Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview With Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Today, I am thrilled to host Sarah Jamila Stevenson, author of The Latte Rebellion. I was looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it and was delighted by the plot turns and the Created Normal of the world in the pages. In other words, the "normal" of this book is PoC, in varying shades and hues, all described in latte terms :D. So, without further rambling from me, here's Sarah, in her own words!

NM: I love that Asha doesn't really have any angst about being a latte - she embraces it and kind of sees it as the norm (and in the world of your story, it IS the norm). What was your own journey to self-acceptance like? Was it long like mine (that body image thing is a pain)? Or was it easy and more of a non-issue?

SJS: I think the key word there is "journey." I feel like the challenges of
journeying toward self-acceptance have changed for me over time, and I
guess I could say that the journey doesn't seem like it's over! As a
latte myself, I felt a lot more caught between cultures when I was
growing up than Asha does in THE LATTE REBELLION. I wanted to be--felt
like--a regular mainstream American teenager, but the Pakistani side
of my family didn't always understand that. I wanted to respect my
Pakistani half without it being the entirety of who I am, but it was
really hard to explain that to my family or my friends or my
classmates. Every once in a while I'd have a big argument with my dad
about, say, why I wanted to go to a school dance--he'd talk about how
unseemly and immodest it was, and admonish me not to dance while I was
there, and while I didn't want to upset him, I also wanted to go and
dance and have fun with my friends. Or we'd argue over why I didn't
want to go to Islamic Sunday school. It made me feel like a terrible
and selfish daughter, but it also infuriated me because I felt like my
views should be respected, too. So I had some anger and frustration
about my identity, until I was able to move away for college and
figure out who I was on my own.

Really, most of the time it was a non-issue. Usually, it wouldn't even
come up unless someone asked me "what are you?" and I'd have to sigh
and give them this long and complicated answer with 7 or 8
nationalities in it. I grew up in a pretty diverse area, so I didn't
feel like I was too unusual.

NM: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking, "Asha needs to hang out with
Sam and Jazz." If you could plan a hang-out date with the three of them, how
do you think it would go? What would they talk about? What would Asha

SJS: Hee! I love this question. I bet there would be a lot of commiserating
and eye-rolling over strict parents on the part of Asha and Jazz, who
would envy Sam because of her cool, with-it mom. Asha would get the
appropriate amount of sympathy and outrage over the towel-head
incident. She would bring the lattes. :) And, of course, she'd wear a
Latte Rebellion t-shirt and bring shirts for Jazz and Sam!

NM: You mention above that your father is Pakistani. Yet, in your
book it is Asha's mother who is South Asian. What went into your
decision to switch the parent from your own experience?

SJS: In part, it was a little mental trick to keep me from slipping into
the role of identifying too much with the character, and inadvertently
turning her into me or unconsciously modeling her parents after mine.
It was something that worried me a little. Asha and I have some things
in common, but she's definitely not a stand-in for me, and I didn't
even want to be tempted in that direction. I wanted her to be her own
person. And I wanted to challenge stereotypes a little by making her
father--who's NOT the South Asian parent--the strict one.

NM: I read in Ari's interview with you that you did graduate work in
fiction writing, as did I. What would you say were the pros and cons
of doing an advanced degree in fiction writing? In retrospect, now
that you've seen your first book to publication, would you still have
gone that route?

SJS: I definitely would still have gone that route. Prior to my MFA, I
didn't have much knowledge of fiction writing except as an occasional
hobby--my undergraduate degree is in Art and Psychology. I desperately
needed the feedback and the additional background in literature and
craft. And what I've gotten out of it has been so much more than
that--specifically, a committed, diverse and very talented writing
group, and a far more critical eye about writing, both my own and
others'. As for the cons, I think they're the ones common to most
graduate programs, especially in the arts: personality conflicts, the
occasional teacher who played favorites, a relative lack of attention
to the realities of a career in the field. :) Overall, though, it was
a great experience--for me. I'm sure it's not the right route for
everyone, but I'm a school-loving nerd, so...

NM: What are you most proud of accomplishing so far? (This could be either
writing/publishing related, or otherwise general life related).

SJS: Getting my first novel published is definitely way up there! There was
a lot of pressure for success when I was growing up, perhaps
especially because I was younger than most people around me (I
graduated from high school at 16 and undergrad school at 20), and it's
a lot to live up to as an adult with the same advantages and
disadvantages as everyone else. Really, I think I'm the most proud of
having followed my dream of pursuing a career in the arts, despite
various naysayers and setbacks, rather than giving up and doing
something practical. :)

NM: I was very impressed to read somewhere that the doodling inside
the book was yours! As someone who is illustratively challenged, I find
this very impressive. Besides writing and doodling, what are other
ways you express your creativity?

SJS: Besides the graphic design I do as part of my day job, I still
consider visual art one of my vocations, so when I have time and
energy, I try to spend some time making artwork (generally drawing,
painting or printmaking). I can play the piano and sing a little,
though I wouldn't say I was either very creative or particularly
accomplished at it--I just enjoy it. I try to be a creative cook,
mainly because I like to eat yummy food, but again, I'm not going to
be on Iron Chef anytime soon!

Is it fair to say my messy office is one way I express my creativity??
Or is that just an excuse?

NM: What's next? Are you working on something new? I read that you are
fantasy/sci-fi fan - might we see something from you in that genre? :)

SJS: Yes, I love fantasy and sci-fi. I'm currently revising and trying to
find an agent for another YA novel, this one about a girl who develops
the power to hear thoughts in the wake of a family tragedy. (She's
also half South Asian! Go figure.) And I'm trying to get going on a
brand-new novel that's sort of a dystopian-ish steampunk-ish story of
intrigue. (That's all I can say about it for now. I'm still working on
the details and have only written about a page.)

NM: My friends and I sometimes daydream and share our Lofty Goals. Do you
have any Lofty Goals? Please share! These could be along the lines of "one
of my books gets a starred review in Kirkus," "I am asked to be a keynote
speaker at a national conference," "I set up a foundation to offer grants to
fiction writers of latte descent," or "PBS does a special on me and my

SJS: I managed to reach one of my lofty goals, thanks to my book--I got to
be on NPR! It was a local NPR program, but still, that was one of my
lifelong dreams. :) A starred review in Kirkus sounds great, too! I
think the lofty goal that's always floating around in the back of my
head is to be some kind of Intellectual Icon. I'm not sure what that
entails, exactly, but hopefully it includes getting invited to TED
conferences and being consulted as an expert on some impressively
esoteric topic.

NM: I've had some of the TED fantasies, too! ;D Thank you so much,
Sarah, for stopping by!


Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks so much, Neesha, for the invitation to "appear" on your blog! I'm really honored. :)

Neesha Meminger said...

My pleasure, Sarah! Thanks so much for graciously agreeing :).

tanita✿davis said...

I want to go to a TED conference, too!! I can't imagine being the one to speak, though!!
And I'm really intrigued about this steampunk thing... thanks for the link to Ari's interview, I'd somehow missed that one!

olugbemisola said...

loved this! great technique to tweak the parents a bit to give yourself some distance from the characters and story. and as an authority on one half of the equation, I will say absolutely -- a messy office=creativity. :) thanks to you both!

Sarah Stevenson said...

Well, great! I'll leave my office a creative mess, then. :)

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