Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Under a "Tortilla Sun": Author Interview with Jenniver Cervantes (and Book Giveaway)

Twelve year old Izzy Roybal is disappointed she’ll have to spend the summer with her grandmother in a small New Mexican village while her mother is away. But when she finds a baseball with the words “Because… magic”, it begins her on a journey of self-discovery that includes the secrets of her father’s death, and her own life.

Jenniver Cervantes’ TORTILLA SUN (Chronicle)  is rich with love, family, cultural lore, and warms the reader like the glorious New Mexico sun. Jennifer was gracious enough to talk food, writing and cats with us (yes, that’s her with the Cat in the Hat).

1. Setting is so important in TORTILLA SUN. In it, the colors, tastes and flavors of a small New Mexican village come alive. Was Izzy’s grandmother’s village based on a real one?

No, the village is fictionalized, but there are many small villages still here that have a lovely old world feel to them.

How did your life in New Mexico influence this book?

New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment and it truly is. I began writing Tortilla Sun in Santa Fe and was easily inspired by the natural landscape and beauty of the place in addition to the rich culture found here.

2. Food is another critical component of this book – empanadas, burritos and of course tortillas. You even include a recipe for tortillas in the back of the book! So tell the truth – do your tortillas come out crooked like Izzy’s or round like the sun? :)

Truth: CROOKED…but I have practiced and now they come out round…kind of.

How important is cooking to you?

Actually, I’m not a cook (but I do love to bake). It’s one of those things I wish I was good at, but time never seems to allow me to “play” in the kitchen. But don’t worry I don’t starve my family. I have a good ten recipes I make over and over. I know—so uncreative.

What made you incorporate food so centrally in this story? While I don’t do much cooking, I LOVE to eat and I have such fond memories of being in both my grandmothers’ kitchens and the comfort and love I felt there, so I wanted to bring some of that to this story.

Intrigued? Interested? Hungry for Tortillas? Read the reset of my interview with Jennifer HERE, at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors and leave a comment there to qualify to win a free copy of Tortilla Sun! 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I Clapped, I Believe: Peter and the Starcatcher

There are not many Saturday afternoon experiences truly worth an hour plus drive in a minivan back and forth in the rain with four rowdy third grade boys. Boys whose antics could give the Lost Boys a run for their money.

But I just experienced one of them.

The New York Theater Workshop's production of Peter and the Starcatcher was such a whimsical, witty, and uproarious good time, it might actually have been worth a minivan ride with double that amount of third grade boys. No, really.

We all know Captain Hook is a diva - but Christian Borle's interpretation of the vocabularily-challenged, eccentric and over the top Black Stache (the name of the pre-prosthesis pirate imagined by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, on whose Peter and the Starcatchers series the play is based) was sublime. Like Tiny Cooper (from John Green and David Levithan's Will Grayson, Will Grayson) on steroids. And more flamboyant-er, if that's possible (no, good reader, that -er is not a spelling error. flamboyant without the -er does not begin to describe this manly moustachioed menace.)

The rest of the characters - pirates, the lost boys, the boy with no name, the intrepid Molly Astor - are energetic, edgy and full of heart -- and the entire cast walks that interesting line between being utterly in-the-moment and utterly self-conscious of their own theatricality. The production has very few props and set decorations - rather, with simple items such as boxes, rope, and toy ships, the cast themselves embody the setting - human beings become tables, doorways, the jungle, the sea. My favorite human-as-setting moment was when one of the cast wheeled in lying down on a dolly - only to spray an about-to-be-thrown-overboard character in the face with two hand held water pump bottles. Signifying sea-foam, of course.

In a world of so much glitz and glamour - theatricality that recognizes its own absurdity is a breath of sea-fresh air. Like children's literature, the production was a celebration of imagination's limitless possibilities. You want an explanation for why boys can fly? Sure, I'll give you one - it's because of professional starcatchers who have learned the secret of capturing magic celestial star... stuff.

I don't know what magic star stuff is, but I'm pretty sure this production was drunk on it. And I'm feeling a little giddy too.

Do I believe in Tinkerbell? Well, not so much since she sold out and went all merchandise-y and commercial on us. But will I clap to show I believe in Black Stache and all his theatrical cohorts? I will, and I did, and I do believe - I believe in pirate divas, I believe in hairy men playing mermaids, I believe in political jokes mixed in with tender, heartbreakingly awkward first kisses.

As we were climbing back into the minivan one of the cast walked by: Arnie Burton, who plays the nanny Mrs. Bumbrake. He graciously stopped to chat with his adoring fans. One of my son's friends yelled out, "Hey Nanna, say hello to Fighting Prawn for us!" Another yelled out, "Hey Nanna, say hello to -- nobody for us!"

Arnie nodded, 'hah hah very funny,' and walked on. And while I drove that minivan full of rowdy, hungry, not-very-lost boys back to their parents, I couldn't help think that I had re-discovered a part of my own childhood somewhere on the way.

The run at the New York Theater Workshop ends tomorrow, if the website is to be believed. But keep an eye out for it in other communities - or hopefully on rather than off Broadway!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Speaking in Tongues: Linguistic Identity and Multilingual Kids

My kids are trilingual. And in most places of the world - Asia, Europe - that wouldn't be weird. But in America, it apparently is.

When my husband and I married, long before we had children, we decided that we would try to keep our very different cultures alive for our children through language. Even though we both had been born in the U.S., language would be the link for our children to the countries from which their grandparents emigrated - a way to connect to cousins and extended family, yes, but as importantly, to the very fabric of each unique culture. We had seen too many of our friends - also children of immigrants - lose their language and then bitterly regret that loss. We wanted to prevent that.

It hasn't always been easy. Kids, as opposed to adults, learn languages through immersion - as if from the air around them. Or rather, from friends, TV, books, people talking on the street and in the grocery store. It's how scores of us children of immigrants learned English - and it works exactly the same way when trying to teach another language. The problem, of course, being, that people in the grocery store, and on TV, and in school are usually speaking English (here in the U.S.) - not Bengali or German, the languages we're seeking to teach.

So, for the past almost 9 years now, our family has invested an incredible amount of time and effort into finding Bengali and German resources - DVDs, books, music CDs. The entire family spends most of Saturday going to German school and most of Sunday at Bengali school. At home, each parent speaks a different language with the kids - although we speak English to one another. It results in some funny looks in public places - as the kids turn to one of us and speak in one language, then the other of us to speak another. Sometimes, one simple sentence will have words from three different continents.

But I was reminded the other day of the profound import of language as I taught, in one of my graduate seminars, Josh Aronson's documentary film Sound and Fury, about the Deaf Community's struggles with cochlear implants. We discussed how what is often called the big "d" Deaf Community considers Deafness a linguistic minority culture just like any other - as opposed to simply a medical condition involving hearing loss, or even a disability; and how, given that framework, cochlear implantation might feel like linguistic genocide.

It wasn't an easy or a simple discussion - many were invested in the notion that deafness was a medical condition and nothing more. But then we historically contextualized Deafness in this country - and discussed the perspectives of Alexander Graham Bell and other oralists who feared the formation of a 'deaf race', shut down deaf schools, and upheld alarmingly eugenicist beliefs. We made analogies to the 'lost generation' of Australian aboriginal children taken forcibly from their communities, forbidden to speak their own tongue, and put in English-only schools, as well as to the experience of Native American children in similar schools. We discussed the 'Bhasha Andolan' - the language-based war of then East Pakistan for its freedom from Pakistan - a war which eventually lead to the formation of the independent country of Bengali-speaking Bangladesh in 1971.

Language is no less then a link to identity. People have fought for it, been persecuted for it, and died for it.

I have the luxury of teaching my children their languages in an environment infinitely less fraught, less dangerous, less threatened. But I remember these struggles - some historic, some ongoing - to remind myself of the import of what I do. It's sometimes exhausting, mentally and physically - as I run from weekend language school to school, putting in hours, and miles on my minivan. But it's a gift I have the ability to pass on, and so I keep going.

Some fantastic resources for teaching Asian languages to kids are:

Mantra Lingua publishing
Milet Publishing
Asia for Kids
Desi Knowledge

Please add your own resources below to share the wealth!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Embodiment, Voice and Literature: From 'Women Doing Literary Things'

 'Women Doing Literary Things' is a fantastic new blog dedicated to exploring the role of women in the literary world. This week's featured essay was mine. I'm so proud and humbled to be adding my thoughts to this collective space honoring women writers, readers, teachers, publishers, editors, and activists.

What is the connection between voice and the body?

As a daughter of Indian immigrants to the U.S., it was novels, essays, plays and poems – the ‘literary things’ of this blog’s title – which introduced me to myself. I remember reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones for the first time and thinking, “This is what it is to be a young brown girl in America. This is what it is to be me.” Marshall’s words were not my exact experience, to be sure, but they gave me a space, a recognition, a permission to be.

From Rabindranath Tagore to Sharon Olds, from Alice Walker to Salman Rushdie – authors of various personal, political and national bodies all taught me to better understand my own. Like looking in a mirror – or use an image from Rushdie – like peering into a stream of stories, the voices of these writers taught me how to live within my own skin. They introduced me to my own face.

In my academic work – teaching illness and disability memoirs, thinking about the connections between narration, health, and social justice – I often make the connection between voice and body for my students. In particular, I am interested in the political act of speaking from, about and through marginalized bodies. Ill bodies, disabled bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies, bodies of color, working bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies – we are all told to be quiet, and in so doing, uphold the tyranny of the ‘normal’ and ‘normative.’

To read the rest of this post click here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dr. Seuss and Social Justice: Horton as Witness to Social Suffering

My 6 year old new reader daughter LOVES Dr. Seuss.

And so do I - in fact, he was the source of inspiration for documenting my journey as a kids doctor into the world of kids writing, and I've mentioned on this blog before how many of my ideas about justice and human rights came from reading Dr. Seuss as a child. 

As someone whose 'day job' is thinking, teaching and writing around issues of narrative, health, and social justice, however, I'm always shocked at how well kidlit texts explain complex issues including witnessing, narrative ethics, and activism in the face of social injustice.

Today, I spent the morning teaching a text by physician-activist-anthropologist Paul Farmer called Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor. My graduate seminar students and I also discussed the life of South African AIDS activist and educator Thembi Ngubane. Our discussion, as always, circulated around questions such as: Who speaks for whom? What does it mean to bear witness to others' suffering? What authority does suffering have if there is no one to witness it? Can a more powerful outsider enact ethical witnessing for another's story without coopting it, taking it over, or otherwise hijaking the sufferer's agency?

Then I came home, and was put in the position of student, as I learned about all these issues much more clearly, and directly, and succinctly from my daughter as she read me Horton Hears a Who!

Now, this isn't the problematic, Holly-wood-i-fied movie I'm talking about. We're talking original TEXT, people. 

In the story, Horton stands witness to a life on a speck of dust that he cannot even see but only hears. Clearly, our auditorially gifted protagonist is a pachydermal philosopher familiar with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who suggested that the primordial ethical act for any human (or, er, elephant) is to hear the call of the suffering Other. It is in this first intersubjective relationship with the Other that we discover the particularity of the "I."

And similarly, Horton's very Horton-ness is discovered and defined by how he responds to this literal call, a call that in fact has no scope for what Levinas would call the face-to-face encounter between the Self and the Other (the aptly named Who's who populate the speck of dust are microscopic, after all). But no mater, Horton responds heroically to this, if invisible, ethical call - he recognizes the humanity of the Other. He deposits the aforementioned verdent dust speck upon a soft clover and dedicates himself to protecting it because: "A person's a person no matter how small."

There are serious social challenges to Horton's ethical quest. The other animals in the Jungle of Nool not only deny the very existence - the potential humanity - of the Who's of Who-ville (and almost boil the Who's clover in Bezzle-Nut oil), but they marginalize Horton for his pro-dust-life stand. Chased by a band of nepotistic terrorist monkeys (monkey's uncles and cousins and aunts all goose-stepping to the orders of a narrow-minded Kangaroo), Horton does not back down. It's kind of scary, really. The rope and cage weilding monkeys, the blood-lust crazed Kangaroo and her pocketed mini-me.

Any analogy can be made. Horton is the German villager hiding Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, he is the reporter running the story about the outnumbered, anti-governmental rebels, he is the lone peace keeper before a sea of genocidal machetes. He risks his social standing, his freedom, and his very life for a community of people utterly unlike him.

In the end, Horton actually does not save the day. Rather, he urges action and activism on the part of the Who's - who must fight - every man, woman, and child - for themselves. Horton enables a Who-centered revolution - a struggle whose script is the simple declaration of any marginalized peoples: "We are Here! We count! We Are!"

Brazilian educator and thinker Paolo Freire said,

“those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.  This conversion is so radical as not to allow for ambivalent behaviour…  Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth.  Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were.”

Dr. Seuss, Horton, Farmer, Thembe, my children - all of them reminded me today of the commitment and passion that is social justice.

Who speaks? Who listens? Who fights? Who remembers?

I still ask these difficult questions in my work. But luckily, I can also draw from the words of Dr. Seuss, who teaches us that "Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers simple."


The False Mirror: On Diversity, Bizarre Barbies, and Body Image Activism

Photo by Ilene Segalove, ‘The Dissatisfactions Of Ilene Segalove’

There’s a character on television’s The Vampire Diaries who is called “Vampire Barbie.” Which I think is kind of ironic. Because on the one hand, vampires aren’t supposed to see themselves in mirrors – and yet, that’s what the cultural icon of Barbie is all about. A certain kind of unattainable, bizarrely proportioned, able-bodied, white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed beauty ideal – an ideal that reflects back to girls and women what we are not rather than what we are.

This idea of “the false mirror” is one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Because I think it’s a sociocultural secret weapon for a lot of different oppressions – sexism, racism, able-ism, homophobia. Each of us are shown an image of a “normal” that is antithetical to who we are, and in the process, rendered unable to see our own true reflections in the world around us. The most insidious thing about this onslaught is that it isolates us, limits us from making alliances with others, and prevents us from seeing its systemic roots. “This is about me” we think in our miserable solipsism, rather than thinking “this is about capitalism, imperialism, and body oppression and I’d better hurry up and raise hell about it.”

This post is an excerpt from my first post as a new contributor at Click here to read the rest of the post! 

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kids are All Right?: Getting Beyond the "My Two Moms" Narrative

So my six year old is playing the board game "Life" with her 8 year old brother, when they get to the point where their little peg-like car-driving avatars have to get married.

"Are you getting married to a boy or a girl?" asks the 6year old, both blue and pink colored pegs (*gag*) in her hand.

Her brother scoffs. "Put in a pink peg! A girl!"

"But Mama said you could marry a boy or a girl - anything you want!"

"A pink peg!"

"But Mama said!"

And then, naturally, I feel the need to pipe up from the kitchen, "You can marry whoever you want. Or not get married. Whatever."

Of course, I'd rather they not play this atrocious game with its insidious capitalism and narrow definitions of "the good life." But, at least they're not fighting with each other, or, playing with knives, or what have you. (Small comfort, that)

I'd also rather my 8year old not be already "heteronormatized." But I don't know at this point what's external social cuing and what's internal orientation. His parents are heterosexual, yes, but in his friends circle are a small but present group of kids with two moms, or two dads. On the other hand, he lives in a heteronormative culture - and he's clearly picking up these cues from the pervasive cultural atmosphere.

(His sister, on the other hand, is still marrying either her brother or me so that she can "live with mama forever" - or alternately, not getting married at all because she'll be a professional "garden gnome fairy." She's also frequently upset that a friend of hers has two moms and she doesn't - in her mind two of a good thing is, well, a good thing.)

But it did get me thinking about the books my son reads - and if there are any gay characters in them. And if I, who is so conscious about introducing certain kinds of diversity into his voracious literary appetites, have neglected to introduce other kids of diversity.

The other day, I was reading a fabulous interview on Color Online of Wendy Wan Long-Shang, author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, in which she said, beautifully,

I believe that writing for children is a form of service. When you give a child a chance to see himself or herself reflected back in a book, whether it is by appearance or circumstance, you are telling that child, you are valued, you are not alone. When you give children the chance to see the world from a different point of view, you are also doing something valuable – you are allowing them to expand their perspective, their knowledge, their imagination and their heart.

So where are the books in which a child of a lesbian or gay couple sees him or herself? What are the books in which a child of a heterosexual couple sees friends with gay parents?

Certainly, there are the classic picture books like Heather Has Two Mommies, Asha's Mums, or Daddy's Roommate. (Here are some more picture books on amazon that are apparantly "beyond" Heather Has Two Mommies.)

But what about MG and chapter books - books that don't make central the "issue" of gay or lesbian parenting, but simply represent diverse couples and a variety of families? Like my taste in what's called 'multicultural' kidlit, I tend to prefer books that don't follow that earnest yet ultimately marginalizing Lifetime Movie of the Week type pattern (the very special gay/of color/disabled episode), but books that simply incorporate gay/of color characters doing regular (or not regular) things. Just like everyone else.

In the world of YA books, there is of course the fabulous work of David Levithan, or Patrick Ryan, exploring the lives of teenagers who happen to be, among other things, gay. In fact, one of the reasons Will Grayson, Will Grayson is one of my favorite all time books is because it's both incredibly witty, smart, and funny and inclusive in its portrayals of kids of all sexualities - without necessarily being ABOUT how inclusive it is.

I watched the (grownup) film The Kids Are All Right last night, and if mainstream Hollywood films are markers of cultural change, certainly the film represents the a type of lesbian family that exists in this country. Although smartly written and acted, it did frustrate me in that it was still 'about' something called 'the lesbian family' and about this weird heteronormative plot conflict (the role of the suddenly appearing sperm donor father-not-father... REALLY? I kept asking myself.), rather than a film in which kids of two moms go on, oh, I don't know, dragon slaying cross country adventures.

(In fact, here's a link to a really great video that was in part a response to those excluded by the "It Gets Better Project" called {This} is Re-Teaching Gender and Sexuality. In it, one of the young people says - paraphrased - "I don't want my community to be just all right, I want us to be thriving!")

So I'm asking for advice from all of you - to make a list of great MG or chapter books incorporating smart portrayals of kids who happen to be from gay or lesbian families. 

I think for kids to be all right, they've got to see representations of a world that is both all and right. All of our kids represented, and all the beautiful variations of what is right.