India and Black America

India and Black America have often been on intersecting paths, paths that have largely been ignored in the national discourses of both countries.

Example: the influence of a former Inner Temple lawyer from Gujarat upon the life and thinking of a young Black minister from Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been gripped by that story since 2006, and the resulting book will be out later this year.

But Black and Desi people share history along many dimensions, as this India Currents article demonstrates. Snippet:

…a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

The history of Indians in the US and Canada has been all about navigating the complexities of racialization.

And of course, there’s Kamala Harris, personifying an identity that went under the radar until now. Today, the Blindian Project celebrates Black and South Asian relationships.

All of which seems appropriate to think about, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this still-new year.

Invitation to the Invisible World

Long before our present-day preoccupation with invisible germs, Antony van Leeuwenhoek peered into a world of miniature life present in and around us. In 1716, he wrote:

I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.

From Delft-china-patterned endpapers to a back matter image of a cabinet of curiosities, Lori Alexander‘s Sibert Honor chapter book is a biography of Leeuwenhoek, a lively combination of voiced, present-tense text and delicately detailed illustrations.

It opens with an introduction to a man peering through an oddly shaped metal bar. He’s on the cusp of a big discovery, and his quoted words on the facing page evoke his wonder at what he’s seeing.

Subsequent chapters lead readers through Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s youth in Holland, where he raises silkworms and lives with his busy, enterprising parents. Through family tragedy, adolescence, an apprenticeship, travel, and more, Alexander reveals the context and background of Leeuwenhoek’s life along with all kinds of marvelous details of his obsession for looking up close at all that he encountered.

The back matter makes visible a whole lot of additional material as well–a timeline of Leeuwenhoek’s life, including related world events in red font, a glossary, source notes, selected biography, and index. Even the author’s note speaks directly to the young reader, providing information and clarifying points of scholarly agreement and doubt. Vivien Mildenberger‘s pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor art invites “all ingenious people,” and curious ones as well, to look up close at “eye of bee” and “leg of lice.”

Who We Really Are

Courtesy of the brilliant Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, here is poet Marie Howe’s reflection on humans and time and the big, big picture:

The Universe in Verse: Marie Howe reads “Singularity” (after Stephen Hawking) from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

Leads me back to Whitman. Seems as if many things these days lead me back to Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins. What is that all about?

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Because look.

Giant tree ferns in New Zealand. Rhesus monkey mama and baby and ancient rock art in India. Stardust, all.

Fantasy Fiction and Inclusion

Back when Greek mythology ruled and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson was turning middle graders into reading addicts, the notion of fantasy and cultural diversity was nonexistent. Tim Parks asked morosely whether an upward pathway existed from pulp to Proust. If anyone thought about diversity in connection with popularizing mythology in fiction in the years since, it was more kumbaya than prediction.

But times have changed, thank heavens and the end of the year feels as good a time as any to be gtateful. Now Riordan’s imprint at Disney-Hyperion is publishing exactly the diverse list that’s been missing for so many years. Riordan writes:

Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies* better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!

The first of these I came across was Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time. Aru’s a charming protagonist whose casual relationship with truth gets her, predictably, into trouble. A dare ends up launching her on a quest in the course of which she finds out that she’s the daughter of Indra, king of the gods, and the reincarnation of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.

Other series titles from the imprint weave Korean folklore and space opera, add Cuban flair to the space-time continuum, and reclaim and recast John Henry and Brer Rabbit along with Middle Passage villains.

Along similar lines, see Sayantani Dasgupta’s Kiranmala books. And look for Van Hoang’s Girl Giant and the Monkey King.

Different Childhoods

From Neev Literature Festival in India, where I was likely headed in person before the pandemic struck, here’s an interesting conversation between Sayoni Basu and Emily Drabble.

I am a decade or so older than Sayoni, I think, so my reading was even more restricted than hers. And I had my own personal moment of awakening, after which I tossed the last Blyton book over my shoulder and went on directly to adult books. I think I’m still writing to fill those gaps in my own childhood.

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper

The old year creeps to an end in this muted, beautiful spread by Carson Ellis that opens the picture book edition of Susan Cooper‘s iconic poem, The Shortest Day.

Here is the full text of the poem, which has been a part of the Boston area Annual Christmas Revels for over 40 years. You can feel how these words, this sequence of events, these yearnings, have all emerged from a northern hemisphere geography, from the waning of days in the winter and the revival of springtime. We are all creatures of place, of particular places, and here is a poem with that kind of particularity.

Our lives are cyclical, the book reminds us, and we should honor that cycling of ourselves through the seasons of place and time. As chaotic and transformative as this year has been, we might remind ourselves that the year will turn, the seasons shift, the earth will spin on, no matter how we choose to live through time.

For a very different seasonal take on winter, see Malaika’s Winter Carnival.

Childhood and Art in Chance by Uri Shulevitz

I am old enough to know Uri Shulevitz best for his 1985 book, Writing With Pictures. For the first decade of my writing career, it was the definitive text on creating picture books. Even after the chapters on four-color separation began to appear quaint, I kept hoping Shulevitz would revise it to keep up with the times. He didn’t, but I still maintain that the first four chapters are essential reading for anyone trying to crack the form of the picture book.

Now, after a distinguished list of picture books to his name, here’s a gift from Shulevitz to upper middle grade and YA readers. Chance: Escape from the Holocaust is a powerful memoir of childhood, an account of the writer’s Jewish family’s story beginning with the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

But it’s more than that. The book, illustrated with black and white sketches that range from terrifying to funny, also documents a gifted artist’s personal and creative journey. The memoir zeroes in with unerring delicacy and insight on the experiences of its author’s younger self. Here’s an excerpt from a Publisher’s Weekly profile:

“I have certain memories that are like pictures in my mind,” he says. One, in particular, he remembers from age four, when his mother tenderly tied his pair of new boots and told him they would soon need do a lot of walking. And she was right.

In Chance, we look through this window into unforgettable times and places. Through a narrative at once unflinching and sweetly youthful, we get to see the randomness of war and genocide, and the effect of that titular chance upon one boy and his family.

Here’s a small sample of the book’s voice and style: young Uri’s walking over a narrow wooden plank, where bombs have destroyed a staircase in their building. This is the image:

Here is the text:

Before the war, father once took me to the Warsaw Zoo. I never forgot the hippo that opened his mouth to yawn, revealing what looked to me like a deep cave with two teeth as large as butcher blocks.

I was blessed with, or perhaps cursed by, a vivid imagination.

Now, walking down the wooden planks, I was convinced that I’d be swallowed up by that whole – the hole that looked to me like the hippos gaping mouth. If that happened, I knew I would be chewed up by huge butcher-block teeth and with die a horrible death.

Shulevitz, Uri. Chance: Escape From the Holocaust. FSG/Macmillan, 2019

Compare this book with another brilliant author-illustrator memoir, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan. (See post on book design). How lucky we are to see these two books published only a year apart.

Mis- vs. Dispronunciation

In The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, Unhei is anxious about the first day of school. Newly moved from Korea, she worries that American kids won’t like her. Instead of introducing herself on the first day of school, she tells the class that she will choose a name by the following week. The book arrives at a warm and insightful ending, raising questions along the way about community and belonging, about who must do the work involved and why.

It’s a problem I know well. As Anand Giridharadas writes, about all the people in America who seem unable to pronounce his name:

Consider that misinformation is information that merely happens to be false, whereas disinformation is false information purposely spread. Similarly, mispronunciation is people trying too feebly and in vain to say our names — and dispronunciation is people saying our names incorrectly on purpose, as if to remind us whose country this really is.

Mispronunciation is a matter of limited tongues. Dispronunciation is a matter of limited hearts. For as long as I can remember, I have had to navigate around the shortcomings of both organs.

It’s why generations of immigrants quietly changed their names to avoid being reminded constantly of their foreignness by having others stumble over their names or simply refuse to say them. When I spoke in schools and had teachers and principals trip over my name, I learned to say, encouragingly, “Exactly the way it’s written. No hidden letters to ambush you, I promise. Come on, try it.” They’d laugh, and we’d move on. I was lucky. What I mostly encountered was mispronunciation and not dis-.

Because a name is not just a handle. It carries so much more. It is who we are, and surely a variety of names and identities enriches us all.

Reasons to Give Thanks

Canadian Thanksgiving is long over–it falls, coincidentally, on Columbus Day. It has its own history, quite separate from that of the American holiday, although also loaded with its share of dastardly deeds from colonial times. As this MacLean’s Magazine article puts it:

This may be starting to sound like an argument for the abolition of Thanksgiving, given that it is textbook cultural appropriation, one that’s been repeatedly used as a tool to promote political ideals, often tied to ideas of racial and cultural superiority. The flip side of Thanksgiving’s shaky foundation, though, is that, in its modern form, it’s an invented tradition—like all holidays, really—that’s been tied to all manner of mythical stories to promote whatever vision of national or cultural identity needed at the time. That means it can be re-invented again to mean what we need it to mean now.

A repurposing of a holiday to redress historical wrongs? There’s a thought.

For a recent Native American perspective, this American Thanksgiving, consider this YA nonfiction book:

Adapted from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s text for adults by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese.

And here’s a great selection of titles from the 2020 list of books honored in the American Indian Library Association Awards, representing the richness of today’s Native American and First Nations voices. Includes Birdsong by Julie Flett, We Are Grateful/Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley, and many others.

And finally, join me in giving thanks for the generous heart and transformative work of Cynthia Leitich Smith, author-curator of the HarperCollins Heartdrum imprint and 2021 winner of the NSK Neustadt Prize.

Process Talk: Kao Kalia Yang on Generous Memoir and the Dance of Picture Books

For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page.

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a poet, teacher, speaker and the author of three picture books written from the depths of her own experience as a Hmong American woman. Her debut children’s book, A Map Into the World is an American Library Association Notable Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, winner of the Northstar Best Illustrator Award, and winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. 

I encountered Kalia’s work when I had the honor of judging the McKnight Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature earlier this year.

I asked Kalia to talk to me about her picture books, including her new one, with this jewel of a jacket image:

[Uma] Kalia, what’s the relationship between poetry and picture books for you? 

Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang

[Kalia] I come from a strong oral tradition. From a young age, I was taught that words must be able to write on memory. As well, the Hmong language is a tonal language; every breath I breathe into the world carries meaning. In this way, my use of language tends to live on the poetic possibilities–the way words look and the way they sound matter. For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page. It is the flow and it is energy we create together that constitutes the final thing; it is not until the music ends, when we are breathless and free from the movement that the work is done. The very best picture books have always been like poetry to me. They make use of the air in my lungs and take me into a seamless performance between words and images. 

[Uma] The structure of your stories is fascinating to me. They turn unexpectedly, and the patterns they create recur in interesting and surprising ways. Can you talk about using the story cloth image in A Map into the World, say, or the beautiful connection of the child’s hands on the grandmother’s feet in The Most Beautiful Thing? How did these images fall into place for you and how did they become so integral to the story’s structure? 

[Kalia] In A Map into the World, it was very important to me that I write a story about a Hmong girl and her life in America–not the story so much of how she got here. I love the story cloth because it is such an integral part of the Hmong culture as a way of documenting the past and dreaming into the future–so I knew I wanted to name my protagonist Paj Ntaub. The story cloth, in my conversations with my own children, emerge as a kind of map for being–not just where to go but how to go. These aspects were important to me and I wanted to preserve them in the book because they are true to our lives but also represent so beautifully the experiences of first and second generation immigrants and refugee children. The things our parents carried are the things we used to become, make sense of, and build with in  the new places we call home. My hands as a child held and hugged my grandmother’s feet. The way her skin felt and the way my skin felt were the early contrasts in our relationship. I wanted to honor these facts and also enter into them fully for The Most Beautiful Thing. Much of my relationship to structure is built on my relationships to the people whose very lives have inspired and compelled me to tell their stories. My hands knew the feel of her feet more than my words, thus I needed the image to fulfill those long ago but persistent memories.

[Uma] “A melt in the freeze of their hearts.” What a beautiful line that is, and how it makes that family a single collective voice in The Shared Room. The conventions of western children’s books push us toward seeking a single protagonist. Here, this family, together, are the character. They move us precisely because they hurt and heal together. Your thoughts? 

[Kalia] From my very first book, I was interested in pushing the form of the memoir to be a more generous thing than it has traditionally been in American and western literature. Traditionally, the memoir is a form that belongs to the rich and famous, the illustrious individuals whose lives were of supposed interest. For me, that could never be what memoir was. So, in my very first book, I wrote The Latehomecomer and called it a family memoir. In this way, The Shared Room, continues the work that I started way back when I was still quite young, 22 years old. In a more particular war, the book is a story of grief. Grief is a shared experience in a family. To be true to that reality, I had to call on the single collective voice of the family.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did you learn from writing each of these books?

[Kalia] A Map Into the World taught me how to stretch the seasons and make them longer, make them last on the page even as I and my characters acknowledge and grow with their passing. The Shared Room taught me how to carry grief as a member of a community without caving in, how to weep in the world of the picture book with my characters and my readers. The Most Beautiful Thing teaches me that every elder is a treasure trove of stories and to untangle the threads of one leads necessarily to the other. Grandma’s stories are not done. There are no happy endings in a story where a child dies, but there are many reasons to nurture the fire she’d lit with her life. All the things we love and have stored in our hearts will be for others, in their moments of need, maps and story cloths for the life that is still here. The books have taught me in process, they teach me still now that they are in the world and in the hands of readers.

[Uma] What sustains you in this work?

[Kalia] It is a great joy to write for children. It is fun to travel through the layers of experience and the debris of the years to unravel for myself the magic of my own childhood, to open myself to the experiences of my own children and the world they are now living and growing in. To write for children is to offer up my imagination and my heart to the little stories that form the bigness of the world. It is a gift I cherish. 

Thank you, Kalia, for sharing your unique and stirring perspective.