Posted in writing

Write Your Thing

“Write this thing.  Write this thing.  Write this thing.”my writing jouornal  It’s a common mantra I chant to myself somewhere between the hours of 9:00 P.M. and 12:00 A.M., when I’m alternately scrawling notes in my writing journal and struggling to type coherent sentences and plot points into some word processor or another on my laptop screen.   Then midnight hits, at which point I commonly accept whatever I’ve done and go to bed.  Generally, I go to bed grumpy, and I wonder why I chose creative writing as a hobby, of all things.  Why didn’t I pick something easier, like alligator wrestling?

It’s not a common sight, but at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a visitor to my apartment would have found me hunched over my laptop, writing furiously.  As a friend would call it, I was in a flow state.  My creativity was flowing freely, I was fully confident in the idea I on which I was working, and I was feeling a generally sense of satisfaction and enjoyment with my overall project.  Those nights, thankfully for my sleep schedule, are rare.  It’s more common to find me hunched over my laptop, still writing furiously but only because the ideas won’t come, and I want to go to bed.  It’s not possibly to always be in a flow state.  If it were, every write would be vying for the spot of most prolific, most well-known, and most well-paid author.  J.K. Rowling might not even be a blip on the radar.  Of course, that means writing when the ideas just won’t come, sometimes.

Writing through writer’s block is one of my least favorite things to do.  It ranks with missing lunch, needing a nap and not having time for one, and forgetting to bring an umbrella on a day where it pours.  Every little thing annoys me, when I’m writing under these conditions.  I vehemently dislike every mistyped word that I have to fix, every extended blank space left where a name or a place I haven’t yet chosen needs to be, and every moment of writing without direction just for the sake of getting words on the screen.  I’m a perfectionist; I want every word that I write in every draft to be the words that will make it to the final draft.  The idea  that I might write something imperfect or unnecessary isn’t a particularly welcome one.  Still, it’s necessary work.  There are so many ideas bound up that need exploring, and not all of them are good ones.  Some of them are pretty bad, others only make sense to me, and a few, of course, are pretty decent. 

It’s impossible to get to the pretty decent ideas and fully explore them without slogging through the mediocre ones.  For every idea jotted down in my writing journal that I’ve actually pursued, there are another four or five that will never get past my casual scribbling and bullet points.  I wouldn’t have a nearly full journal otherwise.  Sometimes the good ideas are born from exploring and expanding worse ideas.  Every so often there’s a gem hidden in the pile of false-starts and things we refuse to allow to leave the scrap pile.  Just casting things onto the scrap pile, without ever fleshing them out, ensures that even the good ideas go to the trash.  A lot of writing is just picking through trash trying to find the good bits in order to show them off to the world – which means a lot of writing is just knowingly generating trash.

Which means, of course, that sometimes it’s just necessary to write, even if it has to be done kicking and screaming the entire way through until the next session, which hopefully goes better.  So you’ll write, even as you grumble at your characters, and your topic, and your notebook, and your computer for simply existing.  You’ll write, and you’ll make yourself irritable and maybe even tired, but it will be worth it when the time spent begins to yield something in which you can truly feel pride.  So, write your thing.

Posted in Reading

A Review of “The Night Diary”

Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary is a heartfelt and also heartrending story of the Partition. "The Night Diary" Cover The story is told from the point of view of twelve-year old Nisha, who feels she leads a comfortable enough life.  Her life begins to crumble, though, when India declares its independence from Great Britain, and Muslim and Hindu politicians decide to divide the country.  Nisha and her publicly recognized Hindu family must now flee their home.  They live in what is to be Pakistan, and like so many families fleeing over the border of India and Pakistan, they must go to be with those of similar religion.  Nisha’s story is told through letter she writes to her deceased mother in the form of a diary.  While some letters seem only to chronicle the events of the day, most of them reveal an inquisitive yet fearful young girl. 

A large part of The Night Diary focuses on Nisha’s dual identity as both Muslim and Hindu, an identity that hampers her ability to changing world around her.  At times, she wonders if she might be accepted in both India and Pakistan.  At other times, she wonders what might happen to her if anyone outside of her family were to know the truth.  Though the conflict between Muslims and Hindus does not permeate Nisha’s familial life, it remains an ever present worry throughout the story, often manifesting in frightening and heartbreaking ways.  Hiranandani wastes little time showing her opinion of this conflict.  Kazi, the family cook and one of the most beloved people in Nisha’s life, is Muslim and commands a good deal of Nisha’s attention in her diary.  Life cannot be divided along religious lines; there are dear people to be found on both sides. 

The Night Diary also explores Nisha’s relationship with her twin brother Amil.  Amil, though Nisha’s twin, is in many ways her opposite.  At times, he offers an alternative viewpoint to Nisha’s much more trusting view of the world.  At other times, he seems just as trusting and forgiving as she is.  Hiranandani explores the relationship between the siblings, so different and yet so alike, with gentle and genuine detail; anyone with a beloved sibling will recognize in Nisha and Amil the love and companionship found in such people.  True to life, though, Hiranandani does not exempt Nisha and Amil from the pitfalls and struggles of sibling-hood.  Nisha worries over Amil’s awkwardness and writers to her mother about how she resents his inability to follow the rules.  At times, she wonders if it is Amil who attracts the hostility her family faces from other people.  Even here, though, Hiranandani is careful not to be unkind to Amil; he has his place and purpose just like everyone else in the book.

While it deals with the heavy topic of the Partition, The Night Diary is kind enough and light enough in its level of brutality and view of the world that it remains a good book for children.  Ultimately, though her family faces considerable hardship, Nisha’s view of the world still remains forgiving and hopeful.  Her story is not one for readers expecting a jaded and cold outlook on the disappointments and difficulties in life.  Through shining light on childhood resilience and hope, The Night Diary tells the story of the Partition and the division and heartbreak it caused but offers hope and new beginnings for those willing to still have faith in the world.

Posted in Reading

Get Yourself a Cheerleader

Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with a dear professor of mine that culminated in both of us walking away with a list of books to add to our reading lists.  My list included Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep.Neil Gaiman's "Anansi Boys"  Her list included  Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.  The point of the conversation wasn’t to swap book titles but the addition to my reading list was a nice takeaway.  Initially, I’d gone for simple conversation and to inform he of my post-graduation plans.  As conversations with dear professors often do, though, the conversation turned towards our mutual interests and what she had to offer me in the way of pursuing my goals.  What I’ve learned from my relationship with her, first and foremost, is the importance of having someone at my back, not only as an advocate, but also as a cheerleader and a sounding board. 

This professor has been invaluable as a sounding board, though she may not know it.  My relationship to my writing is a fraught one at best.  I’m one of those people that likes to know where every idea ends and likes to know all the twists and turns of any potential story.  Too often, if I can’t tell where an idea is going, or can’t figure out how a story ends, I don’t want it.  Of course, no one would ever write if this is how all writers thought.  I muddle along as best I can.  A segment of my college apartment bookshelf is dedicated to notebooks filled with my ramblings about random ideas that strike me and random ideas that stick.  Even more notebooks dominate my closet shelf at home.  What really gets me into an idea, though, is talking about it – just rambling, theorizing, talking myself in circles, and all the other things that make the friends of writers search for the nearest exit.  Sometimes, the best thing is to have someone who’s genuinely interested rather than politely smiling friends who wish you’d play video games or watch movies in your spare time. 

What I noticed yesterday, along these same lines, is that this professor is so very good at noticing when I’m hyping myself up to write.  She’s good at recognizing those moments when I’m on a roll, when I don’t quite have an idea but it’s coming, and I know it.  She knows those moments when I’m really passionate about something and just need a push of encouragement to really set me going.  Only, she isn’t one to just give me words of encouragement.  She gives me sources, tasks, and titles to go research.  She gives me work to do.

“Encourage a student for a day, and she’ll run out of steam; keep that student busy for a day, and she’ll find the inspiration to be busy for spring term.”

-My professor at some point, I’m sure

The point of this long blurb, if you haven’t already figured it out, is get yourself a cheerleader.  Get yourself a cheerleader for the moments when your thoughts won’t translate to writing.  Get yourself a cheerleader to send you off researching whatever it is your writing needs.  Get yourself a cheerleader to help you shut down writer’s block.  Just get yourself a cheerleader.  You’ll be glad you did.

Posted in Reading

“Art for Art’s Sake” and a Nice Read

People who create media have a lot of responsibility to the public.  They must be sure that what they are sending into the world does not promote unfounded hate and be sure, also, that the message they send out does not harm a group of people.  For most of history, I’d wager, humanity has not followed these rules.  Film, literature, journalism, and fine art are filled with examples of openly hateful rhetoric that have ultimately caused incidences of social disaster seen in history’s harsh treatment of less protected people.  It goes without saying that we can do better.  However, if we know what writers ought not to do, what then should they be doing with their writing?  The question becomes one that asks whether authors are obligated to write to advance the social good or if they can simply indulge their own fancies.  Obviously, there’s a market for both explicitly socially aware books and books that are written to be fun romps through a story, or half the inventory of books we read wouldn’t exist. 

This question popped into my head while reading think pieces about the upcoming movie Crazy Rich Asians, which is based off of author Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name.  Admittedly, this book, and his two subsequent books, rocketed to top 10 positions on my list of favorite books I’ve read.  They’re beautifully detailed, delightfully tongue-in-cheek, shockingly mean at times, and extremely compelling even in the face of events to which no ordinary person can relate.  That being said, though, it would be a stretch greater than that of the most supple rubber band to say these books entertain any sort of radical social awareness.  As one might tell by the name, the characters and the plot circle around the lives of the filthy rich.  The books are high quality beach reads, in my estimation.  They’re a romp and a laugh for sure, but they don’t hold much social or radical substance.  Contrast that with a book like The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, which tells the story of a girl forced to grow up quickly after witnessing the death of her unarmed friend at the hands of a police officer.  This novel, aimed at young adults, discusses the various intricacies of race and social order that come into play in a situation where racial lines are so deeply drawn.  In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and it seems the daily stream of videos documenting the violence wrought against black Americans and other Americans of color, Thomas’s book is certainly salient.  At times, I cried reading this book because I knew just how painfully true to life the events were for too many Americans.  Just as Crazy Rich Asians pulls no comedic punches, The Hate U Give pulls no emotional punches.  It makes the reader look at America’s reality and refuses to let them look away. 

Has Thomas done her job as an author better than Kwan did his, though?  Clearly, Thomas’s book is more true to the social realities of the world, but Kwan’s is a fun read.  It’s also not as if Kwan wrote his book in ignorance.  He readily volunteers that his roots are in the same upperclass Singaporean society that Crazy Rich Asians pokes fun at.  E.B. White, author of such books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, once said, “Writer’s do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”1  To go just off of this quote alone, it would seem that the weight lies with the writers like Thomas, who look the gritty, unsavory parts of life head on and address all possible angles of the situation of the story.  Kwan doesn’t do this in his most famous series.  Indeed, the current issue with Crazy Rich Asians, as Warner Bros. releases trailer after trailer promoting the movie, is that the story glosses over the reality of life in Southeast Asia.  In all its frivolity, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy doesn’t address these issues.  The story centers upon its upper-class characters, with all their issues and inequalities discreetly in tow amongst all the absurdity of their gilded lives.  The same could be said of a Tyler Perry film, though, or any number of books in the urban romance genre.  The full scope of reality just isn’t there in a lot of these stories.  For many people, though, these surface level tales are necessary enjoyments.  Sometimes, we need to be able to enjoy a story without hashing out all the difficulties that crop up between characters and storylines.

Of this issue, E.B. White said the following in the forty-eighth issue of The Paris Review:E.B. White, at typewriter

“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”

An author is not devoid of responsibility, which is true of any position wherein a person exerts influence through the work they send into the world.  That being said, it is hardly fair to expect only revolution and societal critique from people who offer us their work.  (Of course, I would hesitate to rule out Crazy Rich Asians as some form of critique.  It’s too funny to deny it that label).  As E.B. White said, writers should write what interests them, only, they should be truthful and compelling in doing so.  I expect that authors will be genuine in their efforts and truly attempt to put out quality work.  Beach read or unflinching critique of society, the least a reader can expect is genuine, honest work.  So long as a book is a thing of quality, there seems to be no reason why people should not enjoy it.  As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes readers need books that don’t remind them of struggle and sorry.  At the time, I was referencing children’s literature, but the same holds true for adults.

1 Plimpton, George, and Frank H. Crowther. “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1.” The Paris Review, no. 48, Sept. 1969.

2 Title slogan attributed to French philosopher Victor Cousin


Posted in Reading

Tamora Pierce’s Real Girls

Tamora Pierce made sure I could never fall out of love with the fantasy genre.  My cousin introduced me to her books when I was twelve and bought me the first two as a gift.   Though skeptical at first, I quickly fell in love with The Song of the Lioness series and its protagonist Alanna of Trebond.  By the time I read Lioness Rampant, the last book in the series, I was hooked and desperate for more.  As it turned out, I was in luck. "Lioness Rampant" book cover Tamora Pierce is a very prolific author.  Next I read the Protector of the Small series, featuring Keladry of Mindelan.  In Song of the Lioness, I found something I had never seen or read before.  In Alanna and the other female characters that surrounded her, I found characters that not only fought and took names, but were also shockingly unladylike, deeply flawed, and to the adolescent me, strangely self-interested.  Perhaps only in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series with the likes of Cregga Roseyes and others had I encountered female characters who got to be impulsive and selfish, without being easily disliked.  Even then, most of those characters ended up mellowing in the end or suffering some form of consequence for their disposition.  Pierce’s heroines, though, were short-tempered, fearful, reckless, haughty, naïve, and a laundry list of other characteristics on top of being brave, dignified, intelligent, tough, kind, and protective, and for the most part, they stayed that way.  To use another word, they felt human.

I could go on for quite some time about Pierce’s world building skills, but I only fell in love with that aspect of her writing in retrospect.  The diversity of her characters, in nearly all manners is what made me realize, even as a preteen and teenager, that I’d be buying these books for my kids and reading them into adulthood.  Perhaps it was because I led a comparable sheltered life to other kids, but I had never encountered an LGBT character in a book before, let alone in one about fantasy.13456728  I had also only encountered characters of color in two other fantasy series before, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, to be specific.  Never before had I encountered characters of color in high fantasy before, where non-white characters could exist alongside knights, lords, and ladies.  The Tortall Universe had Kebibi Ahuda, Buriram Tourakom, Dovasary and Saraiyu Balitang, and others.  The Circle Universe had Daja Kisubo and Evumeimei Dingzai, among others.  All these people, whom it seemed so strange and thrilling in fantasy novels, had roles and did things by their own motivation!  They didn’t just serve the purpose of some other character or serve as side props to the story.  These characters showed me that there was a place for me in fantasy.  There was a place for my dark skin, braids, and big hair in my favorite genre.  In the same way that I latched onto Daja Kisubo, a metal and fire-magic wielding black girl, I’m sure other readers were able to latch onto other characters and hold them close to their hearts.

The characters felt real to me, as diverse and humanly flawed as they were, but so did the details of their lives.  Tamora Pierce writes high fantastic, focused, precise character driven stories.  This is by no means unique to her writing, but she takes time to include the incidentals that so many adolescent girls care about.  Her attendance to these issues only make her stories and her characters more compelling, as they have to deal not only with the fates of their friends and their realms, but also the seemingly insignificant things that affect the day-to-day lives of girls and women all over the world.

Bloodhound" book cover

 Nearly all her female characters at some point have to make provisions for their monthlies, something so simple and routine but so often overlooked in fantasy fiction.  For Alanna of Trebond, a girl posing as a boy, this becomes a bit of a plot point in her first story.  Beka Cooper, heroine of the Provost’s Dog series, seeks tea to soothe her cramps and sorts out fantasy birth control.  Keladry of Mindelan suffers the mortification of receiving the sex-talk from her commanding knight.  These heroines deal nurse crushes, personal vanities, ruin nice dresses, and a host of other things, and they still take names in the midst of it all.  They didn’t have to be divorced from the little pieces of life that popped up in order to function as role models and leaders.  They get to deal with the same things adolescents across the world deal with and still lead the day. 

The heroines of Tamora Pierce’s novels present real and heartfelt representations of girls as they grow up and grow into themselves.  They’re flawed human beings who come from many walks of life and many different persuasions.  As they move through their respective adventures, they learn both to use their flaws to their advantage and also grow and help others grow as people.  Unlike so many other heroines, they don’t tag along to help some hero along.  They don’t have to hide life’s normal, everyday happenings in order to succeed.  They’re people, plain and simple, and they live their own stories.

Posted in Reading

What The Children See

When I was a little girl, I was fortunate enough to have books like Thunder Rose, Raising Dragons, and Pet Show! I had all of the Messy Bessey books about Messy Bessey’s clutter-induced trials, which my neat Bajan grandmother was all too pleased to read to me.51NZW85+ZLL  I had a treasury of stories that included “A Big Spooky House,” part of which I can still recite to this day.  My first grade teacher read my class The Stories that Huey Tells and The Stories that Julian Tells.  While I don’t remember it in much detail, I can still remember parts of the stories.  The thing about all of those books is that they were about black kids just being kids.

While books that focus on slavery, the civil rights movement, and overcoming racism are important and should be available to children, children, especially young children, need to be able to read about characters who not only look like them but also act like them and have the same concerns as them. Peter’s Chair was about a boy who didn’t want to share with a new sibling. Messy Bessey was about a girl who could never keep her room clean. They weren’t about fighting racism or the stress and sorrow that comes with being a racial minority. They were concerned about the things I, as a little kid, was concerned with. I couldn’t keep my room clean, I got a new little sister, and I loved playing pretend. While it was important for me and my peers, and remains important for today’s little children of color, to be aware of the struggles that their forebears faced and the struggles that they will face, no child needs to be reminded of struggle all the time – not in their books, not in their movies, not in any of their media.

One might assume that the best way to avoid this is to allow children to escape to the cute and cuddly.  Animal characters, though charming, can’t cut it, even though I’m sure they make up a well-remembered part of people’s childhoods, as they do mine.  I fondly remember Russell Hoban’s Frances books, particularly Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances. "Sophie's Mastepiece" cover I was rather proud of my copy of If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and recently, while poking around a used book store, I found a copy of Sophie’s Masterpiece.  I distinctly remember my kindergarten teacher reading that to the class, and until I re-discovered it, I’d forgotten how much I loved it (I bought it and almost bought a Frances book).  But while all these stories, and the others like them, are important, I never saw myself in them; I never imagined myself doing the things they did. (Considering that the subject of If You Give a Pig A Pancake paints the yard in wood glue and maple syrup, my mother was probably thankful for this).  Children perceive more than given credit.  They start to realize Frances and Sophie are just a badger and a spider sooner than people realize.   I don’t know if children realize how much a lack of representation affects them, but I do know they notice it and they do feel it later.  Something universal like the Frances books, while useful and necessary, don’t satisfy the need to see oneself reflected back from the pages of a book.  Animals and imagined characters aren’t children of color living the same lives as real children of color, encouraging children of color to follow their dreams and be the best they can be.

Children require affirmation and characters that look like them doing things they do. There needs to be more books for little children of color, and not just the black ones, so that they can be represented at an early age. Children are more than just the past actions of those that got them here. They have dreams that will push them into the future, and they have joys that keep them in the present. They deserve to see that in what they read, as well.

A Big Spooky House – Donna L. Washington"A Big Spooky House" Cover
Messy Bessey – Frederick and Patricia McKissack
Pet Show! – Ezra Jack Keats
Peter’s Chair – Ezra Jack Keats
Raising Dragons – Jerdine Nolen
Thunder Rose – Jerdine Nolen
The Stories Huey Tells – Ann Cameron
A Baby Sister for Frances – Russel Hoban
Bread and Jam for Frances – Russell Hoban
If You Give a Pig a Pancake – Laura Numeroff
Sophie’s Masterpiece – Eileen Spinelli