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.

 

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.

“Waiting for Some Guy…” Toni Morrison Speaking to Cornel West

 

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Angela Radulescu [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

At this moment, when we have just lost the incomparable Toni Morrison, it seems like a good time to revisit this 2004 Democracy Now interview with Cornel West. She speaks about truth and love, the perils of political loyalty, the courage of children in the saga of school integration, and more, much more.

belovedEighteen years after 9-11, we are still waiting for “some guy–the mayor guy, the governor guy….”

We are waiting, in the wake of gun violence that never ends.

In the midst of inequalities so great that they can only be explained by corporate theft.

In anticipation of a planet about to burn up.

Now we have lost a voice that spoke the truth with vibrant clarity.

 

 

“Thus, and thus, and thus! . . . Now all is done, and all is ashes!”

In “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” Herman Melville’s weirdly dizzying gothic thriller, we find the disturbed and disturbing Pierre incinerating everything his father left behind. A portrait curls in the flames, as do stacks of letters. “There is no knowing Herman Melville,” Jill Lepore writes in her article in the New Yorker in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth this summer. In part this is because he didn’t want his papers to be preserved, burning his manuscripts and shying away from photographers.

Moby-Dick FE title page

Source: Wikimedia Commons/ original uploader Chick Bowen at English Wikipedia. Public domain

Moby Dick defeated me for years–I just couldn’t get past the first few pages.  Some books are like that, requiring repeated effort. I did end up reading it many years ago but I have to admit it was work. Despite tripping up on the “idolatrous dotings” of the Egyptians and “the aboriginal whalemen, the ‘Redmen,'” despite being baffled by the endnotes (and that “Sub-Sub Librarian”) I did get glimpses of what all the fuss was about. The vast expanse of the book, like the ocean itself; the ship in peril at the hands of the obsessive captain; all that cetology; all that commentary on the world as the author must have known it, its realities obscure and dim to my 20th century mind; and the other world that was purely about the flaws and blindness to which humans are prey.

Practically ignored in its author’s lifetime, the first American edition of Moby-Dick of 2,915 copies did not sell well at $1.50 and only netted Melville lifetime earnings of $556.37. The rest went up in smoke, literally, in the Harper fire of 1853.

IMG_0699Aside from providing windows into Melville’s life, Lepore’s article reminds me of the value of re-reading and growing into books that we may have chanced upon prematurely in our youth. Re-reading grows the curatorial collection in the mind, a bit like sea-glass getting polished by the ocean’s waves.

Perhaps it’s time to reread Moby Dick. We are now, after all, in the middle of a real-life cetacean Armageddon. Beyond that, we are all playing witness to the actions of deranged captains of the good ship Earth, or perhaps we are, collectively, those captains. Some of us, by default, pick up the pens of sub-sub librarians, taking notes. “Thus and thus and thus,” we write, hoping against hope to escape the ashes.

 

 

Hans Christian Andersen Travelogues and Juvenilia

My son, on a trip to Rome, recently sent me this photo of a house that Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote in during his year in Italy.

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Image © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

What, I wondered, did he work on there from 1833 to 1834? One of his travelogues? It turns out it was his autobiographical novel, The Improvisatore, and the trip was sponsored by ad usus publicos, a Danish public fund set up in 1765 and used in the 1800s mainly to support literature, art and the sciences. In other words, this was a residency!  Many writers will relate to this experience, this life lived two centuries ago. We may rail against the norms and practices of times past, and we should, but we are also connected to writers who went before us.

9781554983247-1_0When my picture book, The Girl of the Wish Garden, was published, one of the storylines of my life as a reader and writer seemed to come full circle. As an 8-year-old in India in the 60’s, I’d been captivated by

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Copenhagen, sculpture of The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) by Edvard Eriksen. Photo © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories, a gift from an aunt who had visited England and bought a copy for me. The Little Mermaid made me cry. I have a visceral memory of a delicious surrendering to an emotional state. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that words on a page could do that to a person.

So when I found out that an unknown Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was discovered in 2012, that, too, felt inevitable and logical. It was probably written between 1822 and 1826, and shows that whatever else he write, the fairy tale genre came bubbling up for him quite early in his life. Excerpt from the Guardian article:

The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it. “The Tallow Candle had found its right place in life – and shown that it was a real candle, and went on to shine for many a year, pleasing itself and the other creations around it,” writes Andersen.

“Pleasing itself and the creations around it.” May we all be as lucky.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.