The Rejection Tug-of-War


The gods and demons churn the ocean of milk, with Vasuki the serpent as the rope. Angkor Wat, 2016

Writing and rejection go hand in hand. Writers are an odd lot. We spend hours, months, even years of our lives on work that reflects our very souls. Then we send that work out into the world inviting, even seeking, rejection. When it comes, we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging? What can I do with it? What next? It’s an endless tug-of-war between yourself and the work.

“No.” “Not right for us.” “Not quite there.” Rejection doesn’t come as often now as it used to, but it still stabs to the heart. The only way you can avoid it is not to send any manuscripts out, and what’s the point of that?

There’s a remarkable bas-relief on one of the walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. It shows the Sagar or Samudra Manthan story from Hindu mythology, the churning of the ocean of milk, with the gods and demons pitted against each other. Vasuki the divine serpent serves as the rope that spins the mountain Mandara, which is the churning post. The serpent spits poison. The world is at risk. But the prize is the nectar of immortality.

Is there a better prize in all the universe? In the end, even in some small way, isn’t that what we’re after?

As Marion Dane Bauer says:

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

You rethink. You re-envision. You revise. You keep on churning. Because maybe, just maybe, the nectar of immortality will rise up from that ocean.

Annie M.G. Schmidt, Come in Off the Roof

catwhocameinofftheroofI will admit that I am a sucker for books about cats. Give the cats inner lives or wings or anything like that, and I am quite willing to abandon doubt, suspend disbelief and leap joyfully off the roof–that is to say, into the story. I found The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof via a charming Guardian review by a 9-year-old reader. Having spent a great deal of my childhood assuming that one had to be dead to be a writer, I was easily convinced that I ought to read this book.

The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof begins with Tibble, a frustrated journalist. His finely wrought writing does not find favor with his editor because all Tibble ever seems to write about is cats! Then a cat who has inexplicably been changed into a human walks into Tibble’s apartment and settles in. The lovely Minou retains enough cat traits to set in motion a heartwarming tale, its twists and leaps and silliness completely true to its wacky characters and implausibly bold premise.

And so it was that I was introduced to the legendary work of Annie M. G. Schmidt. Dead, alas, just as my Guardian reviewer had discovered. Died in 1995 at the age of 84. One doesn’t need to “find” her in the Netherlands, it seems. Everyone knows her. She’s considered the queen of Dutch children’s literature. People at large can quote from her many songs and poems.  From the official Annie M.G. Schmidt web site:

Her work has appeared in translation all over the world, with the odd exception of the English-speaking countries, where very few of her books have been published. In 1988 the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren presented her with the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the “Nobel Prize” of children’s literature. The jury praised her “ironic tone, witty criticism and style that is amusing, clear, rebellious and simple to its essence.”

Odd exception indeed. However that happened, I’m delighted that The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof has made it across the Atlantic. I feel especially delighted to be able to channel Astrid Lindgren and cry, “Annie, I love you so much, where have you been all my life?”

Indian Poet Gulzar on Translating Tagore


Young Rabindranath Tagore–public domain via Wikimedia

Rabindranath Tagore is a legend. My mother, who knows Bangla well, has always maintained that the poet’s own English translations of his masterpiece, Gitanjali, feel clumsy and pale in comparison to the original text. Poet Gulzar talks about his translations into Hindi of two Tagore poetry collections for children.

To explain the meaning in a line is easy. You are not translating a word, it’s the meter and then shades of those words. A word has many shades and you have to choose the correct shade out of it. You won’t find that meaning in a dictionary.

Cultural Humility

apnagharApna Ghar (Our House/Home) is a Chicago nonprofit offering holistic services and advocacy across immigrant communities to end gender violence. I’m getting ready to send them a box of children’s books. As is the case in matters of domestic violence, the lives of children are oftenintertwined with the lives of the women who receive services from this organization.

A key principle in the work of Apna Ghar is that of cultural humility. It reminded me of physician, teacher, and writer Sayantani DasGupta’s work on narrative humility. See her archived guest post on my old blog site.

listeningFrom time to time, I feel as if I’m writing into the void. The work seems impossible and hopelessly beyond my reach. At such times, it’s worth reminding myself that all I can really do is listen with my pen.

The Great Gilly Hopkins: the movie

GillyHopkinsI discovered Katherine Paterson‘s work as an adult, and it changed what I thought I knew about books for young readers. I have a special fondness for The Great Gilly Hopkins. It was the first Paterson novel I read and it made me laugh and cry, sometimes at once. Gilly was an eleven-year-old with grit I never had when I was eleven. And she deals with circumstances I’m lucky that I never needed to contend with.

I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation of this beloved book. The Great Gilly Hopkins stars Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Julia Stiles, Bill Cobbs, Billy Magnussen, with Octavia Spencer and Glenn Close. It’s directed by Steven Herek. The screenplay is by David Paterson. From Lionsgate, to be released October 7, 2016.


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.