Lunch with Plummie

P.G. Wodehouse invited the New Yorker to lunch on October 15, 1960.

I was four years old then, and had not yet discovered my grandfather’s Herbert Jenkins editions of Plum’s novels. I’d discover them at 10, and chuckle over them for many summers to come. Strange as it may seem, there was much in that Edwardian world to entrance and amuse a kid growing up in India. I, too, had obsessions–not newts, but notebooks and pens and the other stuff of writing. I, too, had aunts. Not masses of them, but they were certainly strange, alien beings to me, the way adults are during the developmental phase of conjecture and bewilderment that we term childhood.

Although I leaped with delight into the Jeeves and Emsworth books, into legends on the golf course and the nutty exploits of Psmith, I would know nothing of Wodehouse’s life, its ups and downs, its errors and regrets, its triumphs and sorrows, until many years later, when I read Robert McCrum’s biography, Wodehouse: A Life. For me, the ex-child who once found something close to pure delight in his books, it matters that Plum’s story is told as clearly and compassionately as it is in this biography. McCrum unravels the charges of Fascism and treachery that tainted Wodehouse’s legacy, the blind spots and flaws that led to his dreadful miscalculations.

He recognizes the sweet melancholy in the books, the importance of their lightness and airiness, the universality of the human connections they delineate. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but all those things resonated for me at 10 and 13 and 15. They resonate still.

Courtesy of WGBH, I came across this talk by McCrum and was delighted to find out that he, like me, had discovered Wodehouse at the age of 10. There was something pleasing about that coincidence.  

When, at 15, I wrote Plum a fan letter, he sent me a typed reply with an ink signature and one of his wife’s return labels bearing their New York address. Plum adored America. (“It’s like being elected to a very good club.”) I can’t help wondering what he’d think of it, if he could see it today. Perhaps our time would remind him of another era when Fascist thinking spread its tentacles through Europe and otherwise well-meaning people did their best to carry on, ignoring what was going on around them.

Memoir and Nonfiction: Dreams and Nightmares

9781250204752_custom-82a0e3effa5978448ac625b9370c95382e915b28-s300-c85.jpgAarti Shahani covers Silicon Valley for NPR News. Her memoir, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, is the story of one immigrant family’s painful journey, spinning out from the Partition of India in 1947 to the present day. Memoirs give us a retrospective look at life, of course, but this one conveys the pain of childhood with a sharp, poignant awareness.  It shines the light as well on the loving tenacity of a daughter trying to make sense of the demons that haunted her father and the aspirations that drove him. We carry our earlier selves within us, Shahani seems to be saying, whether we’re aware of that or not.

In her interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, Aarti Shahani talks about dreams, reality, and sheer chance and how all these factors shaped the story of her family. At the very end of the interview, she talks about how, despite the way he’d been treated in the United States, he still wanted to come “home” there to die. Inskeep asks her to talk about why that was., what it was that still made America home. She responds by saying that she never had a chance to ask him. She says the book is in part a plea to Americans to think about what we are doing to the country, and in part a eulogy for her father. She tears up, and at the end, there’s a little snippet of conversation that almost feels like it should be off-mic. Steve Inskeep asks her if she has a tissue, if someone should get her one. She says, in a voice shaking itself into composure with a little laugh, “I have a sleeve. It’s okay.”

 

1426303327.jpgI have a sleeve. Curiously moving words. We have never needed to tell the truth about American nightmares, as much as we do today.

Ten years ago, Ann Bausum’s Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration was a relevant and important book. At the time, it was possible to hope that the stories it contained would not be repeated in our lifetimes. Yet today with a new introduction and afterword, the book is an essential reminder that history has a way of cycling back if we don’t learn its lessons.

 

“I’m not really who you think I am.”

On the plane to Newfoundland I watched Captain Marvel. I’d missed it on the big screen and I must say it was quite wonderful seeing a woman taking charge of saving the world. “Buckle up, folks…”

And Brie Larson came through for me, whether she was kick-boxing or coping with memory flashes. I even found myself being faintly nostalgic for the 1990s! It was nice to check out of reality for a while and sink into a world in which female power prevailed, where you could sort of hand over the problems to a really competent superhero and rest assured that all would be well.

Of course, life isn’t that simple, and more to the point, the real heroes aren’t from some other galaxy. They’re right here among us. This is the point of the recent We Need Diverse Books story collection edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, The Hero Next Door. VCFA graduate Suma Subramaniam’s story, “Rescue” won the WNDB short story contest and is included in the book, which is a wonderful collection of stories about all kinds of heroes in worlds real and fantastic. Interestingly, in each of the stories, something is revealed about the character of the hero, and sometimes heroism can be seen in more than one person, so the quote from Captain Marvel seems apt: “I’m not really who you think I am.”

I asked Suma a few questions about her story:

HEROcover.jpg[Uma] What resonated for you in the anthology theme of everyday heroes?

[Suma] This theme resonated for me as conflicts and universal challenges unfold across all families regardless of culture. In tough times, ordinary people step in to help and we see great acts of humanity. Some of these people are not necessarily famous, but they do great things when no one’s noticing them – sometimes at a significant personal cost. I have been helped by many such people and pets in my childhood and adult life. My story in The Hero Next Door is written in honor of those people (and pets).

[Uma] Talk about the intersection of family conflict and the role of the dog in your story. Where did that combination come from for you?

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Photo courtesy of Suma Subramaniam

[Suma] The inspiration for “Rescue” came from a couple of stories and news articles I had read about domestic abuse. When I researched the subject, I found very little information on how children navigated family separation and domestic abuse in South Asian families. I knew instantly that I had to write a story about it as seen through the eyes of a child. The idea of having a dog in the story came naturally as I could not imagine Sangeetha’s life without a four-legged friend. Children often feel their whole world has turned upside down when they’re facing separation and domestic abuse.

 

Having lived with several dogs over the years, I have found that dogs bring joy in families and offer a healing path in the gentlest ways. When I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, my dog helped me feel less lonely. Dogs have a way of being patient, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. They teach us valuable life lessons in the short course of their lifetimes that can help children in more ways than one. Sangeetha, therefore, had to have a dog who would be that special friend.

[Uma] Every piece of writing teaches the writer something. What did writing this story teach you?

[Suma] Writing this story taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wrote Rescue to practice writing short fiction without the ultimate goal of publication in mind. Putting out the finished product into the ether led Rescue to the right hands – to people who got the heart of Sangeetha’s story and were excited about championing it.

And I am so glad that happened, Suma. Good luck!

The Hero Next Door includes stories by William Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R.J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Suma Subramaniam, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

 

Fiction, Truth, and Banned Books Week

“Make Orwell Fiction Again” reads a tote bag on the Banned Books Week web site.

What writer does not support Banned Books Week? Here’s Marion Dane Bauer on the banning of her Newbery Honor-winning novel, On My Honor, and on censorship and its effects upon writers.

As the Banned Books Web web site puts it:

Everyone is entitled to express their opinions about a book, but they don’t have the right to limit another person’s access to information.

Still, what does Banned Books Week mean in 2019? For that matter, how come Orwell is so relevant in 2019?

giverMaybe that question can be answered by thinking about another iconic banned dystopian book: Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The book delivers its most shocking moment in Jonas’s realization about his father. It is the moment that sets the rest of the story in motion, and leads to the character’s assumption of a heroic role. Anyone concerned about power and its appropriation should read Lowry’s novels set in the world of The Giver, its concerns drawn from the essence of our own, flawed human souls.

Who are our heroes today? Our children, that’s who. Today, the world’s children are taking to the streets, betrayed by the grownups who have failed to save the planet. In the end, the children are more honest than the grownups who “continue to look away.”

As for making Orwell fiction again, maybe that’s not the point.

 

Going Forward: What Else is There?

From Lahore, Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid writes on behalf of hope for humankind.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Humans have always moved, Hamid writes, so why are we now divided into natives and migrants, and why must there always be a struggle for supremacy? Why do we have to accept a world of walls and barriers? Why must we buy the false notion that we can and should return to a better past?

Hamid’s eloquent essay reminds me for some reason of the E.E.Cummings poem, pity this busy monster, manunkind. Only I’m fairly certain the good universe next door is really our own “world of made.”

Of course, you know there’s a picture book for every existential dilemma known to humankind (or humanindifferent, for that matter) so here’s one particularly suited to our own precious, fleeting instant.

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The great forest is on fire. Everyone is terrified, panicked, fleeing. All but hummingbird, who flies back and forth to the stream, bringing a drop of water back in her beak with every trip.

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This is simple enough for a child to understand, so what’s wrong with us?

Clear, sparse text with bold illustrations in black, white, and red, by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. An afterword from Wangari Maathai underscores the message. Do what you can. What else is there?

From Greystone Books.

 

The “I” and the Eye in Nonfiction

IMG_3200.jpgI am emerging from a journey through a long tunnel. Five years long. A nonfiction tunnel that has involved two gut-and-rewrite revisions, a lot of ruminating on structure, story, the passage of time, and thesis–yes, thesis! Of which I can and will write more later, closer to the book’s publication next year.

What I can say now is that it’s historical nonfiction, sweeping in scope, and I am exhausted from writing it, but in the best way. I have learned more than I could have imagined when the first glimmers of this project showed up on my horizon.

Jan Priddy‘s post on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog sums up the creative part of creative nonfiction tidily. Priddy says:

The creativity is in the telling, not the story.

Which takes me back to Draft 1. It was earnest, packed with facts, burdened and burdensome in its effect. My editor asked me where I was in the draft? Who, me? I needed to be there. Yes. I did. I spent the next year or so trying to find myself in the narrative. I didn’t have to be the expert in the content. That was not my role. What I needed to own was the voice, the viewpoint. In other words, I needed to employ my fiction writer’s soul to find the story in the history I wanted to bring to the page.

Here’s what Jan Priddy says about that:

Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.

And it was. By Version 2, I’d shed quite a few facts, and around 100 pages. By Version 3, I was starting to craft a thesis, a point to it all. I’d learned what it was the work was all about, what I wanted to say that no one else had said before in quite that way. I was figuring out how to bring to the page the electric charge that had wanted me to write this in the first place.

Next, fold in research to find provenance and get permission to reprint photographs for the project. In that round, I found a whole new way to look at the work. The final manuscript began to coalesce around archival and contemporary photographs, maps, and a single brilliant cartoon. I learned the language of rights and permissions, and I began to learn how photographers on two continents and in two different decades  saw the events of their time and chose to document them.

As Priddy puts it, creative nonfiction “may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond.” I hope my book will do that for readers, as I know that writing it has done for me.

 

Honoring Migrants in a Dangerous Time

Artist Alvaro Enciso has made it his goal to remember and honor the lives of the thousands of migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert, trying to cross into the United States, trying to get to a new life. Every week, Enciso goes out with a group of volunteers from the Tucson Samaritans to place crosses at the exact location where the remains were found.

This is the narrative behind a brief Arizona Public Media documentary, Where Dreams Die. The question is, if we’re to be honest, if it were any of us, if our lives and our children’s lives were at risk, would we care about borders or would we cross them recklessly, wherever we could? And there are other factors at play. With the immediate reality of climate change, there will only be more refugees. They will not care about borders and how can we, in conscience, blame them?

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I wish we lived in a time when we didn’t need to write and publish books for children about these horrors visited upon children. But since we live in this dreadful reality, I’m grateful for books like Diane de Anda‘s beautiful Mango Moon.

There’s a full moon out tonight and Maricela misses her father. He’s been taken away from the family, and he’s facing deportation. The hole in the family and the community is made palpable through simple, text and through Cornelison’s tender illustrations. The book ends on a note of hope that comes, not from reality (real life, alas, is all about detention and razor-wire). Rather it comes  from a child’s imaginings and from the moon, symbolically helping Maricela to hold her Papi  in her heart.

For more children’s books on families crossing at the US-Mexico border, check out this list at Erin Boyle’s Reading My Tea Leaves blog.

 

The Idealized World of Gyo Fujikawa’s Books

The idealization of reality has long been a technique available to children’s writers and illustrators. When the world spins in dangerous directions and you try to remedy that in a book for adults, you run the risk of seeming either disingenuous or naive. But when your audience is still tender and young, sorting that world out, learning to live in it, it seems only fair to right its wrongs on the page, to show what might be. In the end, we may hope, those signposts to the very young can imbue them with the energy to nudge that world in a kinder, better direction.

No one knew this like Gyo Fujikawa. Born in 1908 to Japanese immigrant parents, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, today the California Institute of the Arts. She wrote and/or illustrated over 50 picture books. She also designed promotional materials for Disney and six United States postage stamps.

In a New Yorker article, Sarah Larson paints a loving portrait of a beloved children’s author-illustrator for whom freedom became an enduring yet elusive dream.

Excerpt:

In 1941, she was sent to New York, to work in Disney’s studios there; in early 1942, her parents and brother, along with many Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, were sent to internment camps. The Fujikawas were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, where they lived in horse stalls, and then to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Fujikawa visited them there and found what she described as “barbed wire and a sentry walking around the wall with a bayonet.”

Here is the first book that Fujikawa both wrote and illustrated:Babies.jpg

IMG_3184.jpgThe babies are lovingly drawn, capturing the expressive emotions of the very young–and there’s more.

This little board book exemplifies something that was subtly characteristic of Fujikawa’s art. She didn’t beat you over the head with it, but Gyo Fujikawa was perhaps the very first American illustrator to render a diverse array of children in her books.

Here, she seems to be saying, is an Asian child, a child with ginger hair, a black child. Here they are, all children, doing what children do, being in the world the way all children are.
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Like the best picture books, there’s a huge takeaway from this one that isn’t spelled out in the words. It’s there in the images without explanation and it’s all the more powerful for that lightness of touch.

This is the way the world ought to work, the book seems to be saying with quiet authority. In these pages, this is how it is. So here, toddler whose eyes fall upon these pictures, put that into your heart. Carry it out into the real and precious world you will inhabit.

Welcoming Vaunda, Remembering Sylvester

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson recently launched her new blog, The Book Itch, with a tribute to William Steig.

SylvesterHere’s a snippet:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Winner of the 1970 Caldecott Medal, it was and remains truly deserving. In my 27 years as a children’s librarian, I shared it with thousands of story-time kids.

Oh, Sylvester! How many ways do I love that book? When my son was in pre-school, we borrowed a copy from the library, and then we borrowed it again, and yet again. On the fourth borrowing, it was clearly time to buy the book. Magic, coincidence, the dangers lurking in the world, the nature of happiness, the endurance of love–you could talk for hours about what this book means, all the possible things it could mean.

And now Sylvester is 50 years old! Thank you, Vaunda Nelson, for becoming an unlikely blogger and for reminding me of this jewel of a book.

More: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in 1977 because of the policemen (and others, but never mind that) being depicted as pigs.

steig-sylvesterStill more: Julie Paschkis remembers the beautiful picnic scene in Sylvester in her Books Around the Table post on summertime picnics. Look at those loving hooves resting on Sylvester’s back, and could anyone bring more purely loving parents to life in strokes of a brush and pen?

Guest Post: Michelle Knudsen on the Evil Librarian series

Michelle Knudsen says:

People sometimes give me the side eye when they learn about my Evil Librarian trilogy. “You wrote Library Lion,” they say. “You love libraries! Why would you write  a book about evil librarians?”

IMG_1387.jpgLibrary Lion occupies a comfortable spot on my bookshelf. My copy is well-thumbed. It’s a book I reach for when I teach, offering nice examples of an outsider protagonist and a matter-of-fact adult ally, raising interesting and important questions about rules and contingencies. So I was curious about the path from this beloved and loving depiction of libraries to…her YA Evil Librarian series. Here’s what Mikki has to say on the subject:

First, just to set the record straight: It’s only one evil librarian, and technically (this isn’t a spoiler; you find out pretty quickly) he’s not an actual human librarian, but a demon posing as a librarian. It’s an important distinction. And when he’s in his librarian disguise, he takes his library duties very seriously. So really he’s a good fake-librarian; he’s just also an evil demon planning to do terrible things in main character Cyn’s high school—including stealing away her best friend and forcing her to live with him in the demon world forever. (The one thing that’s safe is the school musical, because it turns out that demons really love Sweeney Todd.)

Libraries have always been safe and beloved places for me. My mom would take me regularly when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, NY, and I still remember the moment I discovered the shelf of dragon stories that it’s probably fair to say changed my life. I was a library monitor in junior high school and worked in the Cornell University Library as a college student and later as an adult. I wrote Library Lion while working at CUL, and it was inspired by the amazing people I knew there as well as the feelings of wonder and welcome of that library especially but also of all the libraries I have ever known.

I suspect the reason the idea of an “evil librarian” appealed to me was because it’s so hard for me to imagine anything negative about libraries at all. Placing something evil in such a sacred space seemed to magnify the danger in the story and underscore the wrongness of the villain that Cyn and her friends have to find a way to vanquish. I loved writing this series, but now that the trilogy is complete, perhaps the next library that shows up in one of my stories will be the regular kind—safe and magical and demon-free (except for the ones tucked securely inside the books).

Curse of the Evil Librarian (Book 3 in the YA Evil Librarian series) comes out on August 13, 2019! Congratulations, Michelle Knudsen. Wishing you a safe and joyful passage from demon-gripped libraries to whatever setting lies ahead.