Friday, October 29, 2010

Tyger Tyger: Kersten Hamilton on Character Viewpoint, Aristotelian memes and Multiple Story Arcs

Kersten Hamilton's new YA novel, Tyger Tyger has been praised by Kirkus Reviews as "Laced with humor, packed with surprises and driven by suspense." Here's an interview with Kersten on her main character, on viewpoint, memes we may owe to Aristotle, and more. Here's a 2008 interview on Cynsations.

[Uma] From ape poop to baby hedgehogs, it's clear from the start that Teagan is an eccentric character in her own right and therefore highly likely to attract improbable happenings. Tell me how you went about constructing the layers of your protagonist's character.

[Kersten] I stepped outside the Western tradition in creating Teagan’s character. I wanted Tea to be different, to feel a little alien to my readers. To accomplish this, I tried to strip myself of the influence of Aristotle, specifically these (paraphrased) ideas:
1. The male is better and more divine (godlike) than the female.
2. A female is a deformed male.
3. Since the male is by nature superior, he must rule and the woman be ruled.

It isn’t easy to get away from these memes in Western culture, even when we think we have. For instance, many of our ‘kick-butt’ female characters in YA literature and movies are simply reactions to Aristotle’s concept that women are deformed males—we truly believe the male form is better, and so we write Rambo with breasts.

But fighting skills and the ability to kill are not the only way to be strong, or even the best way. I love female characters like Hayao Miyazaki’s Chihiro in Spirited Away who succeeds not because she is like a boy, but because she is a strong, courageous girl.

[Uma] You have chosen to write Tyger Tyger in a writerly third person voice rather than the more common (and sometimes stereotypically angst-ridden) teen first person. Can you talk about this choice and what effect it has on the story?

[Kersten] You can tell a brilliant story in first person, but you do lose the subtlety of inference and empathy, and the ability to play off of more than one character at a time. Third person is more difficult to write – you must ‘show’ what the characters feel, rather than ‘telling’ through internal dialog. But it’s fun because it has so many sub categories to pick and choose from, to mix and match.

I chose third person limited with a quarter twist toward third person subjective. Teagan’s feelings about situations and characters definitely play a role in the story, and occasionally we even know her thoughts—because I actually find it more transparent—I as the writer can disappear completely, allowing a skilled reader to experience the story in a much more intimate way.

[Uma] What a great way to say it, the viewpoint with a quarter twist! It's true that many people think of viewpoint as an immutable construct and in reality it's so much more complex than just defining whose head we're in! It's a malleable part of the narrative and I loved being able to feel that.

Moving onto setting: I also loved the positioning of St. Drogo's as the counterpoint to the goblin world, and Abby's role in making sure that we're reminded of this. Why did you choose to overlap layers of geography and myth in this way, so that the stories swirl out from freegans foraging in trash dumpsters in Chicago to the ancient Ireland of the Finnian cycle and back again? And how did that melding of geographies play out in the process of writing this novel?

[Kersten] I overlapped geography and myth in this way because it reflects real life. Everyone I know has a slightly different and wonderful mythology that influences their actions. All of my friends hold hands across those differences. I love listening to them talk worldviews.

 All of us are spreading nets, trying to figure out the important questions of life – and the geography behind us has a great deal to do with how our nets are woven, and what we catch.

 [Uma] As I understand it there will be a follow-up to this Goblin Wars book. A trilogy? How much of the events of this larger story do you know at this time? Talk about how you are approaching the writing of a sequel.

[Kersten] It is going to be at least a trilogy. I always know the first scene and the last, and have to plunge into the maelstrom of creation to find out what happens in between. It is wonderful and scary and painful and exciting. I enjoy the chaos of writing much more than I enjoy the rest of having written. That’s why multiple book story arcs are so wonderful to me. They are so huge, and so impossible! I approach each new book in fear and trembling—and with great joy.

[Uma] Thank you Kersten. I'm cheering at your comment about the chaos of writing! Thanks for talking to me, and best wishes for those books to come.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain, Part 3

Rumana Husain was in Korea recently, at Nambook-010, the 5th Nami Island International Children's Book Festival, where she was among a select group of contributors to a peace story anthology.

In answer to my question, she writes:

It goes back to my student days. I had entered my third year as a graphic design student here in Karachi when we were introduced to a new faculty member who had recently graduated from the famous National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where I had aspired to study, but in those days (late sixties, early seventies) my mother would not hear of sending me 'far' away to Lahore even though my grandfather had sent my aunt from Jabalpur (MP) to Lucknow, to the Isabella Thoburn College, and later on to Vellore in the south as it had the best women's college of medicine...and all this in the 1940s! Anyway, so Mr Khalil, our new teacher, frowned at our work and said, "It is heavily in the Western mode." He was right, as something was amiss in our training and we were not looking inwards and around. Also, in those computerless years, we were taught to do our own (English) lettering (Roman, Gothic, serif, sanserif, etc.) and Mr Khalil had reason to frown some more! "No Urdu captions for your posters?" he said. "You know you are not going to be working only for a handful of English-speaking people of our country. Think in Urdu!" He taught us a stylised version of Urdu calligraphy. Then he pointed out the difference between our West-inspired drawings and graphics and drawings from traditional (read subcontinental) folk culture. He also made us aware of the fact that as Pakistanis we are traditionally drawn to a lot of ornamentation (our truck art, our mehndi designs, bridalware, jewellery, carved furniture, etc.). I would therefore attribute this 'awakening' to his teachings. I started illustrating my work with such birds, trees, etc. using motifs from all those things that he said we should be studying for inspiration.

The Moghul school of miniature paintings was another tremendous inspiration. During our fourth and final year my close friend Seema (who now runs/owns Interflow Communications - an advertising agency - as well as TV One, a television channel and a radio channel, etc) and I went away to Lahore (rather 'ran away' from school as we did not inform the head about our one-month long adventure during the school year). This bold step was taken at the behest of two women, Meher Nigar Masroor and Naheed Jafri / Azfar, who used to head the children's book division of the National Book Foundation (NBF) set up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Once when Seema and I visited them, looking to make some money by free-lancing as children's book illustrators, they asked us to go spend some days at the historical Lahore Museum (it is located next door to the NCA) and copy the artefacts there so that they could then be used for a history book that they were planning to bring out. We pleaded with our parents to let us go there and Seema's mother made arrangements for us to stay with her aunt and so we went off to Lahore where for us, two Karachi girls, it was freezing cold in December. Although at the end of our sojourn there we did not end up with a book contract with the NBF,  what we gained from that memorable first hand experience was much more. Tucking our sketch pads and pencils under our arms, we used to go to the Museum every morning, drawing away relentlessly.

The final year at the art school was dedicated for what was known as the 'final year thesis' whereby we had to build an advertising or awareness raising campaign around a product or a service. Initially I had wanted to do it for a children's toy company, but soon decided in favour of my other My design 'campaign' was for EMI, and I used folklore and historical references such as the legends of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, Sohni Mahewal, the great Tansen and so on.

I would say that my love for our subcontinental traditions has its roots in my childhood, which included yearly visits to Bombay and Jabalpur to meet part of our family across the border, as well as my training in art. My work has this mix of Indo-Pak cultural influence.

Thank you Rumana and Uma! I'd like to round out this post  with a link to Katia Novet Saint-Lot's blog, where she's posted pictures of the Bangladeshi artists who painted a wall in her house.

Look at that wall. Now go back and look at these pictures. When art travels and is expressed in different media and forms, it can make connections where before there were only walls.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain, Part 2

Question to Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain: Where did these pictures come from, for you?

Here's Uma Krishnaswamy's reply:

I must confess I was somewhat taken aback when I saw Rumana’s picture that you’d sent.  That someone thinks along the same lines is not unusual, but to actually put it down in a similar fashion appears to be more than mere coincidence.  

Our art school backgrounds are similarly based on western norms and traditions, as are most schools in the subcontinent.  But we also have this complex and diverse mix of traditions that is so much part of our daily lives. My childhood was filled with English books from the UK, especially, and also our marvellous CBT and NBT efforts, where an Indian style, so to speak, was evident.  But a lot of ideas and notions were connected to a culture that one was largely divorced from, but yet a part of.

Anyway, it was after college that I became aware of the very effective and bold folk traditions. Exuberant in tone and colour. Only when I experimented with some degree of seriousness, did I realise that at last I had found my true voice. Previously I had done work based on the practical training I had received, and believed it to be effective.  But an opportunity to work on A.K. Ramanujan’s folktales, and unflagging encouragement of the editor, gave me the courage to cross new boundaries. At that time, while folk styles were active, they were not always preferred for books.

The Mithila tradition of dominant line and limited though strong colours, has since then been an ever present source of inspiration. The flexible narration that folk art encourages somehow appears to suit our storytelling, even if the situation is contemporary, as in the case of Out of the Way! Out of the Way! To capture silence with a single tall tree or ensure the cacophony that pervades our daily life, with busy little figures, each doing their own thing. Here is where I think my exposure and learning of another tradition has been so useful. The classic western tradition of isolating a moment and thereby giving it the space to be seen and heard works beautifully to highlight certain telling aspects of the story. The hustle and bustle that other parts of the story reflects, is best captured, in my view, by our obsession with detail, be it in painting – classical or folk, or embroidery, or for that matter any associated craft.

I looked at the book as a series of double spreads, with the chant, "Out of the way! Out of the way!" as the vital link between the two pages. The story kicks off with a quiet village scene, before it picks up speed to end in a mad rush. It's how bigger towns and cities grow in this part of the world. So an island of white space, here and there, gives the breathing space that is required for both eye and ear! And many times colour paths were literally used to set the rhythm. The chant, in fact was varied, to echo the strength or gentleness of the voice demanding it.  So like all picture books, this was a conscious working of text and image to flow seamlessly as one.

It also of course works well when the page break up is given a lot of thought. Each spread in a way is unto itself but at the same time keeps up the suspense of what could happen, as one turns the pages. As I maintain, a simple text in appearance actually involves more work for the artist, as he/she has not only to complement it, but also add the right amount to balance it!

I wonder what Rumana’s reasons were for using the black and white + colour for that particular text?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Conversation of Pictures: Uma Krishnaswamy and Rumana Husain

Look at these two images. One is a page from my picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! with art by Uma Krishnaswamy. The other is the jacket image from Hara Samandar (Green Ocean), a picture book written (originally in Urdu) and illustrated by Rumana Husain, and published in Pakistan. The cover shown here is of the Sindhi edition. 

I was blown away by how these images seem stylistically to be speaking to each other: Look at their orientation on the page, the wavy horizon line, the use of white space, the embroidered appearance of trees in Uma's picture and the sun in Rumana's, and much, much more. So I thought it might be fun to get both artists to talk to me and to each other, and that maybe these images could be a starting point.
I invited Uma and Rumana to consider these images side by side, and in that context, to answer the question: Where did these pictures come from, for you? 

I was curious to see what influences might have exerted a tug on these two artists and picture book creators, working 1100 miles (1900 km) apart, when they each crafted these paintings. There's clearly a common folk idiom being employed here, and more, a similar way of looking at the pictorial world of a story.

While those posts are still under construction, enjoy the pictures, used here by permission of the artists.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monika Schröder on Saraswati's Way

A little background. Back in the last century,  when I first contemplated writing for young readers, I began to look for middle grade novels with Indian settings, published in the US. I found--well, three, and I had to look a bit to find two of them. There was Shirley Arora's What Then, Raman?  The 1928 Newbery winner, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, obscure and all but forgotten except by children's literature scholars. And of course The Jungle Book. A classic, an insider narrative by an expat Indian writer, and an outsider narrative. I use the words "insider" and "outsider" loosely to indicate the writer's background and worldview within or outside the setting of the book, not suggesting that one is necessarily any better than the other.

As Chimamanda Adichie says in the TED talk that has become part of my thinking on this subject, we need many stories of a place and people if we are to look at that place and people in any but the most reductive way. In 2010, we're just starting to see those multiple views, from writers like Kashmira Sheth, Mitali Perkins, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anjali Banerjee, Padma Venkatraman, and others. My own Naming Maya, set in Chennai, was published in 2003. Next year will see the publication of my middle-grade romp through a fictitious town in south India, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. And those are all just books set in India, not those concerned with the diaspora.

I don't think we need worry any more that the outsider narrative is defining India for young American readers.

But what of that old chestnut in children's literature, the tale of a place thought of as exotic, told from the outside looking in? Does it still have a place? And if it does, how has it grown and changed? If Monika Schröder's carefully researched and heartfelt novel, Saraswati's Way, is anything to judge by, the outsider narrative too has come of age. It assumes a context more complex than that of ruler and ruled. It attends to detail and nuance in setting. It steps more warily, considers the question of "getting it right" from the viewpoint of people who live in the place.

I've been corresponding with Monika, and here are her responses to a few of my questions:

[UK] Monika, congratulations on the publication of Saraswati's Way. What were the questions in your own mind that drove you to write this story?

[MS] I started the book right after I had finished my first novel, The Dog in the Wood, whose main character, Fritz, is for most of the story a pawn in the turmoil of historical events, almost paralyzed by fear and the terrible things that happen to him. Only at the end of the story does Fritz learn to become self-reliant. By creating Akash I wanted to write about a boy who was very determined right from the start. I also had learned a lot about shaping a book from the long and arduous process of writing my first novel and was hoping that a character with a very strong desire that has to overcome many obstacles would provide a good trajectory along which I could develop the arc.

By the time I started SARASWATI I had already lived in New Delhi for six years and knew that my next book would take place in India. Most contemporary fiction for children set in India has female protagonists, but I wanted to write about a boy. To learn more about the boys who end up in the New Delhi train station I went to the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO that works with these kids. Here I listened to some of the children’s stories and tried to imagine the circumstances that forced them to leave their families and to embark on an often dangerous journey to New Delhi. I wanted to explore how a young Indian boy could find the strength to overcome his fear in pursuit of something he wants desperately. 

[UK] What were the challenges you faced in writing of a character whose circumstances are so vastly different from your own? How did you bridge the cultural divide?

[MS] I grew up in Germany, a predominantly protestant country, where in school I learned bible stories and went to protestant confirmation at the age of 15. Writing about a Hindu boy was the biggest challenge while working on Saraswati's Way. By the time I started the book I had traveled to Rajasthan several times so I knew the setting. Though I never became fluent I had also taken Hindi classes for four years and my Hindi teacher, whom the book is dedicated to, taught me a lot about religious customs and festivals. While writing the book, I frequently asked her and other Indian friends if my depictions of a particular event were correct. One of the most challenging scenes to write was the funeral for Akash’s father. I have never attended a Hindu funeral and relied completely on the description given by Indian friends and colleagues. Trying to bridge this cultural divide was a challenge, but I also learned a lot about my host country while researching and fact checking the details for the story.

[UK] Talk about your writing process with this novel. How long did the successive drafts take you? Any thoughts on the way the story grew and changed over the time it took to write and revise? What were the pitfalls, the triumphs? Any moments of clarity or epiphany?

[MS] I began writing the book in May of 2008 and submitted it in January 2009. From the start I had a good sense of who Akash was and what he wanted. I could relate to his math talent because I have a slight math obsession myself; whenever I see numbers I form equations and play with them in my head just like Akash does. 

My process is more intuitive than planned. When I write a book I do not outline or plan a story draft on paper but start after I have an idea for the arc and “can hear the character talk to me.” I begin every writing day on page one, re-read and revise what I have completed before I continue the next chapter. Then, about 2/3 into the draft, just as I have to decide how to get to the end, I experience a crisis of sorts. This sequence of events seems to repeat itself with each book I write.

Initially, I had planned for Akash to embark on a kind of pilgrimage to clear his karma. In previous drafts he went to the holy city of Pushkar and met the sadhu there. I struggled with the ending and for about a month I felt like I wouldn’t be able to finish the book. But then, and this is a mysterious process that I cannot rationally explain, I suddenly knew how it had to end and the chapters fell into place.

[UK] We writers often need readers along the way who help us with questions and comments. Did you have readers who helped this book along on its journey? 

[MS] My first reader is always my husband. I am very fortunate that he has the patience to read and edit my drafts. He is a high school English teacher and I can trust his judgment. After all, he teaches reading and writing for a living. His comments were especially helpful in the description of settings. It seems to be harder for me to paint a picture of a place with words than to describe people. For example, I have probably re-written the beginning of chapter 11 when Akash arrives at the stone quarry more times than any other part because my husband kept saying, “I can’t see it yet.” I also process a lot by talking to him about a story. For the nine months that I was writing the book he listened to me ruminate about Akash and live with this imaginary character. 

The other very important person in shaping the story was my wonderful editor, Frances Foster, who asked just the right questions to help me improve the manuscript. She put her finger at exactly the sections that needed more work. Frances has a brilliant sense for shaping endings and I re-wrote the last chapter several times with her guidance.

[UK] What do you want young readers to take away from Akash’s story?

[MS] The book shows young American readers what life is like for poor children in India. It also gives them a glimpse into another culture's religion, customs, and beliefs. Even though they might be unfamiliar with India, I hope readers can identify with Akash and his tenacity in the pursuit of his dream. But the novel also reaches out to the growing number of American readers of Indian descent for whom neither the place nor the religion are entirely unfamiliar and who will, hopefully, embrace Akash's story as a genuine depiction of one aspect of Indian reality.

[UK] Thank you Monika! Congratulations again.

[MS] Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my book.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Children's Book Press Turns 35, Part 2

In a follow-up to my e-mail interview with Children's Book Press director Lorraine Garcia-Nakata, here is a conversation with Executive Editor Dana Goldberg and Sales and Marketing Manager Janet del Mundo. Here's a 2008 interview with Dana at Cynsations.

[Uma] Congratulations! Thirty-five years seems like a telescoped history of modern-day children's publishing. Can you talk about the history of the press and its founding by legendary writer, activist, visionary Harriet Rohmer? What does that beginning mean to you all today?

[Dana] Children's Book Press (CBP) was founded by Harriet in 1975 with a government grant. Her original project was to use the grant money to produce 12 paperback bilingual books (all stories taken from the oral folk traditions of various Latin American cultures) which were to be given away to Head Start programs. It was a beautiful concept, and after the grant was over Harriet knew that the need for those kinds of books like that was still there, so she decided to continue the work she had begun that initial grant. When I think about CBP’s earliest beginnings, I’m amazed at both how far the publishing industry has come, in some ways, and how far it has to go to ensure that all children regularly see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. Only a very small percentage of children’s books published every year feature protagonists of color, and only a very small percentage of those books are written or illustrated by people of color, so there is still a lot of work to be done. The industry’s output still does not (not by a long shot!), represent or reflect the real demographics of our nation, and that has to change.

[Janet] I am so proud to be part of the important work of Children’s Book Press. CBP was the first nonprofit press in the country established to focus solely on multicultural and bilingual literature. Harriet Rohmer, our founder, was really a pioneer in that regard. She recognized the shifting demographics in our country and saw the need to represent children of color in literature. Many other presses have come along since with a similar mission, but I think Harriet and CBP deserve credit for being the first, for paving the way. I think CBP and our work continues to be significant, 35 years later. We’re still publishing books that push boundaries, books that fill an important need. The country has changed a lot since 1975. How people talk about race has changed, and certainly how children of color see themselves has changed. I think our books have always been and will continue to be part of that conversation.

[Uma] CBP books have won awards, been turned into plays, and found their way into many classrooms and homes. Talk about projects, past or current, that were particularly delightful to work on.

[Dana] Every book is a challenge, every book is a learning experience, and every book is a delight. A few projects in recent years that come to mind, though: On My Block, an anthology that brought together a wonderfully diverse group of 15 artists, all writing about and illustrating different places that hold particular meaning for them; My Papa Diego and Me, which allowed us very special access to Diego Rivera’s work and legacy via his daughter (the author), Guadalupe Rivera Marín, and her stories about her remarkable childhood; and From North to South, about a boy whose mother is deported back to Mexico because she doesn’t have the proper papers – it’s an issue that is so very topical right now, and the author, René Colato Laínez, has done an amazing job gently and tenderly expressing a child’s perspective on the trauma of family separation due to a parent’s immigration status.

[Uma] Lovely, and special congratulations to René Colato Laínez (one of VCFA's talented alums, and a wonderful picture book writer, capable of both droll wit and touching humanity!) Here's the trailer for From North to South:

Janet, how about you?

[Janet] There are so many things I find rewarding about working here, but I think one thing I’ve really enjoyed is seeing how our books can achieve another life beyond the page. For example, Uma, when your book, Chachaji’s Cup was turned into a musical and I actually got to see the production, I was blown away! (I’m not just saying this because I’m writing for your blog!) To see one of our own books brought to life on stage, with actors, musicians, dancers, it was really breathtaking, and I almost cried. Or when a number of our books were produced into bilingual audio books by It was great to be able to listen to our stories in multiple languages and to know that children all over the world could enjoy the stories in this way.

[Uma] Thank you. Now you're making me sniffly. Tea With Chachaji was an incredibly moving experience for me as well, on so many levels. Is there anything else either of you would like to add?

[Dana] Thirty-five years is a significant milestone for any nonprofit, and I’m so humbled and thrilled to participate in the work we do. I have to express my deepest gratitude to the authors, artists, designers, librarians, teachers, parents and kids who have been part of the CBP family for the past 35 years. Their talents, energy, passion, creativity, and commitment to children are boundless and amazing, and make what we do possible!

[Janet] Children’s Book Press would not be where it is today without its community of supporters. If you are moved by our mission, if you think underrepresented stories need to be heard, we ask you to please get involved. Donations in any amount and book purchases are always welcome, but there are many other ways you can show your support. You can volunteer, or tell a friend about us, blog about us, or even follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It all helps!

Thanks to Dana and Janet and congratulations all over again to Children's Book Press. For those in San Francisco and the Bay Area, tickets are still on sale for the October 7 fundraiser.