Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Damned" Post: Part 2

In the comments of my last post, Laura Atkins, Children's Book Specialist and former editor for Lee & Low Books (and brilliant essayist), left a link to this article by Jacqueline Woodson, originally published in the Horn Book. I thought I'd read the first few paragraphs while breakfast was cooking, but I could not get up. I was riveted by the beauty of language and honesty of emotion in her words. Breakfast subsequently burned. For anyone who wants to write from an experience not their own, or anyone who is trying to express why they're skeptical of others writing about their experience--and what would make it better--this is a must read. Here is a small excerpt:

"At conferences, I am often asked to speak about my experiences
as a writer. I talk about the early days, about what propelled me
to write certain books. I talk about my friends, my goals as a
writer, my home life, even my pets. Invariably, there is the ques-
tion and answer period. Invariably, there is The Question. Al-
though it is phrased differently, it always comes. At every confer-
ence, at every adult speaking engagement, at my breakfast table
at the Coretta Scott King Awards, at my dinner table at the
Newbery/Caldecott, even at book signings. How do you feel about
people writing outside of their own experiences? How do you feel about
white people writing about people of color?

More than the question, it is the political context in which it is
asked that is annoying. As our country moves further to the right,
as affirmative action gets called into question, as race related bi-
ases against people of color soar, as the power structure in our
society remains, in many ways, unchanged, why, then, would a
person feel comfortable asking me this question?
When I asked my white writer friends how they answer this
question, I was less than surprised to find that none of them had
been asked. Why was it then that white people (because I have
never been asked this by someone who was recognizably a per-
son of color) felt a need to ask this of me? What was it, is it, people
are seeking in the asking? What is it about the power structure our
society was built and remains upon that leads a white person to
believe that this is a question that I, as a black woman, should, can,
and must be willing to address?"

Woodson then goes into her own experience of writing from another's perspective:

"I have just finished the final draft of a novel, If You Come Softly,
about the love affair between two fifteen year olds. In the novel,
the boy is black and the girl is white and Jewish. As I sat down to
write this novel, I asked myself over and over why I needed to
write it. Why did I need to go inside the life of a Jewish girl? More
than the need, what gave me the right? Whose story was this? And
the answers, of course, were right in front of me. This, like every
story I’ve written, from Last Summer with Maizon to I Hadn‘t Meant
to Tell You This to From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, is my story.
While I have never been Jewish, I have always been a girl. While
I have never lived on the Upper West Side, I have lived for a long
time in New York.  While I have never been a black male, I’ve al-
ways been black. But most of all, like the characters in my story, I
have felt a sense of powerlessness in my lifetime. And this is the
room into which I can walk and join them. This sense of being on
the outside of things, of feeling misunderstood and invisible, is the
experience I bring to the story. I do not attempt to know what it
is like to come from another country. Nor do I pretend to under-
stand the enormity of the impact of the Holocaust."
The whole essay is lovely, heartfelt, and on point. Go read it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Justine's "Damned" Post

Last night, I read this post by Justine Larbalestier and couldn't get to sleep for a couple of hours after. I wanted to post a comment, but couldn't get all the thoughts that were crowding into my head out in any sort of coherent way. So here they are now, for you. Don't you feel lucky? *grin*

Justine is a solid ally to people of colour. She puts her money where her mouth is, walks her talk, and does her best to help promote and further the efforts of authors and bloggers of colour. She also writers her characters of colour from what I like to refer to as the "inside out." Not everyone does. When characters of colour are written from the "outside in," it is obvious. They are there because of an external reason, they are not organic to the story and to themselves, and they sort of sit on the page, instead of living in the story with the other characters. This is true of any character that lacks depth and complexity.

My main concern with the above-linked post (and what I sensed from some of the comments) is that some folks may walk away from it with the idea that, "Hey, I did my best, and if they don't think I did a good enough job, well frack them."

I know this is not what Justine intended. I'm almost positive that she meant to say something more along the lines of, "Stop making it an issue. Writing people of colour is no different than writing anyone else. You'll get that wrong, as well, so just go ahead, do it, then face the music." In other words, own it. Wherever you're at, whatever ignorances and prejudices you may possess--they will come out in the writing. Stop being so afraid; face them. Then do the very necessary and painful work we are all meant to do on this planet: grow.

This is what I mean by writing from the inside out. From what I gather, Justine would approach writing her characters from their human-ness first. They are psychological, emotional beings *first*, and then the layers of their cultural, ethnic, and social/economic identities are added on--this is where the research comes in. When you're writing from the outside in, you start with the "other"-ness (thereby researching that first) and it is almost always harder to get it right that way.

I'm with Doret when she says in the comments that she is skeptical when white folks write PoC characters. The history there hasn't been so great. In an ideal world, PoC would get to tell our own stories--in the vast chorus of contradictory, complex, multi-faceted voices we encompass. We would be represented in all our compexity just as white folks are on television, in the movies, and in magazines. But we do not live in an ideal world. There is a glaring dearth of PoC getting publishing deals. Always has been, but certainly more so now that the economy is in the midst of a swan dive.

Even in my own personal experience--I have a book out, I've had positive (some might say rave) reviews for SHINE from established industry resources, and my book is selling. Yet, here I am, back at square one, having to prove that there is a market for my work; that there is a market for South Asian authors *beyond* writing about race and discrimination. Across the pond, there is more acceptance of stories by and about "Asian-Indians" that are funny, that are fantasy, sci-fi. Look at the success of films like Bend It Like Bekham, Bhaji on the Beach, and books like Narinder Dhami's delightfully funny MG series, Bindi Babes (made into a television series, if I'm not mistaken), and Jamila Gavin's fantasy novel, Coram Boy (made into a play) -- not to mention the numerous television shows featuring South Asians in a variety of roles.

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don't be so cavalier as to shrug and say, "I did my best, and frock you if you don't like it--plenty of your people thought I did a great job." Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there's some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of "our people" have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving--and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

I would add to Justine's analysis and say that you must, absolutely, throw your heart and soul into getting it right. And if you're *worried* about getting it right, that's a good sign--it means you care. It means, to you, it is important to be respectful, to be accurate. And then stand fast in those gale force winds of criticism. Don't just take the pats on the back and the "thank you so much for acknowledging that I exist" feedback from PoC. Listen to the stuff that's hard to hear, too. Even if you have to leave and come back to it when it's not so hard.

Because it does matter. More than you might possibly ever know because, as PoC, as authors of colour, we are being stripped of our voices. I would love to be able to continue to tell my stories, and I will continue to try -- to keep doing my very best and putting my words out there, so that they may reach my readers. The readers who email me, desperate and grateful for a reflection of themselves not in the *characters* of a novel, but in the hand that writes them. In authors of colour, they see someone who was able to do what, for so many of us, is *still* the impossible.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mayra Lazara Dole Gets Down To The Bone

Hispanic Heritage month goes until October 15th. In honour of the vast and deep tradition of Hispanic and Latino literature, I wanted to post about a wonderful novel I just finished reading: DOWN TO THE BONE, by Mayra Lazara Dole.

I am afraid I now have this lingering sadness -- the kind you get after leaving the warmth of the Caribbean to go back to February in the Northeast. Ms. Dole is the queen of setting. I felt like I lived there on that Miami strip with Papaya's and Cha Cha's restaurant and the smell of the sea and the sun burning the fog away. And the food! I was hungry the whole time I was reading!

In DOWN TO THE BONE, Dole explores issues of sexuality, gender, class, religion and spirituality, and family and community using a deft, but subtle touch. Laura, the Cuban-American protagonist, is immensely likable, and her best friend, Soli, is utterly adorable. I loved that Soli was not introduced like: HERE IS THE BLACK FRIEND. She was Soli, first. Then, through Dole's sensitive and quiet, but evocative descriptions, we get a full picture of Soli as an Afro-Latina. Likewise, with Gisela and Viva (I won't tell you who these characters are--you will have to read the book!).

I was quite impressed with Dole's stellar portrayal of the complexity of spirituality without ever becoming heavy-handed or didactic. There was the incident that got Laura kicked out of Catholic school (the teacher read a love letter to Laura from her girlfriend OUT LOUD TO THE WHOLE CLASS) and her mother's response to it (think: "immoral," "sinner," etc.); then there is the religion that best friend Soli's mother practices (metaphysical and all about love); and, of course, Laura's own views on how the world/god works (she refers to "Sacred Nature"). Such a wonderful way to weave in differing perspectives on religion and spirituality!

One thing, though: I am glad that I did not realize there was a glossary of terms in the back. That would have annoyed me from the beginning. I didn't find the Spanish words jarring in the least -- it would've been more jarring to stop the flow of words and flip to the back for a meaning every time there was a non-English word. I don't speak Spanish fluently, but I loved reading the rhythm of the words and saying them out loud when I was alone*.

DOWN TO THE BONE was a totally fun read, full of heart, angst, and love. Laura is beautifully flawed, tender, but tough, and you can't help but want her to find true love and live happily ever after. If you haven't read it already, get it here! And if you have, get it for a friend :).

*Yes, these are the things I do when I am alone.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why, or Why not YA?

There's been discussion online in authors' forums and writers' listservs, about the sentiment expressed on some blogs and in newspapers, that teen/YA lit is somehow less than, or not actually "real" literature. I haven't engaged in the convo because, (1) it is so obviously a pile of dung, and (2) I feel as if engaging would lend it validity, and I refuse to do that.

When I talk to people who don't know what YA means (I always thought it was people in their early 20s), I remind folks that the whole category of teen/YA fiction is quite new. When I was reading Tuck, Everlasting and Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Chrysalids (all of which would be considered YA or MG today because of the age of their protagonists), there was no sign in the library or bookstore pointing me to the YA section. These books were sorted by genre, usually. Sometimes they were in the children's section and sometimes they were in the adult section. I read them because the subject matter interested me and the book was irresistible.

Of course, I was one of those avid readers who consumed mammoth adult tomes when I was fifteen. One of my favourite books of all time was called Saigon, about the war in Vietnam. It was full of violence and gore and blood. It was told from the perspective of a wealthy white man twice my age (at the time). But I COULD. NOT. PUT. IT. DOWN. And it has stayed with me all these years. I loved it because it showed so clearly and explicitly, the wrongness of war; how completely nonsensical and meaningless it is, through the eyes of someone who had experienced it firsthand. It was a spiritual journey that spanned one person's entire life, taking him far and away, outside of who he was, and bringing him back inside, to the center, where everything started.

On the other hand, I've taught Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, a story of longing -- for travel, for movement, and for freedom from economic/social constraints -- to undergraduate freshmen at colleges and universities, and many of them said that they had read the book in high school. This is not a book that is typically shelved in the teen/YA section (indeed, if you go to Amazon, my book is listed as "Reading Level: YA" while Mango Street has no such listing), and most people don't associate Ms. Cisneros as a teen fiction author.

And let us not forget (as if it were even possible) the immense popularity of Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, and Twilight with teens and adults alike.

So there's definitely plenty of grey area because, like social/political/economic divisions (such as race and class), the whole YA/MG division is a construct. It is constructed. It's not based in any kind of real division because in reality, there *are* none. I completely get why booksellers and marketing folk want to have this division--it makes their lives easier. It makes finding books easier. It makes promotion and audience targeting easier. Maybe. I don't know. I just know that I found out about books through word of mouth (usually a librarian's), and I read whatever grabbed me by the throat and dragged me into the pages.

Most teens have been exposed to some form of violence or another, whether they've experienced it themselves or not. Teens get that this world is a mess in ways that adults have allowed themselves to either accept, give in to, or become desensitized to. Teens know about sex and sexuality. They are smart. They look for what makes sense; it's a natural inclination. Just because there's now a section in bookstores called "YA," doesn't mean teens (and pre-teens) won't grab a book off another shelf that doesn't say "YA." Doesn't mean their friends won't smuggle them books with juicy scenes highlighted all throughout. And just because a book is filed under YA, doesn't mean there *won't* be any juicy scenes in it (think: Forever by Judy Blume).

In the end, all these divisions? They're arbitrary, really. Read what you like and what makes sense to you. A book is an expression. It is art. It is a gift.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blogfest 2009 Continues!

As I mentioned in a previous post, Simon & Schuster is doing their Blogfest 2009. Here is a sneak peek at some of the questions I've answered so far:

What made you start writing?
A: I started writing to give voice to those who couldn’t find the words themselves – to write myself and those I loved into existence in a way...

Have you ever just wanted to give up?
A: Yes, many times. Maybe even on a daily basis. And as soon as I make the solid, no-turning-back
decision to quit...

If you could have any super power, what would it be?
A: I would love to go back and visit my ancestors, and to actually be able to live in their time for a short, definite period. So much of who we are and where we are is because of the decisions the people before us have made...

How has writing affected your daily life?
A: Writing has always been a life raft for me. It is a form of expression that is as necessary as breathing. It allows me to...

Go visit and comment -- and please share your own experiences!

Spotlighting Kate Messner's THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z

Today, I get to spotlight Kate Messner's THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z as part of the Debs' Blog Tour.

Kate Messner grew up in Medina, New York and graduated from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communication with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.  She worked as a television news producer and reporter in Syracuse, NY and then Burlington, VT, before going back to school to get a teaching degree.  These days, Kate is a National Board Certified middle school English teacher. She has helped hundreds of kids work on leaf collection projects and likes sugar maples and catalpa leaves the best.  Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her husband and kids and loves spending time in the woods.

Here's a bit about her debut: Gianna Zales has a lot on her plate this fall – a father who drives her to school in the family hearse, a mother who’s turned into the junk food police, a little brother who thinks he’s a member of the paparazzi, and a grandmother who leaves false teeth in the refrigerator.  Worst of all, she’s left her 7th grade leaf collection to do at the last minute. It’s a monster project, and Gianna will miss cross-country sectionals if she doesn’t meet the deadline.  She’ll need the help of her geeky friend, Zig, and some brilliant ideas of her own to pull it off.

Here are Kate's answers to the Thorough Three...

NM: What is the age of your protagonist?

KM: 12

NM: What is the single, most important bit of advice you'd give to the You that was the same age as your protagonist/s?

KM: Relax, have fun, play outside, read your books, and stop worrying so much about boys.

NM: Complete the following sentences:

Everyone should definitely, for sure ______________.

You should NEVER EVER ______________, but if you absolutely must, make sure to ____________.

KM: Everyone should definitely, for sure climb a mountain some day.

You should NEVER, EVER try to pet a dolphin from your boat. But if you absolutely must, make sure to take your rings off first. (It is a long and embarrassing story...)

Thanks, Kate!

For more information about Kate and her work, visit her site. To get your own copy of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z from Amazon, go here, and from Indiebound, go here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Agent Search

So, some of you know that I am on The Agent Search (TAS™). It is amazing how tough it can be to find that good fit with someone you kinda have a personal relationship with, and you kinda don't. Here's some of what I'm looking for:

~ For me, it's important to sign with an agent, heretofore known as WunderAgent, who responds to my emails promptly, even if it's just to say, "Hey, super busy, but got your email and will respond by week's end."
~ "Gets" my work and is excited about it.
Not excited about this *one* book, but excited about my writing, my blogging, my website . . . basically, WunderAgent truly gets what I'm about, what I'm trying to do, and wants to be my partner in crime.

~ Has some sort of vision for where I could go, career-wise, and that vision aligns with mine.
I know where I want to go, generally speaking: I want to be a full-time writer with a significant pile of published titles. I would love for WunderAgent to provide some insider knowledge and information so that I don't make foolish detours (like decide that since I was great in art in third grade, I should try my hand at graphic novels, or that an Indian-American TWILIGHT is *just* what the world needs right now).

~ Possesses an honest and open style of communication, and does not take things personally. I'm always working on this, myself, so I've come to expect it from those around me (sometimes to my own colossal disappointment, alas).

Since we'll be engaged in a business relationship, most of the things WunderAgent and I will discuss will likely be about the Work -- how we approach the Work, how we relate to the Work, directions to take the Work in, contracts about the Work, etc. Therefore, it's unlikely that either of us would be throwing out personal insults intended to wound the other. Ideal WunderAgent understands this and, while there may be misunderstandings, finds it important to keep lines of communication open so that any discrepancies are quickly cleared up on either end.

~  Trust. I have to be able to trust that my WunderAgent will be professional, stick to scheduled appointments and phone calls (barring unforeseen circumstances, of course), and keep me informed and updated on the whereabouts of my work (again, within reason -- and "reason" is something that both agree is good. See aforementioned point on "open and honest communication style").

~ A good follow-upper. WunderAgent respectfully nudges folks who said they'd get back to us weeks, or months ago.

~ And MAJORLY important: WunderAgent loves being an agent, and plans to stay an agent for a long time!

Okay, those are the biggies, I think. I am both excited, and nervous. It's always nerve-wracking to try to find the right fit in any kind of relationship because we're talking about personalities. Everyone puts their best foot forward in the beginning, and then the relationship gets tested when there is revision after revision, or when there is no (good) news for a year or longer, or when there is some sort of communication breakdown. But to me, the mark of any strong partnership is not that nothing goes wrong, but how both partners work through it when something does.

So, I will keep you posted on how things turn out. If you're on TAS yourself, please comment and we can journey together. If you have tips, suggestsions, or recommendations (or if you spot WunderAgent!), please leave those as well.

Happy travels, all!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teaser Tuesday

Okay, this is what happens when there is no "current project" to work on: you ramble on your blog. However, for those who are interested, in some parts of the blogosphere, today is known as Teaser Tuesday. Soooo, since I read this interview with the amazing Doret of the Happy Nappy Bookseller, and in honour of Teaser Tuesday, I'd like to share a snippet of an MG I wrote:

     “Doesn’t it look like fun?”   
     Beni shifted in her seat.  
     Her mother looked so hopeful that Beni could only nod. “Wonderful!  Let’s join you up,” she grasped Beni’s hand and walked straight up to the coach.
    “I don’t wanna play soccer, Mom!”  That’s what Beni wanted to say.  Instead, she looked at the ground and hoped that soccer wouldn’t be as bad as hockey was. 
     When they got home, Beni’s mother gushed to Beni’s dad about how excited Beni was to play.
     “Really Ben?” her father asked.  He had a bowl of Hot Mix – a spicy, Indian snack – in front of him, as usual.
     Beni gave her father a half-smile while chewing her thumbnail. 
     “That’s great, sweetheart,” he said, dumping another spoonful of the mix into his mouth, “sounds like a lot of fun.” 
     Beni’s shoulders sagged as she headed up to her room to read one of her favorite books until dinner was ready.
     During dinner, her mother said, “Your coach called, and your first practice is this weekend!” 
     Beni’s stomach felt like she did when the roller coaster started to go down at Great Adventure Park, but she forced a smile through a mouthful of rice and chicken curry.
     That weekend her mother drove Beni to her first soccer practice.  Beni walked over to a spot next to a red-haired girl with lots of freckles on her arms.
     “Hi, I’m Melodie,” the girl said. 
     “I’m Beni.”
     The coach blew his whistle and all the girls gathered around him.  Beni looked at her mother standing on the sidelines.  She was chewing gum and talking to one of the other girl’s dads.  She smiled and waved at Beni.
     “…when you come back here, I want you to give me ten push-ups,” the coach said.  He blew his whistle and the girls took off, running around the field. 
     Beni started running, too, but by the time she reached halfway around the field, the rest of the girls were already back where the coach was.  But they didn’t stop when they reached the coach, they went around again.  And, when all the girls had stopped running and were doing push-ups, Beni was still running.  When Beni was doing her push-ups, the girls had partnered up and were practicing their kicks.  There were soccer balls flying all around Beni as she struggled to push herself up for the fifth time.  Her arms trembled and her face was red as she collapsed on the ground.
     The coach blew his whistle and the girls moved on to the next “drill,” – that’s what the coach called it – which was hitting the ball with their heads . . .

So, what do you think? Does she grow to love the sport? Or is she traumatized by the experience and opts, instead, to become a professional Navel-Gazer?

From Lisa Schroeder: Supporting Authors When Your Heart is Bigger Than Your Wallet

GREAT post up on Lisa Schroeder's blog (she is a fellow S&S author and has released I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, and FAR FROM YOU, with CHASING BROOKLYN coming out in January): Supporting Authors When Your Heart Is Bigger Than Your Wallet ~
Lisa's Top 10 list of ways to support your author friends

1. Ask your public library to order a copy. There's a box at my library where you can request titles for purchase. Some libraries have it on-line. It really only takes a minute to do it. Usually you can request that the library reserve the title for you once they order it. That way you're first on the list to read it!

2. After you read a book you like, blog about it.  If you're like me and don't have the time or talent to do a really thorough review, put the cover up and give it two thumbs-up, or whatever. [info]robinellen does a monthly blog post about books she read with a rating system, and she's honest! Not everyone is comfortable with that, I know, so you can be what Laini Taylor calls a "book recommender." That is, only blog about a book when you like it. Just do whatever you're comfortable with.

3. If you see an interesting interview or a great review about an author you know, put the link in your blog and point people there. Stuff like this is much more interesting when it comes from someone besides the author herself.

4. E-mail the author and ask if he/she has any bookmarks or postcards you could pass out to teachers, librarians, friends, etc.

5. Have a few book lists ready in your purse or wallet, in case a conversation comes up where you have a chance to give some recommendations. This happened to me just the other night, when a girl said she was done with BREAKING DAWN and didn't know what to read next. Word of mouth is HUGE, especially for authors that aren't well known, so be ready when the opportunity strikes!

6. Post a review on,, and/or Good reviews are helpful to an author, especially when a book first comes out. I know I've slacked off on this lately, and I need to get back to doing it. The other thing you can do is find areas on message boards to talk about books, like Verla Kay's board has a "Book Talk" section where you can comment about books you've read.

7. If you go to a fellow author's event, take a picture and talk about the event on your blog, and if it's a really good picture, maybe try submitting it to the Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf on-line newsletter.

8. Make a list on Amazon, and put your favorite books in a certain genre, or favorite books of the year, or ten books you're really excited about in the coming year, whatever. People DO read those lists!

9.  If you have a kid's birthday party to go to, give a book! Combine it with something else, if you'd like, to make it more fun and interesting, but buying books as gifts is really a win-win situation, right? Good for the kid, ultimately, if he/she ends up reading it, and good for the author and publishing industry.

10. Respond to questions on Goodreads, Amazon, LJ groups, etc. and recommend new titles. I often see the same titles being recommended over and over again, and while I know that's because they are GOOD books, there are other books, not well known, that could be getting some well-deserved air time too.

The Circle of Art

At one of the summer book readings for SHINE, during the Q&A period, an audience member asked me about my process, then made this comment:
I read somewhere that in the creative process, the cycle of creativity is not complete until the work has been shared. In other words, when a book finds a reader, or a piece of music finds a listener . . . or a work of visual art finds it's viewer, THAT is when the process is completed.

(I am totally paraphrasing, so my apologies, dear commenter, if I've butchered your statement. If you should happen to stumble upon this post, please claim it as yours and make any clarifications in the comments!)

This idea has been pinging around in my brain ever since. Sometimes faintly in the distance, but recently, with a resounding clamour that I just cannot ignore. The more I surf online and read about how difficult it is for people to get stories out there -- stories that are from traditions not understood, dismissed out of hand, or that are simply unfamiliar to the people who make decisions on whether to acquire them and send them out into the world, the more I try to conjure up alternatives. It is a loss not just to the public at large (which loses out on the beautiful diversity of experiences around us--so many different ways to see the world!), it is also a kind of stunting of growth for the writer.

When that creative force charges through an artist/writer/composer, and she feels compelled to vomit it out (sorry), it's in a rush -- a frantic outpouring of emotion and poetry, both festeringly ugly and painfully beautiful. The artist then shapes that into the best work that they can (after spending however many years learning and honing their craft, reading how-to books, going to conferences, crit groups, etc.) and hurl it with all their might into the ethersphere.

I can speak only as a writer: a lot of writers live in the silence of creation. But if/when a work comes back without an answer, without being read or heard, without making any kind of dent or impact in the lives of other people, and this happens repeatedly, that silence can be unbearable.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it is absolutely necessary for an artist to get their work "out there." It's not just about needing/wanting recognition as some might claim. And if TPTB don't understand the work that is submitted, aren't familiar with it, or, based on values of their own traditions decide that it won't sell or that there is no market for it, many, many artists are having their work returned without finding its audience.

That is the reason women's presses, feminist presses, LGBTQI presses were popping up all over the place during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was abundantly obvious that TPTB didn't, and generally were not willing to, open their doors to under-represented voices. Most of these presses didn't close their doors because there was no interest in the stories they were publishing; they ended up closing their doors because the larger publishers started noticing that there were, indeed, untapped profitable markets out there, ready and waiting to be recognized.

When I talk to my husband about this, he puts it within a framework he understands: Hip Hop music. He tells me of how, in the early days of Hip Hop, when no one thought it would sell and that the only market for it would be urban Black youth, Hip Hop artists would sell their CDs out of the backs of cars. They would lug around cardboard boxes full of CDs on the streets of Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and they would develop underground followings that way. Some of these artists would become famous among people who were flocking to the music (which, at the time, was far more politically charged and challenging of the status quo than it is these days) -- it was a music that spoke to them, to their experience, to the silence and suffocation of their lives, as well as to the celebration and joy that unchained them. It was a music born from a tradition; a music that was not yet understood by the corporate powers up in their plush Manhattan offices -- powers that were quick to dismiss a music that, in their eyes, was unmarketable, had no audience, and couldn't possibly turn a profit.

Every time my husband frames it in those terms, I am inspired. I look at the global Hip Hop explosion, and realize that ALL major inroads by people outside of the mainstream have been created that way. They began on the fringes with a few, frustrated voices calling into the wind for change. And when those voices turned away, they decided to create their own change. They knew there was a market for their work. They knew their communities, and knew the language of their families and friends. They created their art, and then they went out and did the call/response that is part of the Circle of Art. The response came back full, and the process created a kind of cypher that has been, to this day, influencing youth, music, fashion, and culture on a global level.

Monday, September 21, 2009

S&S Blogfest

I'm blogging on Simon & Schuster's Blogfest, and it is LIVE! Check it out when you get a chance. Forty authors, including Sarah Rees Brennan, Deb Caletti, Lisa Schroeder, Oscar Hijuelos, Ellen Hopkins, and tons of others, blog about writing, books, superpowers, language, and so much more!

I Won A Blogging Award!

Yayyy -- my first blogging award! I'd like to thank Zetta Elliot, the Academy of Awesome Authors, my readers, my family and, of course, the Godz . . .

• Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving
• Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
• Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
• Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
• Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Here are my picks, in no particular order (yes, I know I went over five, but I don't know which of these have already been "awarded"!) . . .

~ Saundra Mitchell's Blog 
~ The Brown Book Shelf 
~ Susan, over at Color Online
~ Uma Krishnaswami's Blog
~ Literary Safari
~ Jon Skovron's Blog
~ The Happy Nappy Bookseller

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I've been ruminating on this hotly contested post a bit since yesterday, and here are some of my thoughts. While I completely agree that books by PoC need to reflect the complexity of their communities -- in other words, I would LOVE to read a fantasy novel by a South Asian woman (which is why I wrote one), or about class struggle within an Asian family (maybe kind of like a YA version of Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee?) -- basically, writing that shows PoC in all our diverse experiences, without constantly being pigeon-holed into currently existing stereotypes would be lovely; what I disagree with, as a former teacher and educator (and current mentor), is steering Black students *away* from Black-authored books (and, therefore, away from potential Black role models), and *toward* White-authored books.

My question would be: why not have students read both, then do a compare and contrast? Or, have them read Black-authored books that are more in line with the White-authored books you've decided are better learning experiences? This would require more research, but it would show a willingness to enter into the students' world.

In all my teachers' training and workshops, I've learned that teaching or preaching AT is never effective. What IS effective, I've always been taught, is to go to where your students are and use that as your starting point. In the Eastern medical tradition, doctors are taught to "listen to your patients for the cure." In other words, it is not about what YOU think your students need -- it is about listening to what your students tell you they need.

When I was a teenager, in addition to Tuck Everlasting and Are You There God, It's Me Margaret and the novels of Paula Danziger, I inhaled the novels of S.E. Hinton. These were raw, gritty, very edgy stories peopled almost exclusively with white teenagers, and told from the perspective of young white males. And I completely identified with their experience--around the issue of class. I was relieved that I was not the only one who felt like an outsider (ahem--sorry, pun not intended). I would quite likely have flung myself off the nearest tall building if someone steered me away from stories where there were worlds like mine, and toward worlds that showed no reflection of my reality, whatsoever. But most importantly, that there were people out there like me (outsiders--sorry, again), who were writing stories and getting them published. THAT was what expanded my reality. THAT was what showed me worlds and adventures I could strive for -- ones that were realistic, and achievable and pointed me toward independence and personal strength.

Which is why I am heartened that by the end of her essay, Ms. Almagor writes,
"But I believe that the purpose of story is to help us explain our lives to ourselves; and these are the stories they are choosing . . . Go ahead and call me a hopelessly unliterary child person: if this is what my children choose to read, I have to entertain the possibility that this is what they need to be reading."
Brava to that!

Spotlighting Jackson Pearce's AS YOU WISH

Jackson is the fearless leader of the Feast of Awesome and has more energy in her little pinky than I have all year. She is twenty-four years old and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with a slightly cross-eyed cat and a lot of secondhand furniture. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in English and a minor in Philosophy and currently works for a software company even though she auditioned for the circus (she juggled and twirled fire batons, but they still didn't want her). Other jobs she's had include obituaries writer, biker bar waitress, and receptionist.

Jackson began writing when she got angry that the school librarian couldn't tell her of a book that contained a smart girl, horses, baby animals, and magic. Her solution was to write the book herself when she was twelve. Her parents thought it was cute at first, but have grown steadily more concerned for her ever since.

Her debut novel is AS YOU WISH: Seven months ago, Viola's boyfriend told her he was gay—moments before she was going to lose her virginity to him. Heartbroken, Viola has resigned herself to near invisibility, until she inadvertently summons a young jinn out of his world, Caliban, and into her own. Here he will remain until she makes three wishes.

Jinn is anxious to get back to Caliban, but Viola is terrified of wishing, afraid her wishes will be manipulated into curses. Jinn knows that should she wait too long, the Ifrit, guardians of earthbound jinn, will press her to wish by hurting those around her.As they spend time together, Jinn can't deny that he's slowly falling in love with Viola, blurring the lines between master and servant. It's only after Viola makes her first wish—for a popular boy to love her—that she realizes the feelings are mutual.

With every wish Jinn's time with her diminishes, but the longer she waits to wish the greater danger she's in from the Ifrit. Together, Viola, Jinn, and Viola's ex-boyfriend try to outwit the Ifrit while dealing with their own romantic complexities and the alcohol-laced high school social scene.

Here are Jackson's answers to the Thorough Three...

NM: What is the age of your protagonist/s?

JP: 16ish

NM: What is the single, most important bit of advice you'd give to the You that was the same age as your protagonist/s?

JP: This too shall pass-- the good and the bad.

NM: Complete the following sentences:

Everyone should definitely, for sure _____________.

You should NEVER, EVER ____________, but if you absolutely must, make sure to __________.

JP: Everyone should definitely, for sure do what they love for a living.

You should NEVER, EVER skinny dip. But if you absolutely must, make sure to hide your clothes well.

Thanks, Jackson!

Seriously, go and get your copy of AS YOU WISH here. For more info on Jackson and her work, click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mentors and Guidance

This past weekend, I went to a training session for the organization I've just signed up to volunteer for, Girls Write Now (GWN), based in New York City. It's a fantastic organization, with some amazingly talented, dedicated women (and one man) on board. Their mission is to mentor teen girls in writing -- journalism, poetry, playwriting, fiction, diaries, whatever -- through a unique model of recruiting women writers to mentor and guide these young women in their chosen genres.

The training was fabulous. We were a roomful of women writers, all dynamic, powerful energies, just buzzing with the excitement of being part of something so meaningful and important to us.

It got me thinking a lot about how important mentoring (or the lack of it) is in the lives of young people. When I was a teen, my parents were too busy surviving to really have the energy to mentor and guide us. By the time they got home from their jobs, the exhaustion set in and they were simply glad that we all had made it through another day.

So I got my mentoring through books, and teachers and school counselors. I was a voracious reader, in part, because I was desperate for guidance and information. Books allowed me to learn about the world when my parents were too tired to teach. And when I couldn't get what I needed through books, I went to my teachers or to the school guidance counselor. I was lucky in that I found some beautiful souls through reaching out like that. I found mother-figures and father-figures to supplement what my parents were doing, and to round out my experience.

But when I think back to that time, I realize just how vulnerable I was. I very much needed a guiding hand, and I was wide open when I went searching for it. This could have (and does) put any teen in a position where s/he could easily be taken advantage of and/or exploited. It's also the reason that teachers, librarians, school counselors, and other adults who work with young people, are so incredibly vital to the shaping of our future leaders and world community.

I remember every single one of the teachers who helped guide my feet on the right path. I remember the librarians who handed me books that opened new worlds to my imagination. I'm thrilled to be part of the group of mentors at Girls Write Now, and hope that the organization can one day spread its model to other cities and towns. But in the meantime, I know there are many, many teachers, counselors, librarians, and other caring adults who do this work each and every day. And I, for one, am supremely grateful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gossip Girls Read SHINE

I've received many requests for the backstory to the above pictures, and I'm finally getting my behind in gear and putting it down for you.

As some of you know, my husband works on the show as a camera assistant. Back in March, when my book first came out, he was blabbing about it all over the set. The girls, Blake Lively, Jessica Szohr, and Leighton Meister, had mentioned that they wanted a copy of SHINE, COCONUT MOON shortly after it came out. Several of them wanted to come to my book launch last March at Bluestockings in New York -- Jessica, in particular, was hoping to make it, but had a Dove commercial scheduled the same night.

So, recently, Gossip Girl was shooting at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. My husband decided to ask if they happened to have a copy of SHINE, COCONUT MOON. And they did--face out!

The hubs exclaimed, "Hey, look! They have a copy of my wife's book!" People began clapping and there was some excitement from the cast and crew (SO sweet).

One of the crew members bought a copy and asked if I would sign it. Jessica flipped through his copy (the bookstore said they had sold out) and asked if I would sign one for her, too.

Then Blake and Leighton asked for their own copies, as well. The hubs texted me immediately and asked if I would sign copies for them. Duh *grin*.

Of course, I signed the copies, and the next day the hubs got these pictures when they were shooting at Sotheby's on the Upper East Side.

The girls were incredibly warm and said they couldn't wait to read SHINE. Jessica also said she'd get back to me with her thoughts when she was finished reading.

Another of the girls, Yin Chang, who plays the character of Nelly Yuki on the show, also designed a custom onyx and moonstone necklace for me to wear for the SHINE book launch at Bluestockings Bookstore. Yin bought her copy at the launch and read it the week after--she said she missed her stop on the train because she was so absorbed in the story!

So there you have it: the story behind the images. The girls are terrific and I'm delighted for their success on the show.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Speaking of Picking Your Battles...

If you didn't watch the VMA awards last night and haven't seen the headlines, here is the low-down: Taylor Swift won the award for best female video. She went up, all excited and dressed up and cute, to accept her award. Kanye went up, grabbed the mic, and said, "Beyonce had the best music video of all time." Here is the video, if you haven't seen it.

Later, when Beyonce won her award, she went up and asked Taylor to join her on stage so the girl could finally get her moment.

There are so many gender and race dynamics at play here, but I'm going to respond from an emotional place and not an entirely head place on this one. There is no doubt that racism is rampant in the music industry. I've seen the effects of it on music videos and in the lyrics of the songs my girls come home singing. But there is a way to effect real, lasting, industry-wide change. And picking on teenage girls is NOT going to get you what you're looking for (which is justice and equality, right?--not publicity stunts and personal gain???).

Exchanging one oppression for another -- as in silencing women in exchange for a platform on race -- is not going to move anyone forward. Lasting, systemic change means taking small actions that result in real, deep changes at the decision-making and gate-keeping levels. It means raising consciousness and awareness, and connecting with like-minded souls who share in your commitment to social/economic justice and equality. Bull-in-china-shop methods succeed only in short-term venting (which has its place, but bulldozing over another's success on stage is not one of them).

Though he has issued a public apology, it's that sense of entitlement that I'm referring to whenever I write/speak about privilege. The idea that it is completely okay to flatten someone and believe yourself justified. It's the kind of single-mindedness that comes with being completely self-absorbed and seeing only your reality, and projecting it as THE reality.

What I love, though, (besides Beyonce's display of warmth and solidarity) is that Pink had to be physically restrained from going after Kanye afterward.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about aesthetics lately.

It's not a secret that publishing is a highly subjective business. What gets bought, promoted, and sold has a lot to do with opinion. Someone, somewhere along the line, connects with a particular book, maybe thinks it's "big," and puts their heart and soul into convincing everyone else it's big, too. Plenty of editors and agents will accept manuscripts that need work, if there is something in the manuscript that they connect with. And what they connect with obviously has much to do with their personal experience, preferences, what they relate to, their values, what they consider funny or touching, and which characters they identify with.

So this is why I'm thinking about aesthetics. "Subjective" means it's all about what one likes. What one is drawn to, attracted by, and dazzled with enough to lay down money for it. I've seen the "color-blind" argument over and over again -- that it's not about the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality of the author, but the story. That a good story and strong writing is what wins out in the end. While I agree with this in part, I also maintain that the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality, etc. of the author affects the story and the writing.

The way we write, what we write about, how we write about it -- all of these are infused with the sensibility of the writer. And the sensibility of the writer is informed by who that writer is, the sum of their experiences, and how they respond to those experiences.

Let's take language, for instance. I grew up speaking and thinking in Punjabi. My writing has (and always has had) layers of Punjabi thought, fluidity, and lyricism underneath the English words because it's what I know. It's where I go when I ride those emotional currents because so much of my early life and formative years were in Punjabi. I see it in the work of other South Asian authors, as well. There is the thread of a faint, but recognizable tradition in the fiction of my fellow South Asian diasporic authors. I feel it, smell it, hear it in the words they lay on the page. It's something I know.

I also find it not surprising in the least that so many books written by Women of Colour incorporate themes of spirituality, both implicitly and explicitly. Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Linda Hogan, Suheir Hamad, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan, Isabelle Allende, Sandra Cisneros, and fellow South Asian women writers such as Mitali Perkins, Uma Krishnaswami, Arundhati Roy, and Shauna Singh Baldwin, among others, have all infused themes of spirituality throughout their texts at one point or another. My own novel, SHINE, COCONUT MOON, as well the two novels I've written since, JAZZ IN LOVE and INTO THE WISE DARK, have varying degrees of spiritual awakening, questioning, and/or understanding woven throughout. The fact that so many women of Colour have elements of spirituality or faith in their works is not a coincidence. It is a shared aesthetic. It is the aesthetic of struggle, born from the effects of colonization, imperialism, slavery, bearing witness to egregious injustices, and finding a way to break the silence; finding words to resurrect what is destroyed and bring back the dead beloved.

If we look at representations of women in the fashion industry, we see the "aesthetic discrepancy" clearly in terms of gender. The fashion industry is overwhelmingly dominated and controlled by men. The focus is not on what women value, but on what men value. Most women would choose comfort over pain; therefore, stilletoes and thongs would make a hasty exit. I, for one, would never go looking for a permanent wedgie and neither would any of the women I know. Stilletoes not only hurt, they do serious damage to the spine, heels, and feet. The women's fashion industry is a mega-gazillion-dollar industry based on the fostered insecurities of women. If women were dominating the fashion scene and shaping it to reflect their own aesthetic (one that has not been distorted by, or replaced with the aesthetic leanings of men), I am confident that what is produced would look drastically different from what is produced now.

Just as an experiment, I urge you to rent and watch several films written and directed by women, then compare them to several films written and directed by men. To make it even more relevant, you might try picking films that have similar themes and were released around the same time. Can you spot the differences in aesthetic? Is there a difference? I would argue that yes, there absolutely is.

Try these: Sunshine Cleaning, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs, The Piano, written and directed by Jane Campion, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly, Real Women Have Curves by Josefina Lopez and directed by Patricia Cardozo, or the films of Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha. Keep in mind that I'm referring to films written by women, not just directed. But even the films based on books written by women, but directed by men, would work for this little experiment. Films like Fried Green Tomatoes (Fannie Flagg), Juno (Diablo Cody), Anywhere But Here (Mona Simpson), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Thelma and Louise (Callie Khouri), and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares).*

Noticing any patterns? That's an aesthetic, or a sensibility. It takes exposure and effort to develop an appreciation for an aesthetic that is vastly different from what one is used to. It's like learning to appreciate a foreign food or music. Many people can't stand the high-pitched voices of some South or East Asian songstresses. But when you spend years listening to different songs, learning what the lyrics mean, and discovering just how much practice and talent goes into those voices, it's easier to appreciate the beauty in their melodies. I grew up in a household where western music was scoffed at, while at school Eastern music was made into a joke. Again, it's about an aesthetic we become accustomed to.

In terms of representations of People of Colour: An experiment by psychologist Kenneth Clark in 1954 revealed that black children preferred white dolls over black dolls, saying the white dolls were "nicer" and "better." When this experiment was recreated in 2005 by a teenager, the results hadn't changed much.

Beauty that resembles white, European ideals is what sells and is promoted in mass media. Images of PoC are habitually air-brushed to be lighter, with straighter, finer, more Europeanized features. Beauty outside of that accepted ideal takes more work to integrate, promote, and sell. This was the reason a Black Is Beautiful movement was necessary in the 1960s, and the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in India is necessary now. It is also the reason campaigns like Dove's widely publicized "Campaign for real beauty" are hugely popular. They strive to develop a new aesthetic. To pump images of a new way of seeing into the world. A new system which exalts what has previously been devalued, or under-valued.

Let's bring it back to the writing. We are not encouraged to be aware of our own privilege. In fact, it serves to keep the inequitable balance of power in place if we remain oblivious to what we have at the expense of others. If you've been following the recent discussions on race, representation, and equitable distribution of resources in the YA/children's lit blogosphere, and it is important to you to help shape a more just world for our children (and ourselves!), you'll have to do your own research.

Zetta's heartfelt post, Something Like An Open Letter To the Children's Publishing Industry, on the disparities inherent within the (children's) publishing industry and discussion threads on forums have me reaching deeper for reasons why PoC are not getting published and/or promoted. There are tons of writers of Colour out there who have been honing their craft, reading books on writing, and submitting work to agents and editors for years. And yet, there are disproportionately more books by and about White folks than there are books by and about PoC. I'm wondering now if part of this could be the lack of appreciation or understanding for an unfamiliar aesthetic.

And because the images of a dominant, all-pervasive aesthetic seep into our bones, we emulate its ideals (think: Michael Jackson). We become the strongest upholders of that which subjugates us. So it's not surprising when things like that now-forgotten case of plagiarism rise up to remind us that all is not perfect in YA/kidlit world. Writers are desperate to make our dreams a reality and many of us will (happily) sell family members to see it happen. We'll write whatever you want! And if that means catering to an aesthetic that is not in keeping with our histories, traditions and upbringings, so be it!

Let me just say here that every single one of us comes from and subscribes to some sort of tradition -- not just PoC. There are Nordic traditions, Celtic, and even feminist and LGBTQ traditions. The point is that the powers that be (TPTB) have historically favoured a particular set. And those of us writing outside of that have had a much tougher time being seen, appreciated, heard, and valued unless we, in some form, adhere to the dominant aesthetic. Sherman Alexie once said that any amount of mainstream success means you've had to compromise something, in some way. I think this is what he was referring to--bending yourself and your work to fit a tradition, ideology, or aesthetic that is not innate, or indigenous to who you are.

And until and unless there is exposure to different aesthetics and an effort to understand and appreciate what is unfamiliar by TPTB, OR, until and unless the ranks of TPTB more accurately represent the reading/consuming public, what we see on the shelves will continue to reflect the dominant ideals and currently upheld aesthetic.

*Just want to note that, although there have been some great strides in recent years, women directors and filmmakers are still few and far between in the field of filmmaking -- which remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Spotlighting Jennifer Jabaley's LIPSTICK APOLOGY

As part of the Debs Blog Tour, I'm spotlighting Jennifer Jabaley's LIPSTICK APOLOGY today. Jennifer is a fellow debut 2009 author and her book sounds terrific. Here's a little summary:

Four little words written in lipstick mean Emily must say goodbye to everything she knows. Emily Carson has always been a good girl. So when she throws a party the night her parents leave for vacation, she's sure she'll get busted. What Emily doesn't know is that her parents will never return. That their plane will go down. And the only thing left amidst the wreckage will be a tray table with the words: Emily please forgive me scrawled in lipstick - her mother's last words.

Now it's fall in New York City and Emily's trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Her public tragedy captures the attention of more than just the media - and soon two very different boys at her new school are pursuing her: the cute, popular Owen, and the quirky chemistry partner slash pastry-baker-by-night, Anthony. But even with such delicious distractions, Emily can't let go of her mother's mysterious apology. Does she have the courage to face the truth?

With help of a whole new kind of family - one that includes a make-up artist to the stars, a teen hand model, and a wacky hairdresser - Emily must choose between the boy who makes her forget it all, and the one who encourages her to remember, and ultimately, heal.

A little bit about Jennifer: Jennifer Jabaley was born in New York and raised in Bridgewater, New Jersey. She graduated from James Madison University with a degree in chemistry and received a doctorate from Southern College of Optometry. A part-time optometrist and mother of two, Jennifer began writing her first novel after a phone call from her sister sparked an idea for a story that lingered in her mind and stirred her creative juices. LIPSTICK APOLOGY will be released in August of 2009 by Razorbill. Jen lives in Blue Ridge, Georgia and is currently at work on her second book.

Here are Jennifer's answers to the Thorough Three . . .

NM: What is the age of your protagonist/s?

JJ: Emily is sixteen

NM: What is the single, most important bit of advice you'd give to the You that was the same age as your protagonist/s?

JJ: Don't sweat the small stuff

NM: Complete the following sentences:

Everyone should definitely, for sure _____________.

You should NEVER, EVER ___________. But if you absolutely must, make sure to ____________.

JJ: Everyone should definitely, for sure pursue their passion.

You should NEVER, EVER wait to apologize until you're on your death bed. But if you absolutely must, make sure to not write it in lipstick.

Thanks, Jennifer! For more information about Jennifer and her work, go here. To order a copy of LIPSTICK APOLOGY from Amazon, go here; and from Indiebound, go here.