Golden Anniversary

Fifty years ago my parents saw each other for the first time. Yes, they had an arranged marriage. To celebrate today, they watched "The Notebook" together (my sister's idea), and Ma cooked egg curry and luchis at Baba's request. She told me on the phone that they laughed and reminisced and wept and kissed. So here's the bottom line: It's not about how you GET married, it's about how you STAY married. Hooray for Ma and Baba!

Marvelous Maine

Spent the day at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, a city that is home to many refugees and immigrants from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, and other places. It was an immigrant writer's dream visit.

A lovely girl from Bosnia was assigned the task of waiting at the door to welcome me, so the first thing I saw was her warm, sweet smile. The library's two book clubs and one English as a Second Language class had already read and discussed my books, so they were eager to listen and primed to ask questions. Just before I started my presentation, a pair of brothers from Afghanistan greeted me with warm "Namastes" and a bouquet of fragrant flowers. (They had lived in India for a while and knew all the best Bollywood flicks. I couldn't help thinking of the The Kite Runner when they described Kabul as their home.) During my presentation, we talked about the costs and gains of growing up along the border between cultures, discussed things like skin color (for insight into how girls experience race in America, see Under Her Skin, an excellent anthology edited by Pooja Makhijani), accents, clothes, and explored our desire to honor strict but loving parents while being true to ourselves. Most of all, we reflected on the power of story to help us keep our balance.

Kelley McDaniel, the school librarian who invited me and facilitated the visit, had set up a display of some of the books between cultures I recommend on the Fire Escape. She also had a local Indian restaurant, Tandoor, cater samosas, nan, channa, and murgh masala for lunch, and several teachers joined me and the book club members at a table arranged thoughtfully with name cards and adorned with more flowers. More good questions, more laughter, more sharing of stories.

After lunch, I spoke to the teachers, trying to encourage them in their call to educate kids who are growing up between cultures. I drove home down I-95 feeling honored and humbled that my own vocation as a writer connects me with kids and educators like the ones in Portland, Maine. (And gives me plenty of samosa-gorging opportunities, too!) Thanks, King Middle School!

A Middle Schooler's Nightmare Come True

Today I survived yet another stressful experience (it's been a roller-coaster ride of a spring). I was asked to do my "Stories on the Fire Escape" presentation for 150 seventh-graders. I've done this in so many places now I usually don't get nervous. But this was IN MY SONS' SCHOOL (they weren't going to be there, since they're in sixth grade, but still ...)

I had to dress carefully. I couldn't tell silly jokes. Remember — their social life could be at stake if I blew it. I did the best I could and didn't rest till I picked them up after school.

Apparently, a seventh-grade girl strode over to the sixth-grade boys' table at lunch. "Was that your Mom at assembly this morning?"

"Yes," my sons admitted bravely.

"Your dog is sure cute," she told them, and walked away.

I always end with photos of our pets — Arwen and Legolas, our ferrets, and Strider. Yeah! A good-looking yellow Lab saves the day!

Stage Fright For Dummies

I'm going to act in a dramatic production for the first time in my life. The play is called "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, and our church is putting it on as a fundraiser for a high school service trip to Paraguay this summer. I'm playing the stage manager/narrator role and I'm scared to death.

The main reason I agreed to try out is because of my sons, who had seen another version of the play at school. "You can't play that part," they protested. "The stage manager's supposed to be a white guy!"

WHAT? HELLO!?!? Are they NOT trying new things because ridiculous thoughts like that are limiting THEM? And why didn't I try out for plays when I was in school? Probably because of the same kind of thinking — I assumed that brown-skinned girls need not apply. No, I thought, we can't let this continue. I'll have to be a stereotype-shattering example for the next generation. Sigh.

Now I'm realizing what a VERBAL person I am. It's all about words for me; I don't know what to do with my slab of a body and the stiff, useless appendages called arms that feel like they're made of wood. And since when did my feet get so big and heavy? Who would have thought this micro-crusade on behalf of immigrant actors would be such a terrifying, humbling experience? HELP!

2005 Writing Contest Entries Due June 1

If you, one, or both of your birth parents were born outside of North America, you may qualify to enter the Fire Escape's Teen Writing Contests! Read the rules and submit your entries by June 1st. I can't wait to award prizes for the best poems and stories about life between cultures. This is the third year in a row for the contest; I send out snazzy certificates along with the checks, so don't miss out! You may read past winning entries on the Fire Escape.

A Noun By Any Other Name Is Just As Grumpy

"Everybody's into India these days," a friend says. "No wonder you're getting some books published."

It's true. There is an increased appetite for books about India. But sometimes I read the mind of a disgruntled writer wannabe: "The only reason she's published and I'm not is because she's one of those MULTICULTURAL writers."

Rant time.

You never hear someone introduced as a WHITE MALE WRITER, do you? We also never hear WOMAN WRITER these days, although a century ago we might have. "Writer," therefore, no longer implies masculinity when the noun stands alone. But I'm often introduced as an "Indian-American" writer. If I'm not in a grumpy mood, this doesn't bother me at all, but labels always make me think. If that extra adjective is needed, does the noun by itself apply only to a person of European descent?

It's like the sting of assumption after making it through a rigorous college admissions process: "YOU got in to meet a quota; you weren't as qualified as the white kids." Hey listen, I want to say, the "Indian-American" label comes before the noun WRITER. If my writing stinks, adding adjectives, no matter how important or unique, won't help at all.

Or maybe I'm being a curmudgeon again. Maybe people are introducing the part of me they find especially intriguing or unique. After all, writers are popping up everywhere these days. But how many INDIAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN'S BOOK writers do you know? (Here are a few: Uma Krishnaswami, Narinder Dhami, Kashmira Sheth, Pooja Makhijani, Anjali Banerjee, Rachna Gilmore ... for more see Kahani magazine.) So maybe I should just chill, and revel in the majority culture celebrating instead of rejecting my ethnicity.

Still, there's tension. Must my work always come with a label, like a troublesome blouse that can't be tossed into the wash with the other clothes? Perhaps writers like me did get special treatment from publishers a few years ago. But these days, there's an avalanche of new, fresh voices from non-majority communities. Every year that passes, every month that passes, more is expected from the "writer" part of our label than from any qualifying adjectives. These days, our work's getting tossed into the dirty laundry bin (a.k.a. the slush pile), along with the rest.

So, to work, writers. Let's forget any adjectives the world might place before the noun. The truth is, those qualifiers are a part of us; we can't get rid of them even if we tried. Our souls will use them to weave together a sense of place, knit the personalities of characters, embroider the details of plot. Instead, let's strengthen our grip on the vocation itself. After all, without the word "writer," we're basically a list of adjectives looking for a good noun.

Kids Needed to Write Reviews

From the SCBWI website:
FACES magazine is looking for kids at least ten or older who like to read and write. We need writers who'll read a book that we'll provide for free and then write a short review of the book for upcoming issues. This review will appear in our 'Further Exploring' section. Our magazine is about countries, regions, cultures and people and issues of international importance. Right now we need reviewers from outside New England only. Contact us at: if interested.

Books a Plenty; Fans a Few

When do you know you're a real writer? Is it a contract? Is it a bound book with a snazzy cover? An ISBN number? A hundred-plus entries if you're googled? An ranking? No. The correct answer is "none of the above." I discovered that I'm a real writer during an event at one of my favorite local indie bookstores.

Newtonville Books, owned and operated by Tim Huggins, has recently expanded, and now offers a fantastic children's area called "The Lizard's Tale." Tim graciously invited me to do TWO Lizard's Tale readings in one academic year — the first for Monsoon Summer, in the fall, and the second for Sunita, last Sunday.

I went all out for the event in the fall, inviting everyone I knew and asking them to bring their mother's second cousins. We had a great turnout. Standing room only in the back. "Wow," Tim told me. "You have a good fan base, Mitali." Hey, I thought (secretly, of course — authors always mask our desperate desire to be loved). I have a fan base. I must be a writer.

The second event was quite a contrast. First of all, I was embarrassed that The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen isn't really new; it's a reissue. I felt like I was inviting guests to a meal and serving leftovers. Plus, I hate putting friends in the uncomfortable position of turning me down, especially when they'd turned up in such abundance just a few months earlier. So I didn't send out e-vites. I didn't post any flyers at church. I didn't ask people for RSVPs.

At 2 p.m., I showed up and signed the stacks and stacks of books that Tim had ordered. By 2:30, a dozen or so people had gathered, including Tim's daughter and two writer's group buddies (one of whom had brought her three kids). We made our way to the loft where Tim had set up rows and rows of chairs (all occupied by warm bodies last time). My faithful dozen clustered in the front of the room and listened to me read. They asked questions. I answered them. We were done by 2:50. Nobody lingered. I bought a book (Marylinne Robinson's Housekeeping: A Novel.) I left.

Now you might think this event was a failure. A bookstore signing with an abysmal turnout. Every writer's nightmare, right? But here's what made the afternoon a success. First, Tim's unquenchable support (made tangible in the LIFETIME 20% discount he gives to local authors who do readings). Second, his daughter's farewell hug. And third, his provision of a venue for the inspiring dialectic between reader and writer. Here's a note I received from one of the girls who attended:
As soon as I got in the car from Newtonville Books, I started reading your book. I couldn't stop, just finished it, and I loved it! I loved the character of Sunita and I also liked the part about the soap opera. When I read it, I imagined Sunita's voice as yours while you were reading it in the book store.
I may not have an actual "fan base," but thanks to Tim, I did connect with one wonderful reader. And that's how I know I'm a real writer.

Existential Children's Books?

Here's a quote from an editorial in the May 2005 issue of School Library Journal called "The Big Questions" by Donna Freitas, a professor of religion:
Stories allow us to become explorers of religion, tantalizing us up the stairs to that locked door, that forgotten chest, the jeweled gowns at the back of the closet, hidden behind the stuffy, woolen coats. These stories have the power to move us from one place to another, to tear open the surface of tradition to a deeper, more primal place. A children's story opens the door to religious contemplation like nothing else can.
Agree? Disagree? Which children's books do YOU think "open the door" to religious contemplation (apart from the obvious ones written by Lewis, Pullman, and Tolkien)?

Under Blankets, Between Cultures

I'm back from Colorado, where I stayed up late reading under cozy flannel sheets and an electric blanket provided by my sister. She also stocked a candy basket for me. A top-ten luxurious indulgence indeed — staying up past midnight with a gripping story and caramels. What story was I reading? The Kite Runner — Khaled Hosseini's coming of age novel based in Afghanistan and California. Finally, a "grownup" book that ended on a note of redemption, grace, and hope, instead of dragging me into the depths of human depravity and leaving me there. (Because you will love the characters and terrible things happen to them, I wouldn't recommend it for younger YAs — definitely for mature older teens and above.)

In Colorado, for Mother's Day, I spoke at a tea for middle-school girls and their moms. Tulips graced the tables, we munched on cucumber sandwiches and cream puffs, and my sister poured cups of steaming Bengal Spice tea (it's delicious; check your grocer's aisle). I ruminated on the mysteries of mother-daughter relationships and read an excerpt about Jazz and her mother from Monsoon Summer and an excerpt about Sunni and her mother from The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. I do this for a living? All I can say is: Awesome. This rocks, dude. (Guess I'm still a California girl, huh?)

Post-Traumatic School Visit Syndrome

Just got back from doing my "Life Between Cultures" presentation for each of the the three fourth-grade classes at Mason-Rice School in Newton, Massachusetts. I am absolutely exhausted. You might ask why, given that speaking to kids about writing is one my favorite pasttimes.

It wasn't the kids. They were starting an immigration unit, and so were primed to listen to the story of my life as an immigrant-kid-cum-author. They asked great questions, laughed at my silly jokes, and shared wonderful stories of their own. One young man told us how his great-grandfather was assassinated by guerillas in Colombia before his family escaped the country. Another described his Russian grandfather hiding inside a mattress while soldiers guarding the borders poked it with a bayonet. We listened, fascinated. (The kids later wrote letters to me, which were so wonderful I asked for permission to share them with my visitors.)

It wasn't the teachers. They were incredibly supportive and hospitable, with slide projectors and screens and connecting cords waiting for me like obedient servants in each of their classrooms.

So why, then, am I shattered?

The extra tension came because members of Newton Schools' Creative Arts and Sciences Committees were sitting in the back of the library while I spoke, pens and evaluation sheets in hand. This was my "showcase" presentation, arranged courtesy of the Newton Public Schools Creative Arts and Sciences Department. These caring parents were there to gauge any value I might be able to add to their kids' education. They were lovely people, don't get me wrong. But "showcasing" is a nerve-wracking endeavor, and I'm glad it's behind me. I'm all set to curl up on the couch and watch other people perform under pressure — the Red Sox play ball at Detroit tonight.