Diversity, Language, and All That

As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the evolving conversation about diversity. It raises so many questions for me. In plenty of ways, I get it. I do. I’ve been writing while brown for 25 years.WNDB_Button

I support We Need Diverse Books. Of course I do. How could I not? And I’m proud to claim as my publishers houses whose work is advancing that cause.

But I also worry sometimes that the conversation is becoming reductive and oversimplified. I still don’t know who’s inside and who’s outside the diversity window. I don’t know where I’m located, which side of that window. I was born in India. I write in English. I can speak my native language but my literacy doesn’t go much farther than labeling spice mixes on jars in my pantry. I’m an American citizen, now living in Canada. What single space can I possibly claim to write about with authenticity, and what does that mean, anyway? I’m sure there are other people who feel a connection to every place I’ve ever lived, and their versions of it will be different from mine.

Which is why this New Yorker article by Jhumpa Lahiri fascinated me–it’s about her journey to learn, not her native Bengali, but Italian. Learn it enough to write in it, at first haltingly, then with greater confidence but also with humility, knowing one’s limitations. It feels like an act of courage.

James Baldwin said: “I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.” There was a writer who stayed true to his own convictions. Maybe that’s the point.

Katherine Hauth on Children, Summer Reading, and the Passage of Time

Delectable poetic lessons on the food chain designed to help young readers rather literally digest the natural world.

That starred review quote from Kirkus Reviews is a punny summary of Katherine B. Hauth’s picture book published by Charlesbridge, What’s For Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World. In a post on the publisher’s blog , Katherine writes:

For me, a silver-haired eight year old, what it means to be a poet is to be childlike, in the sense of seeing with unbiased eyes and heart, and to write honestly in the best language possible for the subject and for my audience.

But writers can only be nourished, so to speak, when readers read. In this video conversation with me, Katherine talks about a summer reading program she created, pretty much out of dust and juniper pollen, in her neighborhood in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. It grew over the years. It created its own story.

A Sprig of Rosemary and a Paradox to Match

Courtesy of Books Around the Table (“A potluck of ideas from five children’s book authors and illustrators”) Margaret Chodos-Irvine writes about perseverance and self-doubt and the power of connections. All those things that are natural and inevitable in this strange business we’re in. And paradox, right? If you want to understand the landscape of your intention for a story, you don’t look at it directly. Instead, you examine the sprig of rosemary. Not once, but over time. And you trust that you will become the writer you need to be to tell that story.

official headshotIt reminded me of a guest post Sarah Aronson wrote for this blog in its last incarnation a couple of years ago: here it is again, still worth considering. Sarah Aronson’s novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship. 

During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter.

believeMy rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”

Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?

First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.

This is what I do:

I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.

believeconnectThen I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.

It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.

Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my writers.com students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.

Thank you again, Sarah for being the dedicated teacher and writer that you are, and for showing so many other people the way along this complicated road.

Celeste Ng on Female Asian American Writers

2014 was the Year of Reading Women, so Ng’s Salon.com article on Asian American women writers is a nice continuation of a thread that shouldn’t be allowed to go away.

Snippet:

This summer, I traveled around the U.S. to promote my debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You.”  At one university where I’d been invited to speak, I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me.  He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+NgOn the personal front I was happy to see my book cited on her very comprehensive list.

And on the personal reading front, I’m taking Celeste Ng’s novel with me on the plane to Vermont because I have just started reading it and can’t stop.

Process Talk: Padma Venkatraman on A Time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman is the aa time to dance cover - large fileuthor of YA novels Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End. Of her latest novel, released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, the Kirkus reviewer writes:

Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one.

I traded e-mails with Padma about her writing and in particular this book.  

[Uma] Talk about what made you a writer, and how you ended up writing for young readers.

[Padma] I got a doctorate in oceanography (nothing to do with reading or writing) because I like numbers, and I wanted to choose a profession that would give me financial independence. But I’ve always loved writing, and as life progressed, that love only deepened. So finally, I became brave enough to give up oceanography and try my hand at writing a novel.

 Thus far, my three novels are for the young adult audience – partly because I feel that books are more likely deepen a young person’s empathy and compassion; older readers are more set in their ways – they’re less likely to change (as people) because of something they’ve read.  It’s also in part because the movies in my mind have thus far featured teen protagonists as stars. Then again, right now, I’m working on a novel for adults, so I do sometimes hear older voices in my head.

 [Uma] Your books all draw upon the Indian subcontinent—its history, its lesser known stories, its social dynamics, and iconic character types that reflect everyday life in the region. Will you tell me what the importance is of setting to you? How much of it is craft and how much a personal exploration through fiction?

PadmaVenkatraman3 [Padma] I’m American and I love my American home and my family. But India is where my journey as a human being (and thus as a writer) began, because it’s where I lived when I was young. My childhood was rather horrid in many ways – but then again, there were moments of beauty and love even during tough times, and the Indian culture left an indelible impact on my mind.

I also read many Indian writers (poets and novelists) as a young person and I’m still fascinated with my origins, I suppose, which is probably rather self-centered! So yes, it is a personal exploration. But I’m also starting – after decades of living in America – to “own” the American culture – and am, in my current work in progress, exploring it.

[Uma] What are the origins of Veda’s story for you? 

[Padma] When I was 19 years old, I was bitten by a Russell’s Viper – one of the four most poisonous Indian snakes – on a trip back to India. I almost died, and it’s a miracle that I survived without having to have my leg amputated (it had turned all the colors of the rainbow and looked rather like something Renoir might have painted for a while). That experience – of nearly losing my leg, not to mention my life, and of being so close to death – solidified within me a sense of spirituality (without necessarily any religiosity per say). I didn’t realize this until recently, but Veda’s story was born of that experience.

[Uma] Why is this a verse novel? How does form affect content in this story?

[Padma] The easy answer: because when Veda’s character possessed me, I heard verse. Of course, nothing’s as simple as that, is it?

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Young Bharatanatyam dancer. Photo source: Padma Venkatraman’s personal collection. All rights reserved.

I fought against writing A Time to Dance in verse  because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Other wonderful poets: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me, as did my marvelous agent, Rob Weisbach and my star editor, Nancy Paulsen. Along the way, another editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, provided insights that were vital. His confidence in me felt like permission to try lean, spare prose.

Finally, on my 101st draft or so, I had an epiphany. Stories that feature a character’s spiritual growth are rare. It was the core of Veda’s story. As was her love of dance. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A Time to Dance – go beautifully with verse.

In this story, rather than form affecting content, it was the other way around: Veda’s voice (content) dictated form. And I’m glad she spoke in verse, and I’m grateful to all those who trusted that I could listen to her properly, including my wonderful husband, Rainer Lohmann. It was really a tremendous relief that it’s been so well reviewed. I’m glad not just for my own sake but for the sake of the many differently abled (disabled) people I interviewed during the process of writing the novel. It’s their story, not mine.

[Uma] Thank you, Padma! Much luck with this and future projects.