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.


Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay

Mustafa.jpgMustafa, a child refugee from an unnamed country in crisis, finds a friend in his new home. That’s the storyline in this simple, elegant picture book by Marie-Louise Gay of Stella and Sam fame.

The setting in Mustafa is urban, offering the relief of a green park safe enough for a child to venture into on his own. The delight of this book lies in its close adherence to its small hero’s perspective, both in the choice of words and in the finely rendered multi-media illustrations.

Marie-Louise Gay is the gifted author-illustrator of numerous fine books. She shines a loving light on many facets of a new immigrant’s experience—the hugging hijabi mother, the lively younger sibling, the trail of leaf-cutter ants in the park that parallel the family’s own difficult journey, the feeling of being a stranger and invisible.

At a time when more and more countries are resisting immigration and there are forces pushing against the acceptance of refugees in Western countries, this is an important book. It shows not only how children cope with the traumas of displacement but also where the ingredients of comfort might be found.


How Many More Ways Will America Fail Children?

Pashminacover-450x635In this Nib cartoon strip, graphic novelist and cartoon artist Nidhi Chanani shows us what it’s like to parent her mixed race child.

In Pashmina, Chanani fictionalized her own experience growing up in America with freshness, humor, and intensity. Her Nib reflection on life, language, and identity choices will feel familiar to many who are trying to raise children in an inclusive society.

Is that a vain hope? Because I think America was learning to be an inclusive society once, not so long ago, in an eight-year era that some apparently saw as less “hopey changey” than might be imagined. Maybe that whole hope change thing was delusional. Or maybe it’s just that democracy can be rigged and hijacked as much as any other system can and we’re watching a crook-in-chief do just that.

Still, I was moved by this New Yorker article by Dave Egger about a church in Connecticut that has decided to open its doors to immigrants seeking sanctuary. Moved for so many reasons. Here were fellow South Asians from Pakistan, whose troubles had all started with caste barriers in their homeland. Caste, I should add, is the identifier that makes me weep for my own people. Its horrific taboos have migrated from their source traditions into converts’ communities in South Asia, even when their adopted religions are supposed to abhor such differences. Moved as well because in the land where I arrived in 1979, immigrants were seen as welcome additions to society, not infestations to be removed.

The article quotes the Bible:

Here’s how Americans can do the right thing: first, more churches that, like the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, want to embody the words in the Bible—“Welcome any alien into your land, for you were once an alien in the land of Egypt”—can consider their roles in protecting families who have committed no crime other than wanting a safe place to live.

But the churches can’t fix the rigged and broken system. Voting might help but only if enough people with intelligence and honesty run for office, and tell me where the incentive is for that?

Finally where, I wonder, does all this leave the child in the church who just wants to play and go to school and be a child? Or Nidhi Chanani’s daughter, whose parents are trying to expand her linguistic world in the passionate belief that this will help her make sense of the real one?  What about the loosening of regulations that will put children’s health at risk? And how come a public shrugging of the shoulders has become the last word on those other children separated so recently from their parents at the border?

How many more ways will America fail children before something shifts?


Nidhi Chanani on Pashmina

Pashminacover-450x635Nidhi Chanani (the talented illustrator who created the cover for my Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh) is announcing a new graphic novel. Pashmina is the story of young Priyanka’s internal and real-world journey to India. Is this India real or not? What’s behind the exotic fruit and the glittery sari shops? In a swiftly turning tale that unfolds in black and white alternating with brilliant color, Priyanka navigates magic and mystery to uncover the history of her family and to find her place in the world. I asked Nidhi a few questions about the process of developing this lovingly crafted graphic novel.

[Uma] You write about the origins of Pashmina as “opening a suitcase and traveling to a fantasy version of India.” Why was this important to you?

[Nidhi] I wanted to represent India in the best possible way to Priyanka and to readers. In order for Priyanka to move through her journey, the fantasy India had to push her to step outside of her comfort and answer questions.
[Uma] It pushed her, interestingly, by falling short, didn’t it? The exotic elements were unreal, they weren’t enough. They weren’t the real India that she was looking for. Can you talk a little bit about the many connections you are making there for your character? What do you want your readers to take away from this?

[Nidhi] It was important to ground Priyanka with aspects of Indian culture while not fully introduced to the wealth of imagery and beauty. Through the pashmina her curiosity for the real India is accelerated. It was important that Priyanka’s journeys with the pashmina intrigued her to visit the country itself but the choice to do so had to originate with her.
[Uma] Your character, Priyanka, is an outsider in many ways. Tell me what led to the elements of her character as you developed this book?
[Nidhi] I wrote a lot from personal experience. Priyanka enjoys drawing and only has one close friend. She is teased at school for her difference economically and culturally. These aspects are directly plucked from my life. Her mom is a variation of my own. Nimisha, her mom, is strong, nidhiheadshotreligious and loving. And her mom’s life choices shape her environment as she navigates questions about her past. As I developed her backstory the elements of Priyanka’s character became apparent.
[Uma] Every book teaches the writer (and I’m presuming artist as well) something she didn’t know before. What did creating Pashmina teach you?
[Nidhi] It taught me so much! The steel you need to revise scripts is one lesson, but I also revised thumbnails 3 times for nearly every page. In total I think each page was revised 8-11 times. It taught me patience – making a good book takes time and dedication. Meeting my deadline taught me that I can draw for 10+ hours a day and I am fortunate enough to have a family that supports that. It taught me that comics are made from love. You have to love the form, flow and drawing the same characters for years. It taught me how to plan, ask the right questions of my editor and early readers. There’s more… but finally, it confirmed that I want to continue creating characters and narratives that are not often represented. If I can keep doing that for the rest of my career, I will be happy.
[Uma] Can you tell me how you went about developing Priyanka’s backstory? I know how I’d do that as a writer but your work is rich in images, so I’m curious—what did that process look like for you?

prisss-1[Nidhi] I drew these early Priyanka expressions to explore who she is through how she reacts and acts. I thought about how she would conduct herself in each environment – with comfort and freedom around her family and with trepidation and insecurity around others. This is one of the fun parts of the early work in comics – to explore your character through design, expressions, and clothing.
[Uma] Fabulous! Look at that Priyanka-face! Much luck, Nidhi, and congratulations!