Process Talk: Tziporah Cohen on No Vacancy

The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.

Photo courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?

[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.

I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.

[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?

Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!

As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.

[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?

[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.

The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.

[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).

Caste in America

Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.

How wrong I was.

Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.

In a Throughline podcast interview, Wilkerson says:

“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”

She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.

In India, I see that Wilkerson’s book is subtitled The Lies That Divide Us.

Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.

History and Self in Everything Sad is Untrue

Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?

But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.

Truth, Facts, and Story

Marion Dane Bauer’s last nonfiction book resides in the space where facts and truth overlap, collide, and blaze into story.

In her blog, she discusses that space and what it has come to mean to her.

Excerpt:

…facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

To hold The Stuff of Stars in your hands, to turn its luminous pages, is to encounter magic.

Notes to Self: History Feeds into Reality Feeds into Fiction

Attending to the news cycle could drive us all round the bend, because we can’t stand to look and, if we have a shred of decency left in us, we can’t look away.

Headline from The Guardian: Across America, police are responding to peaceful protests with violence

Excerpt from Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States:

To write something down doesn’t make it true. But the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail….To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind. Stories are full of power and force; the seas with meaning, with truths and lies, evasions and honesty

History is in the making, all around us. Add a notebook. A pen.

A character emerges.

Manipulate time. Now? The past? The future? Which of those could we possibly have imagined as we are compelled to imagine and reimagine them daily now?

I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a now that has exerted a more powerful pull on my conscience. This is a test. It has to be. Tomorrow may well depend on how we live this today of ours. How young people tomorrow will perceive and employ the history of truth may well depend on how we write about it.

A Heartbreaking Collection

I don’t usually pay attention to the Travel section of National Geographic–because, you know, I’m waiting to see how the National Geographic project plays out. And because, travel, what’s that?

But here’s an account of a collection in the Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury district:

The objects are known collectively by the museum as “The Tokens.” Trifles, mostly, these small random pieces were left by parents, usually mothers, forced by poverty or the social stigma of their child’s illegitimacy, to relinquish their children to what was then called the Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. Used as identifiers in the case of the parents’ return, they now form a heartbreaking collection often overlooked by visitors to the U.K. capital.

Education and Maintenance. Exposed and deserted. Those terms speak volumes. Founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, a retired sea-captain, the hospital began taking in infants on a “first come, first served” basis in 1741. Today, the Foundling Museum “works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through the arts and to inspire people to make the world a better place.”

For a novelist’s take on this history, read Jamila Gavin‘s Whitbread Award-winning children’s novel, Coram Boy. Published all of twenty years ago in 2000, it remains a moving read, with a complex villain and interwoven lives in two periods of time eight years apart.

Excerpt:

As usual, there was a throng of desperate women pressing at the gates at the hospital; Begging not to be forced to drop their babies in the street to die, Begging for a chance in the lottery. They had to dip their hands in a basket and draw out a ball: a white ball denoted entry, A blackball meant denial and a red one meant they could wait in the hope that one of the chosen babies would fail the medical test they all underwent.

Reading Jamila’s novel today, I can’t help thinking about the children separated from their parents in this century, for social and political reasons every bit as horrifying as those that prevailed in 18th century England. Today, for the most part, it’s not families who are “exposing” and “deserting” their children.

Then Before My Eyes

We are witness to an age that could paralyze us, to people in power who don’t know what they’re doing, to the rise of hatred and intolerance. So here is a countervailing force–music.

Thank you, Brain Pickings, and to Mark Karlins for pointing me here

Here are a couple of stanzas from One Fine Day

Then before my eyes, is standing still

I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

One Fine Day by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Feels prescient, doesn’t it? In much the way that E.B.White’s Here is New York felt after 9/11:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

We are none of us writing only for this day, yet all we can know is what’s before our eyes. It has to be enough. We don’t have a choice. We have to hope that, in the fullness of time, at least some of our words might grow into their own sufficiency. For that reason, it behooves us to choose them with care.

Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!