Heartdrum to Sound in 2021

Last fall, HarperCollins announced the launch of Heartdrum, a new Native-focused imprint led by award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), and Rosemary Brosnan, Vice President, Editorial Director, HarperCollins Children’s Books.undefined

More from the Harper web site:

Launching in Winter 2021, Heartdrum will offer a wide range of innovative, unexpected, and heartfelt stories by Native creators, informed and inspired by lived experience, with an emphasis on the present and future of Indian Country and on the strength of young Native heroes.

Congratulations, Cyn! I can’t think of anyone better to do this magnificent work of expanding the richness of Native voices in the children’s and YA universe.

Karen Rivers on Fiction and the Measurement of "Real"

In her middle grade and YA fiction, my colleague and neighbor Karen Rivers is really good at navigating that difficult terrain between the real and the imagined, in such as way as to leave readers guessing until the very end which way their belief should be tilting. And she’s done it again with her middle grade novel, Naked Mole Rat Saves the World. Here Karen talks to me about this book–the characters’ minds, especially young kit (yes, that’s in lowercase), anxiety and depression, and the emotions we pour into writing fiction:

[Uma] I kept guessing, and turning the pages to find out, whether what I was reading about was fantastic or not, or whether that distinction mattered. I’m left with this huge respect for the human mind, especially the minds of kids.Can you talk about what led to the elements of this story and what leads you in general to this kind of interior world of your characters?

[Karen] I love the question about perception vs. reality: Does it matter if a thing is “real” or not if you’ve perceived it to be real? When I was a kid, I was obsessed with UFO abduction stories and to this day, I wonder if it truly matters if what happened to these people really occurred. In their minds, it did, and that experience is what shaped who they are. Our experiences are no more than our perception of our experiences, so the measurement of “real” is always muddy. Writing this as it is, with kit’s experience being presented as a reality made me think of those UFO abduction stories.   Disproving or proving scientifically or factually what really happened is so much less interesting, from a fiction writer’s perspective, than the emotional impact of the real or perceived event. Whether it’s impossible or possible for kit to truly become a naked mole rat was never the most interesting point for me.     

[Uma] “Hurt people hurt people.” Clem’s mother is quoted as saying that, and your book takes readers to those inner anxieties we all experience. As your characters cope with their own anxieties, they act and react, and those actions in turn have consequences. How did you tread such tender, emotionally fraught ground while still giving the story its nimble, light quality?

[Karen] First of all, thank you for saying that it came across as nimble and light! I think as a society, we have a strong inclination to follow buzzwords toward a foregone conclusion: “Depression” and “anxiety” are heavy words that carry the weight of assumptions and long-held stigmas about mental illness. These things are just facets of us, not all of who we are. In The Possibility of Whales, Nat’s dad is often saying, “Everyone isn’t all one thing!” and I truly believe that.  We are all complex beings.  I have anxiety and lots of people close to me have anxiety, depression, or both.  But we all also have a sense of humor and have experiences and full lives that aren’t ONLY defined by the times that we are struggling. So to make a long answer short, I hope that it’s because I see kids (and all people, really) as complex and lovable and worthy, people who are so much more than one thing.   

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did this one teach you? 

[Karen] When I started writing, I didn’t realize how much kit’s mum’s anxiety spilled over onto kit, and for me, this was a huge revelation. I knew my kids were affected by my issues with anxiety, but I think I’d let myself believe that they didn’t notice or that, because it was all they ever knew, it didn’t affect them. When I wrote this, I realized just how much kit absorbed her mum’s anxiety and how much work she did to take care of her. It was intensely emotional for me; it forced me to confront something I hoped wasn’t true. I truly think it made me parent differently than I had been doing, which is life-changing. In a strange way, I’m grateful to kit for that.  

[Uma] And I am grateful for Karen’s talent and her offbeat, extraordinary depictions of the worlds of childhood and youth.

Counting Birds

The Christmas Bird Count in Victoria BC last year yielded sad news. The count, that took place on Dec. 14, found 135 different species of birds, well below the 10 year average of 140 to 143. Local ornithological experts say that bird counts in Victoria are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade.

But it doesn’t do any good to get into a pickle about what’s going on in the natural world. We still need to put one foot in front of the other. We need to try to deal with the present, as grim an outcome of past mistakes as it might appear to be. Maybe we can treat it instead as a kind of seed of what we’re trying to become.

When you’re looking for hope, open a picture book. Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond documents the counting of birds by a young girl learning to be a citizen scientist in her communty. The tally, which grows down the side of each spread in a clever design feature, depends on young Ava’s sharp eyes and ears, both of which she puts to good use. At least two other people need to hear or see each bird, and no bird should be counted twice. Young readers not only learn how the annual Audubon Bird Count works but also get to identify a nice array of birds.

From Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

An additional touch in Stephanie Fizer Coleman’s digital illustrations is that both Ava and Mom are brown-skinned, while Big Al, their team leader, is identifiably white with a weathered face and a carroty beard.

So there. Count those birds. Plant a garden. Compost. Do what we can do and write the stories that matter.

"It’s not about us." Remembering Jim Lehrer

In 1988, barely a toddler, my son began to recognize the theme music of a show we watched regularly: at the time it was called The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. He’d get a delighted look on his face and begin making little dancing movements. It was a part of his childhood as the show was part of our lives as immigrants in America, trying to make sense of all its many contradictions.

The program was fair and balanced before that phrase became a slogan and lost all meaning.

A PBS tribute to Lehrer says this:

Night after night, Jim led by example that being yourself — journalist, writer, family man, citizen — can be a high calling.

Being yourself. That too has changed with time, with too many public selves revealed to be less than admirable.

And this:

For Jim, being a journalist was never a self-centered endeavor. He always told those who worked with him: “It’s not about us.”

A Washington Post headline reads:

Always low-key, Jim Lehrer anchored TV news for grown-ups.

Indeed. But childhood memory can be a powerful thing, like a piece of music paired with a kindly presence on the screen, delivering the news, without drama and fanfare, to families across America.

14 Years at VCFA

It’s January.

This must be Montpelier. The first time I came to this campus was in the summer of 2006, nearly 14 years ago. Here’s the serenity spot I pause at between dorm and classroom, in between lectures and workshops, readings and conversations about books, books, books. And now it’s nearly time to leave.

Thank you, VCFA. Teaching here makes me a better writer.


Sound and Scene

Diane Ackerman, writing about the mysteries of bat echolocation in The Moon By Whale Light, says this:

It’s not hard to understand echolocation if you picture bats calling or whistling to their prey with a steady stream of high frequency clicks. For most of us, their vocal braille is too high to hear. At our best and youngest, we might hear sounds of twenty thousand vibrations a second; but bats click at up to two hundred thousand.

And this:

Many can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. As the bat closes in it may click faster in order to pinpoint its prey. And there’s a qualitative difference between the steady, solid echos bouncing off a brick wall and the light, fluid echo of a swaying flower. By shouting at the world, and listening to the echoes, bats can compose a picture of their landscape and the object in it that includes texture, motion, distance, size and probably other features, too. They shout very loudly; we just cannot hear them.

When I am scurrying my way through a draft, I cannot often the sounds. Visual imagery comes easily. Auditory snatches feel elusive and faint, as if I have not yet tuned in to the story I’m trying to tell. It’s all part of the deal, returning many times to the story until I begin to hear not just the characters but the sounds of the places through which they move. And then many more leaps until the whole thing comes together, sound and setting and characters all one, moving forward in rhythm, nothing out of tune. Well, that’s the aim, anyway.

Randall Jarrell’s immortal The Bat-Poet is one of those books I return to when I want to get the feel of a small character in a deeply personal setting, all of it filled with heart:

The bat had always heard the Mockingbird. The mockingbird would sit on the highest branch of a tree, in the moonlight and sing half the night. About love to listen to him. He could imitate all the other birds – he’s even imitate the way the squirrels shattered when they were angry, like two rocks being knocked together; and he could imitate the milk bottles being put down on the porch and the barn door closing, a long rusty squeak.

There. Mystery, reality, wonder, all of a piece.

Beasts at Bedtime

At the start of another year, I find myself remembering one of the many ways that reading made me into a writer. One of my very early memories of books and reading is from my childhood years in Delhi Cantonment, Delhi, India, back in the last century. 

I see now that I was practicing being a writer.

In Beasts at Bedtime, ecologist Liam Heneghan studies the environmental underpinnings of children’s literature.

The chapter on Pooh, “The Ecology of Pooh,” addresses, among other things, the famous bear’s migration across the Atlantic into the American landscape, courtesy of Disney: the de-hyphenation of his name (perhaps at Ellis Island?) the shifting of accents, the addition of the character of Gopher. Pooh changes, Heneghan suggests, but in many ways he remains essentially the same.

Is that not true of all migrants? We change, as does the place we leave behind, and yet we retain a core of who we have always been. Another of Heneghan’s points that made me think again of my own vivid childhood Pooh experience:

… That which is most delightful to us in nature as adults is that which we remember from our youth. Thus, the landscapes of our adulthood, whether we have moved 300 miles or 3000, tend to remain somewhat unfamiliar to us and, as a consequence, difficult to understand, much less to love.

Maybew, though, we immigrants have learned to carry those pluralities within us, so we can craft overlapping, intertwining landscapes of the mind, joining memory and the senses together in a new and powerful reality. Pooh, after all, taught me to reverse-engineer the landscape I read, fusing it with the one around me. And so, as a grown-up, I can carry within me the gardens of my childhood, even as I absorb into myself the places through which my journey has taken me.

Kindness is Welcome Here

Frog, Mouse and a bunch of homeless animals figure in this woodland setting that easily stands in for anybody’s everyplace. In a world that increasingly feels devoid of welcome and kindness and the shared building of community, editor and writer Patricia Hegarty‘s warm comfort tale offers a simple code that lies at the heart of all peacemaking.

As the year ends, if not the decade, I’m comforted as well to find this web site, representing an ongoing project between two friends, one Hindu, Ravi, and the other, Azeem, Muslim. The Dharmadeen Alliance features videoclips and articles about interfaith friendship in Nepal, an exploration of the feminine concepts of Shakti and Shakina in both religions, an interfaith symposium in Singapore, a story of Kashmiri Muslims taking care of Hindu orphans, tech professor and activist Ram Puniyani’s TEDx talk about history and the political imposition of divisive hatreds, and more. (Puniyani has received threatening calls for his lectures promoting tolerance and understanding between Hindus and Muslims in India).

Gandhi was fond of quoting Corinthians 1:13, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And what greater way to manifest love than with kindness?

All over the world, we humans are busy corroding our souls with suspicion of and hatred for one another. What if instead, we practiced (and welcomed) kindness, communication, understanding?

Light and Shadow

Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, 2019

Viewpoint is everything, we know. It determines what part of a story gets told, what gets left out. It shows us where to look, where to linger, where to leap, where to make connections.

Viewpoint is practical. It can be chosen, adhered to, supported, shifted as needed.

But then there’s the question of light. Light is capricious, dependent on much that is outside me, the writer. Light is what I find out about my work in progress as I’m blundering through it, living it in my head when I should be feeling it in my heart. Light is the illumination I get when I’m not looking directly at the story but allowing my mind to swirl within it.

Light casts shadow, and that too is more than a choice. Once I see what needs to be included, the rest falls away, like the shadows in a picture that superimpose one image on another, or blend building and sky in fantastic cutouts I never intended.

What Draws You There?

empiremade.jpgEmpire Made by Kief Hillsbery is part travelogue, part family memoir. It’s the story of Nigel Halleck who sets out from England to be a clerk in the East India Company in 1841. But it’s also the story of his American nephew many times removed, who travels to India, Nepal, England, and Afghanistan, to unearth Nigel’s story.

I loved the rabbit-holes of the Raj the book took me down—the Golghar in Patna, the Russian in the court of Nepal, the machinations following Ranjit Singh’s death, the atrocious goings-on at Haileybury, the origin of the phrase “in the nick of time,” the sad tale of the decline of Dacca and its eponymous muslins, and so much more. The book follows the slow evolution of the Company from a band of feckless adventurers into the instrument of Empire but along the way, the tales of oddball characters lend enchantment (Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, is just one among them). Fluid writing with an engaging narrative sweep. IMG_3393.jpgI found it pleasing when odd, unexpected connections showed up–e.g., Monier Williams whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary sits authoritatively on my bookshelf, was a classmate of Nigel’s.

Finally, Hillsbery offers an unusual take on all these layers of history for two reasons: firstly, because he’s American, he makes connections broader than either a British or an Indian writer might. He notes, e.g., how the Cornwallis monument in Calcutta commemorates  his victories in battles against Americans in the Carolinas, Irish rebels in Connacht, and Indians under Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore. And secondly, while I felt from the start how deeply personal this story was, there remained mysteries about it that didn’t clear until the very end. At that point those elements became a kind of poetry, echoing fragments of information I’d had from the beginning, only it took this whole journey through history and geography for me to understand what they meant.

I suppose the question to ask yourself, in every writing project that comes your way, is “What draws you there?” Those lines connecting writer and subject gained in strength and significance as I read my way through this book, each link placed clearly and with intention.