Monday, December 26, 2011

Mount Kailas

This will probably be the last post of the year, as I'm revising a novel while also trying to get ready for the Vermont winter residency and my trip to India following that. But I wanted to end 2011 with an image.

This image.

This is Mount Kailas (or Kailash; Gang Tise in Tibetan), a rare sunlit view of the giant peak that rises to an astonishing 22,028 feet.

The picture of Kailas gilded by sunlight was sent to me by an Internet acquaintance who has my undiluted admiration for having recently been on the Kailas-Manasarovar yatra (Sanskrit for "journey" or  "pilgrimage").  Her group did the full parikrama (Sanskrit for "circumambulation") of the mountain on foot.

This part of Asia is a land of contested borders and competing claims of jurisdiction, with force and occupation ruling the day. It's also a place of great mystical significance for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and followers of the indigenous Tibetan religion of Bön. It was probably an object of awe and worship for unknown ancient belief systems that predate any religion we know today. Hindus believe it to be the abode of Lord Shiva himself, guardian of the forces of destruction and dissolution in the universe.

And finally, it's a place in danger. Himalayan glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates in our time.

So I want to end 2011 by taking some time to look at this mountain against light and cloud and sky. Just look. And see if it doesn't somehow provide perspective.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Naomi Rose on Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure

Author-illustrator Naomi Rose, welcome and congratulations on your new picture book from Lee & Low, Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure. (Review excerpt from Booklist: "gracefully introducing Tibetan words and customs...this upbeat story provides a rare look at Tibetan American culture.")

[Uma] Your own inquiry into Tibetan wisdom and culture is important to your life. How did that inquiry lead you to the mysteries of the flower cure?

[Naomi] About 10 years ago, my father was recovering from cancer. My mother, who knew of my interest in Tibetan culture, emailed me a true story about a Tibetan man who miraculously recovered from cancer. The story was written by a hospice worker. She had tried to use the Tibetan Flower Cure to bring comfort to the Tibetan man in his final days. Instead of simply bringing him comfort, the Tibetan Flower Cure actually cured him! But it wasn't just the flowers that evoked the cure. It was the coming together of communities in support of this man's well being. The doctor was baffled about the unexpected healing. But the Tibetan man explained that the disease couldn't live in a body filled with so much love. It was such a beautiful story of the power of kindness and community, I knew I had to write it for children.

[Uma] In the end this is a story of geographies blending and merging through the connections between the generations. Talk about both those elements and how you show this blending of places and cultures in your art.

[Naomi] When I have visited the homes of Tibetan-Americans, I've seen an intriguing mixture of American and Tibetan elements. The homes generally have a special room dedicated for the most sacred items. This room is specifically for meditation, chanting, and prayer. The rest of the house is a combination of Tibetan and American culture, such as prayer flags flying in the yard next to a lawn mower, thangkas hanging above televisions, and so on. In a way, this approach blends the sacred and mundane, which I really appreciate. So I was careful to place Tibetan items in the ordinary rooms and scenes in my art.

Another aspect of blending is the dress. Some Tibetan-Amercians, especially the elders, continue to wear chupas, the traditional Tibetan clothing. Others, especially the younger generations, wear American clothes. I portrayed this in the illustrations with Popola wearing chupas, and Amala and Tashi wearing American clothes.

[Uma] Reversals drive the structure of this book: Sickness to healing, inaction to action, I could go on. I know you worked on this book over time and in many different versions, but can you tell me how you arrived at the final structure?

[Naomi] After several years of working on the story on my own and with my critique group, it finally earned some interest at Lee & Low Books. Louise May was the editor-in-chief at the time and she and I worked on the story for almost 18 months. But when she finally showed it to the editorial committee, they passed on the book. I was devastated. I filed the story far away. Then about six months later, I read a newly-released picture book from Lee and Low, written in free verse. I loved the voice. Inspired, I rewrote Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure in free verse, first person, present tense. I wrote the story without thinking of a publisher. I wrote it from my heart. I knew I had a good story, much better than before. I showed it to Louise May and it required only a few minor revisions before the acquisitions committee accepted it.

[Uma] Finally, can you share a recipe for solja?

[Naomi] Solja, or Tibetan Butter Tea, is definitely an acquired taste. It is especially enjoyed when living in high altitudes and freezing temperatures. Tibetans in Tibet have very elaborate ways of preparing the tea. These ways may include using butter churns and horsehair (to strain the tea). But here is a way to make it more simply.


Makes 5 to 6 cups of tea:
plain black tea (2 tea bags or 1 tbsp. of loose leaf)
¼ tsp. of salt
2 tbsp. of butter
½ cup of milk

Boil 5 to 6 cups of water. Pour two tea bags or one tbsp. of loose leaf into the boiling water and wait 2-3 minutes. Gently remove the tea bags or strain the tea leaves. Pour the tea into a large container with a lid or a blender. Then add salt, butter and milk. Shake it for 2 or 3 minutes. Serve it immediately. Enjoy!

This delicious tea will keep you warm in the winter and help you feel healthy and strong.

[Uma] Thank you Naomi. And here's another review from one of my favorite book bloggers, the BookDragon.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Diabolical: From Literary Homage to Growing the Craft

Cynthia Leitich Smith's intelligent, quirky, robust vampire series has swirled into an industry all its own. Her Dracula-inspired quartet of prose novels in the Tantalize series includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Diabolical, which will be released by Candlewick on Jan. 24, 2012. Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, is now available, and the Eternal graphic novel, also to be illustrated by Doyle, is currently in production.

In addition, two short stories, “Haunted Love,” originally published in Immortal, edited by P.C. Cast and “Cat Calls,” originally published in Sideshow, edited by Deborah Noyes, are available for free download from various e-retailers.

The books and shorts are published by Candlewick Press in North America, Walker Books in the U.K., and various other publishers around the globe.

I asked Cyn:
The world of your fiction has grown from a kind of whimsical alternative Austin with lurking dangers to encompassing nothing short of heaven and hell. How has writing the Quincie P. Morris books grown you as a writer?

Here is her reply.

I credit the dark master, Abraham Stoker, for much of the past decade of my writing life. 

The first quartet of novels in the Tantalize series are a conversation with his 1897 horror classic, Dracula, which likewise features varied settings (the Carpathian Mountains, the streets of London) and an international cast (the Dutch doctor, Texas gunslinger, English lawyer, etc.). 

My first of the books is firmly set in Austin, but from there, we travel to Dallas, Chicago, a fictional small town in Michigan, the outskirts of San Antonio, north to Montpelier, Vermont; and its surrounding countryside, climaxing in a battle that literally rages from heaven to hell.

These multi-creature-verse stories are told from four points of view. A tie-in graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story released this fall, and an Eternal graphic novel is in the works.

When I first began jotting notes in late 2000/early 2001, I had hopes of multiple books. Though many suggested there wasn’t a market for Gothic YA tales, I began writing with a super-arc in mind. Each of the books would have a beginning, middle, and end, but they would also combine to tell a larger story. My dream concept was an ambitious one—to extend Stoker’s world, starting with a pseudo-descendant (a many-times great niece) of the Texan character Quincey P. Morris and then working my way back to the root material, a demonic academy that lingers in Romanian-Hungarian folklore.

At the time, I was a long-time fantasy reader but had published only realistic, contemporary fiction.
Suddenly, I needed to learn world- and creature-building and to craft a story in which both were necessary for the protagonist’s internal and external journeys. Soon it became the protagonists’—plural—internal and external journeys, even as my world and its varied population continued to grow.
I had to consider the power of metaphor in conveying such weighty themes as alcoholism, homelessness, gender and power, sexual assault, bigotry, culture/identity, biological warfare, plague, child abuse, slavery, indentured servitude, sexual orientation, free will, the role of faith, good and evil, holy sacrifice, the nature of God, redemption, forgiveness, destiny, and grace.
You know, in a fun, occasionally funny, way that also inspired tears, while keeping the action moving, integrating compelling suspense/mystery elements, and making the occasional teenager (or YA librarian) swoon over a certain fictional guardian angel. Or two.
Meanwhile, I navigated quasi-epistolary elements, unreliable point of view, alternating point of view, juxtaposing urban/rural with high fantasy, translating from prose to graphic format, embracing the short and long form, and writing across race, region, culture, gender, orientation, nationality and species.
Worst of all, I had to learn to write love scenes—fresh, poignant, passionate love scenes that rang true and spoke to the adolescent experience. That nearly killed me.
Put mildly, the psychological and intellectual challenges have been numerous and formidable. The experience has equipped me with a toolbox of skills that I hope to carry into future projects. But my more valuable takeaway is what I learned about YA readers and my relationship to them.
I’ve learned to more seriously consider the young audience.
That’s not fashionable. You often hear writers say, “I write for myself” or “I write for people” (not merely—gasp—kids), or, though usually not so straightforwardly, “I write for acclaim.”
Don’t get me wrong. I do cater to my own inner brat (and a brat she is) and my darling readers over 18 (who generate about half my mail) and those remarkable champions/gatekeepers. I’m honored that the books have been critically well received and appreciate the importance of that in widely sharing them.
But my previous works had been for younger kids. And while I heard from a handful of grieving tweens and thoughtful Native readers in the wake of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the vast majority of my feedback came from grown-ups.
With the Tantalize series, for the first time, I found myself presented with countless more personal interactions, such as:
a fourteen-year-old, big-city boy clinging to a tattered copy of Tantalize—the first novel he’d ever finished;
  • a pair of suburban African-American teen cousins wanting to talk to me about my choice of “black” as a color of heaven; when so often in Gothics, its only association is with evil;
  • a reader ranting (with many exclamation marks) that a girl is NOTHING!!! without a boy to love her;
  • a handful of girls writing about their physically/emotionally abusive “romantic” relationships and how Quincie’s arc inspired them to view themselves and their situations in a new light;
  • a date-rape survivor who wrote to say she’d copied an exchange at the end of Blessed and taped it to her bedroom mirror;
  • a young lesbian who wanted to know why the only gay main characters were male and adults (which is no longer the case with the upcoming release of Diabolical);
  • a reader who wrote of Miranda, “Nice to see an Asian girl pick up a battle-axe!”
  • foodies who requesting recipes from the Sanguini’s menus;
  • Ausitinites and Chicagoans thrilling to see their neighborhoods reflected in a YA book;
  • high schoolers delighted that they actually “got” the Hawthorne references (“English class was good for something!!!);
  • teens who read the novel Dracula along with Quincie, looking for clues;
  • readers literally bouncing, tearing up, or kneeling with enthusiasm;
  • and a seemingly endless array of folks (of both genders and, for that matter, all ages) swooning over the glory that is Zachary. It’s surreal to be gushed at about the sexiness of a figment of your imagination.
So now I have my audience in mind: Geeky but unpretentious young people (and those young at heart) with depth and a sense of humor. Those who’re willing to be challenged by the occasional unfamiliar literary device and/or reconsider their world view, who’re open to a hero who’s Asian or Latino or Italian-American or gay or part wereotter; and who can get behind imperfect characters who love deeply but aren’t wholly defined by their respective relationship status.
They’re avid and reluctant readers, those who love and hate genre romance, and those who adore and abhor horror novels. They reach for mystery fiction and revel in the mysterious nature of our so-called real world. A few leave unsettled, even unsatisfied, only to return months, perhaps years, later with more life experience, typically after their first real heartbreak. 
At a time when there is so much economic pressure to pander, to dumb down, to revisit without reinventing, it’s important not to underestimate the  young, not to cower in the face of the perceived market or even some teens’ ever-evolving (and occasionally appalling) priorities.

And we must be equally wary of the temptation to preen over our craft, over how we express ourselves, if it’s at the expense of saying something that truly matters to our intended audience. Art should be thrilling, satisfying, and yes, unsettling. To the reader and also to the artist. There are no safe spaces. Joyful innovation doesn't come from playing it safe. But it does spring, at least in part, from valuing its intended audience.

[Uma] Thank you Cynthia. And so to the menu. Here's the antipasto, the trailer of Diabolical. Congratulations!

Note: Cynthia is now working on Smolder, which is set in the Tantalize universe, but begins a new arc and features new protagonists, two of whom were previously introduced as secondary characters. Cynthia Leitich Smith blogs at Cynsations and is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Best Endeavo(u)r

This was the first book I ever owned, and I won it.

It had been a rough year in kindergarten. I started out in one school where Anita with the pigtails stole my lunch regularly and threatened to beat me if I told. Then I moved to another school and thought I was in heaven. I loved the big pieces of paper we got to draw on and often got into trouble for using more than my allotted number of sheets.

School opened up worlds to me. One time I didn't hear the end of day bell due to being deep in conversation with a girl named Ritu about the possibility of scaling the tamarind tree. I missed the bus, and my mother had to drive all the way out from Delhi Cantonment to come and fetch me home. Come to think of it, I often lived on the fringes of reality, a little abstracted, caught up in daydreams. Their possibilities were so much more enticing than the day to day.

So when the end of year awards ceremony rolled around and came to a clacking stop, I didn't expect anything. When my name was called I sat there astonished. "Go," said my mother. "Go." In the end my father had to hold my hand and walk me up, because I was so convinced there had been some mistake.

But there it was. The Three Little Kittens, in soft colored soft-cover, kittens and mittens and mother cat and all. My own book. Mine. It said so.

I read those kittens several hundred times, from mishap to mishap. I myself had regularly lost earrings, lunch boxes, and even once a shoe.

I still have this book. It's a little moth-eaten but it has managed to hold together. The label inside reads: Prize presented to…and then my name. Underneath it says, For Best Endeavour. I don't remember what I did to earn that consolation prize. But really, as a goal, best endeavor isn't so bad. It still holds up. It's something to reach for.