Isak Dinesen I'm not, but ...

MAZURI (Peace in Swahili)! Thanks for stopping by. I won't be on the fire escape for a while because I'm off to Kenya. To first-time visitors: I usually blog every other day or so, so check back regularly after 8/21. In the meantime, feel free to browse the archives. When I return, I'll blog like mad about life between THREE cultures, a strange phenomenon immigrants encounter in foreign destinations.

In rural China, for example, people didn't want to accept that I was an American. Instead, they asked me repeatedly to dance and sing in Hindi. You guessed it — Bollywood flicks are popular all across the mainland. Our guide taught me to say: "Yi-chien Wuh Shr Indo-ren; Dioh-Nee, Wuh Shr Megwo-ren," which means "Before, I was Indian. Now, I am American." I hated that phrase as it implied I had left behind my Indian-ness forever, but it was the best she could offer to clarify my identity.

Indians form an interesting margin of the cultural fabric in East Africa. Will Kenyans assume I'm an African Indian? Will they treat me differently than they do my white traveling companions? At the very least, I'm bound to get better bargains in the markets, right? I'll report in when I return. In the meantime, hang out, enjoy the view, and save me a good spot.

Anaconda Means Hope

The crazy Australian dude was in over his head in the Amazon, wrestling with a slippery, writhing, enormous snake. Gasping for air and covered with mud, he appeared for a second to shout to the viewers at home: "She's a beauty, isn't she?"

That's how I feel about the character in Asha Means Hope, the novel I've been working on all summer. Asha is my anaconda, and as I write the last part of her story, she keeps slipping out of my grasp. Will I drown? Sometimes it feels like it. The insane herpetologist eventually mastered his beloved, gave us a close look at her, and then set her free. I hope I can do the same with mine.

Becoming "American"

Yesterday, the Newton History Museum invited me to meet with six teen curators who are organizing a February 2006 exhibit about immigrant life. Sheila Sibley, a curator with the gift of hospitality, had prepared the room immaculately, complete with folders, pens, notebooks, chilled water, chips, cookies, a projector, screen, and a congenial atmosphere. We told our stories and reflected on struggles with accents and languages, conflicts with parents about friendship and marriage, a fusion of tastes in clothes, music and food.

One of the students commented on the tentative title of the exhibit: "Becoming American." "How do you define the word 'American'?" she asked. "How do people finish the sentence, 'I'm an American now, because I BLANK'?" Excellent question. The answer goes beyond "I'm a citizen," because some Americans have dual citizenship but still would say they're American. It's more than "I can vote," because otherwise kids aren't American. So, how would you fill in the blank?

South Asian Guys Beware?

I read about the mistaken shooting of a young Brazilian in London with a sinking heart. Will young men who look "Pakistani" be cornered and checked by police if they display any hint of "suspicious" behavior? Will security cameras hone in on their every move? "Welcome to our world," I can hear young African-American men saying. Should South Asian guys be prepared for the possibility of racial profiling or harassment? If so, how and when? Or am I being unnecessarily paranoid?

Belly Rings and Burkahs

I'm at the waterslide park, guarding my friends' wallets. It's 98 degrees. Girls in tiny bikinis with glittering diamonds in their belly buttons are basking in the sun. But it's not just young white flesh that's exposed. The bodies of middle-aged American women, respelendent with Botticelli ripples and bulges, are just as lavishly on display.

And then I see her, buying french fries for her brown-skinned kids, covered from head to toe in her burkah. She's a black beacon of modesty absorbing the full heat of the sun, the shape of her body and texture of her skin mysterious to everybody but her nearest and dearest.

Halfway between the burkah and the belly rings, there I am, wearing a light cotton sun dress over my modest, one-piece bathing suit. My Muslim sister takes in the exposed South Asian flesh on my legs and arms. Does she condemn me as a traitor to decency? Meanwhile, do the American girls glance at both of us, idly wondering how we can stand to be covered on such a hot day?

The Hospitality of A Tale Well Told

I was in the doctor's waiting room, people-watching till my name was called. (On a side note, the room was also called the "Sala de Espera." In Spanish, the word "to wait" is related to the word "to hope," or "esperanza." Nice.) One of the men who had checked in was an older man. He was a grizzled Boston dude, wearing handyman-type overalls, with an inability to pronounce the letter "r" when it came after the letter "a."

The television was blaring, everyone else was watching "Street-Smarts," a game show I had never seen before and hopefully will never encounter again. Meanwhile, this guy opened his book, a black hardcover without a jacket cover that looked SERIOUSLY thick. Already halfway through it, he was captivated again, turning pages fast.

I stretched, stood up, wandered over to the window, and pretended I was perusing the sailboats on the Charles. And then I leaned over and stole a look. Just as I had thought. Another clandestine Harry Potter fan. I wanted to say, as Beauty did to the Beast in one of my favorite Disney movies: "Come into the light." But I didn't. It was enough to savor his pleasure vicariously, and cheer for the story-loving kid in all of us.

Wrecking Their American Dream

Gratitude, shame, duty, love, obligation, guilt. You feel a knife twist of contradictory emotions when your parents crossed borders in midlife, giving up the comforts of familiarity to come to a strange land so that you might have a shot at success. Here's the big, pressure-filled question: what if the American dream morphs into a nightmare when it comes to your life? What if you fail academically, relationally, financially? The prospect is daunting, because you can't help feeling that your failures invalidate their sacrifices. But do they? What have they gained, if anything, that doesn't have anything to do with you?

Take Me Into The Ball Game

We took the T to Fenway Park last night to watch the Yankees vs. the Red Sox. You can't get more "all-American" than that — an intense decades-old rivalry, hot dogs and peanuts, the Star-Spangled Banner ... it's baseball, America's game. So American that it was recently knocked out of the Olympics.

As the entire Red Sox Nation leapt to their feet and cheered, I tried, I really did. But there I was, on the border again. Not too many brown faces, I thought, taking stock like I always do. My grandfather didn't persevere through years of the Babe Ruth curse, like the guy sitting next to me. I didn't grow up hating the Yankees, like the nine-year-old kid behind me shouting, "A-ROD SUCKS!"

In Bengal, my father grew up a diehard cricket addict, and he didn't find anything here to replace it. Is this another loss for an immigrant kid: the inability to inherit a passion for a particular sport or a team? Or maybe it's me. Why can't I leap headfirst into some part of Americana without feeling like a poser or a wannabe? Do other immigrants out there manage it?

This Ain't News To Me

Alex Woodson of the Hollywood Reporter covered a recent marketing-to-teens conference:
Catherine Stellin, Vice President of marketing and trends at the research firm Youth Intelligence, said many young adults, maybe surprisingly to some, are overwhelmingly optimistic and aspire to the ideals of traditional family values. "Being sappy is not that bad," Stellin said. "Young adults particularly appreciate honesty and consistency."
As if this is new? Hey, I was thrilled when an adult reviewer of Monsoon Summer wrote that Jazz's "loving, altruistic, multiethnic family is a bit idealized." I write for teens.

Wanted: Cyber-Storytellers

I'm a believer in the power of story, no matter what the venue — campfire circles, a gathering around a village well, romance novels, Hollywood blockbusters, and even ... video games.

The problem with most of today's games is that they're boring. Kids want games with characters they care about, exciting twists of action, and fantastic worlds to visit. Sound familiar? It's that story-hunger that just won't go away, whether you're sitting in a cave around a fire or in front of a computer screen.

Most librarians, thankfully, are not book snobs. A recent article in School Library Journal reveals an emerging validation of this new vehicle for stories:
Using video games as an enticement does makes sense — 73 percent of eight-to-ten-year-old boys play them for about 90 minutes every day, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Even YALSA is offering a video-gaming night at their 2006 midwinter conference in San Antonio, TX, with teens on hand to help play them.
Now, storytellers, it's up to you.

You Go, Parvati and Padma!

I've ordered my copy of #6 to arrive on pub date, but I'm saving it to read on a long plane ride coming up in August. So don't tell me what happens, okay?

As for The Goblet of Fire flick, I trust that the Patil girls will be absolutely gorgeous, even as they dump Harry and Ron at the Yule Ball. Take a fuzzy peek at Harry dancing with Parvati (Shefali Chowdhury). In the books, Rowling makes these sisters downright silly. No "noble savage" or "exotic other" syndrome in Harry Potter, not for the Asians, at least. Rowling never uses ethnicity to define Cho Chang's character, apart from describing her shining dark hair. Cho, like Parvati and Padma, is permitted to be a girl first and foremost without any modifying adjectives or easy stereotypes. I like that.

Rowling, however, does rely on ethnic stereotypes to characterize Europeans. I wonder what it's like to be French and read about the pampered, picky students of Beauxbatons, or German, and read about the austere, cold practices of Durmstrang. It doesn't seem to have hindered sales of the books throughout the continent — or anywhere on the planet. Here's to Harry, everybody! Keep writing, J.K.!

Flicks Between Cultures: Traveling Pants

I took Emily, my eleven-year-old friend and fellow fan of Ann Brashares' series, to see the film. Emily thought the actress who played Tibby rocked. (Where have I seen that actress before? Can anyone fill me in?) I thought the actress who played Carmen was awesome. As book-a-holics who are surly and suspicious when it comes to adaptations, we agreed, of course, that the books were much better, blah, blah, blah. I have to admit that the movie is fun, a total summer chick-flick tearjerker about family and friendship that can be enjoyed even without having read the books. For me, one part was actually better in the movie — seeing how Carmen's Puerto-Rican heritage made her so "other" when she was with her father's new family. While reading, I did imagine her heritage, but the actress, with her curves and emotions and accent, brought the "between cultures" aspect of Brashares' story to life for me.

Samosas, Sarees, and X-Box Games

The YA librarians at Reading Public Library hosted an India night last night, and invited me to meet some of their teens. We sampled pakoras, samosas, chai, papad, and plantain chips, and talked about how good stories can help make sense of life's struggles. After my presentation, the girls came up for a "sisterhood of the traveling saree" bonding time. When it comes to this Indian garment, one size truly fits all, no lycra necessary.

The library's vision to serve teens is inspiring — books, mags, and comfy chairs in a cozy corner of the main floor (far away from the kiddie section upstairs); thoughtfully purchased manga, comics, and graphic novels arranged in an alluring display; and, last but not least, a selection of Game Cube, X-Box, and Play Station games to borrow for free. It doesn't get better than that. Thanks, Reading, Massachusetts!

Introducing ... Sparrow

As I finish up Asha's story this summer, I'll have to gear up for my fall and winter projects. The contracts arrived yesterday: a two-book series for Dutton (The Penguin Young Readers Group.) I'd tell you what the books going to be about, but I don't want to think about them AT ALL until August. I'm too afraid I'll lose my grip on Asha. Let me tell you the main character's name, at least. She's called Sparrow, and I love her already. I hope you will, too.

The Literary Undertaker

Not only do I live between cultures, I'm also caught between vocations. Case in point: this morning, after a long and painful struggle against yellow fungus disease, Gandalf, our bearded dragon, breathed his last. My husband began preparing the backyard burial service, the boys started digging a grave, and I was summoned from my over-the-garage writing cubby.

"We need a coffin, Mom," I was informed.

I offered a cardboard box; it was rejected. That's when we spotted the black satin box on the table. A complimentary Mont Blanc pen had been mailed to me as a gift from the PEN people after an International Festival in New York. I was thrilled when I received it. To me, a Mont Blanc writing instrument has always symbolized the prestige and excitement of a literary career.

Unfortunately, in the rush and bustle of mothering, the current whereabouts of this once-coveted literary status symbol is now a mystery. (I'm sure it will turn up, PEN friends, if you're reading this.) The empty black case, therefore, was available for other uses, and with only a slight pang, I offered it to the funeral directors. It was just the right size. One son laid Gandalf on the soft satin inside, holding the box up for one last viewing. The other son closed the lid as slowly and somberly as the occasion demanded.

So, thanks to a strange convergence of dueling vocations, a dead lizard now resides in Mont Blanc luxury. My apologies to the makers of the finest writing instruments in the world. By the way, did anyone out there borrow my pen?

Reading in Reading

I'll be speaking about "Stories Between Cultures" at 6 o'clock this Thursday night, the seventh of July, in Reading, Massachusetts as part of the "Around The World In Eight Weeks" extravaganza at the library. I understand that sampling samosas and sarees might also be on the agenda. Would love to see you there!

The Best Medicine

Wanna snicker at kids from different cultures? Just kidding. Well ... actually, I'm not. On her wonderful blog, author and kid lit diva Cynthia Leitich Smith has just posted Humor in Multicultural Literature: A Bibliography, a list that the librarians of EMIERT came up with for the recent American Library Association's Annual Convention in Chicago. Enjoy!

Rural Cravings and Confessions

Here's a confession: I have Country 99.5 WKLB programmed as a radio station in my car. Most days, I'm sure I'm the only Bengali woman in the Boston area who can recount the "top five at five" country hits of the day.

There are many possible explanations for this strange new addiction in my life. First, as I like to tell intellectual types at parties, it's the best way to learn about one layer of American culture. A writer like me, who's only lived along the coasts, must study life in the heartland, in the South, and especially in Texas, where stereotypes of a big, bawdy red-white-and-blue identity seem to abound.

But if I'm to be really truthful, which I must be out here on the Fire Escape, there's more going on than detached anthropological exploration. There's something happening at the heart level. Songs about magnolia blossoms, fishing on the lake, sunsets, and country quiet are just plain peaceful when you're fighting traffic on urban streets. As an immigrant, I hunger for sense of place, of rootedness. Remember, my ancestors farmed for generations before my parents fled for the big city. I, too, was designed to have deep country roots — albeit in jute fields and rice paddies, not corn fields and cow pastures. And country musicians, the best ones, croon fervently about place.

Inevitably, though, a wistfulness comes, a longing to to live in the "land where my fathers' died," like these country songwriters. It's the same melancholy I experience listening to Rabindranath Tagore's songs about the beauty of village Bengal. When I start to feel too displaced, I switch over to my kids' hip-hop station, where edgy lyrics and a pounding beat take me back to the city. On an urban fire escape, I know from experience that a good story can always make me feel at home.