History and Self in Everything Sad is Untrue

Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?

But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.

Sharing Space in Foreshadow


My VCFA colleague and friend Nova Ren Suma is part of an Internet labor of love, Foreshadow, a project of the heart dedicated to offering “a unique new online venue for young adult short stories, with a commitment to showcasing underrepresented voices, boosting emerging writers, and highlighting the beauty and power of YA fiction.”

Years ago, I worked with a student who wrote short stories all semester long. From her very first packet, I knew I’d struck gold with Rachel Hylton. Rachel was one of those intuitive writers with an unerring instinct for revision. I’d send her long letters detailing all my questions and listing all the points at which I’d wondered where she might be taking me. She’d fix a word or two and the entire story would settle into place, with all my bullet points magically addressed.

I’m more than happy to be sharing space with Rachel Hylton in the current issue of Foreshadow. Her story, Risk, was selected by none other than Laurie Halse Anderson. You have to read it. It is one of those pieces that needs every one of its words to express its essence. You couldn’t sum it up. It’s Kafkaesque in the manner of David Cerny’s sculpture.

Right away we find out–this:

We were there for Marnie Vega long before she became a lobster.

And then there’s this line:

Marnie was different—she wasn’t fake, she was authentic.

That’s Rachel. Each word perfectly laid out, crafted with loving care. Authentic to the bone. I hope some editors are paying attention.

There are two other stories in this issue: Pact by Mark Oshiro, and my story, Affinity.

Thank you, Nova Ren SumaEmily X.R. Pan, managing editor Diane Telgen and all the wonderful writers and editors who help give life to this project.


The Pain and Glory of Adolescence in The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond

TightropeDominic Hall is the son of a mother with dreams and a bitter, disappointed war veteran father. Simpson’s Shipyard looms over their town, an occupational sinkhole to trap workers and their families. The borderland location in northern England seems to symbolize the teetering life of its adolescent narrator. The book is suffused with love and grief, ambiguity, contradictory longings and fears. The emotions seem to pour directly from the gritty background of the pebbledashed housing estate and the ever-present shipyard. An ecstatic and enduring first love reveals its myriad complications as young Dominic grows beyond childhood. The story progresses to the beat of his vacillating heart. The first person narrative casts secondary characters in tender detail. As a reader, I felt as if I were witness to something exquisitely private, yet so terrifying in its honesty that I couldn’t look away.

As Dominic and Holly dare to follow the impractical dream of an education, the tight-rope of their shared childhood stretches literally and metaphorically over the pages. Desperate cruelty hovers as well in the person of  the brutal and complicated Vincent McAlinden. The tussle of lifestyle and language is underscored by the rich use of dialect, which Dominic weaves his way in and out of, much as his life itself wavers between staying and leaving.

Almond blurs the borders between heaven and hell in this beautiful, unflinching novel, which was first published for an adult audience in the UK and released as a YA crossover book by Candlewick in the US in 2015. I haven’t read the original, so I’d love to know how much has changed between the two editions. The Candlewick edition tilts somewhat towards hope in the end, and therefore feels pretty securely YA to me. Still, it wasn’t an ending I’d seen coming. Closing the book, I wondered, did I want a little more of a different kind of hope? Something to assure me that the dreams of childhood, even deferred, might have stood a chance?

But wait. Returning to the writerly retrospective opening, I can hear it.

I was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then. It was a three room dilapidated upstairs flat, in the same terraced row where Dad had been born, and just upriver from Simpson’s Shipyard. Rats slunk under the floorboards, mice scuttled in the walls. The bath hung on a nail on the wall, the toilet was at the foot of steep steps outside. The river slopped against the banks and stank when the tide was low. There was the groan of engines and cranes from the yard, the din of riveters and caulkers. Sirens blared at the start and end of shifts. Gulls screamed, children laughed, dogs barked, parents yelled.

All hackneyed, all true.

There it is, the promise fulfilled. Setup and resolution, all in the first paragraph, practically demanding that when you finish this book, you have to flip back at once to the beginning, to see what you didn’t get the first time around.

So simple and brilliant.

What’s Your Problem? by Bali Rai

IMG_2125.JPGWhat’s Your Problem by UK writer Bali Rai was published in 2003, yet it still rings true today.

Jaspal’s family has just moved from Leicester to the country, and he finds himself having to cope with racism that is more brutal and direct than any he’s dealt with before. The novel is a quick read, and fascinating on many levels. It’s absolutely what we used to call a “problem novel,” driven by a single storyline related to a social issue. The first person narrative is direct and unadorned.

The story arc ends without much resolution at all, just a huge and somehow inevitable loss, paired with a terrible stroke of justice. It’s a seemingly hopeless and abrupt ending, and yet Jaspal’s relationship with Jemma redeems the gloom. The mother is a wraith of a character. We barely even see her, and yet she matters intensely in the end.

What’s saddest of all, of course, is that this kind of racism ought to be a thing of the past, but of course, on both sides of the pond, that is far from being the case.

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!