Review: Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

open micTitle:  Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices
Editor: Mitali Perkins
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 127
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: ARC
Availability: September 10, 2013

 

 

 

Summary: Listen in as ten YA authors — some familiar, some new — use their own brand of humor to share their stories about growing up between cultures. Henry Choi Lee discovers that pretending to be a tai chi master or a sought-after wiz at math wins him friends for a while — until it comically backfires. A biracial girl is amused when her dad clears seats for his family on a crowded subway in under a minute flat, simply by sitting quietly in between two uptight white women. Edited by acclaimed author and speaker Mitali Perkins, this collection of fiction and nonfiction uses a mix of styles as diverse as their authors, from laugh-out-loud funny to wry, ironic, or poingnant, in prose, poetry, and comic form. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Take a moment to admire the cover. Go on. Cute, isn’t it?

Open Mic is an anthology with a colorful mix of stories in different mediums. Gene Luen Yang discusses the problematic casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender movie using comics to tell his story. G. Neri lays out a cultural map of Berlin using a blend of humor and free verse poetry to describe a multi-cultural family in a place not quite ready for diversity. Debbie Rigaud creates a snapshot of the relationship between Simone and her great-aunt Ma Tante.

One story in particular stood out to me: Mitali Perkins’ story gave me a glimpse of her teenage life. The story centers around Mitali and her two sisters playing the Game of Guys and being perfectly comfortable with who they were. Recognizing Mitali in her own story, I realized how personal each of the stories in Open Mic were. The autobiographical thread running through the short stories and poems is a story in itself. The story told is, like the title says, a story of life between cultures.

My main complaint is that of length. Only ten stories? The last work, Naomi Shihab Nye’s gorgeous poem “Lexicon,” left me wishing Open Mic would continue on. The value in this sort of anthology is that it’s so rare — an anthology written about and by people who have actually experienced life between cultures. These are voices that need to be heard. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ten voices, there were hundreds? Thousands? Here’s hoping many more such anthologies will follow.

Recommendation: Get it soon or borrow it from the library when it comes out.

Four YA Books with Indian or Indian-American Protagonists

I haven’t read many YA books with Indian or Indian-American protagonists, so I thought it would be fun to see what books I could find. Here are four books that caught my eye, thanks to CBC Diversity’s Goodreads page:

Shine Coconut MoonShine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

A Beautiful LieA Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master

An extraordinarily rich debut novel, set in India in 1947 at the time of Partition. Although the backdrop is this key event in Indian history, the novel is even more far-reaching, touching on the importance of tolerance, love and family. The main character is Bilal, a boy determined to protect his dying father from the news of Partition – news that he knows will break his father’s heart. With great spirit and determination, and with the help of his good friends, Bilal persuades others to collude with him in this deception, even printing false pages of the local newspaper to hide the ravages of unrest from his father. All that Bilal wants is for his father to die in peace. But that means Bilal has a very complicated relationship with the truth…

LovetornLovetorn by Kavita Daswani

When Shalini’s father gets a new job in L.A., she is torn away from her life in India and the boy to whom she’s been betrothed since she was three. L.A. is so different, and Shalini dresses and talks all wrong. She isn’t sure she’ll survive high school in America without her fiancé, Vikram, and now she has to cope with her mom’s homesickness and depression. A new friend, chill and confident Renuka, helps Shalini find her way and get up the courage to join the Food4Life club at school. But she gets more than just a friend when she meets Toby—she gets a major crush. Shalini thinks she loves Vikram, but he never made her feel like this.

In Lovetorn, Shalini discovers that your heart ultimately makes its own choices, even when it seems as if your destiny has already been chosen.

Author Kavita Daswani has always been fascinated by child marriages and betrothals, and this story of a traditional girl from India, who is exposed to so many more freedoms and experiences after being dropped in a completely alien culture, is a fresh and contemporary look at the subject.

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifBorn Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

New Releases

We’ve found two humorous contemporary books that will be released this week. They were previously reviewed here. It’s interesting that the covers are both related to eating and they’re yellow too. It makes me wonder how many other diverse books have food on the cover.

family
The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong by L. Tam Holland

Simon and Shuster

Summary: A hysterically funny debut novel about discovering where you come from—even if you have to lie to get there.

When Vee Crawford-Wong’s history teacher assigns an essay on his family history, Vee knows he’s in trouble. His parents—Chinese-born dad and Texas-bred Mom—are mysteriously and stubbornly close-lipped about his ancestors. So, he makes it all up and turns in the assignment. And then everything falls apart.

After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

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A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Bendan Halpin

EgmontUSA

Summary: Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.

Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin’s summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents’ divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog– and Emmy definitely doesn’t. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.

A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: When You Where Here

hereTitle: When You Were Here
Author: Daisy Whitney
Genres: Contemporary, Literature
Pages: 257
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Won from C.J. Omololu’s Book Giveaway
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Danny’s mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.

Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn’t know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.

When he gets a letter from his mom’s property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother’s memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died. (from Amazon)

Review: In a literary landscape where fantasy and dystopian novels are best sellers, it is nice to have a quiet novel. A novel that explores the human condition in a beautiful, yet understated way. A novel that allows the reader to connect with a character as he or she grows and comes to understand meaning in the small things in life. “When You Were Here” is such a novel that examines life after a loved one succombs to cancer. It’s a beautiful story that explores grief and then finding acceptance after death.

What I really liked about this novel is the fact that this touching story is told from a male’s perspective. Having a male narrator/main character in YA literature is somewhat of a rarity and I enjoyed reading Danny’s discovery of the last few months of his mother’s life, especially her time in Japan. Danny is unflinchingly honest about his feelings – his anger that his mother wasn’t able to see him graduate from high school, his love for his ex-girlfriend Holland –  as he works through the stages of grief and in the end discovers himself. By learning to be honest with himself, he learns how to ask the questions he needs from the people who knew his mother and to be honest with Holland. I loved the fact that the character’s spoke to each other instead of a book filled with misunderstandings. It was clear that Danny had a healthy relationship with his mother, told through touching flashbacks, that helped him become the young man who is able to handle becoming an orphan at the age of 18. His maturity doesn’t seem forced, in that children with ill parents are often much more mature than their counterparts. It is because of this attention to character detail that makes Danny feel very real and relatable.

Last week I wrote about creating diverse worlds, even when having main characters who are Caucasian, as “When You Were Here” does. I wasn’t even thinking about this novel when I wrote the article, but the world Danny lives in is a perfect example of a diverse world. The novel begins in Los Angeles and Whitney makes sure to make Danny’s world a reflection of the multicultural city that is Los Angeles. I was definitely able to relate to the city presented in this novel because it is the world I live in. When the novel moves to Tokyo, Whitney doesn’t treat the city as a novelty, but as a real place where people live and work. In fact, Danny loves Tokyo and that love is clearly presented. Danny doesn’t view Tokyo with a tourist’s wonder, but as a citizen of the city and in the end, he calls it home. I do not know whether Whitney actually visited Japan, but she definitely completed thorough research into local customs, beliefs, language as well as most likely asked the right questions about Japanese culture. Her careful attention shows the respect it takes when writing another culture when one is the other and I commend her for it.

While I didn’t read this by the beach, “When You Were Here” is beach reading material and the perfect companion for summer.

FWFF alas

Foreign Words for Foreign Flavor (FWFF): when writers toss in words from languages not their own just to make it clear that everything is happening in a foreign culture where things are ~exotic~ and different

Example: The shadows made his face resemble a gui. He looked just like a demon! Terrified, I dropped my xiezi on the ground and screamed as my shoes hit the ground.
Bu pa!” the figure said, stepping into the light. It was only Wang Dazhong, son of the Long emperor and the heir to the Dragon Dynasty. “Don’t be afraid! I will turn out to be handsome and soft-hearted in three to five chapters!”

Yes, sometimes authors mix in different languages and it totally works.* It’s fantastic, beautiful even. Makes me cry tears so joyful and pure that scientists use them in chemical experiments. Many books don’t commit FWFF.

But sometimes — the author means well. The author has done research, lots of it. The author has even toured the country in question. (I’m a little bitter about this part because flying off to have fun in other countries costs $$$. Hmph.) The author might even have stayed in the country for years and years. Still. I’ve got problems with FWFF:

1) Hey, this isn’t even about ethnicity/nationality/cultural background. This is a matter of writing quality. It’s just plain bad writing to throw in words from other languages when they don’t serve any purpose other than, well, foreign flavor. If the words are only there to provide exotic atmosphere, then that is a failure on the part of the writer. Good writing should be able to explain cultural differences to the reader without hitting the reader over the head with it. Don’t fall into the FWFF trap — especially if you’re not from the culture in question and the foreign language isn’t one you’re intimately acquainted with, which brings us to:

2) Okay, so it is kind of about cultural perspective. FWFF assumes that the reader is always an outsider, just like the author. For example, someone who doesn’t know Japanese would need translations for the greetings and clan names and weapon types in all those Japan-inspired fantasy books (written by people who aren’t Japanese!) that have been cropping up lately. There’s always the super awkward translation of every foreign phrase stuffed into the text at intervals (necessary because there’s no way the reader could possibly speak that language, right? /sarcasm).

FWFF and all its related buddies make it clear that the target audience is not from or even remotely knowledgeable about the language/culture in question. It turns the insiders into the true outsiders. When an author uses a different culture as an easy substitute for a fantasy setting, or to add spice to the tale, the result is shoddy writing and an alienating story. When an author uses a culture not their own as a shortcut for an exotic setting, the author says: This book isn’t for you. It’s for people who think foreign means exotic and mystical and weird.

Well, let me tell you a thing. “Foreign” and “Other” — these things are a matter of perspective. What’s foreign to you isn’t foreign to someone else. That’s something to keep in mind when writing, okay? Okay.**

*The Summer Prince uses sprinklings of words from other languages — like “mushibot” — and it’s awesome! Swoon.
**Note: FWFF has many little friends crawling around literature land. You know — stereotypical characters, names that are straight out of a foreign language dictionary, mystical customs, strangely alluring dance moves, etc.

Meet Meg Medina

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In May, Jessica reviewed Meg Medina’s most recent novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Recently, I was able to interview Meg via Skype to discuss that book and more. I’m thankful that she graciously shared a bit of her writing life with us.

What brought you to writing for young people?

I have written for adults and I don’t rule it out completely that I will someday find a story that is more suited to adults, but in one way or another my life has pointed me in the direction of children. I’ve spent a lot of time working with young people of all ages as a teacher, mother and volunteer. There is also something really wonderful about writing for young people. I consider it an honor. You’re learning about everything including yourself at that age and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to stay connected to that piece of yourself. I sort of picture myself in a cave with a lantern and I’m walking through and I just hold it up. I can’t solve anybody’s issues. I can’t make dark things go away, but I can shine a light and I can certainly help someone feel less isolated by the issues of growing up – the problems of growing up.

Also, when I write for young children, when I do a picture book — that is just joyous. Because it’s poetry really — a big story in a small number of words. It’s image. It’s emotion. And it’s the joyous part of being young that I like to capture.

I read an interview you did with School Library Journal and you mentioned that Yaqui Delgado was based on something in your past. Could you share a little about that?

I went to a middle school in New York and one morning a girl in a rabbit fur coat approached me and said someone told her they were going to kick my ass. I said, “Who’s that?” I had no idea. It was this very fierce girl — a Latin girl like me and not like me. What followed was two of the longest years of my life because I was really afraid to go to school. Afraid to go the bathroom. Afraid to be in the hall and run into one of her cronies or her. She never did savage me the way it happens in the novel for Piddy, but that feeling of dread and the way fear and being picked on can really destroy your sense of self, that is very true. And that is what happened to me. I started to make really terrible choices. I started to harden myself, to speak coarsely, to hang out with extremely questionable people, to do really unsafe things. In retrospect, they were really not healthy things for any young woman to be doing. It took years for me to feel better. It just seeped throughout all of middle school into high school. When we are in high school there’s a lot to be angry about. This just compounded it and it took a long time to feel better.

Are you part of a writing group?

Usually I write by myself and I work with my editor, Kate Fletcher pretty closely. I will write something and I have one or two trusted readers who are friends and authors. They give me their feedback, but really, once you have a close relationship with an editor at whatever your publishing house you land, in some ways it’s an audience of one. It’s a conversation between you and your editor of this work. The hard thing about a writing group sometimes is that it’s many voices & many opinions and not all equally great. That’s just the way it is. So I’m careful about that. It’s very easy to be blown off course.

Looking at your books, it seems like family is pretty important to you. I was just curious if any of your family members are kind of peeking out from some of your books.

They’re bleeding all over the pages. It’s bad for them really. Their lives and identities have been stolen. I take pieces of family of friends etc. I shamelessly melt them down to my purposes. I combine them with others and I create what I want. That’s how I really operate.

The most visible is Tia Isa Wants a Car, which is a picture book. There is a Tia Isa. She did buy the first family car. She lives with me. She lives downstairs. She, as in the book, she wanted to buy the car and no one in the family thought that she should because she was very nervous not necessarily a quick learner and we were all sure we were gonna die in the car. But she got secret lessons with a bilingual driving instructor and came home one day with this big Buick Wildcat and that car sort of liberated us. We could go anywhere we wanted to go after that. I had no notion I would write about Tia Isa, but when I sat down to write, the line that came to me was “Tia Isa wants a car” and it became a story of a little girl and her aunt conspiring to buy the family car. It’s about the whole notion of the person least likely, the least one among us, told she can’t do something, who does it anyway. That was a good lesson in life that my aunt provided for me and so it was wonderful to be able to honor her with that book. Now, of course, she’s very bossy, like she’ll look at the illustrations and she’ll say things like, “They didn’t get my hair right.”

There have been a lot of articles recently (CBC Diversity, Lee & Low, Betsy Bird) about the state of multicultural publishing. Do you have ideas or suggestions about how teachers, librarians, and/or bloggers can help change this?

I think it’s important, that the books offer the world of the multicultural child, showing the idiosyncracies of their culture as just a natural fact of life as the book examines the normal problems of growing up. It’s really just another lens, but at its core it still has to be a good story about the normal problems of growing up. Wanting friends, difficulty with friends, facing adult problems for the first time, falling in love, distancing from your family you know, all of those tried and true universal things, but superimposed with the lens of a Latino family or an Asian family or any culture but really staying true to what it is to be a child at whatever age teenage, preschool etc. That’s my core belief.

I think it’s important for schools and community libraries and so on to move beyond the notion of using books during Spanish Heritage Month, Cinco de Mayo or El Dia de los Niños. That’s a great time to use papel picado and piñatas, but we’re beyond this. It needs to be literature that is part of literature all the way around. When you are talking about a unit like girls on adventures, you might pick up my book Milagros or Maragarita Engle’s book Hurricane Dancers.

I also like to see partnerships with Latino authors and illustrators. One of the joys of coming to the table now, is there are so many wonderful Latino authors and illustrators making really compelling work and they are very community oriented and interested in youth, in creating a sense of pride, creating habits of reading and increasing literacy in the families and in the communities. They’re willing to come to schools, to skype, to do community shows of illustrations. I have found them to be a wonderful family of people. I would encourage librarians to reach out to Latino authors and illustrators in whatever way you can to come to your school – to visit your school to be part of the conversation. It’s a great idea. Our children need to see these examples of men and women being successful in many fields including the fields of art and literature. I wish sometimes that we would take a bigger view of what we bring to our children in what we call education. Part of education of course, is helping kids to see the possibilities for themselves.

Can you explain your Girls of Summer Program?

My friend Gigi Amateau is a Candlewick author too. Often we have strong girls in our books. Our daughters were getting ready to graduate and we started talking about how books helped us raise them and helped us as mothers and helped them as girls. So just very casually we wondered if we could come up with 18 books that we think are really amazing books for strong girls – and we could. We started talking about them passionately and then we decided to make it a blog. One thing led to another and we’re now in the third year of Girls of Summer. It’s basically this blog where every year we pick 18 of our favorite books for strong girls. We do it for picture books all the way to YA and every Friday we have one of the authors come and do a Q & A with us.

The Richmond Public library has these wonderful librarians. They promote the list and we have our Girls of Summer live launch party there. We bring two of the authors from the list to do a live Q & A. We give the whole list to two lucky winners, an elementary winner and a middle/high school winner. We also have other goofy give-aways like flip-flops and sunscreen — very necessary. The library funded free ice-cream for all of the girls. We had between 180 and 195 people. Mothers, daughters, teachers, librarians and girls of every age and every color and every ethnicity all in celebration of books that in turn celebrate what it is to go from being a little girl to a young woman who can determine what she wants for herself. It’s a beautiful thing. I love that project. I love that it helps the city library. I love that it helps girls in the community. I love that I get to work closely with my friend Gigi. It’s all good. There’s no downside to it, except maybe the work. There’s a lot of work and a lot of reading involved, but it’s all good.

What are you doing when you aren’t writing and working on The Girls of Summer?

This morning I am doing research for a new novel set in New York City in the late 70s during the time that Son of Sam was murdering girls. Isn’t that a cheery thought? I am just pulling together information.

Meg also added that she spends a lot of time with her family.

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To learn more about Meg, her books, and The Girls of Summer, please visit her website.

Photo credit Petite Shards Productions