A Heartbreaking Collection

I don’t usually pay attention to the Travel section of National Geographic–because, you know, I’m waiting to see how the National Geographic project plays out. And because, travel, what’s that?

But here’s an account of a collection in the Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury district:

The objects are known collectively by the museum as “The Tokens.” Trifles, mostly, these small random pieces were left by parents, usually mothers, forced by poverty or the social stigma of their child’s illegitimacy, to relinquish their children to what was then called the Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. Used as identifiers in the case of the parents’ return, they now form a heartbreaking collection often overlooked by visitors to the U.K. capital.

Education and Maintenance. Exposed and deserted. Those terms speak volumes. Founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, a retired sea-captain, the hospital began taking in infants on a “first come, first served” basis in 1741. Today, the Foundling Museum “works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through the arts and to inspire people to make the world a better place.”

For a novelist’s take on this history, read Jamila Gavin‘s Whitbread Award-winning children’s novel, Coram Boy. Published all of twenty years ago in 2000, it remains a moving read, with a complex villain and interwoven lives in two periods of time eight years apart.

Excerpt:

As usual, there was a throng of desperate women pressing at the gates at the hospital; Begging not to be forced to drop their babies in the street to die, Begging for a chance in the lottery. They had to dip their hands in a basket and draw out a ball: a white ball denoted entry, A blackball meant denial and a red one meant they could wait in the hope that one of the chosen babies would fail the medical test they all underwent.

Reading Jamila’s novel today, I can’t help thinking about the children separated from their parents in this century, for social and political reasons every bit as horrifying as those that prevailed in 18th century England. Today, for the most part, it’s not families who are “exposing” and “deserting” their children.

Then Before My Eyes

We are witness to an age that could paralyze us, to people in power who don’t know what they’re doing, to the rise of hatred and intolerance. So here is a countervailing force–music.

Thank you, Brain Pickings, and to Mark Karlins for pointing me here

Here are a couple of stanzas from One Fine Day

Then before my eyes, is standing still

I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

One Fine Day by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Feels prescient, doesn’t it? In much the way that E.B.White’s Here is New York felt after 9/11:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

We are none of us writing only for this day, yet all we can know is what’s before our eyes. It has to be enough. We don’t have a choice. We have to hope that, in the fullness of time, at least some of our words might grow into their own sufficiency. For that reason, it behooves us to choose them with care.

Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!

The First Passage to India

Human togetherness. Global humanity. The poem that inspired Forster’s novel hums with the energy of Suez, of steamships, of “the seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires.”

Well, here we are in 2020, at a point along that still unfolding storyline. As we sing our days in the era of coronavirus, knowing a whole lot more about undersea cables and the technologies they represent, as we wonder where we’re headed, consider this image from the 2019 exhibition, Walt Whitman: America’s Poet. Written in Whitman’s own hand, pen and ink and poet’s mind, the poem sends its vibrations out through time.

From the 2019 NYPL Walt Whitman exhibition

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,  

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,  

The lands to be welded together.

I am personally not so wild about these lines:

Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.  

Although I do love the word “eclaircise.” But here, he’s talking about us, surely.

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?   
Who justify these restless explorations?

But most of all, I get the part that Forster found so thrilling, the big sweep, the trajectory of history, all of it pouring into our “present, utterly form’d, impell’d by the past.”

Be Not Afeard

I will confess, I am no longer in love with drafts. Early in my writing life, I used to love that heady feeling, used to throw myself into drafts with reckless glee. Now I distrust them, or maybe I distrust myself. I know they contain some bright sparks that will remain, but I also know that there will be other bits that will mislead me into thinking they’re the story, embodied, when they’re nothing of the kind. Or at least, not yet. These days, I find myself wanting only to be finished with a draft so I can begin to do the real work of revision.

Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices is one of those books on craft that I keep on my shelf to refer to from time to time, when I need to focus on a work in progress and am in danger of being distracted, or when my writing seems to be flattening out and I’m losing confidence in my ability to plow through. All of which is likely to happen in the middle of a draft.

That’s when I need to be reminded of what matters to me about this work I’m struggling to find words for, and why it bubbled up for me in the first place. Only I’m not ready to show the work in question to anyone yet. It feels too fragile, too easily capable of being questioned to pieces. But look. Pullman’s telling me exactly what I need to hear right now.

It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn’t very articulate yet. It’ll go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won’t know why; I just have to shrug and say “OK–you’re the boss.” And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story I say it with pride.

So there. I have to remind myself that this business of letting an idea in and finding the way to express it isn’t about me. It’s about serving the story. How many times do I have to learn and relearn what it takes to be a good servant? An infinite number, it seems. Service, free and fair, a “voluntary and honourable thing.” Better yet, later in that chapter, there’s this:

Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have….

Those quoted words, from Caliban in The Tempest shine a light for me that Pullman might not intend, coming as they do from a character whose very being is fraught with torment, who has been interpreted and reinterpreted across borders of time and race and politics. As Marcos Gonsalez writes:

Shakespeare was a man of his time, a worldly man. Molding a character through the writings and images and culture he lived in, Shakespeare put down on paper a composite of Africa, of Asia, of the Americas, and his Prospero boldly affirms the authority over such a composition near the play’s end about Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” though all these things of darkness in the world he could never acknowledge his, because they never were his to begin with.

Caliban was never Shakespeare’s creation.

Caliban is ours.

So yes, I too take those words of Caliban’s. In making them mine, I, a brown woman, inheritor of a fractured history–I give myself permission to “be not afeard,” to listen for the “sounds and sweet airs.”

Process Notes: Meera Sriram on Facts and Story

Meera Sriram and Praba Ram are the co-authors of a loving picture book portrait of a woman in a cowherding community in western India and the majestic large cats that share her world. I asked Meera to talk about the writing process with this book, as it compares to the writing of fiction. Here’s what she wrote:

Almost a decade ago, my first book for children was released in India, titled Dinaben and the Lions of Gir. I had co-authored the book, which follows the lives of Maldharis, a dairy farming community living in the interior of the Gir forest in western India.

Fast forward, and my debut picture book in the U.S came out in March last year. The Yellow Suitcase is a story about the emotional trajectory of a little girl, Asha, who travels with her family from the U.S to India to mourn the loss of her grandmother.

When Uma prompted me to compare and contrast the writing process that went into the two projects, I was excited to analyze them because, while Dinaben and the Lions of Gir is creative non-fiction, The Yellow Suitcase is fiction based on real-life incidents.

Looking back, I can see that the ideas for both stories sprouted from personal experiences. Raising kids in the U.S where we bought dairy products off shelves got us wondering if our kids knew where milk, yogurt, and butter really came from. This concern was magnified because, growing up in India, we often watched cows milked on the street and mothers turn milk into curds and butter. It was this fragment of thought that kicked off our research and later introduced us to Maldharis and their incredible forest ecosystem. Similarly, Asha’s grief story was inspired by my family’s loss, when my kids lost their first grandparent in India. Interestingly, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, very often we draw inspiration from our own experiences.

While both books were written for the picture book format, their target age groups fell into different bands within the spectrum. Real-life photographs corroborated facts in Dinaben and Meera Sethi’s beautiful art added authentic details to the fiction in The Yellow Suitcase. The biggest challenge was driving home the takeaway – presenting environmental conservation to preschoolers was as tricky as fleshing out grief stages for elementary kids.

In Dinaben, we wanted to talk about a forest dwelling community and the endangered Asiatic lion in a way that will inspire little kids to think about our forests. A fiction toolkit greatly helped with this. Creating a main character, Dinaben, her family that milked cows and churned butter, and a setting that included a quiet household in the woods where the lions roamed, offered an engaging fictional framework. And what enabled telling Asha’s story? My family’s trip from California to India in 2010, all the emotions we share as people, and the truth that death is inevitable and universal.

Well, sometimes storytelling helps us present facts and at other times facts help tell a story.

To Tom Low, with Sadness and Gratitude

I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing away of Tom Low, co-founder with Philip Lee of a little company with a big vision, back in 1991. Today, Lee & Low is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Dedicated to diversity and inclusion, it remains one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in North America.

Lee & Low published a couple of my early picture books, when no one else quite knew what to do with my submissions. It’s safe to say that those early books helped me find a toehold on this writing cliff that has become my life.

During the 1990s, I had other titles picked up by Children’s Book Press, which was founded by Harriet Rohmer, another pioneer in the diversifying of our field. When their list was acquired by Lee & Low, it felt as if my books were coming home. Other titles found print with Bebop Books, the imprint launched (all of 20 years ago now!) under the leadership of publisher Craig Low, Tom’s son.

I didn’t know Tom Low personally, but I know very well what a tremendous impact the publishing house he founded has had over the years. And I am so very grateful for the vision that led him to start this company, which has encouraged the visions and supported the work of so many of us, over the years.

In sadness and gratitude, I’d like to share this excerpt from The Open Book Blog:

Because of the pandemic, there will be no memorial service at this time. Well-wishers are encouraged to send a donation to one of Tom’s favorite charities: The Fresh Air FundScenic Hudson, or North Shore Animal League America. Condolence cards can be sent to:

The Low Family
C/o Lee & Low Books
95 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016

Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part II: Paula Yoo on Vincent Chin and the Importance of Speaking Out Against Injustice

In early 2017, the name of a 27-year old Chinese American man in Detroit, Vincent Chin, made headlines. A rash of violent hate crimes aimed at Indian American men had just happened within weeks of each other. In February 2017, two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in a bar outside of Kansas City after the shooter reportedly yelled, “Get out of my country.” Srinivas Kuchibhotla died in the hospital soon after he was shot. The suspect was charged with premeditated first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison in 2018. A month after the 2017 attack, Harnish Patel, an Indian man who had lived in the United States with his family for fourteen years, was shot and killed outside of his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Paula Yoo (author of Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank) sent me an excerpt from her YA nonfiction proposal for a book about Vincent Chin, currently under contract :

[Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo. Button ©InclusiveRandomness]

“Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their ‘Vincent Chin moment’?” Arun Venugopal, a race reporter with WNYC and a contributor to NPR. “Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.”

That book is now due out in 2021 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s new children’s book imprint called Norton Young Readers. Paula writes:

Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit in 1982. Although the two men pled guilty to manslaughter, the judge gave them a fine of about $3000 and a sentence of three years probation. This shockingly lenient sentence angered the Asian American community in Detroit. Their anger led to activism as they joined forces to fight for Vincent’s justice, leading to the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. The first trial resulted in a guilty conviction for the killer (the man who held the bat) in 1984. But the killer never spent a day in jail because the conviction was appealed and overturned in 1986 due to a legal technicality.

Still, Vincent’s death was not in vain – he became a symbol of justice for the Asian American community. There have been two documentaries about this case, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the almost 40 years since his death, Vincent Chin’s name is always mentioned whenever anti-Asian racism happens.

His name has been in the news this year ever since Trump insisted on referring to Covid-19 with the racist moniker, “The Chinese Virus,” at press briefings, which has led to a rise in almost 1,500 anti-Asian hate crimes being reported this year according to statistics from the FBI and the “Stop AAPI Hate” crime tracker provided by the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. Although what happened to Vincent was tragic, his killing provided the spark which galvanized the Asian American movement and the #AAPI community. His name and his story remind us never to be complacent whenever we witness anti-Asian racism… that we must always speak out and fight back against injustice.

It’s happening right now. Again. When we talk about getting “back to normal,” after Covid-19 is behind us, we ought to think long and hard about what kind of normal we want.