Thursday, April 29, 2010


This Saturday, May 1st, I will be on a panel called Writing About Social/Political Issues at the Hudson Children's Book Festival in, er, Hudson. If you're in or around the area, please come by - it's a huge festival with tons of great workshops and books and authors and FUN. The festival is from 10-4 and our panel is at 1:30. Hope to see you there!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Some Thoughts on Bullying

[ETA: apologies for the long-ass post. I wrote it over a week and with great care, hoping to get it right. This is an issue I feel strongly about and would love to generate more critical, thoughtful dialogue around. The next few posts will be bite-sized, I promise, to make up for it ;)]

The topic of bullying has come up a lot lately and has taken up much of my mental real estate. The term "bullying" never sat right with me and I had to give it a good sitdown to figure out why. I guess it reminds me a bit of how the AIDS crisis didn't become a CRISIS until Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson came out with it. And then suddenly it had a name and a face that brought it home. Before then, it was countless folks in the gay community, and masses of black and brown people in Africa and India who were dying silently from a disease no one wanted to talk about.

That's how this bullying thing feels to me. Kids have been bullied forever. It's about abuse of power - something children learn is a sanctioned practice in our world. In the world around them, wealthy nations bully those nations with less monetary wealth by bringing them to their knees with debt and impossible-to-repay loans. In the world around our young people, women are bullied into living up to impossible standards of beauty - sometimes carving themselves up, or dying on operating tables to achieve those standards. Working parents are bullied into putting in too many hours for not enough pay while their children are in the hands of inadequate, underfunded childcare. Same-sex couples who've been together for decades are denied basic spousal rights. This is the world we live in with our children, and many are taught it is a right and just world where everything is fine. That nothing needs to be questioned and nothing needs to be challenged.

I think of some of the most recent cases of bullying to have made headlines--all ending in suicide or murder, after relentless abuse by their peers: Reena Virk, murdered; Matthew Shepard, murdered; Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, suicide; Brandon Teena (upon whose story the film Boys Don't Cry was based), murdered; and most recently, Phoebe Prince, suicide. A brown girl, a gay white teen, a black middle-schooler (taunted for being gay), a lesbian reportedly planning sexual reassignment surgery, and an Irish female immigrant, respectively. Children are very astute. They record every detail and reflect it back. They learn early what is considered valuable in their world and what is devalued. They learn early what they can get away with devaluing and what they will be punished for devaluing. They learn, too, how to use their own power in the ways they see power being used and abused around them.

In every case I've read about bullying, and in my own experience, there were those adults and authority figures who were complicit in the bullying by either turning the other way, or tacitly approving the victimization. And then, of course, there are the systemic infrastructures that privilege some with unearned power over others while never requiring the privileged to acknowledge or even recognize their privilege - lulling them into believing that it is not only deserved, but right. And that those who don't have privilege don't deserve it or haven't earned it.

When I was growing up, we were all bullied - only then we called it racism, and our parents dared not name it for fear of any number of repercussions. Today, my eight-year-old gets bullied and there are "This Is A No-Bullying Zone" signs in the halls of her school. And yet, she is still bullied, and she's not the only one. I've talked to other parents as we agonized over how to deal with it. The toughest part is that, like many of her classmates, she often seeks the approval of the girls who treat her the worst. She wants to be liked by the girls who don't like her. Despite all our efforts at home, she looks out into the world and sees no reflection of her fierce little self. And then believes she's less-than. She comes home and wants to be blonde because, until last year, there were no brown princesses. And when I read about cases like Reena Virk's and Brandon Teena's, I wonder whether seeking approval from the very folks who view you as "lesser" is a common dynamic. And I think - why wouldn't it be, especially as children move up into middle and high school where social acceptance is survival?

So I stopped looking at the issue in terms of "how to stop bullying". I thought, instead, of that classic case of bullying - where a woman is married to a man who beats her. Again, here is a woman who wants to be liked - or in this case, loved - by someone who sees her as less-than. And I thought back to my days in shelters and on hotlines and at demonstrations...what did we do? What were the steps we took?

It was a multi-pronged, grassroots, bottom-up approach. We addressed the issue on many levels: personal, social, political, and economic. The first thing was to empower the woman. She had to believe she was valuable and worthy of better relationships. Next was to present her with options, while working to create more options (shelters, childcare, hotlines, etc.). Then, there was becoming a vocal advocate for women's rights and working, in whatever capacity, for systemic change; finding lawyers who would take pro-bono cases; creating childcare co-ops; and finding or creating affordable housing for single mothers. This wasn't about blaming the victim - it was about focusing on the woman who, very often, up until that point, was functioning in a system that considered her voiceless and unimportant--and empowering her. Then, there was lobbying for stricter punishments and laws for offenders. But this was *at the same time* as building the self-esteem of women and girls who were in abusive relationships and helping them to spot red flags before tragedy.

When I put this in the context of bullying or peer-terrorism among teens, I see how a multi-pronged approach could also be effective. So first, we start with empowering the kids who are easy targets - kids who are quiet, seen as different in some way, who don't fit easily into the mainstream. These would most likely be children and teens of colour, children and teens who don't fit into culturally accepted notions of "feminine" and "masculine", working class kids, etc. We help them find their voices. We help them see that even if their own parents don't see the beauty in them, there is great beauty there. Beauty worth defending and fighting for.

Perhaps this is where children's/MG/YA writers come in. Those of us who stir a little bit of activism into our work (whether we call it that or not) have been giving voice to the silenced since we started putting stories out into the world. It's part of what motivates us and the reason our writing is so important to us. It's the reason the Judy Blumes and S.E. Hintons meant so much to me when I was growing up - they created worlds where girls like me were okay, when we weren't okay in our own worlds. And it's the reason getting under-represented and marginalized voices into print, in the media, and in cultural products is so important. More stories means more perspectives means lots of different values out there.

Next, we present options. Maybe we set up a station at school where anyone who feels truly threatened can go with guaranteed privacy to talk to a qualified professional--a bullying expert of sorts. Someone well-versed in the issues, who has been trained to spot red flags and offer real support and solutions. Or maybe there's a hotline set up for teens and pre-teens to call anonymously if they know something is in the works or being planned against a fellow classmate; and for those who are going through bullying to call and talk to a supportive listener who can offer resources and places to turn if the adults around them aren't listening.

Then, becoming a vocal advocate for the rights of those children and teens who fall outside the margins and working toward systemic change. Again, authors, writers, agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers in the publishing industry can play a significant role here. In recent years, there have been more books by people of colour, LGBTQ writers, and working class authors than when I was coming up, but we have a long way to go. Part of empowering young people is to show them reflections of themselves as powerful, valuable, important members of their communities - no less deserving of privilege, love, wealth, dignity and respect than their peers. I know from experience that stories do that. Stories heal and mend and expand. Stories in books, stories in the news, stories in film, on television and in magazines. It's part of the reason I started writing to begin with. I read stories that showed me More. Showed me hope and possibility and another way of being. And I still believe there are those in the publishing industry who are in this for more than just the profit motive - those agents (like mine!), editors, booksellers, etc., who are committed to the young people they serve. The young people we all serve.

Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall recently started Young Adult Authors Against Bullying on Facebook. While I haven't joined the group (this deserves a more complicated post on my relationship with Fb), I whole-heartedly support their efforts. Where some of us might have called it "the way things are" at one point, the issue now has a name--a place to begin. And that helps all our children. In a world of power ab/use where we are pitted against one another in complex ways, addressing power inequities has to start somewhere - and with young minds.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Diasporic Discussions

Yesterday, I did a school visit with Kavitha Rajagopalan, author of MUSLIMS OF METROPOLIS (non-fiction). When she and I were chatting about our families' journeys from South Asia to the west, she said, "Wow, how diaspora!" Indeed. In the pic below are Marina Budhos, whose upcoming YA release, TELL US WE'RE HOME, just got a starred review from *Kirkus* (most of us know how elusive that star is), yours truly in the middle, and Kavitha on the right. Unlike the panel discussion with Rita Williams-Garcia, this time I actually remembered my camera!

The discussion on South Asians in the U.S. - in a post-9/11 world - was fascinating, with Ms. Rajagopalan's foreign policy expertise and our alternating fiction/non-fiction narratives. One thing I learned was that the highest number of folks rounded up under suspicion of "terrorism" (those who had Muslim names, or otherwise fit a profile) after the September 11th attacks was in New Jersey. People who'd been in the U.S. for years, working and paying taxes, woke up in the middle of the night to authorities banging on their doors and were dragged away for "questioning" or worse. These were some of the most vulnerable members of the community - low-resourced, undocumented, working class folks who wouldn't have the funds or the necessary time off work to defend themselves in court. The irony, as Ms. Rajagopalan pointed out, is that those individuals who did carry out actual acts of terrorism were often well-resourced, well financed, here on legal visas (*if* they were foreign-born), and fluent in English.

Budhos (left), Meminger (center), Rajagopalan (right)

Marina's book, a YA about three teen friends who are daughters of maids and nannies, comes out next month. It's a twist on the usual teen girl friendship tale - definitely be sure to check it out! And Kavitha's book is available now at the link above. Her non-fiction flows beautifully and is as powerful and evocative as any fiction I've ever read - an important book for anyone who wants insight into an important chapter in recent American history.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sam's Search for Self

My allergies are clogging everything up as I hack and wheeze from pollen poisoning. So, yesterday I was home mucking around on the computer (and neglecting my kids) while the sun smiled down on the Bronx.

BUT - I have something to show for it! Whether it was worth staying in - and neglecting my kids for seven entire minutes - is up for debate.'s Samar, the main character from SHINE, COCONUT MOON, doing Google searches to learn more about herself, her culture, and her religion...

If you don't have allergies, hope you're out enjoying the weather! If you're like me and my kids, however, try saline - it's been a real blessing. Saline nasal spray, saline eye wash...herbal cough syrup, and lots and lots of hot tea.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The POTUS is Black by Choice

Love this, in an essay called Black by Choice (The Nation):
"Which brings us back to Obama's Census choice. Despite his legitimate claims on whiteness, he chose to call himself black. As historian Nell Painter documents in her new book The History of White People, white identity was a heavily policed and protected border for most of American history. A person born to an African parent and a white parent could be legally enslaved in America until 1865. From 1877 until 1965 that person would have been subject to segregation in public accommodations, schools, housing and employment. In 1896 the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal in the case of Homer Plessy, a New Orleans Creole of color whose ancestry was only a small fraction African. President Obama's Census self-identification was a moment of solidarity with these black people and a recognition that the legal and historical realities of race are definitive, that he would have been subject to all the same legal restrictions had he been born at another time. So in April, Obama did as he has done repeatedly in his adult life: he embraced blackness, with all its disprivilege, tumultuous history and disquieting symbolism. He did not deny his white parentage, but he acknowledged that in America, for those who also have African heritage, having a white parent has never meant becoming white."

Read the rest here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Vaisakhi!

Today is Vaisakhi, a Sikh high holy day. April 14th was the day the Khalsa was created - a collective Sikh body of sant-sipahis (warrior-saints), armed to overthrow oppression and injustice of any kind. The Sikh scriptures are one of the only religious writings with equality for all races, castes, classes, and *genders* written directly into the text.

I grew up with a devout mother and an atheist father (that's where Sharan, the main character's mom in SHINE got her atheism--from my dad :P). My father would drive us to the temple and sit outside until my mother was ready to go. We had the choice of going in with her or staying in the car (listening to lefty radio) with my dad. My brother and I would go in or stay out depending on whatever our mood was that morning. It gave us a bit of insight into different ways of seeing the world. But both my parents were outspoken advocates for justice. Still are.

I would say I grew up "culturally Sikh". We were a mish-mash of Hindu, Sikh, atheist, agnostic, and just plain open. I'm grateful to have grown up in a home where the religious scriptures were about equality. I had those words in my vocabulary early, in both Punjabi and English. Don't know if this made things easier for me, or harder. But what it did do is give me a basis for rebelling. Ha! Not sure if that's what my parents were hoping I'd glean from the writings in the holy book, but all the founders of the faith were rebels (maybe this is true for all faiths...?).

In any case, wishing a hearty happy Vaisakhi to all.

ETA: I just discovered that April 15th is Pohela Boisaakh, the Bengali New Year. Given that many Sikhs pronounce Vaisakhi with a 'B', as in Baisakhi - the similarity in names is making me ask ALL sorts of questions. But whatever - Happy Pohela Boisaakh, as well!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What's Coming Up

This weekend I'll be on a panel with YA authors Rita Williams-Garcia and Marina Budhos, then two school visits next week including one with Kavitha Rajagopalan, a class trip with my six-year-old, and supporting my mentee's reading performance at the Chapters' Reading Series for Girls Write Now. After that, writing to a deadline. Writing, writing, writing. Then the Hudson Children's Book Fest and we're on to May!

Gosh. These months are passing like wisps of smoke. <-- See that? Writerly stuff. Real proof that I can right. :D

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Asia In the Heart

The lovely Tarie has graciously hosted me on her blog, Asia In the Heart; World on the Mind. If you get a chance, check out the interview and the other amazing authors I share her space with - Grace Lin and Christopher Cheng, just to name(drop) two ;).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Consuming Hunger

I was folding laundry the other night and flipped through the handful of channels we get (we have no cable - *on purpose*). I settled on a talk show before realizing it was the Wendy Williams Show :P. But I stayed there because Suze Ormon was about to come on and I believe in synchronicity. How strange that I'd been thinking about finances lately and then, voila! - Suze. I used to watch her years ago (clearly I learned nothing from her words of wisdom) and loved how passionate she was about helping women with their finances. And this time, she was the same, feisty, passionate Suze. Only on this show, she came out. Loud and proud and vocal. And she even stated her thoughts on gay marriage and allowed the show to display a picture of her and her partner. LOVE it.

And then, I thought about my own spending habits. I'm not a big spender. I cut my own hair and I've stopped colouring it now for about three/four years. But, it's spring and April has thrown us a few surprises - flip-flop days. I-wish-the-pool-was-open-NOW days. And the mega shopping complex down the hill has been swarmed by folks looking for summery clothes and shoes, getting lattes from Starbux, and eating lunch at Olive Garden or Applebee's, or whatever that place is that beckons to families on budgets, promising five dollar meals. And I love me some iced lattes on hot days and pretty toe rings and flip-flops and cute dresses. But I rein in a lot of those wants. Most of my peeps don't.

The mega shopping complex down the hill. It plopped down a few years ago, *directly* across from the projects. I've read study after study where they show the buying stats of people of colour and women. We are the most avid consumers on the market. Of anything. Food, clothes, gym memberships, cosmetics, books, music, name it. We buy sh@t. We buy LOTS of sh@t. Most of the time, we buy stuff that we use for a few minutes, then never look at again.

The entire fashion industry knows how much buying power women have. So does the diet and exercise industry. And the cosmetics industry. And the cosmetic surgery industry. These are giant, multi-gazillion-dollar industries that bank on the low self-esteem and high buying power of women.

The fact that a Super Target set up shop directly across the street from the projects indicates that the folks who run these things know where their dollars are coming from, too.

And then it hit me again, every time I think about these things: people consume when they are hungry.

I've put a new mandate up on my cork board. I will not consume anything that is devoid of nutritional value - for my body, emotions, and soul. And I will make sure that everything I create, everything I write, has nutritional value, too. I've always done that intuitively, but now I will do it consciously. Even if I'm writing mostly fluff, it will be nutritional fluff .

April Happenings

Book club tonight, Girl Write Now tomorrow, then a panel on Sunday. April is jam-packed, y'all. Not to mention my alter-ego's romance novel releases today and I have a fluttery stomach about that :P.

Will post on the upcoming public events soon so folks can attend if they want to.

Hope you're all enjoying the spring weather!