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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Post-Brexit Racism and Children’s Books


Five hundred percent. Five hundred? That’s right. That’s how much expressions of racism have gone up in Britain post-Brexit. Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor of the Guardian newspaper, calls for books to counter a disturbing trend.


MannekenpisI shudder to think about what that percentage could be, in another country headed for an electoral face-off.

And I think of The Story of Ferdinand, and Manneken Pis: The Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War, and all the other books that have whispered, sung, laughed, cried about peace through many years and many childhoods. Now that the world seems headed in quite another direction, we may need such books more than ever.

From Ex- to Post-colonial, via Enid Blyton

maloryNakul Krishna reflects on the effect of reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series as a child:

I reckon that one way for the ex-colonial to be post-colonial is to stop letting colonialism be the only measure of our attention. The thing is not to gawp, in admiration or horror or awkwardness, at that history, but to find ways of putting it to use.

Krishna read Blyton across lines of gender as well as race and geography, and of course, history. He writes of visiting Britain later, taking all his insecurities with him, postcolonial conflicts included. He writes of finding the southeast coast where the Malory Towers books are set.

This Britain I could live with, only half-tamed, surrounded by a sea of greater antiquity than any empire.

I too read Blyton avidly as a child. I had my moment of disillusionment. I left her behind. Later, visiting England, I found myself connecting with places from Beatrix Potter and Jane Austen rather than Blyton. I think I put away the slight discomfort that Blyton still arouses in me. Still, Krishna’s essay reminded me of why I’d loved those books in the first place.

Children’s Literature in Cambodia?


When you travel to a place for just a few days, you can’t do much more than get a glimpse of it. Enough to raise questions. Enough to change you just a little, shake up your complacency. But apart from the place I am there to see, wherever I travel, I usually find myself looking for two things: children’s books and Indian restaurants.

As a result, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, somewhere among the archeology and mythology and the triumph of the trees, somewhere between a trek into the jungle and a welcome dinner at New Delhi Indian Restaurant, I found a bookstore. I looked for children’s books. I found slim pickings, mostly reprints of Eric Carle and some Japanese manga. A recent LitHub daily informed me that the Cambodian literary scene is burgeoning after a long hiatus. The Mekong Review is on a mission, to find writers who will create a new literature in English, produce writing to express “local soul” and “connect each of the countries through which the Mekong runs.”

So I started thinking, what about books for children? For the sweet daughter of the owners of that New Delhi restaurant, who rode off on her bike to buy okra for the dinner we ordered late at night? The kids in uniform we saw filing to school through the neighborhoods of Siem Reap? Yuri Wellington, the Executive Director of Teach Cambodia, Inc., asks these questions as well. Unsurprisingly, she finds that most books about Cambodia that are available to children in North America focus on the years of genocide. They are worthy books:

Half-Spoon-of-RiceSong for Cambodia

But should they be the only story? The years of horror are important to remember, sure. But it seems self-evident that healing ought to matter more. Much more than a single horrific memory, especially in a land with a vast and ancient history, in which musicians missing limbs are a constant reminder of the terrors of war and genocide. Cambodian children do not need to be defined by a single national trauma that happened before they were born.

So where are the other children’s stories of Cambodia? Wellington suggests a few titles, mostly from NGOs, sometimes a bit message-y. But here, she says, look at this video. Look at these children, hungry to love books.

Reading Without Walls

Consider Gene Luen Yang’s challenge.

RWW-Challenge-300x225It’s simple. Yang, who is the US National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, suggests that we might expand our horizons by taking down the walls around our reading choices.










Some of us grew up on a diet of books about characters who looked nothing like us and lived very different lives from ours. That’s all we had when I grew up. It places you in a pretty humbling position to constantly be reading about a world of which you know nothing. But it can teach you a lot as well. About the world, about empathy, about tolerance and understanding. About what it takes to navigate the mazes of walls we encounter in life.