Lowell Visit No. 1

The Concord Festival of Authors has graciously invited me to provide two days of middle school presentations in Lowell, Massachusetts, and a one-night event for the general public at Lowell's Pollard Memorial Library (Wednesday, November 2, 2005, 7 p.m.). Today I met with the sixth-graders of Rogers Middle School, a wonderful bunch of kids, many with origins in either Brazil or Cambodia. Six of them stayed after my presentations to host me for a pizza lunch, which was a blast. Some good questions: "If you couldn't be a writer, what would you be?" (Answer: hmmm...a middle school teacher maybe?), and "Was it hard to move around so much and always be the new kid?" (Answer: definitely, but it gave me an "eye for the outsider" since I know how that feels).

The 1.5 Experience

Sarah Park responded to my "between cultures" motif:
I agree that second generation children often grapple with issues of identity (Korean Americans use "1.5 generation" - not quite 1st gen, yet not quite 2nd generation...) but saying "between cultures" makes me feel as though we're not quite one, and yet not quite another, as if they are mutually exclusive polar opposites. Can we be a healthy blend of Korean and American, and have that be our culture?
Here's what I think: the word "culture" demands to be prefaced by an "our" instead of "my." Culture is not an invidualized combo of DNA and destiny that varies from person to person, it must be shared and created in community. Perhaps in parts of North America, or even in cyber-world, enough Korean Americans are sharing a new fused 1.5 culture for it to qualify. I certainly didn't experience that as a kid; my "between cultures" life was too solitary to be labeled a culture of its' own. Any other thoughts on Sarah's question?

Top Ten Teen Books

The American Library Association's Teen Read Week is over, and the results are in! Here are the top ten as voted by teens from around the United States:
  1. Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares
  2. The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen
  3. Looking For Alaska by John Green
  4. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  5. Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
  6. Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
  7. The Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah
  8. Teen Idol by Meg Cabot
  9. The Garden by Elise Aidinoff
  10. How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito
I've only read No. 1, so after I meet this deadline (hope springs eternal), I'll work my way down. Gangsta Rap might be the only Book Between Cultures on the list (UK-based Zephaniah also wrote Refugee Boy, the story of an Ethiopian in England). Are there others?

Ambience For A Writing Blitz

I wrote 6000 words on Saturday, which for me is significant. First, I produced 2000 words at Peet's Coffee in the morning. I walked the two miles home, thinking about my characters the whole way. It was chilly and raining when I arrived, and I had the house to myself, so I lit a fire and put on some Gregorian Chants. Sitting in my favorite leather recliner, with my feet toasty and our lab at my side, I churned out another 4000. Then I gave myself permission to watch Game One of the World Series, even though without the Red Sox playing, the experience lacked passion. Today, the house is full with no chance of quiet. Question: Can I reach my goal of 5000 words sans ambience? Here goes ...

Ba-da-bing, Ba-da-Boom

Saw Billy Crystal last night at the Boston Opera House in "700 Sundays," a hilarious performance about his life in New Jersey. Reviewers have mixed opinions, describing his material either as "coarse" or "earthy," "touching" or "schmalzty." To me, it was three hours of intimate, self-deprecatory storytelling from a master who was tutored by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby. I especially enjoyed the "between-cultures" riff describing how his Jewish high school's basketball team played an exhibition game with the No. 2 high school team in the country. That team was all African-American, and included a 7'1" center named Lew Alcindor, who went on to become NBA superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar. I was also reminded of the power of humor to open hearts and captivate an audience. It's too bad that reviewers, authors, and publishers of "literary fiction" don't recognize that most of us are desperate for a good laugh. When's the last time a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel made you guffaw out loud? Why do we think that "serious" literature can't make people giggle, chortle, or even crack a smile?

It Isn't Drivel After All!

Just heard from my agent that she's halfway through Asha Means Hope and that she loves it. Whew! That's encouragement to me as I'm trying to produce 3000-4000 words on Sparrow's story every writing day. I am planning a spa-like December of serenity to reward myself for this autumn's intensity. But do I want a different vocation? Not on your life. After years of rejections, I'm not complaining about having to fulfill contracts and submit manuscripts to waiting editors. If only I can make it to December 1 without bleeding, chewed-up cuticles. The nails are gone now, I had to quit gum because my jaw kept popping out of socket, and conseqently, the oral fixation that accompanies hard work needs to find a new source. Anyboy want to suggest a healthier option than chomping on my own skin?

Khaled Hosseini: A Slow Influx

Here's an interesting interview in the San Luis Obispo Post (current temp: 75 degrees, sigh) with Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. His quote on life between cultures:
I remember growing up with a slow influx of Western culture into Afghanistan. And I came to the U.S. the way Amir did, as an immigrant, when I was 15. There was a budding Afghan community, a very small one at the time, and just like Amir and Baba, we found it and became part of it. The scenes in the flea market are very reminiscent of my own early years in the States with my dad and I working there.
Western culture's "slow influx" into Hosseini's life continued even in the Bay Area. With a "budding community" of native language-speakers around him, the rate of his assimilation was bound to slow down. Hosseni married an Afghani-American he met in that community, and I'm sure they're teaching their children their shared mother tongue, customs, and religion. When you're thrown into an all-white suburb in seventh grade, the way that I was, Western culture comes barreling at you full steam.

Teen Read Week

Vote for your favorite books during the American Library Association's Teen Read Week October 16 - 22, 2005. Readers aged twelve to eighteen can vote here anytime during this week.

I Heart Hartford

I'm blogging from the beautifully renovated Hartford Public Library's children's room, where I just finished one presentation for 50 or so middle schoolers from Hartford Classical Magnet School. They had some excellent questions, like: "Do you EVER feel at home when you're between cultures?" The librarians are taking me to lunch, and I have another talk scheduled at 4 p.m. In between lunch and session no. 2, I'm going to sit in a corner of this gorgeous, bright building and write more of Sparrow's story. As I told Casey Rondini, the Teen Librarian here, a community that invests this much in their library definitely qualifies as "New England's Rising Star" (the city's slogan).

Kashmir: A Memory

Lilies floating on a lake, the reflection of our houseboat shimmering between them on the dark green water. Smiling eyes above black veils watching from the kitchen as we feasted on naan and lentils, lamb and raita. Worn fingertips that wove the blue, red, and gold threads of silk into the carpet we bought as our wedding present. Children, laughing and following the white man and Indian woman as we strolled the cobblestone streets, wanting to hold hands and yet not daring. We held theirs, instead. Beloved Kashmir, lover's paradise, Love alone can comfort you now. Bismillah.

Per Capita School Librarian

Before you move into a neighborhood, ask these two questions: Do all the schools in town have their own librarians? Does the community employ more school librarians this year than they did five years ago?

I just got back from presenting and signing books in Pittsburgh, where four thousand librarians are attending the AASL's National Convention. Our school district recently eliminated several school librarian positions — a warning sign, perhaps, that a once-forward-thinking community is beginning to decline. Our elementary school librarian now runs back and forth between two schools.

Get this through your heads, people — school librarians are not expendable book stampers and shelve organizers. The majority are talented, inspiring educators involved in the teaching of every discipline, including cutting-edge technology, and in integrating them for students of many capabilities. So fugeddaboud "location, location, location." Here's the new mantra for the savvy real estate broker: "Librarian, librarian, librarian."

Festivals From The Fringe

Schools were closed in our neighborhood yesterday for Rosh Hashanah. I walked the dog in shorts and tennis shoes while people walked in their best clothes to Temple. I zapped my dinner while our neighbors gathered around their tables to feast on savory home-cooked meals. I shopped at Target while they worshipped God.

That "out-of-sync" feeling reminded me of being a kid on holidays like Christmas and Easter. Such special days of celebration for everybody else were simply extra days off school for me and my sisters and free time off from work for Ma and Baba. The five of us slept in, played tennis, and ate lamb curry, but it wasn't the same.

I understand why Jewish people choose to live in our town. There's something about your community-at-large commemorating your family's festival days that makes you feel at home. Fringe-dwelling kids usually watch from the sidelines, and return to regular, post-holiday days feeling somewhat out of step. It's one of those times in an immigrant kid's life when the power of story can help alleviate the loneliness on the margin. "Been there, done that," the writer says. Ah! Then I'm not the only one, the reader realizes, and is comforted.

Anyone want to invite a Gentile over for Seder in the Spring?

Scared Wordless

I have to start a new book today, and it scares me to death. I'm constantly petrified by my lack of discipline and creativity. One help has been Ralph Keyes' The Courage to Write : How Writers Transcend Fear (Owl Books, 2003). Along with providing practical tips on how to use fear to GET GOING, Keyes recounts the idiosyncracies and strange rites of other terrified writers. California poet Joaquin Miller had a sprinkler installed above his home because he could only compose poetry to the sound of rain on the roof, and playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote with his bare feet in cold water to keep himself focused. Reading how authors like Annie Dillard (scanned the index of first lines in poetry anthologies) and Willa Cather (read Bible passages) overcame fear brings inspiration and comfort to any writer ... even to a Bengali girl cowering on the fire escape.