Off To Warmer Climes

Here I am on Zanzibar Island (off the coast of Tanzania) taking a spice tour. Guess the Indian spice I'm showing you. I'll be back out on the fire escape January 3rd. Many blessings and peace to all of you.


Yiyun Li: A Voice That Won't Be Silenced

Photo Credit: Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post

Not convinced that a so-called somewhat mysterious "voice" is essential for top-notch writing? Read this Washington Post story of Chinese-born Yiyun Li, who mastered English after coming to the States for graduate studies. Li has masterfully wielded this "foreign" language to secure a two-book contract from Random House for $200,000, and to win writing honors galore. Unfortunately, ironically, her application for U.S. citizenship has been denied, and she's in the process of appealing.

I was inspired by her positive take on writing in a language that's not your mother tongue, as I've mourned my own loss of aptitude in Bangla:
Her style is straightforward, but McPherson (her teacher) thinks she's "reinvigorating the English language with rhythms and ways of speech that are found in Chinese." More important, perhaps, writing in English has reinvigorated Li.

"Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language," a young woman says to her father in Li's title story. "It makes you a new person."

"I couldn't write in Chinese," Li says, acknowledging the autobiographical component of her character's observation. She held herself back both because she'd grown up in a family reluctant to express emotions directly and because of the oppressive political imperative to keep her lip zipped. In high school, she once ripped up something she'd written about Tiananmen Square just before she was to hand it in to her teacher. While in the army, she kept a journal but wrote only nature descriptions.

"When I wrote in Chinese, I censored myself," she says. "I feel very lucky that I've discovered a language I can use."

Resolution: Join a Crit Group

Last night a faithful group of young adult writers ventured through the cold to gather at the Newton Free Library. Our critique group, three men and six women, has been meeting for five years one Wednesday a month from 7 - 9 o'clock in the evening. During the first half-hour we share news, tips, lessons learned. We use the last three half-hour blocks to discuss 20-page submissions from three writers in the group which were sent to us at least a week before the meeting. We have two rules. First, the writer is not allowed to speak during his or her crit session. And second, the first five minutes are dedicated to praise and celebration of the work. My friend Karen Day is our leader, and she's just signed a two-book contract with Wendy Lamb of Random House for two YA novels called Treading Water and Tall Tales. They're fantastic; I feel an immense sense of pride over Karen's accomplishment because the nine of us discussed these books as they were being crafted. Here's a good article by Margot Finke on ex-Charlesbridge editor Harold Underdown's excellent Purple Crayon site about where to find crit groups.

Feast and Famine

I've got no books coming out in 2006 (apart from the paperback of Monsoon Summer), and then in 2007, Charlesbridge is releasing Rickshaw Girl (middle grade), and Dutton is releasing both YA novels about Sparrow. I just spoke with Francoise Bui of Random House, and she was wondering if we could release Asha Means Hope (YA) during the summer of 2007 instead of in 2008. FOUR books in 2007? What does that mean for reviews, publicity, etc.? I have no idea. All input much appreciated.

A Teen's View Of Rebuilding Afghanistan

Come Back To Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton is the first-person account of Akbar's return to his native land with his father, who was involved in the post-Taliban reconstruction. The book just received a starred review in School Library Journal:
... Akbar's father sold his hip-hop clothing store in Oakland to join his friend Hamid Karzai, now the elected president, serving first as his spokesman and later as the governor of the remote province of Kunar. The author joined him right after he finished high school and spent three summers, first in Kabul and then in Asadabad, the provincial capital ... The teen admires his father and his father's friends immensely; he dreams of being personally involved in nation-building. Readers will come away from this memoir with a strong desire to see into the young man's future and that of the country that has so entranced him.

The American Work Ethic

In an article published by the Yale Global, the International Herald Tribune, and the New York Times, John Vinocur suggests that immigrants do better in America because there's no free lunch here:
If the United States has historically had more success in integrating its immigrants than Europe does nowadays, it's because the American work ethic makes greater demands on the newcomers than Europe's welfare societies - at the same time that America offers a job-related payback in dignity and the prospect of success.
Reading Vinocur's article made me look back at my own childhood. I never once heard my parents blame the American government for not helping us out. They didn't expect it. They were thankful to be here after experiencing the antagonism against Bengali newcomers in London, where they had first tried to settle. Baba, who had been a highly qualified engineer in India, found work as a draftsman for little pay in New York City. We lived in a tiny apartment, and Ma counted our pennies carefully. When my sisters' feet grew, she slit the tops of their shoes to make room for their toes (I always wore hand-me-downs — check out the photo of Ma and me above). Baba studied hard, passed the American professional engineering examinations, and eventually became the Director of the Port of Richmond in California — quite an achievement for someone who used to be a skinny refugee boy from a Bangladeshi village.

So, what do you think? Vinocur admits it's politically incorrect to argue that immigrants do better when they have to rely mostly on themselves to make it in a new world. When my Baba arrived here, he was educated and confident. What about immigrants or refugees who are disenfranchised and illiterate? Can they rise to the challenge of limited government help and adopt the American work ethic, as Vinocour argues? Is it demeaning to suggest that they can't?

Kahani in the Boston Globe

Check out "Making the Connection" by David Mehegan about the awesome "between cultures" Kahani Magazine in today's Boston Globe (it includes a brief, supportive quote from yours truly).

A Fast From Noise

I'm heading to Emery House for a silent retreat, a 24-hour fast from the wielding of words. Note: I'm NOT fasting from food as the monk-cum-chef at the retreat center is supposed to be SUPERB. I'll be back out on the Fire Escape on Monday.

Stuff Disney Added That I Actually Liked

The Narnia film added a few nice layers to the book — yes, you read that right. An anti-adaptations curmudgeon can surprise you every now and then with unusual open-mindedness. I enjoyed:
  • Peter's coming-of-age as he accepts the call to protect and reconcile his family.
  • The nuances of relationship between the siblings (except for the scene where Peter and Edumund apologize to Lucy and she retorts with sarcasm instead of grace — an update for this generation of viewers that was definitely not in the book).
  • The first scenes of bombing in London and mothers sending their children to the countryside (communicating the stress of C.S. Lewis' England in wartime).
  • The timing and development of Edmund's role in betraying his siblings, handing over important information to the Witch, and gradual repentance.
Anybody want to add to the list?

Scary, Small Indian Sidekicks

Saw Narnia yesterday. More later on that, but first I can't get over the choice to cast actor Kiran Shah as the white witch's dwarf sidekick. The heavy Indian accent, the fawning at a British Queen's feet, the sword shaped like a Kirpan at the neck of a white child, the cheers of the audience as Susan's arrow fells him (which is not in the book, by the way) ... I'm still processing Deep Roy's role as all of the oompah-loompahs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: What's with the inclusion of diminutive Indian people as creepy child-molesting-ish characters in recent Hollywood fantasy blockbusters? On the record: it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe I should be glad that Indian actors are getting any roles at all?

Immigrant Women, Art, and Faith

If you're in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota before January 7, 2006, don't miss an exhibit created by young immigrant women called "Immigrant Status: Faith in Women," sponsored by Intermedia Arts. The art, including this piece called "Bedouin Squares" by Heba Amin, is also definitely worth perusing on-line.
Intermedia Arts is proud to present the third year of Immigrant Status entitled Faith in Women, which celebrates immigrant and indigenous women, their faith and their strength. Faith in Women looks at matriarchal societies and questions gender differences as they relate to faith and its many definitions ... Faith in Women explores matriarchal societies, women in religious practices and "faith-based values." Immigrant Status: Faith in Women artists create visual art exhibitions and performances, and lead community dialogues and workshops to encourage participants to explore their faith in women.

Love at the Library

I'm sitting in the Newton Free Library meeting room during a strategic planning session. The first two expert presentations have resounded with the difference between "technology natives" (teens) and "technology immigrants" (adults), and have encouraged our library to take some risks when it comes to reaching young adults. Now they're talking about setting up a savvy, teen-friendly YA space. What's worrying me is that noboby's mentioning the importance of relationship to this generation — and especially relationship with caring adults. So what if the library has a cool coffee hangout and tons of state-of-the-art computers? Listen to the wisdom gleaned in Arizona as described in VOYA magazine:
It's 3 p.m. Like clockwork, the after-school rush begins at Teen Central, Phoenix Public Library's 5,000-square-foot teen space. Hundreds of teens from public, private, and charter schools pour through the door. Some check in with the staff at the desk, while others head to the living room to see what movie is playing today. Still others just want to unwind and play RuneScape® on the Internet with their friends. What keeps these teens--more than 10,000 each month--coming back to Teen Central? It's not just the twenty Internet PCs, the large-screen TV, the surround-sound stereo music, and the loaded vending machines.Those bells and whistles are great, but I'll let you in on a secret: They're not the main reason that Teen Central is so busy. The real reason for its enduring popularity is that it offers a safe, structured environment with friendly staff.
Teens are hungry for relationships with hospitable adults who are thrilled to see them. If our library has to choose between spending money on a space or hiring a staff member who loves teens and understands their culture, I'd cast my vote for a person every time.

Puh-leeze! Don't Squeeze MY Narnia

I don't trust movie adaptations of beloved books for three reasons. First, when journeying to a place via film, I lose three of my senses — I can't smell or taste or touch the way my imagination enables me to when I'm reading. Second, scenes communicating nuances of character are cut lest what delights the reader becomes excruciating for the viewer. And finally, movies don’t give the reader or the plot freedom to slow down.

Case in point: the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Reading the book, I finger the thick, green vines in Fangorn Forest, smell the evil reek in the valley of Mordor, and taste the hearty flavor of simmering mushrooms – thanks to the dialectic between Tolkien's words and my imagination.

One of my favorite scenes is when Aragorn’s self-denial extinguishes the simmering bitterness between Legolas and Gimli. This pivotal, revelatory interaction between three major characters doesn't appear in the movie. There’s simply no room for it.

As reader, I journey with Frodo and Sam through arduous, frightening passages, knowing that we will rest in places like Tom Bombadil's candle-lit dining hall. We will feast, bathe, sleep, and steel ourselves for the next episode of fear or battle. In the movie, I'm rushed with the characters from one adrenaline-inducing scene to the next. No time for reflection or recovery in a screen hero's journey.

Don't get me wrong. I love the dimming of lights, the big music, the rustle of popcorn — these cues herald the relaxing experience of expert entertainers drawing me into their stories. Just don't commandeer one of my beloved books and claim you’ve successfully squeezed it into the tight space of a film. Movie adaptations should come with a warning: "The story could not be edited to fit your movie screen. Read the book FIRST." Let's hope the people at Disney and Walden will shock my curmudgeonly socks off when I see the movie.

Writing A Great Novel: An Editor's Tips

Recently, editor Cheryl Klein of Scholastic gave a talk at an SCBWI conference in Colorado called "Rules of Engagement: How to Get (and Keep!) A Reader Involved in Your Novel." Children Come First has released her talk as a free e-book, which they describe on their site:
  1. The first part of the eBook talks about how to get and keep a reader involved in your novel. Klein lists the various things she sees in manuscripts that knock her out of the characters' brains or worlds—little tiny things, pacing questions, word choices even, that distract and dislodge her from the story.
  2. The second part, How to Disengage Your Reader in Ten Easy Steps, goes through ten different things writers need to avoid doing if they want to keep the readers engaged in the story.
  3. The eBook wraps up its third part with a transcript of the question and answer session from the conference.
Download and enjoy!

King Kongism

Out here on the fire escape, I'm a bit worried about Peter Jackson's upcoming release of King Kong. Dark-skinned savages kidnapping a beautiful blonde? A huge black foreign ape destroyed by his love for that same blonde? David Rosen's essay, "King Kong," written in 1975, seems uncannily apropos after watching a trailer of Jackson's 2005 remake:
Kong is forcibly taken from his jungle home, brought in chains to the United States, where he is put on stage as a freak entertainment attraction. He breaks his chains and goes on a rampage in the metropolis, until finally he is felled by the forces of law and order ... The white woman comes along on the safari not only to provide romantic interest. She is usually a focus of tension between the white males and the “natives,” furnishing an opportunity for some of the former to display their virile heroism against the savages ... (At the time of the original release), the movement for "100 per cent Americanism" was directed against all those “alien elements” which were seen to threaten “American civilization.” Seen in this light, the choice of location for the finale of KING KONG is especially appropriate. What better monument to this “civilization” was there in 1933 than the then only recently completed Empire State Building?
And what about the portrayal of women? As a woman of color, even one with old-fashioned values, the thought of time-traveling back to the thirties gives me the creeps.

Lamplighter Award

Hooray! Monsoon Summer is one of ten titles nominated for the 2006-2007 Lamplighter Award.

Monsoon Summer: Historical Fiction?

Jim Landers of the Dallas Morning News describes the booming middle class in India:
In the decade from 1993 to 2002, the poverty rate among India's 1.1 billion people dropped from 41 percent to 29 percent. Every year, 30 million to 40 million Indians cross into the middle class.
I'm so grateful for news like this, and it makes me wonder if the heartbreaking urban poverty I described in Monsoon Summer still exists. Especially in a city like Pune, an epicenter of the economic boom. I'd love to hear from someone who has visited there recently — are there still beggars on the streets? Children who are going hungry? Girls who have to worry about dowries, caste, and too-early marriages? I hope not. I hope I have to tell my readers that the book simply isn't accurate as a portrayal of urban India today, but paints a picture of how Pune used to be before it changed. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Forced Marriage and Filial Love

Immigrant teens often adopt the majority culture's view of dating and marriage. Some parents acquiesce, like mine, who tried to find suitable boys for the three of us before giving up. Other parents fight for their native standards, as reported by Eric Geiger in the San Francisco Chronicle:
When 15-year-old Fatima traveled to Turkey last year to attend the wedding of a male cousin she had never met, she was eager to meet the bride and groom. But after she arrived in the small Turkish village where her parents had lived before immigrating to Austria, the Vienna high school pupil's enthusiasm quickly turned to panic when she learned that she was the bride. Despite Fatima's frantic resistance — her father beat her until she consented — the dark-haired teen went ahead with the marriage planned by the couple's parents ... Now 16, Fatima lives in a safe house in Vienna beyond the control of her father, who she says remains enraged by her defiance.
I can imagine that Fatima loves her father deeply, making her resistance to this forced marriage even more heroic — and heartbreaking. And what about her mother? Silent, powerless, unable to save her daughter from masculine fury? Or urging the men forward to save her daughter from Viennese corrruption? One thing is certain — filial love gets complicated when it's squeezed between cultures.

Pacific Rim Holiday Memories

Pacific Rim Voices' wonderful Paper Tigers site features the memories (including mine) of a few writers' and illustrators' childhood holidays.

Rejoice and Revise

Margaret Woollatt (Dutton) came back to me on Thanksgiving Eve with thirteen single-spaced pages of wonderful editorial suggestions, and now the revision of Sparrowblog: The Campaign Rant is due January 20th. Meanwhile, I had a Venezuelan lunch with Judy O'Malley (Charlesbridge) who read The Bamboo People, and had some great ideas about how to tighten and brighten that story. Guess what I'll be doing over the holidays? That's right. Staring at the screen of my PowerBook G4, just like I'm doing now, fingers flying across the keyboard like reindeers on a mission. Ho, ho, ho. But, hey, I'm not complaining. I'll be doing what I love (revising), and avoiding what I hate (shopping at crowded malls for things that none of us really need.)