Process Talk: Kao Kalia Yang on Generous Memoir and the Dance of Picture Books

For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page.

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a poet, teacher, speaker and the author of three picture books written from the depths of her own experience as a Hmong American woman. Her debut children’s book, A Map Into the World is an American Library Association Notable Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, winner of the Northstar Best Illustrator Award, and winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. 

I encountered Kalia’s work when I had the honor of judging the McKnight Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature earlier this year.

I asked Kalia to talk to me about her picture books, including her new one, with this jewel of a jacket image:

[Uma] Kalia, what’s the relationship between poetry and picture books for you? 

Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang

[Kalia] I come from a strong oral tradition. From a young age, I was taught that words must be able to write on memory. As well, the Hmong language is a tonal language; every breath I breathe into the world carries meaning. In this way, my use of language tends to live on the poetic possibilities–the way words look and the way they sound matter. For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page. It is the flow and it is energy we create together that constitutes the final thing; it is not until the music ends, when we are breathless and free from the movement that the work is done. The very best picture books have always been like poetry to me. They make use of the air in my lungs and take me into a seamless performance between words and images. 

[Uma] The structure of your stories is fascinating to me. They turn unexpectedly, and the patterns they create recur in interesting and surprising ways. Can you talk about using the story cloth image in A Map into the World, say, or the beautiful connection of the child’s hands on the grandmother’s feet in The Most Beautiful Thing? How did these images fall into place for you and how did they become so integral to the story’s structure? 

[Kalia] In A Map into the World, it was very important to me that I write a story about a Hmong girl and her life in America–not the story so much of how she got here. I love the story cloth because it is such an integral part of the Hmong culture as a way of documenting the past and dreaming into the future–so I knew I wanted to name my protagonist Paj Ntaub. The story cloth, in my conversations with my own children, emerge as a kind of map for being–not just where to go but how to go. These aspects were important to me and I wanted to preserve them in the book because they are true to our lives but also represent so beautifully the experiences of first and second generation immigrants and refugee children. The things our parents carried are the things we used to become, make sense of, and build with in  the new places we call home. My hands as a child held and hugged my grandmother’s feet. The way her skin felt and the way my skin felt were the early contrasts in our relationship. I wanted to honor these facts and also enter into them fully for The Most Beautiful Thing. Much of my relationship to structure is built on my relationships to the people whose very lives have inspired and compelled me to tell their stories. My hands knew the feel of her feet more than my words, thus I needed the image to fulfill those long ago but persistent memories.

[Uma] “A melt in the freeze of their hearts.” What a beautiful line that is, and how it makes that family a single collective voice in The Shared Room. The conventions of western children’s books push us toward seeking a single protagonist. Here, this family, together, are the character. They move us precisely because they hurt and heal together. Your thoughts? 

[Kalia] From my very first book, I was interested in pushing the form of the memoir to be a more generous thing than it has traditionally been in American and western literature. Traditionally, the memoir is a form that belongs to the rich and famous, the illustrious individuals whose lives were of supposed interest. For me, that could never be what memoir was. So, in my very first book, I wrote The Latehomecomer and called it a family memoir. In this way, The Shared Room, continues the work that I started way back when I was still quite young, 22 years old. In a more particular war, the book is a story of grief. Grief is a shared experience in a family. To be true to that reality, I had to call on the single collective voice of the family.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did you learn from writing each of these books?

[Kalia] A Map Into the World taught me how to stretch the seasons and make them longer, make them last on the page even as I and my characters acknowledge and grow with their passing. The Shared Room taught me how to carry grief as a member of a community without caving in, how to weep in the world of the picture book with my characters and my readers. The Most Beautiful Thing teaches me that every elder is a treasure trove of stories and to untangle the threads of one leads necessarily to the other. Grandma’s stories are not done. There are no happy endings in a story where a child dies, but there are many reasons to nurture the fire she’d lit with her life. All the things we love and have stored in our hearts will be for others, in their moments of need, maps and story cloths for the life that is still here. The books have taught me in process, they teach me still now that they are in the world and in the hands of readers.

[Uma] What sustains you in this work?

[Kalia] It is a great joy to write for children. It is fun to travel through the layers of experience and the debris of the years to unravel for myself the magic of my own childhood, to open myself to the experiences of my own children and the world they are now living and growing in. To write for children is to offer up my imagination and my heart to the little stories that form the bigness of the world. It is a gift I cherish. 

Thank you, Kalia, for sharing your unique and stirring perspective.

Guest Post: Meera Sriram on A Gift for Amma

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.

I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:

Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.

A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.

Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion, terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.

At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.

It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.

Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.

Notes to Self: History Feeds into Reality Feeds into Fiction

Attending to the news cycle could drive us all round the bend, because we can’t stand to look and, if we have a shred of decency left in us, we can’t look away.

Headline from The Guardian: Across America, police are responding to peaceful protests with violence

Excerpt from Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States:

To write something down doesn’t make it true. But the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail….To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind. Stories are full of power and force; the seas with meaning, with truths and lies, evasions and honesty

History is in the making, all around us. Add a notebook. A pen.

A character emerges.

Manipulate time. Now? The past? The future? Which of those could we possibly have imagined as we are compelled to imagine and reimagine them daily now?

I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a now that has exerted a more powerful pull on my conscience. This is a test. It has to be. Tomorrow may well depend on how we live this today of ours. How young people tomorrow will perceive and employ the history of truth may well depend on how we write about it.

Be Not Afeard

I will confess, I am no longer in love with drafts. Early in my writing life, I used to love that heady feeling, used to throw myself into drafts with reckless glee. Now I distrust them, or maybe I distrust myself. I know they contain some bright sparks that will remain, but I also know that there will be other bits that will mislead me into thinking they’re the story, embodied, when they’re nothing of the kind. Or at least, not yet. These days, I find myself wanting only to be finished with a draft so I can begin to do the real work of revision.

Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices is one of those books on craft that I keep on my shelf to refer to from time to time, when I need to focus on a work in progress and am in danger of being distracted, or when my writing seems to be flattening out and I’m losing confidence in my ability to plow through. All of which is likely to happen in the middle of a draft.

That’s when I need to be reminded of what matters to me about this work I’m struggling to find words for, and why it bubbled up for me in the first place. Only I’m not ready to show the work in question to anyone yet. It feels too fragile, too easily capable of being questioned to pieces. But look. Pullman’s telling me exactly what I need to hear right now.

It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn’t very articulate yet. It’ll go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won’t know why; I just have to shrug and say “OK–you’re the boss.” And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story I say it with pride.

So there. I have to remind myself that this business of letting an idea in and finding the way to express it isn’t about me. It’s about serving the story. How many times do I have to learn and relearn what it takes to be a good servant? An infinite number, it seems. Service, free and fair, a “voluntary and honourable thing.” Better yet, later in that chapter, there’s this:

Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have….

Those quoted words, from Caliban in The Tempest shine a light for me that Pullman might not intend, coming as they do from a character whose very being is fraught with torment, who has been interpreted and reinterpreted across borders of time and race and politics. As Marcos Gonsalez writes:

Shakespeare was a man of his time, a worldly man. Molding a character through the writings and images and culture he lived in, Shakespeare put down on paper a composite of Africa, of Asia, of the Americas, and his Prospero boldly affirms the authority over such a composition near the play’s end about Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” though all these things of darkness in the world he could never acknowledge his, because they never were his to begin with.

Caliban was never Shakespeare’s creation.

Caliban is ours.

So yes, I too take those words of Caliban’s. In making them mine, I, a brown woman, inheritor of a fractured history–I give myself permission to “be not afeard,” to listen for the “sounds and sweet airs.”

Audrey Couloumbis on Yarn, Sweaters, and the Long Internship

My virtual writer friend of over 20 years, Audrey Couloumbis, read my post on knitting and revision and wrote to me about a time when she sold sweater designs to magazines. I asked if I could use part of her email in this blog post. Because it’s Audrey, (author of Getting Near to Baby, dramatized since its original publication, and lots of other titles) this reflection on crochet and writing and life reads like prose poetry.

came up with a sweater that could be done in a mohair with a huge hook. half hour sweater. took it to woman’s day and the editor there, lovely motherly woman whose name escapes me at the moment wanted four in different colors, all with a different yarn than i had used.

she said how much? i figured two hours work, plus the time on the sample piece that couldn’t be sold to another magazine and i said 350. i figured i did well. 

when i got home she called and said she wanted to offer these designs as kits and since i had a shop (on my front porch) could i do the kits. i could and we settled on using my mother-in-law’s nyc address as the order point.

i had a mental picture of maybe two or three months of possibly 30 orders a week. 

ha.

Here’s a crochet time-warp! Image courtesy of Audrey Couloumbis

it was fall going into winter when the magazine came out and the orders were many more than expected and my mother in law enlisted her sister, aunt adrienne to do thanksgiving that year. i came in from the country with apple and pumpkin pies 2 kids and a dog to find mama nicky sitting at her dining table awash in paper and a laundry basket system (u.s, canada, and i think military bases, 4 or 5 baskets) for the order forms.

Letter from a museum director. Image courtesy of Audrey Couloumbis

she looked fairly stunned but also deliriously happy. she said she was giving thanks for every one. i asked how many hours did this take her and gave thanks for her, bcs i never could have opened that many envelopes in a day and set up a system to keep track.

we spent three day weekends stuffing envelopes and slapping on the labels, then trips to ups with the station wagon crammed with envelopes. this went on till spring, slowed to about 100 orders a month in warmer months (mohair) and picked up again the next winter.

we got orders for about six years. by the end it was a trickle of one or two a month. i think we sold abt 2500 of those sweaters at 28ish dollars.
i know this isn’t the kind of writer’s progress you were looking for but the thing that got me thinking,

that editor didn’t pay me 350 for the sweaters as a whole she paid me 350 for each 1/2 hour sweater. and when i asked her about it, she said when she pays her doctor she isn’t paying all that money for the ten minutes she spent with him, she paid for his years of learning to have the answers to her questions.

that too is what writers are paid for–a long self-imposed internship. 

Hunkering down in the era of Covid-19, a self-imposed internship, its rigors offset by yarns real or imaginary, seems like a desirable option. A chance to lose oneself in texture, form, and style.

Light and Shadow

Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, 2019

Viewpoint is everything, we know. It determines what part of a story gets told, what gets left out. It shows us where to look, where to linger, where to leap, where to make connections.

Viewpoint is practical. It can be chosen, adhered to, supported, shifted as needed.

But then there’s the question of light. Light is capricious, dependent on much that is outside me, the writer. Light is what I find out about my work in progress as I’m blundering through it, living it in my head when I should be feeling it in my heart. Light is the illumination I get when I’m not looking directly at the story but allowing my mind to swirl within it.

Light casts shadow, and that too is more than a choice. Once I see what needs to be included, the rest falls away, like the shadows in a picture that superimpose one image on another, or blend building and sky in fantastic cutouts I never intended.

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.

 

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

The architecture of stories fascinates me but I think of it in terms that are organic rather than designed, springing from a mental landscape. And sometimes, truth be told, I miss the landscape of the desert. So here’s a reprise of an old post about cliff swallows in New Mexico and the creation of story, maybe because I want to return if only briefly to a moment that was purely joyful, purely sufficient unto itself. Those moments feels rare these days. The world intrudes far more than it seemed able to do just a few years ago.

The cliff swallows nested just down the road from where I lived in the desert. I’d been watching them every summer for over a decade.

All those years, I’d drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I’d go on my way. I’d think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.

For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays didn’t just stretch forever into my distance, so one day I decided to act on my impulse.

The swallows came pouring out with flapping wings and shrill, squeaky cries, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Life just burst out from that rock. In contrast to the extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away.

They remind me of Nader Khalili‘s ceramic homes.
What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There’s a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here.

Think about building memory. I no longer live down the road from that cliff. The birds in my neighborhood are different ones, the cliffs in the region volcanic rock rather than sandstone. But the little mud houses painstakingly clustered on the cliff face evoke a place and a time–and they return me briefly to the person I was then. Story builds that way too, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor.

Rajani LaRocca on Midsummer’s Mayhem

Midsummer's Mayhem final cvr.pngRajani LaRocca‘s Midsummer’s Mayhem is a marvelous mashup of two things you might not think were capable of working together–Shakespeare and fusion cooking! I asked Rajani:

[Uma] How did Shakespeare and fusion cooking come together for you?

[Rajani]  I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a child. I played Cassius in our (very abridged!) 5th grade class production of Julius Caesar, and that sparked my interest. The next year, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was smitten with the tale of feuding fairies and the hapless humans who got ensnared in their mischief. And there is a connection to India that I noticed as a child and remembered as an adult when it was time to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM!

My greatest joy—my half-Indian, half-Italian, all-American family—is fusion personified. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavors, but writing this book made me take this pastime to a new level, translating favorite foods from my own childhood into tasty baked treats.

[Uma] Your Mimi’s charm comes largely from her uniquely quirky eccentricities. Tell me how you went about developing this most endearing character.

[Rajani] Much of Mimi’s personality came to me as if she were a real person whom I happened to meet. For example, I knew that baking was Mimi’s great passion, so I made her point of view very baking-centric: that’s the lens through which she sees the world, and there are lots of baking and foodie terms sprinkled throughout the book. I also knew she was the youngest child in a large family full of accomplished people. Like a lot of youngest children, Mimi tries many of the activities her older siblings love, only to find that they don’t really bring her joy in the same way. Mimi tries to find her place in in the world, and wonders what she can do to distinguish herself. But at her core is her affection and concern for her sometimes exasperating, often wacky, always loving family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 1.jpg[Uma] Every book you write teaches you something. What did writing this book teach you about writing–or about yourself, if you like?

[Rajani] It took me several years and many revisions to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, and the process taught me so much about the craft of writing a novel, about how to take a story idea and turn it into the book I want it to be. But I’ve also come to realize that Mimi’s story is a metaphor for my journey to becoming a published writer. At any age, there is a gap between what we are currently capable of doing and what we wish we could do. It is uncomfortable to be in that gap, but it’s also where we grow and learn so much about ourselves. Just like Mimi, I’ve learned to appreciate what I have to give to the world. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM inspires young readers to create with their hearts and to have the courage to share those creations

 

[Uma] What’s one joyful and unexpected outcome of writing this book?

[Rajani] Although writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, for me the process of writing and publishing has been about connecting with other people. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me: my first writing teachers who gently guided a newcomer without crushing dreams; my incredible critique partners who read, suggested, laughed, and cried with me; and my tremendously generous, brilliant Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough, who helped me in my final push with MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. The connections continued with my amazing agent, Brent Taylor, and my fantastic editor, Charlie Ilgunas, who helped the book become even better. I’ve become friends with some wonderful fellow 2019 debut authors, and we’ve supported each other through this zany debut year. And in just a couple of weeks, my book will connect me to young readers…and that is the ultimate dream come true!

Congratulations, Rajani! Much luck with this quirky, funny book, and with your future writing projects.

Mailbox Pages, Pressure, and the Writing Seesaw

listeningI try to be a disciplined writer. That is to say, I try to write something daily.  Something on a story page. Blog posts don’t count.

That part works most of the time. When I’m in danger of falling off the discipline wagon is when I’m near the middle of a large project and my self-doubt is reaching tsunami proportions. In recognition of this seemingly inevitable stage, a colleague and I agreed to serve as each other’s “mailboxes” for pages from a work in progress.

We decided on an arbitrary deadline (the 5th of each month) by which to send each other approximately 30 pages apiece. If we didn’t receive pages in any given month, we’d send gently nagging emails.

When a mailbox sender’s working draft got completed, we agreed, it was completely optional for the mailbox recipient to  read it and offer comments. No pressure at all, right?

Six months later, my colleague, who is obviously more disciplined than I am, completed her draft. I read it. It was wonderful. Not finished but filled with good energy and story and brimming with character. I wrote my comments, sent them off and got back to work. She said I was right on track–she might not necessarily agree with all my suggestions but my reading of the draft gave her lots to work with, which is the whole point. I felt validated as a reader which is always good for my writing confidence.

As for my draft, travel intervened. And teaching. I went to Kindling Words East, which kindled the fire for my novel right back up. I longed to get back to this work. What I didn’t have were enough hours in the day. Then, predictably, the doubts began to creep in. Had I packed too much into the novel? Should I go back and take out a subplot or two? Was it even a middle grade? This is a slippery slope.

My semester began. The picture book intensive kicked in. My reading started piling up. I’d sent in my February 5 mailbox pages in January, anticipating the crunch, but March 5 now loomed. It felt impossible.

I wrote a picture book draft. That’s always a nice break from a novel.  But somehow, I couldn’t go back to my mailbox pages.

I asked my kindly mailbox for a hiatus. A couple of months, I said. I’ll have to set the novel aside. How about I resume in May? She agreed. This is a no-pressure agreement, right? All about mutual support and respect for our work.

Then something odd happened. Right after I’d hung up the phone, I fired up Scrivener and got right back into the novel. Right into the messy middle. That evening, I wrote a couple of new scenes. Not 30 pages, granted. More like 10. But I was off and running again. Just the thought of not having to meet this (completely flexible, erasable, voluntary) deadline unfettered my creative impulse and allowed me to move ahead. And so the seesaw goes.