Anchored By Parental Love

Read Pulitzer-prize winning Jhumpa Lahiri's essay about the hyphenated life in Newsweek. Most poignant to me is her assertion that once her parents die, she'll be cut off from the Indian part of her self:
While I am American by virtue of the fact that I was raised in this country, I am Indian thanks to the efforts of two individuals. I feel Indian not because of the time I've spent in India or because of my genetic composition but rather because of my parents' steadfast presence in my life ... Everything will change once they die. They will take certain things with them—conversations in another tongue, and perceptions about the difficulties of being foreign. Without them, the back-and-forth life my family leads, both literally and figuratively, will at last approach stillness. An anchor will drop, and a line of connection will be severed. I have always believed that I lack the authority my parents bring to being Indian. But as long as they live they protect me from feeling like an impostor. Their passing will mark not only the loss of the people who created me but the loss of a singular way of life, a singular struggle.
My heart ached with the truth of this as I read it. As an immigrant teen, you pull away from the old-world aura of your parents; as an adult adept at being American, you crawl back and curl yourself up as close as you can to the comfort of them (as evidenced in this photo of Baba and me taken the last time I visited).

Les Misérables

Saw Les Mis last night at the Boston Opera House. This is the fourth time I've seen the production, and each time, I'm struck by how the musical evokes compassion for thieves and prostitutes ... and even for Javert, the so-called "bad guy." I'm taking the novel with me on vacation to reflect on how Victor Hugo created such nuanced, memorable characters. I'll be back on the fire escape on Tuesday, February 28th.

Uncle Clive Staples and Me

I found something I wrote when I was fourteen where I described in detail an early-morning Unicorn-spotting adventure. My chosen companion? C.S. Lewis, of course. I reread the Chronicles every year and knew parts of them by heart. That earns me a berth on a roundtable of Narnia-lovers today, along with Walden Media's producer Micheal Flaherty (who's the main attraction.) If you're anywhere near Newton, Massachusetts this afternoon, stop by!

No Burkahs For Batman

As the mother of two Batman-loving boys, I'm worried about a graphic novel in the works in which the Dark Knight will take on Osama Bin Laden. Any terrorist/murderer is clearly a bad guy, so that's not my issue. And I'm all for the freedom of the press when it comes to comics or cartoons. My problem is that comic books about superheroes are in the fairy tale genre. They give readers a place to work out a fear of evil in general without vilifying a specific race, tribe, or culture. Creator Frank Miller's justification is that it's been done in the past:
"Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That's one of the things they're there for," he said. "These are our folk heroes. It just seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you've got Al-Qaeda out there."
But graphic novels are meant to be seen and not heard, and Germans in America during WWII were usually identifiable only by their accents. They were white, too, so when Superman decked Hitler on the page, a good white guy was beating up a bad one. This time it's different. How will a young South Asian or Arab American reader process evil characters who resemble his father or uncles? How will my sons feel when their cool American superhero destroys scores of bad guy henchmen and thugs who have features and skin color like their own?

I Wanna Talk About ME

I offered "An Immigrant Kid's Life" at Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School yesterday. When I finished sharing my story, I asked if anyone had questions. Several of the fourth-graders raised their hands, but they didn't have questions — they wanted to tell their own stories.

"We arrived from Iran when I was in second grade," one boy remembered. "My mom dressed me in really fancy clothes for my first day of school because she wanted me to feel special."

I was struck by his understanding of his mother's sweet motives. "Did it take a while to feel at home here?" I asked. "What helped you the most?"

"My friends," he said, without hesitating, and the two guys flanking him raised their hands in the air as if they'd won a prize. They have indeed, I thought, as other immigrant kids shared their experiences with their teachers and classmates.

Writing Workshop For NYC Teens

The Asian American Writers' Workshop presents an event for teens that sounds like it might be duplicated in other communities outside of New York:

Write Your Life — One Story at a Time
Facilitated by Alison Minami and Sandhya Nankani
Saturday, February 18, 1pm - 5pm, open to students grades 9-12
Saturday, March 4, 1pm - 5pm, open to students grades 6-8
Who says that just because you're young, you haven't fully lived a life worth writing about already? Everybody has a story to tell - it is time to discover yours and start writing it. This workshop explores the theme of community. What is community? What communities do you belong to, if any? How have they shaped your identity? Learn how to take your own life experiences (Sunday dinner at your grandmother's house, a childhood memory, or an important object in your life) and use them to create fresh prose or poetry. Includes writing prompts and models from Asian American authors to explore imagery, narration and character development.
Open to all youth, grades 6-12. Free for participants. Please call 212.494.0061 to register or email your name, contact information and grade level to "" Limited to 15 students each session.

Lessons From Numinous Black Women

As our nation mourns the deaths of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, I've been struck anew by the positive portrayal of older black women in pop culture. The Oracle in the Matrix. Gloria Dump in Winn-Dixie. Madame Zeroni in Holes. Even Oprah comes to mind. Basically, when an older black woman enters a story, we're cued to know that she will help the young hero achieve his or her quest.

You could argue that this "Mammy" stereotype hearkens back to the days of slavery. But going beyond a simple "Hollywood is racist" explanation, I have two theories about why pop culture is open to the voices of older African-American women. First, it's easy to listen to their insights because they have suffered and survived many trials in their own journeys. As David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum, puts it:
The horrors of Jim Crow are not so easily ignored. The children of Jim Crow walk among us, and they have stories to tell. They remember Emmitt Till, murdered in 1955, for whistling at a white woman. Long before the tragic bombings of September 11, 2001, blacks that lived under Jim Crow were acquainted with terrorism. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a black church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Twenty-three people were hurt, and four girls were killed. The blacks who grew up during the Jim Crow period can tell you about this bombing -- and many others. Blacks who dared protest the indignities of Jim Crow were threatened, and when the threats did not work, subjected to violence, including bombings. The children of Jim Crow can talk about the Scottsboro boys, the Tuskegee Experiment, lynchings, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, and they have stories about the daily indignities that befell blacks who lived in towns where they were not respected or wanted.
Second, pop culture (a.k.a. youth culture) is hungering for maternal hospitality. Teens long for someone to pour them lemonade, serve cookies fresh from the oven, and just plain be with them. Even if they don't realize it themselves, they need time with older people who aren't in too much of a hurry to welcome them; parents and grandparents who can provide the incomparable refreshment and rest of good company.

This open window provides an opportunity for middle-aged and white-haired people of all races who long to connect with young people — including teachers and librarians (and authors) who feel out of it when it comes to pop culture. Our response is two-fold. First, we need to tell them our own stories of survival and suffering. And second, we must carve out time to sit on the porch of our lives with an empty rocking chair or two beside us. Fill a plate with the product of an ancient comfort recipe innovated once upon a time. Listen. Laugh at their jokes. Basically, exude an aura of acceptance when we welcome teens into schools, libraries, or even the pages of a book.

Mismatch by Lensey Namioka

Lensey Namioka's newest title from Delacorte, Mismatch, explores a relationship between two Asian American teens whose ancestors hated each other:
Sue Hua just moved from racially diverse Seattle to a suburban white-bread town where she feels like the only Asian American for miles. Then she meets Andy, a handsome and passionate violin player who happens to be Asian American. Sue feels an instant attraction to Andy, and her white friends think they’re “made for each other”–after all, they both use chopsticks and eat a lot of rice, right? But there’s just one problem. Andy’s last name is Suzuki.
Lensey was born in China, moved to the States when she was nine, and married a Japanese man. (I'll post a review of the book on the Fire Escape once I've read it.)

Immigrant Gains: Strength and Experience

I'm back from a school visit to Bowen Elementary School in Newton. After discussing some of the losses associated with a displaced life, I asked sixty fourth-graders, "Can you imagine any gains that come with living between cultures?"

"You gain strength from overcoming a challenge," one girl answered quickly.

"You have the experience of knowing what it's like to be new," another boy said right after that.

"You get to know two cultures really well." Another fast, brilliant answer.

Ten-year-olds get it. If only we could retain the power of imagining ourselves in another's skin.

Korean Adoptees: Homeward Bound?

Hyphen Magazine discusses the growing number of Korean adoptees who are returning to their birth country for extended periods of time, mostly to serve, learn, re-connect with their birth families:
...The adoptee social scene isn't all nightclubs and cocktails. As more adoptees make the move to Korea, the burgeoning community has expanded to include volunteer work at orphanages, lectures at an adoptee guesthouse called KoRoot and government-sponsored field trips. In the process, they're making their presence felt, forging a diverse subculture and asserting divergent political views on adoption. The result is a new diaspora that is fast becoming the heart of a growing global network of Korean organizations that is changing and challenging the institution of international adoption.

Books That Don't Make You Blush

Check out the American Library Association's list of "Books That Don't Make You Blush: No Dirty Laundry Here." From one of the members on the committee:
We decided to include books for people who don't want swearing, sex, more offensive topics — not "too raunchy and rude" but that still would qualify as POPULAR, which after all is supposed to be our most important criterion. To tell the truth, I wasn't crazy about being on this sub-committee because I was afraid of a bunch of tepid stuff. But as it turned out, we ended up with a terrific list of fun reads that will appeal to the whole age range of 12-18, and with a variety of genres and formats.
Here's the complete list:
  • Abbott, Hailey. The Bridesmaid. 2005. Delacorte, paper, $7.95. (0-385-73220-1).
  • Bauer, Joan. Backwater. 2000. Putnam, paper, $6.99. (0-698-11865-0).
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Warriors. 2003. Darby Creek, paper, $4.99. (1-58196-022-0.)
  • Cabot, Meg. All-American Girl. 2003. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99. (0-06-447277-9).
  • Cappo, Nan Willard. Cheating Lessons. 2003. Simon Pulse, paper, $4.99. (0-689-86018-8).
  • Carlson, Melody. It's My Life: Diary of a Teenage Girl. 2000. Multnomah Publisher, paper, $12.99. (1-57673-735-7).
  • Ferris, Jean. Love Among the Walnuts. 1998. Harcourt, paper, $5.99. (0-14-131099-5).
  • Hilgartner, Beth. Murder for Her Majesty. 1992. Houghton Mifflin, paper, $5.95. (0-395-61619-0).
  • Hobbs, Will. Leaving Protection. 2005. HarperCollins, paper, $5.99. (0-380-73312-9).
  • Karr, Kathleen. The Boxer. 2004. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $6.95. (0-374-40886-6).
  • Lubar, David. Dunk. 2002. Clarion Books, paper, $6.99. (0-618-43909-9).
  • Oppel, Kenneth. Airborn. 2005. HarperEos, paper, $6.99. (0-06-053182-7).
  • Rabb, M. E. The Rose Queen. 2004. Penguin, paper, $ 6.99. (0-14-250041-0).
  • Rallison, Janette. All's Fair in Love, War, and High School. 2005. Walker & Company, paper, $6.95. (0-8027-7725-2).
  • Schindler, Nina (translator, Rob Barrett). An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries. 2004. Annick Press, paper, $8.95. (1-55037-860-0).
  • Shaw, Tucker. Flavor of the Week. 2005. Hyperion, paper, $5.99. (0-7868-5698-X).
  • Sheldon, Dyan. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. 2005. Candlewick Press, paper, $7.99. (0-7636-2827-1).
  • Smith, Greg Leitich. Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo. 2005. Little, Brown and Company, paper, $6.99. (0-316-01181-9).
  • Takaya, Natsuki. Fruits Basket Vol. 1. 2004. Tokyopop, paper, $9.99. (1-591826-039-8).
  • Trottier, Maxine. Sister to the Wolf. 2004. Kids Can Press, paper, $6.95. (1-55337-520-3).
  • Van Draanen, Wendelin. Flipped. 2003. Knopf, paper, $8.95. (0-375-82544-4).
  • Vaughan, Brian K. Runaways Vol. 1: Pride & Joy. Illustrated by Adrian Alphona. 2004. Marvel, paper, $7.99. (0-7851-1379-7).
  • Weaver, Will. Memory Boy. 2003. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99. (0-06-440854-x).
  • Westerfeld, Scott. Uglies. 2005. Simon Pulse, paper, $6.99. (0-689-86538-4).

She Likes It! She Likes It!

How's this for a fast turnaround: I sent the revision of Sparrowblog to Dutton as an email attachment on Tuesday, and last night, I heard back from my editor, Margaret Woollatt. Since the news was good, I treated myself with a long, luxurious browse at the library, something I haven't been able to do in weeks. It's raining, I'm home by the fire, and I have a stack of treasures to read. What could be better than this?

Freedom Versus Respect

On the border between cultures, the value of freedom can clash fiercely with the value of respect. Freedom of expression allows zealots and racists to say what they think, no matter whom they offend or what violence they might incite. For example, France Noir, a French newspaper, recently published cartoons of Muhammad that are extremely offensive to Muslims. Jefferson Morley of the Washington Post reports:
"The cartoons include an image of the Prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, and another portraying him holding a sword, his eyes covered by a black rectangle," according to Agence France-Press. "A third pictured a middle-aged prophet standing in the desert with a walking stick, in front of a donkey and a sunset."

France Soir
also printed images that have shocked Christians in the past, including the poster of the 2002 film "Amen," which depicts a hybrid of a Christian cross and a swastika, and parodies of Christ on the cross.

"Islam forbids any representation of the Prophet," the paper's front page editorial says today. "The question is, are all those who are not Muslims obliged to honour that prohibition? Can you imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of the different religions? What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak, or even to come and go freely?"
Such offensive images of Muhammad cut to the heart of any Muslim. They widen the rift between cultures and fan the flames of hostility. I certainly don't want to die on my sword defending some unknown editor's right to be hateful and condemning, but as a writer, I must champion France Noir's right to offend Muslims and Christians. Here's the bottom line: if nobody has the power to muzzle my hate, then they won't be able to shut me up when I write about love — which is actually a more incendiary topic.

Writing May Be Hazardous To Your Health

It's the ides of February, and I worked out today for the first time in 2006. January was consumed by an intense revision of the first book in the Sparrowblog Series, which I sent to Dutton yesterday. Thankfully, my husband scheduled his two-week pastoral study leave in January, as I don't think being married to a disembodied imagination ranks high on his list of romantic fantasies. One of my professional goals is to prevent my body from falling apart when my brain, soul, and heart are sucked into the writing flow. Any ideas or inspiration to share?