Taking the Time a Book Needs

LeonardThis is the story of one book. It wasn’t a book at first, just an idea that came from Karen Leonard’s ethnographic study and filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s exploration of the history of a group of mixed-heritage families of Yuba City, California. The story–my fictional rendering, that is–went through many revisions. Maybe 40-odd rounds of reworking and chopping, rethinking and changing.

It will be published next year, my novel about a girl who longs to play softball in Yuba City, California in 1945. A girl from a family in which the mother is from Mexico and the father from Punjab. We have a title now. We are in the thick of edits. We will soon be talking about things like jacket design and flap copy.

How many years did all this take, exactly? I was shocked when I looked at the dates on some of those files I’d saved on my hard drive, files that migrated from one computer to the next as I kept on chewing away at this story I felt driven to tell. I started this novel in 2003, all of thirteen years ago. And I am so very glad it did not get published right away! It has needed all this time.

Louise de Salvo asks why so much writing advice is about not judging your work, when in fact we need to make so very many judgments about it as we go forward. It’s a fair question. I’ve been a writer for more than twenty years but this story needed me to step back and judge it, and judge myself, many, many times before I could understand how it needed to be written.

Thinking about My Own Glares of Disdain

I can’t even begin to tally the many ways this NYT piece by US Children’s Literature Ambassador Gene Luen Yang speaks the truth to me. It’s about books as windows. You’d think, how could anyone say anything fresh and new about that old trope? Well, here we go. To start with Gene puts himself at the center of the anecdote:

glareofdisdain1Then he takes me into a scenario filled with the small, incidental meannesses of  childhood that we all know about. Only he’s culpable as well, so I am immediately committed to this journey, uncomfortable as it is. And it is, especially as he has happened to name his antagonist after (gulp) my only child. Point taken. We’re all part of the journey.

Snippet of banner text:

“When our class visited the school library, Nikhil and I were surrounded by windows into the lives of our other classmates, but never each other’s.”

glareofdisdain2And then, just when  I think I know what’s going on, I get hit with this! No, really? My book and Mike Jung’s? I was a fan already and now I am committed.

Gandhi, the movie, seals the deal for me.

What a powerful piece this is! It carries so much weight in each small choice that Yang has made. The local theater. The school library. We’re all in the same tangled webs of relationships and rough edges and glares of disdain. The solutions have to come from all of us.

 

 

Writing Because You Must

OzickWhen I first crossed the border into Canada, I found some things familiar, and I liked a lot of what was not. I mean, in the goddess category, there’s Margaret Atwood. But I missed NPR terribly. CBC is starting to grow on me, but the voices of NPR meant more to me than I’d ever realized.

So thank goodness for audio archives and streaming, and for the friendly stations that broadcast all the way to Vancouver Island.

Here’s a Weekend Edition Sunday interview to treasure: Cynthia Ozick on reading as a child, the loss of a literary culture and the importance of fiction. Much to think about at a time when I sometimes feel left in the dust by the changing, shifting world.

 

“History is Not a Spectator Sport”

The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) allows me to access 2,500 items related to the history of South Asians in the United States. The archive gives voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their–our–unique and diverse experiences.

SAADA_sample1

I will confess that I am a history junkie. I could spend my days happily lost in old papers, books, photos. But the SAADA mission is about here and now as much as it is about older times. SAADA-sample2Browsing the archive while searching for materials for a forthcoming book, I came upon an article about the Ghadr Party, an April 1916 portrait photo of Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who won the Newbery Medal in 1928, and a video interview with doctor and deaf community activist Shazia Siddiqi.

One audio or video or print file at a time, the archive seeks ever wider, more inclusive representation of the collective history of South Asians in the US.

Excerpt:

We strive to create a digital collection that reflects the diverse range of experiences of South Asians in the United States, with a particular emphasis on collecting materials on the following topics:
· Pre-1965 immigrants and visitors
· The Bellingham Riots
· South Asian American political involvement and activism
· Professional associations and labor organizations
· Regional and community organizations
· Religious organizations and places of worship
· Community newspapers
· Student organizations
· Prominent South Asian American artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and intellectuals

It’s an ongoing project, continuing to invite contributions and materials from those of us who are forming history simply by being alive on the earth at this time. And that’s the important thing. Browsing these stories is interesting, but it’s more than that. This archive assumes a view of history that implies we’re all part of it. One of the listed SAADA values reads: “History is not a spectator sport.”

No, indeed. At the very least, even when we’re helpless to counter tides of hate and destruction around us, as participants in the making of our own personal histories, we can be thoughtful in our actions. How we view the past has everything to do with how we choose to live in the present.

Landscapes of Language

I am a child of lost language. Well, it wasn’t the language that was lost–it carried on doing fine without me. I was the lost one.

It didn’t have to be that way but that’s how it turned out. Born into a Tamil-speaking family. Never studied the language. An itinerant family, we moved often. It wouldn’t have been practical. Spent some years distancing myself, as well, in an adolescent pursuit of cool. Now I can speak Tamil but I’m barely literate. So–no excuses. Just facts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

English gave me the ticket to where I am now, a writer of books for young readers, publishing in what is unquestionably the world’s bridge language. But then there is the literature of my ancestors, tangible in objects like this one but in many ways opaque to me.

For years I blamed myself. Spent some time pretending it didn’t matter. Spent some time being angry with the system that created the linguistically stranded, like me. And now  as I enter the 6th decade of my life, maybe I’m finally learning to come to terms with it.

So Iona Sharma’s article rang many bells for me. And it’s beautifully written. Here’s a snippet:

Gaelic will never have monolingual speakers again. My native language is gone forever. Relearning it is possible; decolonisation of the mind is possible. But I have been changed, first by the forgetting and the relearning. What is left is post-glacial, a landscape irrevocably altered.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I could tell myself that postglacial is still a landscape. And every landscape has its own beauty.

The Book of Small

IMG_0875When I told my friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis that I was moving to Victoria, she gave me a copy of The Book of Small by Emily Carr. In her introduction to this 2004 edition (the book was first published in 1942) Sarah writes:

One of Carr’s greatest accomplishments in The Book of Small lies in her ability to express the visceral and transcendent joy of a small child, “boiling over like the jam kettle.”

Of the city itself, Emily Carr wrote:

Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.

I enjoyed my first reading of the book, its droll commentary and the clever device by which the writer fictionalizes her own life. But it has taken me some time to read it as a story map of a place I am learning to call home.

Now the landscape is starting to glimmer through for me. The nine o’clock gun at Esquimalt. Fort Street and James’ Bay and Dallas Road. They’re all still here but now that I know them a little better I can see glimpses of their past as well. Childhood perspectives on people and events give the book its sense of a deeply felt yet impulsive reaction to the world.

The house was the wide, sitting sort. Vines and creepers tied it down to the ground.

Passages like that allow The Book of Small to rise above its occasionally archaic viewpoint. A few chapters read awkwardly through a 21st century lens—“green little Chinese boys for servants…” Shuffling Chinamen and squatting Indians. The elusive Oriental. The sort of thing gets under my skin but I have learned to set it aside when I’m reading across the borders of time.

Her overall perceptions remain remarkably astute—now I see what she means by that little aside on the gawky city. A city with a small-town feel to it, still torn between past and present, and still, perhaps, waiting to be grown-up.

Oh No! It’s the Bright Orange Beastie

trumpWhat is a Trump anyway? Who in the last century would have imagined that we’d be pondering that troubling question in 2016, or that this brave new century would morph into The Age of Perpetual War?

As we head into the ominous storm of the first ever Reality TV Presidential Campaign (Oh no! Libba Bray, say it ain’t going to be a Reality TV Presidency!) here’s a humorist’s take on The Trump–in picture book form. Written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal.

Not for children, necessarily, or for the faint of heart.

Prescience in Fiction 

messengerAnti-immigrant rhetoric…build a wall…despise the other…blame victims…carry weapons.

I’m not referring to hate speech spouted by some egomaniacal aspirant to power in the United States. This is all from the fictional world created by Lois Lowry in her astonishingly relevant The Giver quartet. I’m just rereading Book 3, Messenger. The last time I read it, Matty’s gift felt almost mythic in its savior-like quality. Now I’m struck by the degree to which  the world in the book is our world. By how  farsighted fiction can be. Walls. Immigration. Hatred. Weapons.

First published in 2004. Read it now.