Monday, December 27, 2010

Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader

In looking over the running bibliography I keep on my computer desktop, so that its memory can support my own unreliable one, I find notes like these about books in which Indian or Indian-American characters play secondary roles (I've stripped the identities because I don't intend to review those books here). I'm also aware that in the world of American children's and YA literature I'm almost always in the minority with these particular knee-jerk reactions:
  • "A dreadfully stereotyped Indian character, X, speaking without a contraction in sight, appears as healer and resident Gandhian in Story Y."
  • "...the dialogue is written in an annoying and slightly off-kilter Indian lilt, reminiscent of the Simpsons' Apu."
  • "...stereotypically nerdy Indian kid as sidekick."
So while I was interested in Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader, I was also worried. It's so easy to resort to stock types and then fall headlong into stereotyping, and goodness knows that for color, spice, flamboyance, and bias, we desis present tons of stock types. How, I wondered, had Jessica handled her Sachi character?

It turns out, with considerable care. In Nice and Mean, middle schoolers Marina Glass and Sachi Parikh are paired up to work on a video project and run headlong into trouble almost at once. They seem to be locked into a kind of symbiotic conflict, which seems impossible to get around. Their worldviews seem far too divergent to offer any hope for this project or for communication between them. The story plays out in alternating first person voices, and inches surely toward catastrophe and then just as surely toward a connection that raises interesting questions of judgment and opinion, and what really matters, especially in the peer-driven world of middle school. But common ground? The answer would appear to be, well, no.

The book has been dicussed in several places including Mitali's Fire Escape, where the interview covers some of the same terrain I like to tramp around in, here on WWBT. Here's my e-mail interview with Jessica Leader:

[UK] On your web site you have written that the character of Sachi came in part from a girl in a class you observed during your teacher training program. From that early inspiration, how did you go about deepening Sachi's character? What layers did you choose to add and why? What changed as she grew?

[JL] When I first created Sachi, she was a supporting character in a manuscript about one of the other girls in Nice and Mean. That manuscript never saw the light of publication, thank goodness, but it left me with the desire to focus a story around Sachi, since the way I portrayed her had raised many questions that, to be honest, I had never addressed.  She was always supportive, always cheerful and calm, always competent, but what would that be like for her? What would she do if she felt selfish and grumpy? And what would happen if she wanted to pursue something that other people wanted her to avoid? 

To answer these questions, I had to push past my own preconceptions of Sachi’s character.  I had to figure out when she would be charitable and when she would be judgmental, and if she did pass a judgment, how that would manifest itself? (Certainly not at all like the other narrator in the story, Marina, who never met a quip she didn’t like!) When Sachi faced others’ opposition, as she does when her parents don’t want her to take a video class, I had to give Sachi enough gumption to push past it, which was sometimes hard to manage, since I had envisioned her as such a pleaser. It was all a far cry from the nice, sweet Sachi in the first manuscript, but she was so much more real and interesting this way that I knew it had to be right. In fact, I think that Sachi’s friends and I went on a similar journey in this book: we both learned about another side of someone we thought we knew.  

[UK] In among the awkward truths of middle school, you've managed to create two characters, Marina and Sachi, who are in instant opposition. The tensions of that opposition drive the story. You say you're a plotter--talk about how you built the two girls' stories and made them intertwine without dropping a thread!

[JL] Goodness, I don’t know!  I think that at first, actually, there was too much resonance between Marina and Sachi.  Would you believe that even in a very late-stage draft, they both had one older sister and one younger?  Too much similarity, and too many characters.  Plus there was also this one chapter where Sachi thought Marina was stealing her video, and her friends were acting silly about a crush they had….  Margaret Bechard, the advisor at Vermont College who worked with me on this, was generally pretty positive about the draft I sent her, but when it got to that particular chapter (I think it was number eight), she wrote something to the effect of, “As you can see, I am starting to get a little bit testy here.”  Even late in the game, the story was bogged down with excess, and it wasn’t until I went into heavy revision, both with my advisor and my editor, that the current version began to emerge. 

To answer your question, then, I think my process of building’ the girls’ stories was less about spinning this wonderful symmetry and more about paring away things that were just too ridiculous and did not belong.

And that paring away leaves this interesting oppositional symmetry. Moving on... Of the Indian-American readers who read your work while it was in progress, you say they "showed me my characters in a new light." What do you mean by that? What did you learn in the process of receiving and using this sort of insider help?

[JL] The feedback I remember the most from the draft that I shared with my Indian-American readers was that the relationship between Sachi and her older sister, Priyanka, was too parental.  They said that in East Asian countries, the older sister might feel responsible for the well-being and reputation of the younger one, but in Indian culture, that just wasn’t so.  This was actually a great opportunity for me.  It spurred me to look more closely at the reason Priyanka was so disapproving of Sachi’s video aspirations and enabled me to endow her character with more nuance.  And isn’t that what you always want to do with your characters—push past the obvious and into the personal? 

I have to admit that for much of the process of writing Nice and Mean, I was nervous about seeking feedback from Indian-American readers.  I was afraid that that they would find my story full of assumptions and resent the fact that I had taken a story from their experience of the world and used it to create a story of my own. 

As I grew more serious about writing, though, and got closer and closer to that publication date, two things liberated me from this fear: first, I met writers who assured me that stories belong to everybody, as long as you approach them with respect and care. The second liberator, which was possibly more like an inoculation, was my realization that I’d much rather have a few acquaintances laugh at my assumptions than read a scathing review saying the same! I would say that the major learning here was: always consult insiders! If they don’t want to help you, they won’t. If they do—and I’ve found this with all types of experts, from video-makers to National Parks workers to conservative Christians—they will invariably help you deepen your story. 

[UK] Thanks Jess! All best for a great year ahead in 2011.

[JL] Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Returning to Hedgebrook, in My Mind

In the fall of 2006, I spent three weeks here, thanks to the Hedgebrook Foundation:
It was a meditative experience, being in that cottage in the woods, immersed in solitude, with that whispery silence all around me. It made me realize that I could live happily in such a place, being taken care of and doing nothing at all. So I grew slightly frantic, and wrote a very rough, patchy, uncertain, oh, let's just call it a plain bad novel draft in three weeks flat. Set it aside and couldn't bear to look at it for the next four years.

Since then I have occasionally felt overcome by guilt. I should have finished that novel by now. It should be out and in print by now. Oh, why did they throw that residency away on me?

But now I remember what Hedgebrook's Executive Director Amy Wheeler said to me when I was going through my moments of panic during those three weeks. She said, "Don't be too hard on yourself. Sometimes this place evokes writing that can only come together after you've left."

In my case, long after. Four years later, this novel is pouring itself out onto the page.  I still don't know how it all ends, but the mists of the island have apparently been right here in my mind all along.