Monday, February 21, 2011

YA Audio Books: Or, Driving Miss Zombie

For the last couple days, I've been driving Miss Zombie.

Listening to Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth while driving has been like being transported into her fictional world after the zombie apocalypse, her village guarded by The Sisters and The Guardians.

The book is written in first person, with more introspection and description than dialogue, and as I change lanes and take exits, I almost find myself entering the mind of the protagonist, Mary. At every red light, I'm half expecting to see a fence with the hands of the 'unconsecrated' upon it.

Any piece of literature can transport the reader into a new world - fantasy and speculative fiction is of course particularly about entering new worlds. But listening to such a novel on audio book intensifies the readerly experience.

I never thought I was someone who would read zombie literature. But, after reading Cherie Priest's The Boneshaker, I realized I could hang, at least sometimes, with those on team zombie. In fact, despite the genre, Ryan's prose is lyrical and literary, her writing both spare and vivid. Vane Million's reading, though sometimes oddly accented, is eerie and haunting. As her voice and Ryan's words fills my car, my ears, my imagination, I find myself not just transported, but transformed - almost a character in the book myself, another villager.

Which makes me wonder, are certain sorts of books better heard on tape than others? What are your favorite audio books? 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Story Rx: Have Novel in case of Car Accident. (Or, How Katsa Saved me from Whiplash)

The other day, I was in a car accident. Not a super serious one, thank goodness. Was sitting at a red light (a RED LIGHT!) when someone crashed into the driver's side rear end of the car.

The car was still driveable. I was still driveable. But I was pretty shook up.

Luckily the police were there within seconds (we were in a busy college area of Manhattan) and went about doing their police reporting business.

All sounds pretty mundane so far, right?

Well, there I was waiting in my running car (it was a cold night) for the cops to finish doing their thing, when my back started to hurt. And my neck. And my sides. And I felt myself tensing up, thinking "Oh, no, I've hurt something! I could be really hurt!"

I had visions of walking around in one of those big white collars you always see car accident victims wear on TV. I thought about things like disability insurance, and hospitals. My mind started racing. It was not pretty.

So I took out the only weapons I had at the time against the evil forces of anxiety and darkness. My own mind (I did a lot of deep in and out yoga breathing); and more specifically my own imagination. I happened to have Kristin Cashore's Graceling in the car with me, and I opened it up, and in the strange glow of a Manhattan streetlight, began to read.

I read about the brave, two-color eyed Katsa and her fighting skills, her sheer physical will. I read about her love for the Graceling Prince Po (whose name, in a totally unrelated sidenote, means "bottom" in German. Sorry to say, hard for someone married to a German speaker to get over...), her care for the princess Bitterblue. I read about her fights and her love affair, her sword fighting and her emotional growth. In other words, like any devout reader, I became transformed -- transported into a world of fantasy and possibility.

And I started to forget about my own mundane problems. Like why the cops were taking so long. And why that man had hit me in the first place. And how I would match my wardrobe to a ginormous neck collar.

And as my mind relaxed and rejoiced in the novel, my muscles relaxed, and rejoiced in their own luck. I didn't have whiplash, I didn't have anything. I was fine. I was whole. And I was reading.

I'm not saying literature is the cure for all physical ills. But, as my work in Narrative Medicine has shown me, it does have an important role in the training of clinicians and also potentially the healing of the sick.

Katsa didn't save me from evil, but she did, in a very real way, save me from myself. From my own body's tensions and from being more shook up than I had to be.

So my Rx? Drive carefully, people. Put on your seatbelt. Obey traffic rules. Don't talk on the phone or text for goodness sake.

And for those moments you need to escape the madness of life's highway, pull over (safely) and open your favorite fantasy novel.

(Anyone else have stories of novels saving them? :)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Judging Asians by Our (Book) Covers

Q: When you see a YA book cover with an Asian face on it do you:
a. Think "oh good a story about Asian characters!" and pick it up.
b. Think "oh, no a story about Asian characters!" and not pick it up.
c. Think "oh, no, more ghettoization of Asian authors and stories" and still pick it up
d. Think "wish that was a more modern Asian riot grrrl on the cover rather than that exotified, Orientalist image"and then glue a picture of your own fabulous self on the book cover (*NB - please do not deface books, even ones you own! This is only a joke!*)

So in honor of Lunar New Year, I thought I'd bring up an issue relevant to the broader Asian writing community. There's been a lot of talk lately online about YA bookcovers. Particularly, the representation (or lack thereof) of Asian faces/bodies on the covers of stories about Asian main characters.

To see the origins of a recent conversation, see this fabulous blog post by Malinda Lo on Enchanted Inkpot, which is a hilarious categorization of several general YA cover trends - from the close up to magical beasts to lady killers (that is, ladies who ARE killers, my favorite trend by far). In the comments section, there arose a heated conversation about the representation of Asian (appearing) faces on books ostensibly about Asian main characters.

The conversation continued at Malinda's site, in a post she wrote called "Don't Judge A Book by it's Cover." In the comments, some authors articulated their own discomfort with those who would point fingers at their publishers, or the publishing industry in general, for perhaps 'downplaying' the 'Asian-ness' of certain book covers. The argument put forth, a valid one, was that what we want to do is support the sale of multicultural authors' books, as well as stories with multicultural protagonists. That book covers, even when they might belie the story within, are just that. Covers. Not to be judged by, and all that.

But of course these discussions occur in a backdrop of other explicit critiques of 'whitewashing' in YA covers where authors and activists have urged the marketplace to accurately represent the diversity that is American young people today. The case oft brought up is that of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, whose cover was changed from the face of a white (appearing) young woman to that of a young woman of color, primarily due to the author herself's protests.

I've been thinking a lot about this conversation lately. When it happened, it was (by happenstance) January 26th, India's Republic Day. As a granddaughter of one of the oldest Indian freedom fighters still alive, the daughter of a lifelong South Asian feminist activist in this country, identity and community action has always been a critical part of my life and work - from the clinical to the academic to the artistic to the personal. I felt the issue of representation - the presence of Asians in the literary marketplace - quite keenly. But I also heard what these authors were saying. In critiquing covers, were the commenters attacking the authors and/or publishers who bought and supported their work? I certainly hope not, if our goal is to support and celebrate diverse voices in YA literature.

The issue of Asian book covers seems to be in the air. Just today, Mitali Perkins posted some changes in her own novel The Secret Keeper between its US and Indian editions. And while they are both actually very beautiful, they are both obviously very different. In the very broadest strokes, the US version declares, to me, that 'this is a book with Indian/Asian themes.' The colors, the design, the face, all point in this direction. The Indian version, conversely, is more whimsical and perhaps even youthful - almost suggesting to me 'this is a book about YA themes.' Why the difference? Obviously something to do with the differing marketplaces, but beyond that, it's not clear.

Then of course there are these insightful posts from Sociological Images and Hyphen Magazine on manufacturing Asian-ness on book covers - the suggestion here was that certain stereotypical, exotified images, like fans, dragons, and somber female faces are common themes on at least adult books marketed in the U.S. with 'Asian themes.'

Which of course begs the questions - what constitutes an 'Asian' theme anyway? And who defines 'Asian-ness'? (and does this notion differ between the US/UK/Canada and, well, Asia itself?)

And of course the related, more dangerous issue - which is, if Asian and Asian American authors are somehow required to only write stories with certain kinds of (serious, somber, exotic, Orientalist) Asian themes?

These are complex questions without facile answers. In the end, the struggle is to get MORE Asian inspired stories, Asian and Asian American authors, and yes, Asian faces out there. But how and why and to what ends is of course of primary import. More exotified 'geisha girl' images? No thanks. More images of 'real-life' (or fantasy life) Asian young women (and men? what a revolutionary thought!), great.

There is of course, much wonderful work already underway. The good folks at the Asian American Writer's Workshop have been supporting Asian American writers for years. In the YA community, Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon have recently organized a Diversity in YA tourMitali Perkins and Cynthia Leitich Smith remain fabulous sources of information for YA writers of all hues. Only recently, the visionary Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich has begun The Patchwork Collective, a virtual mentoring group for kid/YAlit writers of color.

In the end, I think the call is for more stories, more voices, more words, more diversity. More tales that speak to Asian (and of course other usually silenced- Latina, African American, Queer - experiences). More protagonists who look like our sons and daughters.

Yes, on all those scores. Yes, yes, yes, please.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Magic of Middle Grade Writing Partnerships

Ever wondered about the whos, wheres and whys of writing partnerships? Well, my writing partner Karen S. Scott and I recently co-wrote a blog at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors on this very issue.  Cruise on over and see what Tony DiLizzeri has to say about working with Holly Black, and how Dave Barry reacted when he first heard that his friend Ridley Pearson was writing a pre-quel to Peter Pan.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Vixens in Space: Firefly, Battlestar and the Deanna Troi Effect

You ever see that Muppet show segment called Pigs in Space

Well, every time I see a scifi show with some sort of vamp/vixen character, I imagine I can hear that game show announcer voice booming "vamps in spaace...."

First there were all the green skinned scantily clad ladies that got romanced by James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek. (and of course the fact that the few, if any, women crew like the otherwise cool Lt. Uhuru had to wear those practically underwear-bearing micro-mini uniforms)

Then, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was Lt. Riker romancing a whole new galaxies of green skinned, scantily clad vixens in spaaaace. But besides that, there was that classic, archetypal character - the telepath/empath psychologist Counselor Deanna Troi, and her penchant for low cut V-necked unitards. Ok, I get it, as the ooey-gooey touchy-feely counselor (coded feeemale), she was, at least symbolically, supposed to be the antidote to science and technology (coded male). And I also get the usual demographic of scifi shows (gamer boys? D&D players?) undoubtedly adored Troi's skin-tight uniform, but for this feminist scifi geek, the 'Deanna Troi effect' was more than painful the first time around. Which is why I get decidedly cranky when I see it replicated in current day scifi programs.

First there was Seven of Nine, the character played by Jeri Ryan, on Star Trek: Voyager, who somehow teleported all of Troi's spray-painted on unitard wardrobe. (clearly, even the Borg are succeptible to the Troi effect!)  Then on my beloved Battlestar Gallactica, there was yet another numerically named character, named, Six, who was similarly model-esque and scantily clad. But despite her form-fitting cadre of red dresses, I was somewhat OK with Six's portrayal - perhaps because, as the show progressed, she kicked plenty of Federation, and Cylon, butt.

And more importantly, perhaps, BSG was rife with awesome female characters - first among them Lt Kara Thrace - the hard-drinking, hard-romancing, tough ace pilot, Starbuck. After being ignored for so long by so many space shows, it was fabulous for female fans to see such an amazing character - no longer a vixen, but a riot grrrrl in spaaace... And then, of course, Boomer, President Roslyn, and all the other fantabulous, flawed, and varied female heroines on BSG... (although, yes, everyone did tend to wear tighter fitting clothes than I imagine purely necessary on a space ship...)

But then the other week, I started watching a breathtakingly awesome (and ridiculously short lived) show by Joss Whedon, Firefly. And although I adore the idea of a space-cowboy opera, and ADORE most of the characters - particularly the warrior woman first mate character Zoe (played by Gina Torres), and the little sister to everyone/ mechanical savant Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite) - I'm starting to break out in hives at the latest vixen in space, Inara (played by Morena Baccarin). I mean, I GET IT, the cowboy genre usually has a "whore with a heart of gold" character -- but the show is otherwise a wholly modern enterprise - re-imagining both space and cowboy genres in creative and witty ways. Why be so literal with the lipsticked, incense-using, silk clad 'companion' (er, space sex worker)? On the wonderfully dingy, ramshackle spaceship, she lies in a velvet-swathed shuttle that's some kind of bizarre Orientalist bordello. No unitards in site, but lots of curly black hair and sultry, flowy robes.

I can't imagine that the D&D demographic can't be well satisfied by Zoe and Kaylee -- MUST sci-fi shows always stoop to including the space vixen? Like this hilarious (if still gendered and problematic) video called "Geek and Gamer Girls" declares, the demographic of scifi watchers has changed. Maybe it's time to put the Deanna Troi effect to bed for good.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ode to the Family Film

What ever happened to the family film?

Now, don't get me wrong, for those of you who've visited this blog before, you'll know I'm not traditionalist. On the other hand, I'm also a bit of a media tyrant when it comes to my kids - we don't do a ton of media, and when we do, it's often in the two non-English languages we speak in the house (that's a whole other blog entry on raising tri-lingual kids)

But today was our one zillionth snow day this month, and I was tired. And all I really wanted was to make popcorn and cuddle up with my kids on the sofa and watch... something. But all the stuff available streaming on Netflix today seemed to in the vein of Hannah Montana and the Olsen Twins sing in a high school musical. Er, no thanks.

And it occurred to me - when did we as a society start marketing ALL the kids' media to, well, kids only? I mean, what ever happened to films and books that adults and kids can enjoy together? And I know that's what the Pixar and some of the Disney films are going for, but (and perhaps I'm romanticizing here) didn't films in some imagined bygone era lift kids UP rather than having adults come DOWN?

Now, clearly, for someone who LOVES children's and YA lit, and much, MUCH silly YA media (see prev. post The Vampire Diaries for confirmation therein), I'm obviously only half serious about this argument. But the other half of me, the parent half, actually  prefers having my kids see, say, "The Sound of Music", "My Fair Lady", "Sissy", "Meet Me in St. Louis" (movies they LOVE, by the way) than the really fast moving, admittedly witty (almost too witty?) films billed as modern day family fare.

So today, we watched "Cheaper By the Dozen" - the 1950 version. Now, it was admittedly steeped in the values of its time, including pretty annoyingly traditional gender roles, but it was also sweet, and funny, and slow paced. In a sense, the ideal qualities I'd like to enact in my own family. Er, except the anti-birth control ranting and uncomplaining-mom-at-home-with-twelve kids part. Yea, that part not so much.

What are your favorite 'old fashioned' films or books?

(Right now, we're doing From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a before bed read aloud - and last night my 6yo actually interrupted me to ask "What's a typewriter?" which required a suprisingly long explanation... how fast times change...)