Art as Voice and Journey

Fevzi Yazici is an artist. Until his arrest, he was design director of Turkey’s now-closed Zaman newspaper. He is also a prisoner, one of 47 Turkish journalists in jail, according to a 2019 Committee to Protect Journalists report. This account from the Washington Post shows how his arrest and confinement have led him to create image after image, each evoking an emotional state, each reaching for something both within and transcending that state. Yazici’s drawings and writings from prison have occasionally been published as ‘Free Notes of a Prisoner.’

In a letter Yazici commented on the design of the courtroom where he stood trial:

“Against seven defendants, who had pens in their hands, in the courtroom, there were seven armed soldiers. You know security is very important. I did not have the chance to ask them but was curious who they were protecting from whom? I had no idea, maybe they were just part of the decoration.” 

Pen, ink, brushes, and cut paper give Thao Lam the voice of her wordless picture book. It is a journey of shifting perceptions. The delicacy of the cut-paper art makes for incredibly moving images and invites the eye to linger on the frames. Fear is conveyed through gesture and the directions of tall grasses, the uniformed soldiers crouching low to the ground, the dark skies and the grey palette. Meanwhile the ants embark on their own journey in the titular paper boat folded by the girl.

From Paper Boat by Thao Lam. Owlkids, 2020–seen in e-galley.

The artist’s mother’s story, imagined here in pictures, invites young readers into a heartstopping journey made possible by the exchange of a singular gift. The quest for freedom, and a lesson in kindness.

Election Day

I can’t stand it. Take the real world away. I need to read a picture book! Duck–why not? And really, Max is a nice guy, much like Joe Biden. And of course, The Donald himself was picture book fare in 2016 in a little gem that still shouts out its insights. Why were the grownups not paying attention?

Childhood Book Memory

When I saw this edition of The Little Mermaid from North South Books, with Han Christian Andersen’s text, illustration by Bernadette Watts, and translation ascribed to H.B. Paull, I was at once eight years old again. It felt as if this was the very book I once owned and loved until it fell into tatters. It was, as I remember it, given to me by a relative who traveled to England and picked it out for me, feeling that it was time for me to read something other than Enid Blyton. I read it end to end and backwards, hundreds of times. It taught me that a book could make a person cry.

It turns out that childhood memories, no matter how vivid, may be notoriously unreliable. According to researcher Kimberley Wade, that’s especially true…

If you’re the sort of person who can read a book and become so highly absorbed that you no longer notice what’s going on around you… you may be more prone to memory distortion.

Well, that would be me. It was certainly me, back when I was eight. So who knows? Was it this edition? I can remember the palette, the blue-green of the water, the swish of the mermaid tail. But I can find no details of a book that looked like this, published around the time I was eight. I can’t exactly pull up contextual image of place that would nail that memory. It’s fuzzy, like a page on which water has spilled.

What about the words? I have gone back and read other Andersen stories since then. I read a few translations of Thumbelina including one by Paull, when I was preparing to write The Girl of the Wish Garden in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s fragile, beautiful paintings. But never The Little Mermaid. It was as if I didn’t want to touch that early memory of literacy, opting instead to keep it obscured, maybe protected, for decades.

Now, looking at those words, I felt as if a curtain had gone up and the light shone again on my young self. I think words go into a special place in memory. The farther back you store them, the more secure they remain. From my vault, as I read the first page of the North South edition, the opening words emerged, untarnished:

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep, so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.

At eight, or however old I was, living in India, I did not know what a cornflower was, and I was baffled about fathoms and cables. I’d seen a church or two, so I got that part. But I can still remember those words and how they invited me to turn the page. And I can remember that although the sorrow and the yearning were far beyond my understanding, they touched me in ways at once thrilling and frightening. And the pure injustice of the story? The unfairness to a girl, at once unlike and like every girl? I know I got that part.

So I certainly read the Paull translation, in a book with a blue-washed cover and gauzy images. And it certainly shaped my writing soul. As memories go, that will have to suffice.

The Genius of Book Design

First, a jacket image–ta da! Threads of Peace is finally becoming a reality!

Studying the first pass proofs of a forthcoming book is always a humbling experience. This time, it’s led me to questions about design in nonfiction books.

As a word-shuffler, I know very little about such things, so while I pondered questions of design elements and the use of archival photos, I turned to this beautiful memoir by Ashley Bryan from Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum.

Look at this spread, with the sketches working as shadow and light.

The text on these pages is clear and direct, the artist’s voice speaking his truth and also speaking the truth about an iconic period of history from a much needed perspective.

And for a completely amazing design choice, look what we see on the facing page when the story loops back in the end to an anecdote about the children Ashley drew with in a vacant lot in Boston.

All that white space gives the reader space to breathe, to reflect, to absorb the impact of this moving story about the shaping of a generous life.

And What About Nostalgia?

Nostalgia reigns in the world of children’s books. What grown-up doesn’t have fond memories of books read or listened to in that enchanted time we call childhood? What parent wouldn’t want to buy their child a shelfload of those very same books? And yet, and yet…

I think about the Enid Blyton books that were my staple youthful reading, and I am frankly tired of the racism they contained, some of it veiled and some of it not so much. I think of The Little House on the Prairie books and Dr. Seuss. I tell myself I’d much rather see children reading anti-racist books. What are we doing, still feeding kids that old poison?

But what about the grownup world? Should we forget those books existed? Or does calling them out also call out the attitudes they’re infused with, attitudes that have not gone away?

It’s the question Angelica Jade Bastién asks in her article, first published in 2017: What are We to Do with Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?

Excerpt:

What makes Gone With the Wind’s racism so important and difficult to taxonomize is the deftness of its characterization. The white characters in the film, including minor bit players, feel real, complex, and human in ways many period epics fail to conceptualize. They are heroes it can be hard not to root for. For all her cruelty and selfishness, Scarlett’s prickly nature make her a fascinating anti-heroine. Yet everyone — including Melanie, one of the most selfless and naïvely angelic women ever portrayed in film — are still complicit in, and directly benefit from, the enslavement of black people. 

Dr. Seuss still dominates, witness this exhibition in Toronto at the end of last year, before Covid-19 shuttered all such mass extravaganzas. When the ALSC decided to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, a mere 2 years ago, there was pushback. Nostalgia dies hard, it seems. I wonder if those who hold it dear know just how its effects are playing out in the lives of real children.

Process Talk: Shveta Thakrar on Star Daughter

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar is a synthesis of astral melody and desi voices from the Indian American community. “Cupcakes and kulfi” to quote the book’s young narrator, Sheetal. The voices run from strident to loving, a few with distinct, affectionately drawn Gujarati accents. The drumbeat of Hindu mythology is never far. I asked Shveta if she’d talk about how this book came to be.

[Uma] Tell me what brought this particular blend of magical and real together for you.

[Shveta] I have always believed in magic—when I was younger, I could even feel the numinous in the air—and I’ve always carried lush imaginary worlds inside me.

I love a good second-world high fantasy as much as the next reader, but when I came across Holly Black’s Tithein 2002, I knew that was what I wanted to do, too—make magic accessible in our world, something just beyond the corner of your eye, and if you were swift and fortunate enough to catch it, you might be off on an enchanted adventure, too.

Throw in the desi/Hindu aspect, and that’s my heart on the page.

I wanted to ground this particular book (and the one I’m revising right now) in our world, so readers, especially fellow desis, could feel like this might actually happen to them. We all deserve beautiful escapism and hope, especially right now, and to see ourselves and our traditions and mythologies celebrated.

[Uma] It is lovely to read a book with Indian American characters that’s not an immigrant assimilation story. Yet, Sheetal’s experience of being “a half star,” “neither here nor there,” evokes the experiences of children and teens in immigrant families. Can you talk about the power of fantasy to shed light on our own real world?

[Shveta] Thank you! That was deeply important to me and remains so. I yearned for magical tales about people like me, fun stories like white people always got to have, but instead, it seemed like all brown and Black people were allowed was stories about the pain of being marginalized. There’s a place for those books, certainly, but that was never what I wanted to write.

Maybe I’m not half a star (or am I? I’ll never tell), but I’ve always felt caught between—caught between the desi American and other American communities; caught between being the “right” kind of Indian kid (the kind who doesn’t major in German and pick up herbal medicine as a hobby and dress up in faerie wings) and the one I was; caught between the world itself and feeling like I would never, ever belong anywhere or even be loved. (I’m so grateful I hung in there and learned otherwise!) So all that flowed naturally into Sheetal’s story, and I had a feeling it would resonate for other people, too. We’re all trying to find our place in the world, after all!

So while I absolutely believe in magic and long for it, I also understand the power of telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. Fantasy allows us to play with wonder and whimsy while exploring our own world from a necessary remove, so we can reexamine the things we take for granted. It can work both as adventure and allegory, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.

[Uma] Every book teaches a writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

[Shveta] Not to give up; not to listen to naysayers (I was told many times when I started out that no one would ever want to read a book about someone who looked like me)…

[Uma] Yeah, I heard that too. You learn not to listen to some voices, right? What else?

[Shveta] that careful, thoughtful revision is the best gift we can give our work; that a good editor is worth their weight in stardust; and that if you listen to your heart, you will never be steered wrong.

[Uma] So true about revision. And listening to your heart. So–related to that, what should young people tell themselves that will help them find their way in this very complicated world?

[Shveta] There’s room in the world for every single one of us. Don’t ever let anyone silence your voice or tell you you’re not good enough. I’m here to say that you’re the light the world needs exactly the way you are, and you absolutely deserve love and magic. No matter what anyone else might think, you belong; I’m proof of that.

As Sheetal’s sidereal family would say, may you burn bold in the deepest night.

[Uma] Sidereal. There’s a word to carry in the heart. Thank you, Shveta.

Enduring Appeal

I’m eating my Judgmint today in memory of Notorious RBG. Thank you to the clever people at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild who dreamed these up just to help me feel better.

Thanks as well to Sunil Adam for calling my attention to American Kahani, an online platform for Indian Americans and South Asian Americans to express our views on different facets of American life. The web site says it features “Indian Americans Through the Looking Glass.” American Kahani turns that looking glass onto the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a few different ways: What Ruth Ginsburg’s Life and Work Mean to a Young Indian American Woman Like Me by Asha Shajahan. Excerpt:

Like Ruth, I’m a first generation American. Our families have the same ideals for quality education and hard work to succeed. Ruth was brought up at a time where “nice” girls didn’t speak up or make demands. Women were treated as weak and second class citizens. They were obliged to follow men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity is still present today, particularly in the Indian community. 

More:

Indian Americans Mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death; Flood Social Media With Tributes

Preeta Bansal, former Solicitor General of the State of New York, went down memory lane in a Facebook post… “she helped me to find my voice as a woman lawyer, as an Indian American, and as a person of spirituality and faith not of the dominant tradition.” 

and finally, from Ishani Peddi, a high school senior from Georgia:

The Youth of America Must Rally to Uphold the Progressive Legacy of the Notorious RBG

With her signature dissents and trailblazing history, RBG has always been a voice for liberals, straying from oppressive norms, despite their popularity. This attitude has inspired young women to speak their minds, even as they continue to be silenced today. Despite the age gap between Ginsburg and her ever loyal teenage fans, her ideas and personality shall forever remain relevant for those that seek to bring change and fight against stereotypes.

We’re all desperate to make connections, to find some meaning in the bigger stories playing out around us. Eat your Judgmints, my people. Remember those who came before. And consider carefully what you plan to do with your vote.

Process Talk: Sheela Chari on the Mysteries of Novelizing a Podcast

Manu Patel, Mars to everyone, is one of a motley crew of outsiders at H.G. Wells Middle School in the Seattle area. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is the first of a three-book series by Sheela Chari, based on an award-winning podcast from Gen-Z Media.

Sheela Chari’s opening title is charming, engaging, spot-on for middle grade voice and eccentricity. I asked Sheela if she’d tell me more.

[UK] You’ve ventured to the borders of the known world in this project. How does one go about novelizing a podcast? What parameters did you have to stick with and what was the extent of your creative freedom?

[SC] The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is an original podcast that spans 3 seasons, created by Gen-Z Media. The Mars team did a fantastic job of bringing their story to life in podcast form, with kids around the world tuning in to find out what happens next as Mars and his pals search for their missing friends while encountering the mysterious billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt.

When I first came on board to novelize this popular series, I asked myself the same question — how do I take a high-action audio drama and turn it into a book? Some lucky things I had going for me: I had the entire plot laid out, season to season. The other lucky thing is that I had support from the Mars Patel team to take the story and make it my own. This meant I was free to explore these characters, their backstories, and even make adjustments to the storyline to make the novel work.

Still…I had some choices to make: where does the story start in time? How do we hear the voices of these characters who are so strong and distinct in the podcast? And how does Oliver Pruitt, who narrates the podcast, play a role in the novel? Eventually, I wrote the story in third person and I gave everyone a chance to tell some of the story, though we stay mainly with Mars. I also relied on texting messages, podcast transcripts, and comments to give us a flavor of how the characters speak with each other and over social media. This was hands down, the most fun I had in writing this book! I loved writing the group texts between Mars, Caddie, JP and Toothpick — with just a few lines I was able to show how they think and communicate. I also loved the sections where podcast fans could leave comments for their hero, Oliver Pruitt. As the novel progresses, their comments gradually change form adoration to suspicion as it dawns on them that Oliver Pruitt might not be the person he says he is.

In terms of the plot, I tried to stay as faithful as I could to the original story. Fans of the podcast who pick up this book will recognize all the key moments. This way the reader and the listener will arrive at the same place by the end of Book 1 and Season 1. But I also wanted to give readers something extra — the backstories of the core characters, to show us why Mars, JP, Caddie, and Toothpick do what they do, and why they remain so fiercely loyal to each other. Lastly, it was a joy to set the book in Washington State, where I’m from. People who live or have visited the area will recognize elements of the Puget Sound in Mars’ fictitious hometown of Port Elizabeth.

[UK] What came easily to you in writing this first series title? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate? 

[SC] Any mystery writer will tell you that the hardest part in writing a mystery novel is the plot. I didn’t have the problem! The whole plot was given to me from start to finish. Which really allowed me focus on the characters and the storytelling. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create the character of Oliver Pruitt on paper.

In the podcast, Oliver Pruitt is the narrator. Listeners will realize early on that Oliver Pruitt is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling the story but he’s also part of it, and he’s constantly disrupting the lives of the main characters. Also, part of his charm is that you never know if he is a good guy or not. In the novel, Oliver Pruitt is not the narrator, but his podcasts are an integral part of the story. In the transcripts, not only do we get a flavor for Oliver’s personality, but I weave in clues that he’s signaling to the reader. Which is why it’s important to read the podcast sections carefully along with the rest of the book! 

[UK] It’s so great to see this mystery/adventure for kids with a South Asian American protagonist. Your thoughts on representation? How did you feel bringing Mars Patel to the page?

[SC] When I sat down to write my first mystery novel, VANISHED, it was very important to me that the mystery involved an Indian-American in the chief detective role. Which is how Neela, the main character, operated throughout the book. Her Indian heritage was important but remained in the background of the mystery. In the Mars Patel novel, I had similar ideas in mind. I was very drawn to Mars because he shares my South Asian heritage: his mother is from India. On the other hand, it was important that his heritage did not overshadow the plot. As one of my daughters said to me recently, she wants to be able to see Indian-American characters in movies and books who get to do all the same amazing things that their white counterparts do without focusing so much on cultural and ethnic differences. That’s how I see this book — showing us all the ways Mars is like any other American child growing up. His mother, Saira Patel, occasionally speaks in Hindi, she lights a diya in prayer, and some of the foods she mentions are Indian. She plays a larger role in the subsequent books, and in her, I see important moments that reveal her cultural heritage and how it shapes her character. To me, that strikes the right balance between Indian and American.

[UK] Every book teaches the writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

This project involved inheriting characters I knew nothing about. They were given to me and I met them like you might meet a stranger at a party. Which means I had to really spend time getting to know them inside out. In a strange way, it forced me to become more empathetic, to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had to dig deep to imagine their backgrounds and memories, and even, to figure out how they speak. 

I think it’s important for all writers to find new ways to enliven our craft. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing the same stories or thinking about characters in the same way. In her ground-breaking book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron speaks of filling the well, of finding activities and experiences that reinvigorate us as artists. Writing this series was  definitely an invigorating experience for me. I know I will carry the ideas I learned from this book— on dialogue, on making my characters more inclusive, and thinking outside the box when it comes to finding missing things.

[UK] Thank you, Sheela! Happy trails to you and Mars and his pals!

Process Talk: Cordelia Jensen on Writing and Teaching the Verse Novel

VCFA graduate Cordelia Jensen is offering two workshops through the Highlights Foundation, one that’s up and running already, on Exploring the Limitations and Liberations of Novels in Verse and Novels in Vignette and the other on Creating an Image System That Works for Your Verse Novel.

I try to take a class every couple of years, maybe just to prove that my aging brain can still handle new ideas. And I happen to be struggling with a new novel that, despite my best efforts to turn it into prose, seems insistent on showing up in the form of mostly free verse mixed in with a range of poetic forms. So I signed up, and asked Cordelia if she’d talk to me ahead of the class.

[UK] What led you to the verse novel as a form?

[CJ] What led me to the verse novel was the instruction of our mutual friend, Coe Booth. Coe was my first advisor at VCFA. I had arrived my first semester with a Middle Grade camp story I was very excited about…and then…well…Coe was, um, let’s just say far less excited about my camp story than I was! I got frustrated and sent her a series of “family poems” I had worked on for years, ever since my father died of AIDS in 1994. I sent her 5 of these.

She said, “Oh my gosh Cordelia! This is what you need to be writing. Have you ever heard of a YA verse novel?” I had not. She changed the course of my career—and my life—because she introduced me to this form. I then worked on my first published verse novel—Skyscraping—for the rest of my time at VCFA. It was bought by Penguin less than a year after I graduated from the program. I fell head over heels in love with the form and I then went on to publish two more—The Way the Light Bends, also published by Philomel/Penguin—and a hybrid prose/verse novel I co-authored with fellow VCFA grad Laurie Morrison, entitled Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams.)

[UK] What led you to teach the form?

[CJ] I have taught creative writing in a variety of settings—at a bookstore with kids and teens, with undergrads at Bryn Mawr College, with high schoolers at Germantown Friends School, with adults at The Writing Barn and now Highlights—in each of the setting I either incorporate verse novels in one lesson of the semester or focus an entire class on verse novels. I teach the form not just because I love to write it though; I teach it because it is experimental and complex and asks readers (and writers) to rethink how stories can be told.

[UK] For myself, I don’t always know how a form will limit a story or free it up until I’ve dug into it for a while, turned the compost heap a few times, so to speak. What’s your approach to teaching writers to open their minds to the nature of the verse novel?

[CJ] I think verse novels challenge the author with very specific limitations—such as, how do I create three-dimensional secondary characters with much less access to dialogue? How do I show action when so much of verse is internal? How do I create a cohesive plot from a series of strung together snapshots of moments? Many authors have come up with creative solutions to the limitations of this hybrid form. There are also a lot of liberations found in the form—like using white space to create story tension or font play to emphasize certain emotions or words which can help develop character. There are parts of writing in verse that can be really freeing and fun and experimental. Most people who take a verse novel class are already excited about the form and ready to play!

[UK] I’m fascinated by your framework of image systems. In fact, as you know, I signed up for your class, hoping to use its energy to help me think through a work in progress that shall remain lovingly unnamed for now. What can you tell me about images and their power in driving a verse novel? 

[CJ] I’m so honored you’re taking my class! I don’t want to give too much class content away, but I will say that I do think that because poetry spotlights imagery, if you change the way the character reflects or interacts with the same kind of image through the course of the story, you can reveal character growth in a more dramatic way I think than regular novels can. This, I believe, is what helps to make successful verse novels feel so emotional. My favorite example of this is the image of the papaya in Thanhaa Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again. There are also specific factors to consider when you choose an image system for your main character, including age, worldview, and psychosocial development.

[UK] The verse novel is an ancient form (think Homer and Beowulf) and it’s still evolving! What advice would you give to writers wanting to try it out, see where it might take them?

[CJ] I love this quote from Brenna Friesner, author of The Verse Novel in Young Adult Literature, as I think it encourages students to explore the possibilities located in the form:

“Within these definitions of ‘novel’ and ‘verse,’ there is flexibility. The form doesn’t change book to book, but each author’s interpretation of the form creates a wide range of word and page counts. Authors are often playful in using a combination of poetry forms and devices interchangeably with free verse… In a sense, it is up to each author to forge a path with their verse novel…Verse novel authors, who are at the forefront of their own evolving genre, are really the ones who best understand what their work represents and where it’s going.” 

[UK] Thanks, Cordelia! I look forward to your October class so I can find new ways to see the story I seem to have on my hands!

How Do You Compete With Free?

Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. “We don’t live in silos,” she says. In this interview with journalist and radio show host Nahlah Ayed, Ahenkora talks about her childhood reading, the challenges faced by publishers in African countries and her wake-up moment after reading Nancy Drew and confessing to well-meaning adults that she’d decided then and there to become a detective.

Dreams, ambition, reality, and the magic of escaping into a book, all interwoven with a reading of Bahiya, the Little Zebra, a picture book from Tanzania and Egypt, written by Nahida Esmail and illustrated by Randa Abubakr. (African Bureau Stories)

Ahenkora speaks of a book famine in Africa. She asks:

What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?

And when the marketplace is flooded with free book donations from the developed world, all glossy and beautifully finished, how can local entrepreneurs hope to compete? In 2008, she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children’s literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.The interview raises great questions and showcases the voice of a woman with an important and necessary vision.