The Fire Escape Contest Winners!

The winners of the Fire Escape's 2005 poetry and short story contests. Congratulations to the authors and to all the teens who submitted entries. I had a blast reading your work. Submissions to the 2006 contests will be accepted from September 30, 2005 until June 1, 2006. Thanks for your interest, keep reading, keep writing, and enjoy the summer! You're always welcome on the Fire Escape...

Publishers Lunch Weekly

My friend, Stacy Leigh, of the PEN Readers & Writer's Program, told me she saw this listing in Publisher's Lunch Weekly:
Children's: Middle grade
Mitali Perkins' RICKSHAW GIRL, in which a headstrong, young Bangladeshi girl finds an ingenious way to use her talent for painting traditional alpana patterns to help support her family, despite societal resistance to women's employment, to Judy O'Malley at Charlesbridge, in a nice deal, by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency (world).
Thanks, Stacy. And thanks, Laura. This nice description makes me want to read the book myself.

Fire Escape Teen Writing Contests

Stayed up late to finalize the results of the poetry and short story contests. This years' entries were fantastic, making my job much harder. I've notified the winners, and as soon as I hear back from them, I'll post the poems and stories on the Fire Escape. I know you'll enjoy the depth, wisdom, and beauty expressed by these teens writing between cultures.

Flicks Between Cultures: Batman Begins

It's a jolly-good lighthearted summer action film, so I hate to analyze it through my strange "between-cultures" perspective, but didn't the ninja men of the shadows reflect the prevailing American fear of religious terrorists? Their masked order's quest to annihilate immoral societies sounded strangely 9-11-ish to me. But the American way (we like to think), Batman's way, is about justice, not vengeance, and, by gum, a white male billionaire is the just the person to execute it. Forget democracy, the legal system, and the courts — we want a benevolent vigilante to defend our cities and eliminate dangerous foreigners.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie. And I, too, want America to be safe. But I LIKE the legal system; I like the checks and balances; I like the democratic process where the people make decisions and get to blog boldly on places like my Fire Escape. I don't want ANY billionaire to preserve the peace singlehandedly, no matter how benevolent and/or tormented he is.

My favorite male character was Officer Gordon, a law-abiding officer who refuses to be bought or bribed and ends up saving the day. At the end of the movie, Batman refuses Gordon's thanks, but I think Gordon was the one who deserved Batman's gratitude. No escape to the Himalayas for him. He was the American male archetype I like best — a middle-aged family guy doing his duty, upholding and obeying the law through good times and bad. Now that's a hero, if you ask me.

A Reviewer's Unfounded Fears

I knew the love couldn't last. I've just read a post by an Indian blogger who accuses me of being "anti-Indian" in Monsoon Summer because I talk about India's poverty, the caste system, and dowries. This guy seems to ignore that there's still a huge gap in India between the rural poor and educated people who live in the fast-changing booming urban economies. I'd like to ask him this: "Have you spent time in India's poor communities, getting to know the women who live there and hearing their stories?" I have, and am so thankful for the friendships I made there. I hate to be cynical, but isn't it often poor, uneducated women in a country who suffer the most, and wealthy men who forget all about them?

I don't blame the dude; part of me is jealous of his strong, starry-eyed defense of India, however misguided. The problem is that nobody likes to hear truth about their own country, land that they love. Americans call us unpatriotic when we write about the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Indians do the same when it comes to their society. And we immigrants, who aren't equipped for passionate national allegiances, are caught between cultures once again.

As the San Jose Mercury News put it, in Monsoon Summer, I tried to provide "a clear-eyed look at my native India." The blogger worries that American teens will get a bad impression of India. Au contraire, my friend. I, too, love India and strive to introduce young American readers to the beauty of it. As a Kirkus reviewer put it, "Monsoon Summer enlightens readers not familiar with the richness of Indian culture." And, along with trying always to tell a truthful, good tale, that was my goal.

Rejections, Revisions, and Infatuations

Cleaned out my office today and read through my thick Monsoon Summer file. It's chock full of rejections from a long list of editors, as well as myriad revisions featuring characters and plot twists I cut from the final draft.

At one point, a more rebellious version of Jazz had a secret romantic encounter with a black-leather-jacket-clad Indian guy who rode her around the streets of Pune on his motorcycle. I hated to give him up, especially because clutching my husband's waist while perched on the back of his motorcycle is one of my favorite memories of our life in Pune. Ah, well. I have a feeling Mr. Leather Jacket will make an appearance in another novel; I sort of fell for him as I invented him. (Moral Question: Is that wrong? How about my lifelong infatuation with Tolkien's Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, the books, not the movie? My husband knows all about it; he takes it as a compliment, arguing that I must perceive in him the same noble, heroic qualities that I do in that character.)

The Power of a Good Review

The book of Proverbs says, "There's death and life in the power of the tongue." A writer is tempted to replace the word "tongue" with the words "book review." Sandi Pedersen of Chicago Parent gave me a much-needed boost with her July 2005 review of Monsoon Summer. I'm all geared up to write now, thanks to her kind assessment.

Summer on the Fire Escape

When I was an kid in Flushing, New York, we didn't have enough money to pay for camp or take expensive trips. We did have the ultimate summer luxury, though — a luxury most suburban kids never get to enjoy. We had the gift of time.

Every summer vacation, I had jewels of unplanned hours to spend any way I wanted. My sisters and I'd walk the two miles to Shea Stadium to get autographs outside the players' entrance. We rode bikes, played stickball, and put on talent shows with the other neighborhood kids (we didn't have a television). When the afternoons got unbearably hot, a NYC firefighter would come around, cone off the street, and open up a hydrant near the playground. Best of all, I had as much time as I wanted to read stories. Seven library books a week (that was the limit per patron back then), my diary, a pen, and several rolls of sweet tarts sustained me on the fire escape.

Even though I've morphed into one of those over-busy suburban types these days, that's what the beginning of summer still promises me — unfettered time for stories. Hope it holds the same wealth for you. Enjoy!

Boston's Little Vietnam

As I drove towards the Field's Corner Branch of the Boston Public Library, I couldn't help noticing the french bakeries, the fish markets, the curling Asian script. In fact, Dorchester Avenue has become quite Saigon-esque in ambience. I found myself wondering if this was an easy transition for the neighborhood. Did these new immigrants receive a genial welcome in that established, mostly African-American community? Or have the Vietnamese been resented as they set up stores, banks, Buddhist temples, pawn shops, and beauty salons?

I should know more about this, especially as I've lived in Massachusetts for five years now. But I have to confess that this is only the second time I've left the leafy western suburb I call home to venture into Dorchester. (The first was when the boys were in second grade and I drove one of their bussed-in friends home after a play-date at our house.) So, can anyone out there tell me the story of Dorchester? Or should I get on the net and do the research?

After my presentation at the library, a beautiful Vietnamese girl approached me. "You wrote this book," she asked/said, holding up a copy of Monsoon Summer. "It's all about-chew, right?"

I nodded and tried to hide my surprise. She looked Vietnamese, but her accent sounded exactly like the African-American ones on the rap/hip-hop radio station my kids listen to. Maybe that encounter answers my question about Dorchester better than the archives of the Boston Globe. Immigrant kids have an uncanny knack of making themselves right at home.

A Circle of Crooners

Just got back from Ma and Baba's big anniversary bash. After they renewed their vows, Ma serenaded Baba with a song she'd sung to him during their honeymoon (a Bangla love song written by Rabindranath Tagore). At least, she tried to sing it. When she got choked up and couldn't finish, our guests (mostly senior citizens) joined in to help her get through it. Another tradition I'd forgotten — the Bangla art and soul of singing together.

The next night, I stayed up past midnight listening to Ma tell stories — nourishment for the continued writing of Asha Means Hope. My sister and I also feasted (gorged?) on her superb lamb curry after taking Baba to Starbucks for Father's Day. Now I'm back home. I'll be heading to Dorchester tomorrow to help kick off that branch of the Boston Public Library's Summer Reading Program. Should be fun, but after a weekend crammed with people, the introvert in me wants to linger on the Fire Escape a while. Be still, give thanks, and reflect ...

Seasons of Beauty

To prepare a slide show for Mom and Dad's grand golden anniversary bash, I spent the last week thumbing through countless photo albums. Two thoughts emerged as I considered younger versions of myself. First, we wore the waistlines of our pants WAY too high. I may have been thinner then, but I'm definitely more hip now.

Second, I was actually sort of cute in middle school and high school. I wasn't Vogue material, by any means, but I was nowhere near as repulsive as I estimated. This self-assessment probably came about because I secretly compared myself with cover icons (even though publicly I scorned them), and because I was the only dark-skinned girl in my school.

Sigh. All that wasted time lamenting my lacks and excesses. Now I know the truth: teen girls are stunning, every single one of them, any shape, size, or shade. The beauty of youth is as striking as the snowdrops bringing color to a black and white world. When I visit schools and survey the upturned faces, I feel the same awe I do in the springtime. You, my friends, I want to say, are gorgeous. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, your varied lacks and excesses.

And my Mom! Wow! She was always stylish and graceful, her beauty mellowing and deepening into the autumn of her life, resplendent in a multi-colored foliage of sarees. She'll still shimmer in silk at their party, sparkling like a jewel in Dad's eyes. And mine.

Why a Coffeehouse? Why Peet's?

No internet access. The background buzz. Non-fat vanilla lattes. No internet access. Interesting people to watch and imagine things about. The chance to flaunt my ultra-cool apple iBook, which turns heads and attracts attention even if I don't. Memories of Berkeley, where Peet's was conceived and born across from the Claremont Hotel (site of my senior prom). Faces to scan and study for signs of character. Did I mention no internet access? Okay, spill it: where do you write?

South Asian Literature For Kids

My friend and fellow scribe Pooja Makhijani has come up with a great bibliography of books for kids that are written by South Asian authors or deal with South Asian themes.

Flicks Between Cultures: Spanglish

I never thought I'd be recommending a movie starring Adam Sandler. In Spanglish, though, Sandler shows the kind of acting of which he's capable. But the heart of the film is Cristina Morena, the pre-teen daughter of a Mexican maid who works in an upscale Los Angeles home. The tug-of-war between cultures as experienced by smart immigrant kids is seen clearly in this character. Especially poignant to me were the scenes where Cristina has to translate adult conversations so that her Mom is able to express anger. At the end, her mother asks a pivotal question: "When you grow up, do you want to be something completely different than me, your mother?" Immigrant teens will resonate with the the difficulty of answering that question, even as they cheer for Cristina to choose wisely. Ultimately, we hope that we, too, will recognize the beauty of character and resist the glitter of false prosperity. (Recommended for high school students because of mature themes. Watch and discuss after reading First Crossing: Stories About Teen Immigrants.)

Sons and Daughters of Liberty

In Sunday's Globe, we learned that of the 34 valedictorians graduating from Boston's high schools, TWENTY were born in other countries. From places like Vietnam, Albania, Dominican Republic, Cape Verde, and Liberia, they came, they studied, they conquered. The dream lives on.

Paper Tigers and Pacific Rim Voices

Just posted: an interview with "dichan" ("me" in Thai) on one of the fabulous websites maintained by Pacific Rim Voices. Laura Adkins, the interviewer, asked some great questions — she inspired me to be grateful once again for the wonders of life between cultures.

2005 Fire Escape Writing Contests Closed

Yes, the 2005 Fire Escape Teen Writing Contests are officially closed. Winners will be contacted by the end of the month. Thanks to those who entered! I'll be accepting entries for the 2006 Contests beginning September 30, 2005. Meanwhile, you can still join me on the Fire Escape and chat; I'll be cooling off out here all summer long.

Ode to Librarians

This morning I spoke to 75 librarians who work in the City of Boston, either in the schools or in the public libraries. The seminar was sponsored by the Foundation of Children's Books. I always get choked up at the end of my "Books Between Cultures" presentation, when I speak of the debt I owe to librarians. As an immigrant kid with no extra money to buy books, my only source of stories was in the library. I quickly became an addict, drawn back week after week for a fix. I still can't walk into a library without a sense of awe at the treasure and abundance so freely shared. So — a thousand thanks to librarians. Keep an eye on that shy child who slips in the children's room and heads to the shelves, gorging on the feast of stories you've gathered. She, or he, may well end up a writer. Or better yet, a librarian.