pre-adolescent angst about life. I was about to go into sixth grade with the same kids who had made me miserable in fifth grade the year before and couldn’t understand why my parents had not decided to move as they had promised (actually, discussed—but promised!), so I could attend a new school; or, better yet, why they hadn’t yanked me out of school altogether. “Ignore them,” my mom told me when I told her about the kids and went off to work.
My mother is not a callus human being. She would not have enjoyed knowing her daughter disliked everything about school except for the work. It must have associated on some level with her own childhood and early adulthood of wanting, stubbornly, something more from her life than being a teacher or a nurse or a housewife. But really, what could she do? Yell at someone? Send hate mail? Tell the teacher to have a talk with the kids about tolerance? We all know how well those sorts of talks work. Mom is extremely patient, and although she is not unemotional, she cringes from melodrama. I’m a little amazed that I, the worryer, the cryer, the impatient one, was born to her. My mom has never been bursting with advice or therapy every time I talk, though she does have her moments. “Birth control is cheaper than abortion,” she told me later in young adulthood, “and abortion is cheaper than a kid.” It was the shortest, least preachy birth control lecture I ever got, and it stuck. But in general, my mother is a listener, not a talker. So she did more than just tell me to ignore them—she listened to me day after day—whether I felt like talking or not. But I didn’t really get that as a kid. All I knew was that the teasing went on and on and on, and she couldn’t fix it, and I could not ignore them.
So I sprawled, sweating, across my bed, wondering why I had had the nerve to be born so prematurely and in summer, of all seasons, when I couldn’t show off my birthday to anyone, feeling incredibly isolated. I picked up a book which the librarian had randomly sent to me: Little by Little: A Writer’s Education by Jean Little. It was a tape actually; the narrator was Kerri Cundiff, who was already one of my favorite narrators. Upon reading the book jacket, I was dismayed to discover that this book was an autobiography and, even after the author’s introduction about her loyalty to fiction, I waited for the inevitable, “I was born in …” Instead, “’You can’t climb up here,’ Marilyn Dickson said, ‘You’re not allowed.’” I knew all about “friends” who decided what I could and could not do, justifying their sudden ascent to authority with safety concerns. I was hooked. I’m still hooked by that incident, and I pay a brief tribute to it in the opening of my novel manuscript. I read into the evening, into the night even, and my parents didn’t stop me. I woke up the next morning and kept on reading until I had finished the book. Then I read the book again. And again … I don’t remember when I moved on to whatever book I read next.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ll indulge in a little bit of fact-throwing, the sort of behavior which Jean Little would not condone in full-scale autobiographies. But many Americans–at least most of my friends–don’t know about her. She was born in 1932 in Taipei, Taiwan to
doctor/missionary parents and lived there until she was seven. She spent the rest of her life in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She was congenitally visually impaired and became totally blind during her adulthood. She published her first children’s book, Mine for Keeps, at the age of twenty-nine and went on to have a long and successful career as an author.
The biggest revelation of the autobiography for me was Jean Little’s acknowledgment of teasing. She couldn’t ignore it, and she didn’t shrink from telling about it. She did get through it somehow just by getting older. Little did I know as a twelve-year-old that I was only one year away from the end of the teasing. By the time I got to seventh grade, the school was so much bigger, so much easier to hide in, that kids who didn’t like me simply pretended I was not there. But reading through those incidents left me with my throat clenched, when I was not actually crying, and, though I had read sad and troubling books before, none had ever taken me to that raw, wounded place and healed me in quite that way. I had a similar reaction later in the book when Little mourned the death of her father when she was just twenty-one. It hearkened back to my maternal grandmother’s death almost three months before, and I credit it with preparing me obscurely for my father’s death at a young age.
The second biggest revelation of the book was her story of being blind but becoming a teacher and an author, two vocations for which I am still striving.
I’m introduced to very few authors by their autobiographies, because I tend to be hooked by their fiction first. But knowing that this book “really happened” and was not imagined was incredibly powerful for me as a kid. I went on to read many of Jean Little’s fictional books, though I still have not read all of them, and although I loved them, her autobiography was, for me, the most authentic, and I’m deeply sad that it has gone out of print.
As writers, as people, Jean Little and I do have our differences. Her ethos is very Christian and has never really wavered. I read other books which gradually undid my semi-Catholic upbringing. And I’ve read enough of Jean Little’s work now to recognize certain phrases, certain types of instances, certain storytelling mannerisms which I probably won’t adopt, though they work for her books. But my writing owes enormous debt to hers; in some ways, my fiction can’t ever leave childhood, that incredibly formative, vulnerable time of life when everything becomes a learning experience. Trying to capture the one adult love affair in my novel has been the absolutely hardest part for me as a writer, and I’m sure it’s because my childhood yielded far more vivid impressions.
When I was in my early twenties, I discovered Jean Little had written an autobiographical sequel: Stars Come Out Within. It persuaded me to get a Seeing Eye Dog and moved me deeply in its own way, again probably through its sheer authenticity. But a moment in the foreword troubled me: the author’s acknowledgment that she would “stay clear of that attic.” There were memories she would not or could not share. If I were to venture a guess, those memories would have had something to do with sexuality, love or lack of it, or some sort of family obligation. As far as I or any mere reader knows, Jean Little has completely supported herself with her writing but, much like Emily Dickinson, has always lived with members of her birth family. She never married, possibly never fell in love, though that last possibility is unconfirmed. As a person with a disability, I find the complete omission of love (ok and sex) disturbing as a representation of the blind woman who, “of course,” would not marry; yet I also know she is not a representative of anyone but herself and never tried to be, that she doesn’t have to justify this choice to anyone, not even to herself, any more than a woman without a disability. I’ve often daydreamed of meeting her: randomly seeing her at Seeing Eye or randomly passing through Ontario and setting up an appointment to chat the way she and Rosemary Sutcliff did so many years ago. I have written a fan letter and have not heard back from her, and really there is not a reason she should write back. She was the writer and has no obligation to be the responder for every person she’s impacted. She has the right to her attic.

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5 comments

  1. No offense, but I’m really glad you’re not. I’d rather meet up with her for a meal somewhere than be on a show with everyone watching our meeting. I appreciate the sentiment though!

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