Tara Abhasakun interviews Craig Pomranz, author of a new children’s book titled Made By Raffi, about children and gender roles
Craig Pomranz is the author of a new children’s book titled Made By Raffi. The book is about a boy named Raffi who likes to knit, and is teased for his hobby by other children who think that knitting is “girly.” In this interview, Conatus News writer and editor Tara Abhasakun asks Craig about his views on children and gender roles.
Tara : I’m Tara Abhasakun, I’m a writer and editor at Conatus News, today I’m going to interview Craig Pomranz. Craig is the author of a new children’s book titled Made By Raffi. It’s about a boy named Raffi who likes to knit and crochet, and gets made fun of for this because knitting is supposedly a girly hobby. Craig, thank you very much for being here with us today.
Craig Pomranz: It’s a pleasure.
Tara: So I’m gonna start by asking you, what inspired you to write this book?
Craig: Well it’s based on a true story, it happened to my godson actually. He was very ADD, even though there’s a wide spectrum of what that means these days, but he was very anxious and fidgety. He had an hour-and-a-half ride to school, and I thought maybe he needed something to calm him down and focus, so I bought him some knitting needles. He liked it, and was really able to calm down and focus, so he started knitting on the bus. But then the other kids were like “What are you doing anyway? Only girls knit.” One day he came home from school and was a little more anxious than usual. He’s not like the other kids, he doesn’t like loud noise or rough play, he likes to knit and sew and listen to music. He asked me, “Is there such thing as a tom-girl?” At the time this was a term I’d never heard of it, so I said to my best friend, “This is a story, this is a play, this is something that needs to be talked about.”
This is a good question for you Tara, because why is feminine a negative thing? A tom-boy is seen as something positive, people say “Oh she’s assertive.” But a tom-girl is immediately met with these negative ideas. So you grew up in a world where basically, male ideas or masculine ideas whatever they might be were better in some way.
Tara: And that reminds me of something- when people get older, say high school level, the worst things you can call people are cunt, slut, whore, these all have negative connotations.
Craig: There’s no male equivalent for that right?
Tara: No, you can say “That person’s a dick” but that just does not hold the same kind of power. It’s basically meaningless, I think it’s ridiculous. May I ask, how old is your godson?
Craig: At the time he was eight or nine.
Tara: How old do you think kids are when society starts to enforce gender on them?
Craig: I think it happens not because parents intend to, but when they have a gender party and they say “This is the day I tell you it’s a boy or girl!” and they give them blue or pink. That’s when it starts. These are not horrible things, but I think that even the most evolved parent or care-taker loses sight of the bigger picture. Even for me it’s hard, I find myself wanting to say or do things that I grew up with understanding. If you say you want your boy to wear blue and not pink, you’re already enforcing an idea that is not true.
Tara: I totally get what you mean, there are certain things I like about gender. I don’t have kids by the way, I’m 24, I’m not there yet. But you know, if I have girls I wanna do the whole princess tea party thing with them, I wanna put them in tutus, but if I have a boy and he wants to do that I don’t want him to get teased.
Craig: This is one of the other things about the book. The book teaches how to help your child find their own whole self so that they don’t become a victim. As much as we want to help our children, we can’t protect them, especially from things like bullying. People are teased and bullied because they have different skin, different hair, because their eyes are different colours, it’s not just limited to these obvious things that we think about. There’s all this stuff about anti-bullying and I don’t think that’s the right approach, because there will always be someone who wants to one someone up or get attention. So the answer is, how can we help someone find themselves and be whole so they are not a victim to someone else’s bullying.
Tara: Well it’s funny I was about to ask you about anti-bullying stuff so I’m glad you sort of already answered my question. But what if it’s really bad though? We always say “Tell a teacher” but nobody wants to tell a teacher because that makes it so much worse.
Craig: How to help the person have the self-confidence so that they don’t fall prey to it, I think that’s really the goal. Is it an easy goal? No.
And with what you were saying about wanting your little girls to be princesses, no one’s saying you shouldn’t do that. But I’m sure that if your little girl wanted to be a knight, you wouldn’t deny her. Again, what’s interesting is that’s okay, but if a little boy says that he wants to be a princess because of Frozen, suddenly everybody says “Whoa, wait a second.”
One of the things I try to say is, isn’t the point of growing up putting on different skins to try to figure out who you are? There’s a very big difference between supporting someone and letting them find their way, and putting someone in a box and saying “This is what you are and what you should do.”
Tara: What concrete steps do you take to make someone feel whole?
Craig: You have to be confident in your ability to support that child and help them, whoever they are.
In the book, the parents don’t go to the teachers. They say to “You know Raffi, you are your own very special person. You should go with it.” The more he works at it, the more the other kids see he’s working hard and he has talent, and then they’re all for it. They’re like “Oh my god, will you knit something for me?”
I think exposure and conversation, that’s what it’s all about. People bully because they’re afraid of the unknown, they’re like “You’re a little too unusual for me.”
Tara: I think your approach sounds much more natural than all the cliche things we hear about going to a trusted adult, or saying “That’s not nice!” People don’t care that they’re not nice.
I do want to ask you, we often hear that “Gender is a social construct.” Do you think there is any biological basis for some sex differences in behaviour?
Craig: [laughs]I was afraid you were gonna ask me that question. I am much more along the lines of learned behaviour.
I’m sure that there is a biological component that I don’t understand, but I think one of the most misunderstood phrases in the world is… actually, I forget what the phrase is, but it’s about how if you have something in your DNA, you will necessarily act upon it. I think it’s much more about how you grow up and what happens to you.
Transgender is obviously a very hot topic, and that actually sounds not nice to say it that way, but it’s so visible now and people are talking about it. It’s an interesting idea, and that’s a hard one, the genetics on that verses the social idea behind that.
Tara: I was going to ask you, and you’re right this is a bit of a hot-button issue, so feel free to not answer. I want to ask you what you think of the movement for transgender rights in the context of defying gender norms.
Craig: There’s no such thing as censorship in my world. I am all for transgender people, I have a hard time understanding people and doctors who let five-year olds, six-year olds, nine-year olds make decisions about their bodies when they have no concept of what the body is. Until you’re sixteen, you’re going through so many changes. Your body can’t go back once you start that kind of thing.
So where I stand is that I’m all for the rights of transgender people, I think that if there were a way to know for sure it’s a good thing for people to try to understand who they are and try to find their way. I just worry about really young children making changes to their physical bodies and emotional bodies.
Tara: Yeah, and I think there are a few people who share the same view as you of supporting transgender rights but questioning the physical process done on young kids. It seems that there is a campaign in the name of trans rights to let kids transition when they’re really, really young.
Have you noticed the censorship of people who question this?
Craig: It’s a very small minority, and a minority that needs to be heard. There is that extreme idea of fighting so hard for something, and not necessarily looking at the implications. And it’s fraught with such emotional tenderness that it’s hard, I think it’s really hard, and it was hard for me to go through what I went through with my nephew. I love my nephew, I supported him early on, but it’s really hard to know that you can always find a doctor to agree with you. You can find someone who will say “Take this medication, start taking hormones” without the consequences of what’s happening.
I think it’s frightening when parents fall into that. It’s that “Anything to save my child from bullying,” and there’s things lost there that are scary.
Tara: Absolutely. And I also wonder sometimes, when someone says “I am a girl because I like to wear dresses and because I’m not rough-and-tumble” wouldn’t the better thing be to say “I’m a boy who happens to wear a dress?”
When I say this, I want to be clear, I don’t doubt there are a few individuals who genuinely want the body parts of the opposite sex, but in general, isn’t it better to say, “I’m a boy who wears a skirt, and I’m proud of that.”
Craig: If I were a parent, I would say “At this moment, you’re a boy who wears a dress. As you grow older and feel differently, that’s a conversation for a little later,” which we would do for any child in any situation. One of the things I find interesting is how many parents let their kids wear dresses and high heels at home, and by the way, most little boys I’ve known in my life have at one point tried on their mother’s high heels. But then they say, “When we leave the house you can’t do that.”
Well that paints a much bigger, bad message to these kids, because now they’re enforcing the idea that they can’t do this.
It’s hard, these are hard issues, but they must be discussed.
Tara: Are you a parent yourself, Craig?
Craig: No, that’s the one regret I have in my life, not having children.
Tara: So this book was mainly about your nephew?
Craig: Right, and the conversation around it, when he brought up that word “tom-girl,” because I just thought it said so much. So I really thought it needed to be discussed.
Tara: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us Craig, is there anything else you wanna say about your book?
Craig: Well no, just that it’s in 11 different countries, it might be in Israel and Spain next year. I just think that really tells you how it crosses all cultures. We are talking about a picture-book, and I forgot how impactful a favourite picture-book can be for someone for the rest of their life. We all have our favourite books as kids, and it taught me that adults relate to this book as much as kids. So I’m very proud of that.
Tara: I think it was very important for me to read your book. I write a lot about the Middle East, about things like ISIS throwing gay people out of windows – extreme versions of the things we’re talking about. For me, as someone who writes about the terrible things in other countries, it’s important to be reminded that we have an issue here too, it might not be as deadly, but it’s going on here.
Craig: And you being visible and talking about it is important because you send the message “I am here to have that conversation.”
Tara: Absolutely. Thank you Craig, for taking the time to speak with Conatus News.
Craig: It was a pleasure, thank you so much.
Tara is a journalist and campaigner based in San Francisco, US