Friday, November 27, 2009

The Storyteller's Box

Traditional storytellers in India often use props, and one of the most elegant and striking is the kavad, or storyteller's box. Part of Rajasthani rural tradition, the kavad is a portable shrine depicting stories from the lives of Rama and Krishna, avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. It folds out into multiple spreads each with a series of pictures. It's the low-tech precursor to today's PowerPoint or Keynote presentations. The teller points to a picture with the tip of a feather as he tells his tale. Sometimes the stories from different epics are detailed on different sides of the fold-out pages. Each spread often serves more than one purpose, representing one set of characters in one tale, another in the next. It's a nonlinear format that is simultaneously ancient and remarkably fresh and accessible to contemporary children.


Tulika Books now offers a fold-out book, Home, inspired by the design of these story boxes. Here's Nina Sabnani, author of Mukand and Riaz, talking about this new title and its origins.

Tom Greene on Writer’s Envy

Here's a post that got caught in limbo while I was crossing the date line and watching the koi swim in circles at Singapore's Changi Airport. If I had to pick an airport to live in, this could be it.

Tom Greene writes about writer’s envy, and when it seems unnecessary, in connection with Rita Williams-Garcia and Tim Wynne-Jones being shortlisted for the National Book Award (US) and the Governor-General's Award (Canada) respectively. Excerpt:
I think as writers we have an obligation to embrace our better angels. We need to support one another, encourage aspiring writers, and give back whatever it is we may have learned that can help others.
Makes sense to me. There’s a popular myth of solitude associated with writing, but in fact writing is of and about the world—making sense of it, railing against it, raising the questions that won’t go away. And most writers I know can become social beings for limited periods of time, given the right circumstances. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, when a bunch of passionate and eloquent people regularly spend time in intense 10-day residencies conversing both together and in tandem, it’s sort of like a book that’s more than the sum of its pages. As Jane Kurtz might say, a place to tether my goat--or park my Uggs in January.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tea With Chachaji

In the small world department: last month, in Albuquerque, I had the pleasure of meeting Robin Burrows (in the picture) and her husband Jeff. They're the parents of Raja Burrows, who's playing the male lead in Tea With Chachaji, the musical production of my 2003 picture book published by Children's Book Press, Chachaji's Cup.

And because I like to think about how things began, here's the cup that helped spark the story in the first place.

Updates and Downloads

Cynthia Leitich Smith interview with Alan Cumyn:
I don't pre-sell a book--I write it for the love of writing it, because it's the book I really want to read that hasn't been created yet. I try to be true to the characters and the problems they're faced with.
I could live by this. I should mention that Alan's Owen Skye is a wonderfully funny, engaging character, with a mind that runs on impeccable kid logic.

Yet another twist in the Lauren Myracle Luv Ya Bunches controversy.

And this in the Bizarre News department. A computer scoring system being tried out in the UK would have failed Churchill, among others.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How To Write About...(Pick a Place or People)

Back in 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a wonderfully funny satirical piece in Granta magazine called "How to Write About Africa". Here are just a few gems from it:

"In your text treat Africa as if it were one country."

"Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat."

"Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her."

If you haven't read the essay, run-don't-walk to the Granta web site to read the rest or to order that back issue.

Yes, I know, it's been four years already since he wrote that. Surely things have changed. Maybe not. Listen to Chimamanda Adichie speak of the danger of hearing only a single story about a place. Any place. Thank you, Julie Larios and Sarah Blake Johnson for sending me this link within days of each other.

All this got me thinking about characters in YA books set in countries other than the US or Europe and published within the last 20 years. A few commonalities struck me.

1. Characters who are a combination of the following (pick two or more): long-ago, faraway, poor, depressed, angry, privy to or oppressed by (or both) some ancient tradition or other.

2. If they're not long ago, they still speak and act as if they were. They often don't use contractions, for one thing, or they adopt a labored kind of dialogue, with phrases in their native languages which they immediately translate into English.

3. They are torn between two worlds, two systems. That might be fine if those systems weren't defined as ancient and modern respectively as if a young person from contemporary Pakistan or Mexico or China were not quite of this century. Find me a teenaged character taking this overly philosophical psychohistorical view and I'll show you a well-intentioned writer driving the story to make a point.

4. They're either suffering from something oppressive in their cultures, or inflicting suffering on someone else for culturally grounded reasons.

Look at any of half a dozen YA novels set in South Asia and you might conclude that all the girls in the region are trying desperately to flee oppressive marriage or widowhood or sexual exploitation. You will feel pity for them and more, you will be grateful that you are not in their place. The thing is, you can't see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. It's even more complicated when you are 8 or 10 or 14 years old and those "other" people instead of staying in their oppressive countries have somehow arrived in your neighborhood and your school.

And more complicated still if they were never in some other place at all, but have somehow, contrary to popular belief, managed to survive and are now suggesting that you share your century with them.

This is why we need more stories that don't define cultures as monolithic, impermeable and unchanging, that don't show the people within those cultures as trapped in unending cycles of victimhood. This is why there is a real danger that if the token single "multicultural" story is taken as representative of an entire place or its inhabitants or emigrants, it will leave no room for others to balance it out. This is why I'm pinning Wainaina's essay to my bulletin board. And drinking a cup of chai because, you know, that's what we South Asian types do when we stress out!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Saffron Crocuses and Understanding the Other

The saffron crocus is an oddity. It blooms in the fall, for one thing, out of step with its spring-blooming kin. And for another, when the flower opens, you can see those long red-gold threads, rich with flavor, prized for their fragrance and unique culinary properties. I recall seeing saffron fields as a child when we traveled in Kashmir--they were a beautiful, startling purple. Years later when we lived in Maryland I grew a small patch of saffron crocuses, and gathered the stigmas before the first winter frost. An amazing flower. I have alas had no luck with it in the desert soil of northwest New Mexico.

The bloggers at Saffron Tree chose CROCUS for the name (Celebration of Reading Other Culturally Unique Stories) of their week-long festival of culturally diverse books from various parts of the world. The books featured are published in the US, UK, Australia, and India. Their settings and cultures reach into just about every continent, and include books by people from within the cultures concerned as well as those from outside them, a couple of books in translation and a bilingual book or two. Katia's Amadi is there, as well as one of Uma (y)'s books.

"Other" is an interesting term and I must admit I try not to use it in conjunction with "culture" because really it demands that I define "this" or "my" culture first and that's just way too complicated. Still, if I were to talk about a "crocus book" in terms of the out of season flower or the traveling story, I'd want to talk about A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna. Originally published by Editions Autrement in French as Un Lion à Paris, this imaginative homage to the Bartholdi lion is also a tribute to the city in which the statue is located. So I was intrigued to find that the English translation, by Mariette Robbes, is published by Katha in a South Asian edition. I asked Mamta Nainy of Katha if she'd mind telling me some more about this project. She sent along these replies to my questions, from editor Vineetha Mokkil.

[Uma] A translator is often the invisible partner in books like this one. I notice Katha holds the English translation copyright--does that mean that you contracted with Mariette Robbes to do the translation?

[Vineetha] Yes, Katha contracted Ms. Robbes to do the English translation. I agree that translators are often relegated to the background. But Katha made sure that Ms Robbes’ name appeared on the cover page of Lion in Paris, a first of sorts on the Indian publishing/translation scene. So we have steered clear of this lapse.

[Uma] Tell me a little more about your World Library imprint--your vision for it, the kinds of books you select in order to bring them to the South Asian market.

[Vineetha] The World Library imprint is a very important area of focus for Katha. It has been conceived with the specific aim of introducing children in India (and south Asia, by extension), to new cultures and generating a healthy curiosity about other countries and people in them. These stories also dispel prejudices, counter stereotypes through culture-linking and help children understand the world better. We have published two books – French and German, both translated into English – in this series so far. A book from Mexico is next in the pipeline. We are keen on carrying this forward and including stories from every corner of the globe to the imprint.

[Uma] Thanks, Vineetha.

A Lion in Paris is a lovely book. Alemagna's pictures are of course stunning, with their mix of pencil, ink, and collage. Broad, flat boulevards are edged by trees with crooked shadows. The train bursts from the Metro tunnel, while the platform's crawling with one-dimensional families. Surprises lurk on every page, and the text has an understated humor that resides squarely in the persona of the prowling lion.

So there we have it. Child readers in India reading picture books in English translations, set in France and Germany and Mexico. I find it both interesting and encouraging, that this publisher is going about the task by finding native speakers of the original language of the book to translate it for the target audience. Makes sense to me.