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.

 

“Young girl, you were not born only to cook…”

LetHerFly.jpgWho has not heard of Malala Yousafzai? Her courage, her clarity, her vision so startling for someone so young?

Here is a book by the father who has stood at her side all along. Excerpt from a poem by Malala’s father that serves as an epigraph:

Young girl, you were not born only to cook.
Your youth is not to be ruined.
You were not born a victim, were not born
as an instrument for a man’s enjoyment.

And this from the opening chapter…

I was going to be a father who believed in equality, and believes in a girl as she grows into a woman, and who raises her so that she believes in herself, so that in her life she can be free as a bird.

MalalasMagicPencil.jpgMalala herself, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, continues to speak eloquently of her journey and her vision for the world’s girl children. Her father’s book is worth reading in tandem with Malala’s own picture book, Malala’s Magic Pencil, illustrated with a suitably delicate touch by Kerascoët, the husband-and-wife illustrator team Sébastien Cosset and Marie Pommepuy.

A Hedge? A Customs Hedge?

So Trump wants his beautiful wall, right, and at once time he said he wanted to make Mexico pay for it?

IMG_2382.JPGAs with so many follies of history, it turns out that particular strategy’s been tried before. The Brits built a wall of sorts in India, back in the days of the East India Company. And they intended to make the Indians pay for it.

It wasn’t exactly a wall, all the way. It was a hedge–well, sort of.

A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men… It would have stretched from London to Constantinople… it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.

A hedge? A Customs hedge? Turns out this was all about the infamous Salt Tax. On a whim, writer Roy Moxham, stumbling upon a reference to the hedge, decided to go look for it in India.

Now needles and haystacks are as nothing compared to the task of finding anything at all in India. The country of my birth, if I say so myself, specializes in obfuscation, delays, disappearing mirages, bureaucratic stumbling blocks, and other kinds of phenomena in the nearly-there-but-oh-no-look-out! category.

The Great Hedge of India combines Moxham’s historical quest with his journey on the ground. It’s full of marvelous information like the history of the tax on salt, which the East India Company quietly appropriated from local royal traditions and began to impose, in defiance of orders from London. The amount of salt used by an Indian family, it seems, was the subject of fierce argument, as was the question of whether Indian cattle or sheep needed salt. It’s an improbable story, well told, with little digressions into such things as the body’s need for salt and what is likely to have happened to people who were deprived of it.

The hedge itself was abandoned in 1879. If finding it on the ground seems an impossible task, consider also that Moxham had never used a map or a compass to go on a really long walk before. India is not the most salubrious setting to exercise such beginning skills. Moxham’s book alternately amuses and enlightens. The quixotic travel chapters detail the hospitality and kindness of friends and strangers alike, painting a heartwarming picture of rural India.

If Trump had any sense at all, he’d see the futility of this wall project. Unfortunately, he is no better equipped with either common sense or compassion than were the greedy and ruthless in the Company’s higher ranks, or their poorly paid, corrupt subordinates.

 

Shapeshifting Facts

L1070098In Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, this year, I saw grey whales from so close that when one of them spouted, a great fountain of moist air and, shall we say nostril contents, showered over all the people in the boat. What astonishing life-forms they are! Their size puts us humans in our place. The pangas, fishing boats that work for the whale watching tour companies, take visitors out into the lagoon, then shut their engines off and wait. The whales appear. It’s a humbling experince.

baja grey whaleThis one came up under the boat and surfaced on the other side. If it had intended to tip us over, there is no doubt it could have. From the panga, we could see the barnacles encrusting the rubbery, marbled skin. We could even spot the tiny eye before a sudden dive rocked the boat and the whale, seeming to laugh at us, slapped its tail-fluke and was gone.

So I started thinking, how do we portray whales in books for young readers? It turns out that if you look at children’s nonfiction over the years, the public misinformation of generations shows up. This Hakai Magazine article plots the delivery of inaccurate science to kids. Excerpt:

In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.

Part of the problem, of course, is that children’s books often hang around for generations. Parents tend to buy their kids the books that they themselves loved as children. But with nonfiction, those books get dated really fast. And in a world where these giants of the ocean are seriously endangered by our irresponsible behavior over the centuries, don’t we owe young readers the facts as best we know them, in all their beautiful complexity?

 

It is Time to be Alarmed

Last week I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I thought I’d be depressed. After all, I’ve seen the Al Gore charts in the original movie. I know the facts. I feel helpless to do anything about them.

bluemarble_2014089_lrg

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS imagery from NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory

But I watched this one with Houston and the Caribbean fresh in my mind, along with the uncomfortable awareness that while North American eyes were first on Texas and then on Florida, 45 million people were affected by floods in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. And I felt a curious consolation that Gore, in his journey to understanding, somehow gets this global perspective. The image of the blue marble, Earth, made me think long and hard. When are we going to get beyond boundaries of nationality and language, politics and borders? What will it take to make us quit flag-waving and nationalistic jingoism? How many floods will it take? How much drought? How many climate change refugees?

Last year saw the publication of a nonfiction book about climate change for teens. In It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Past, Present and Future of Climate Change, Bridget Heos tackles the issue of global warming head-on for a teen audience. In a review of this title from last year, Publishers Weekly says:

Heos (Stronger than Silk) doesn’t mince words in this self-described “call to action,” as she clearly and effectively details the greenhouse effect, the ice ages and mass extinctions of Earth’s history, the scientific evidence behind climate change, the ways human activities contributes to it, and the politicization of the topic.

So there. Talk to your politicians. Talk to each other. Get the dirt on oil in your neighborhood and your community. Find out who’s blocking alternative energy. Find an environmental NGO to support. At the very least, go to the United Nations site and offset your carbon emissions for the last year. It is time to be alarmed.

 

 

 

The Story in Nonfiction Picture Books

How do you decide where the story resides in a nonfiction picture book? Where in the research? How much of a life? What’s in it for the kid reader? What’s your stance as a writer relative to the subject?

MeJanePatrick McDonnell‘s picture book, Me…Jane, shines the light on little Jane who loves to be outside, who hauls her pet chimpanzee, Jubilee, everywhere, who watches the world around her with careful, caring eyes. It’s a leisurely, close-up look at the child protagonist. And because it captures a kind of joyful attentiveness, it carries weight for that other child listening to the words, looking at the pages.

Pay attention to what Me…Jane doesn’t do. It doesn’t try to plunk everything one might know about this life into the small container of the picture book.

Instead the story builds internally, in the small and comfortable world that the child Jane inhabits.

No biographical milestones, no big story turns, no facts and dates and figures. Just an inexorable push forward. There will be only one turn of story, but it will be so big that it makes the entire point of the book. Jane goes to bed one night, dreaming, and presto! The page turn flies us forward in time, all the way into the realization of that dream.

MeJane2It’s all done with connections on and off the page. The little toy chimp, the Tarzan references, the way the images move from page to page. The story here is of a small, curious human in a large, glorious world. About great forward leaps in time and in thinking.

If you, like me, are a writer who tends to get tethered to her words, it’s helpful to look at how visual artists construct story. Me…Jane does plenty for young readers, but its structure is also a lesson in freedom for the wordbound. 

 

Fiction = Imagined

In the push to pay attention to children’s nonfiction–which may be one of the few good spinoffs of the Common Core–are we losing the ability to read fiction with imagination? I’m starting to get asked, much more than I did in years past, if my characters are “real.”

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I make them all up, every last one. Fiction is not meant to be taken for history or geography.

girlinthewellI’m reading the ARC of a middle grade novel by my friend and neighbor Karen Rivers in which a girl falls into a well. Not a spoiler, I promise. That is only the beginning. Point is, did the writer ever fall into one? Does it matter? She is not her character. The story is an artistic representation. More on that later from Karen.

Fiction is meant to leave us with questions rather than provide us with tidy answers. I worry that we’re losing the arts of subtlety and subtext, that we want everything to be on the surface. We want only comfort for our children, when perhaps we ought to be passing along to them what little we have learned about living with the waves of discomfort and pain, joy and grief and passion, that have shaped our lives.