In case you missed it, Daniel Handler ‘92 (aka Lemony Snicket) came to Wesleyan last week to speak in promotion of his new novel We Are Pirates. Handler’s visit has been covered by multiple campus publications, and the discord surrounding his visit, in other words, the racist joke he made last year when he was presenting the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature to Jacqueline Woodson, has been dissected endlessly by the press and members of the Wesleyan community. This includes Sonya Bessalel’s ’18 measured and nuanced defense of Handler in this week’s edition of The Argus (seriously go read it).
Provided here are selected questions from Handler’s Wesleying interview with astag_rocky before his lecture in the Chapel (scroll down for these). In addition, we will share one tense moment from a meeting Handler attended with students at Downey House earlier that day:
After a relatively mild and complementary round of questioning that must have made Handler feel like a star coming to pay his respects to the institution that helped raise him, there was a very abrupt change in tone. When Anne Greene, Director of Writing Programs, asked for one final question, one student (who we will keep anonymous for privacy concerns) raised her hand. In hindsight, it was easy to tell shit was about to get real when she started off with, “I don’t have a question, just a comment.” She launched into a roughly five minute long condemnation of Handler’s joke, some of which is paraphrased here to convey its intensity.
“It’s just hard for me to sit here after the horrible thing you did to Jacqueline Woodson… it was disgusting and you disgust me…You’re part of a racist system.”
It was a highly uncomfortable moment for an audience suddenly wondering how Handler would react to being put on blast so severely. It also touched on the very real emotions that must have inhabited the minds of those sitting in on the intimate meet-and-greet, who may have wanted to pose some version of the question themselves, albeit probably with less vitriol.
Handler answered with a similar version of the remarks that began his speech later that night in the Chapel when he announced that, “I want to speak on something that has been on my mind. Tonight I come from a damaged place.” He offered his sincere apologies to any parties he may have offended (including the student who had just challenged him). He reiterated that his intentions were not to trivialize racism, but rather to celebrate the magnificent achievement of a longtime friend and treasured member of the literary community. He spoke about how, while his remarks backfired spectacularly, he has tried to make amends by promoting groups such as We Need Diverse Books. This student’s challenge of Handler’s character was likely on his mind when he spoke at the Chapel later that night.
In 7th grade, you were my book fair speaker and you put on a very boisterous and sarcastic show where you announced that, “Lemony Snicket is not available so I’m here instead.” Since performance is a very large part of your public persona, have you ever had any instances where you traumatized a kid or someone took you more seriously than you intended?
I always say that Lemony Snicket cannot be there, and I’m there in his place. Sometimes for very little children that’s too upsetting for them. Over the course of the performance I let it slip so that they realize that while I’m saying I’m not Lemony Snicket, I actually am. But, for some children, like kindergarteners, that story has too long an arc to get on board. They’re just hearing that their mom drove them to a bookstore and they’re in a crowd and the persons not there. So, then they cry. Oh well, what are you going to do. They’re six, they cry all the time.
In your writing, it seems you have a balance of creating books for children that you also want to have a real level of sophistication and be taken seriously critically. How much credit do you have to give your readers? How much complexity can you include in your books while keeping your audience in mind?
That’s a good question. I guess I try and write a story that’s interesting. I don’t worry that stories are to complex for young people to follow, because I think particularly when you think about books or even movies that you saw when you were young and you probably didn’t really understand the plot the first time and then three years later you come back and say, ‘oh my god I’m finally getting these jokes and understanding all these concepts.’ So I think that happens. I don’t worry too much about, ‘oh my goodness some eight year old is going to be too confused, I better change the book.’
You were involved in writing about and observing the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Does the dark lens through which you view childhood in your writing translate over to the way you think about modern day politics?
I think that in some ways The Series of Unfortunate Events is about financial corruption, because it’s about the ruinous effect of money and a world that is not designed to protect children, or innocence in general. Occupy Wall Street seemed like it was going after the same thing. I don’t know if it’s really a dark lens, but to me The Series of Unfortunate Events is about injustice and so was Occupy Wall Street. I didn’t think, ‘oh my gosh I don’t normally do this.’ I thought, ‘oh this is actually exactly what I think about all the time.’