America Posts

“Poppy Field” by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction as a writer and nor does the illustrator, Michael Foreman. It is a formidable creative team that has together produced some magnificent books for children in the past. Morpurgo’s stories inevitably deal with stories set in conflict zones whether set way back in the past or in the more contemporary conflicts. This time too Poppy Field focuses on World War One. It is a significant publication as 2018 marks a century since the end of The Great War. Poppy Field is about the origin of using red poppies on Remembrance Sunday and 11 November. It is as always a beautiful story told by Morpurgo that has this quality of immersing the reader in the historical fiction completely. It is done so effectively with minimal details and yet it is a brilliant recreation of the historical landscape. Unlike for adult literature where many more details are provided, in Morpurgo’s landscape there is least amount of detail provided but sufficient markers ensuring that the period of the story cannot be ever mistaken. Poppy Field is the story of four generations. The story is set in a farmland that overlooks farms and poppy fields that were the erstwhile WWI battlefields. Cemeteries and memorials still exist but they are so much a part of the landscape that the present generation barely registers their presence. Martens Markel registers their presence as he often cycles across the fields with his family to visit his father’s grave. Martens father died while ploughing their fields with a tractor that went over an unexploded shell from the war that lay buried for decades in their land. The grandfather is narrating the tale about World War One and the poppy fields to his grandson, Martens Merkel, with references to the fragile piece of paper framed in their home. The framed but crumpled sheet of paper has a poem scribbled upon it with some words scratched out. A poem that would later go on to become very well-known as John McCrue’s “In Flanders Fields”.

Poppy Field is a stupendous hardback picture book that will work for children and adults alike. A hundred years after the war means that few recall the reason why poppies are used remember the many soldiers who lost their lives fighting “on one side of the other, depending simply on where they were born. They fought in a huge and terrible war, the war came to end all wars they called it, which happened so long ago now that no one is old enough to remember it.” The soldiers who lie in the cemetries were born in Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Canada, India, New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, America. The symbolism of using a red poppy to commemorate the fallen soldiers is credited to Moina Michael of the American Legion who two days before armistice was declared read John McCrue’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. It moved her tremendously that she promised to “keep the faith” with the fallen American soldiers and to symbolise the promise by always wearing red poppies. The practice was carried across to the United Kingdom by a French lady called Anna Guerin who persuaded the British Legion ( formed in 1921) to have a Poppy Appeal in time for November 11th. Ever since then the red poppies have come to play a crucial role in remembering fallen soldiers not just in the two world wars but other conflicts since then.  Poppies are also seen as a sign of hope — a hope that one day wars will really will stop for ever, and all the nations in the world will be reconciled and live together in peace. Poppy Field has been created in co-operation with the Royal British Legion.

Poppy Field has been published by Scholastic and is a stunning gift.

27 February 2019 

 

Sharmila Sen “Not Quite, Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America”

When people move they inevitably bring certain things with them, leave a few things behind, and acquire new possessions. My parents had asked me to choose what I wanted to take with me to Boston. I was allotted a single suitcase.  Everything else was to be sold, given to relatives, or thrown away. This is what I chose to bring in my suitcase:

Red plastic View-Master with four reels (Disney World, Japan, Baby Animals, and Mecca)

Four Bengali books –Raj Kahini ( Royal Tales) by Abanindranath Tagore; Aam Antir Bhepu ( The Song of the Road) by Bibhutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay; Shishu ( Child), a collection of poems by Rabindranath Tagore; and gopal Bhand ( Stories of Gopal the Royal Fool)

My report cards from my old school, attesting to my grades from 1974 to 1982

My beloved collection of miniature plastic animals that came free with the purchase of Binaca brand toothpaste in India during the 1970s

A Misha commemorative pin from the 1980 Moscow Olympics 

A couple of dresses made of printed cotton 

A pair of gray denim pants, the closest thing I owned to the coveted American blue jeans

A pair of blue canvas shoes from Bata, the most popular shoe company in India 

None of these items were going to be of much practical use, as I soon found out. The tools and weapons I needed to survive and flourish in the New World were waiting for me elsewhere. I would find them in the hallways of my new school. And on the small screen of our black-and-white TV. 

Indian-born American Sharmila Sen’s memoir Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America is an absorbing account of her trying to negotiate her way through her new life in USA while her ties were still strong with India. She was twelve years old when her parents decided to move from Calcutta to the US. Having been born in a bhadralok ( cultured and well-respected) Bengali family she took certain privileges for granted. These were mostly of respect accorded to her cultural inheritance and the family she belonged to. She was not necessarily exposed to the rough and tumble ways of existence. Whereas in America the mere shade of her skin immediately put her in a different category. Her first experience of the classrooms where segregation was not visible as students had no choice in their seating arrangements was small consolation when it came to lunch time or other breaks for then the students promptly clustered in racially segregated groups.

Not Quite Not White is fascinating while moving account of Sharmila Sen negotiating her way through a new culture. She arrived as a young girl bewildered by the customs and social rules of engagement. By social standards of acceptance she did very well for herself as a non-white immigrant, primarily by learning to smile always. She taught herself to learn the rules. Ultimately she found herself being accepted by everyone so much so she heard remarks like “I always forget you are Indian” or “But I see you as white”. Sharmila Sen was educated in the public schools of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied in Harvard and Yale. She taught at Harvard for a few years too. Currently, she is the executive editor-at-large at Harvard University Press. Yet her memoir brings out the painful negotiations she has learned to make on a regular basis, imbibing much of it, so as to survive.

To buy on Amazon India 

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2 November 2018 

An interview with Veera Hiranandani about her middle grade novel, “The Night Diary”

I had been hearing about Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade novel The Night Diary for a while. It had been impossible to get hold of in India when lo and behold, PRH India announced it was releasing the Indian edition of the book. Fantastic news! I read an advance copy and loved the novel. There is such little literature available for children explaining the freedom movement through fiction, allowing for dramatisation of events without making it too hard to understand. Of late the desi writers based abroad who have begun to feel the crying need for the lack of such literature and presumably been told stories about the Indian freedom struggle have begun to write novels for the younger generations. Three writers, who happen to be women and are based in USA, have written middle grade fiction. Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani. 

After reading The Night Diary, I emailed Veera Hiranandani. Here is a lightly edited version of her interview. 

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Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.

She adds “I was raised in a small town in Connecticut. Growing up wasn’t always easy. My mother is Jewish-American, my father is from a Hindu family in India, and I didn’t know any kids like me where I lived. But coming from two cultures and not always fitting in has probably made me a stronger person. I was also pretty shy, so I spent a lot of time quietly watching other people.

​Maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t forced to look at the world a little differently. Food was another thing that helped me connect with both sides of my family. I consider Jewish matzo ball soup and Indian samosas my favorite comfort foods. I love eating, cooking, and reading books about food. Nothing helps bring people together better than sharing a good meal. When I was younger, sometimes I wished I was different, but now I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

My own father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up–that several weeks after India’s Independence, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother decided to leave Pakistan and made it over the new border by train. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the Mirpur Khas city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.  They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. As we know, many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned much about the Partition in school in the US, such a significant event in our global history. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around this time, but it took me a while before I felt confident enough to do so.

Having lived in USA all your life, how did your family keep the memories of the freedom movement and Independence alive?

I think it was only through my father’s family that I learned about India’s independence and the Partition. Occasionally we would talk about the history surrounding this time if my cousins and I asked questions. But if I hadn’t been curious or interested on my own, these stories might have faded away. There was a desire to leave the difficult times in the past and focus on the future. I think that’s common for many families. But if that happens, then we will forget and not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made and honor those who were lost. Survivors of the Partition are in their last decades of life and I believe it’s up to my generation to preserve this history and pass the stories down to younger generations in whatever ways we can.

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

I listened to my father and other relatives. I also read many historical accounts and novels. I read collections of oral testimonies and listened to several online. There’s a wonderful website preserving these oral histories called The Partition Archive of 1947. They have a wide variety of oral testimonies from people who lived in many parts of India before independence. Some had to leave, some stayed, some crossed into Pakistan, some crossed over the new border of India. There are stories mostly from Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I tried to listen to as many point of views as I could. I wanted to create a story that wasn’t based particularly on one story, but could explore the many questions I had about the Partition and be representative of many experiences.

Was there much literature to read? If so in which language ? Or did you rely mostly on oral narratives?

I relied on books in English (I only speak English), but I wanted to read historical analyzations or novels of the Partition by those who had South Asian origins and had more than just an intellectual interest in the history. I didn’t really find much out there for young readers, but some of the books that helped me were The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari.

What are the back stories for this novel that you left out but undeniably built upon to tell the wonderful story of The Night Diary?

I knew I wasn’t trying to recreate the exact story that my father’s family went through. It wasn’t representative enough of more experiences and I was writing fiction. I began with the idea of family traveling in the direction a Hindu family would be traveling, because that’s what my father did, but I wanted to take a wider view. I decided the main character, Nisha, would come from an interfaith marriage (her father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim). I wanted her to be able to ask the questions I had about the Partition—why did diverse communities who lived peacefully before the Partition, break apart so quickly? Where did the violence and hate come from? I thought those questions would be quite powerful coming from the perspective of a character who feels ties to both her Hindu and Muslim identities. I’m also a product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Hindu and my mother is Jewish, so though it’s an entirely different context and a religion, I connected to the idea of having to navigate multiple identities. There were a lot of influences from details of my father’s story, but I was often shaping them in different ways for the story I wanted to tell.

To tell a story about a conflict and subsequent displacement is never an easy task. It is traumatic. Yet how did you manage to create such a simple and lucid while retaining the sensitivity and pain? Did this story go through many drafts?

Thank you and yes, it went through at least ten full drafts, and many smaller ones. It wasn’t an easy task. I hoped to stay truthful to the history, but also explore the questions I had and create as many connections as I could to survivor experiences. I knew there was no way I could write a book about the Partition and not include some of the violence, but I really wanted the younger generation to have access to it. I tried to strike a balance of what a young reader could handle and what actually happened. I think writing a diary from a young person’s point of view helped me render it in a more innocent and direct way. That’s how I felt Nisha would process and write about her experiences. The diary format at times was restrictive, but also helped me keep it in Nisha’s voice. I also thought it would be appealing and accessible for both young and older readers.

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

I was lucky enough to have some nice interest in the story and talk to a few editors about the project. I think people not only found the historical knowledge valuable, but the connections to current events as well–the global refugee crisis, and the discrimination against people of color and xenophobia felt in the US today. I ultimately was able to go with the editor, Namrata Tripathi, at Penguin who I felt was not only an experienced, extremely insightful, and detail oriented editor, but who also had an Indian background and family ties to the Partition. To have an editor who would be able to access this story on both an editorial level and a personal one only helped with the authenticity I was trying to achieve. It truly was a gift.

What was the editorial process like for The Night Diary? For instance did you have to explain much about the context to your editors or did the movement of #weneeddiversebooks ease the publishing process?

Because I was working with someone who knew a significant amount about the context and the culture I was writing about, I didn’t have to explain a lot. Therefore, we mostly focused on the strength of the story and she added to my knowledge at times. But we still had beta readers to help fill in our knowledge gaps. Penguin has been very behind this book from the beginning, but I think organizations like #weneeddiversebooks are hugely important and have paved the way for publishers and readers to understand the necessity and benefits of diversity on a global level.

Why did you feel it necessary to include a glossary of terms in The Night Diary? 

Publishing the book first in the US, after having many non-Indian American readers read the book, I found that many people did not know several of the South Asian terms I was using. I wanted young readers unfamilar with some terms have a resource right in the book. Now that the book is published in India, the glossary must seem irrelevant or readers might be able to improve the definitions!

What has been the response of audiences in USA to your book? What has been the response of the Indian diaspora to your book? 

I’ve had many positive responses and it’s very moving to me. When I decided to write this book, I wondered how much interest it would have, but I knew I needed to write it so I kept at it. I’ve had South Asian American adults express excitement at being able to share this story with their children because they also had parents who were affected by the Partition and now have a context to talk about it. I’ve had South Asian American kids tell me that they’re excited to see Indian/brown characters characters in a book given to them in school because they’ve that experience so rarely. I did a school visit with a large South Asian population and kids were literally cheering as I mentioned some of Nisha’s favorite foods in the book (especially for the sweets). I remember what it was like to feel that I was the only one who knew what dal, kaju katli, or gulab jamun was and I would never expect to see it mentioned in a book, so I understood their excitement.  It has definitely opened doors for some people and I couldn’t be happier about that! It seems to be getting a positive response in India as well, and that is truly humbling and gratifying.

3 October 2018 

Allen Say “Silent Days, Silent Dreams”

Caldecott medalist Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreamis a biography of self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977).  It is a “memoir” as narrated by a fictionalized nephew of Castle who shares details about his deaf, mute, autistic and dyslexic uncle who was completely closed in himself and yet learned how to draw. Castle’s father was the postmaster for a small community they lived in Idaho. The family’s drawing room doubled up as the postmaster’s official space so it was cluttered with parcels, catalogues, paper etc. The little James Castle probably taught himself to draw while whiling away his time in this room. Over time he was found to be of absolutely no help to his family on their farm or other household chores so he was left to himself. He slowly found quiet in the attic of an old barn which he converted into his “studio” which in subsequent shifts was the chicken coop in an empty barn. He drew and drew and drew. For lack of sophisticated art materials he drew using the soot of wood combined with spit and used junk paper. When he was about seven his parents sent him off along with his older sister to the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind. There too he tried to draw in secret ( only girls were permitted to learn drawing, not boys) and punished if discovered. He never did learn to read and write and was sent home when he was fifteen years old. While at the school he did discover the joy of being in the library, surrounded by books and watching his teachers “create and stitch new books for their students. Years later his drawings were “discovered” and he did one-man shows. Upon his death he left more than 15,000 pieces of work that are estimated to be less than one-third of his productivity during his lifetime, as every time Castle’s family moved, all his paintings were left behind and lost.

The research Allen Say did for this book was intensive. He even tried to recreate the illustrations for Silent Days, Silent Dreams using the soot from the wood fireplace in his home. He tried to emulate the drawing style of James Castle to create as “authentic” an account of Castle’s life. Most of Castle’s drawings were made from reclaimed trash he found on the property such as junk paper, construction materials, and rags. Allen Say was assisted by his wife in creating the toys in a similar fashion for this book.

In Allen Say’s graphic novel memoir The Inker’s Shadow Kyusuke, Allen Say’s cartoon double, advises him to draw what’s around you”; much like what James Castle later become famous for too. Allen Say like James Castle had a room to call his own, a retreat, a studio, that was given to him first by his mother in Japan and later when he moved to America by his guardian Major Bill at the American military school he was studying at.  In his part memoir, part graphic novel Drawing From Memory which is about his relationship with his sensei, spiritual father, and well-known cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Allen Say says about his childhood “I drew what I saw and what I imagined,  and I copied from comic books. When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t toys or friends or parents.’

The story of James Castle probably resonated with Allen Say who too became an artist against all odds as his father was convinced his son had to learn English to “become a success in life” and was shunned for his artistic leanings. Both the artists’ artistic temperament was not appreciated by their families and they were shunned; so they “withdrew” to draw in makeshift studios. For Allen Say “Art is like translating my dream world, put that on paper”, much as it was for James Castle who drew all that he wished for. No wonder Allen Say says “my discovery about Castle’s art was that the act of drawing was an act of possession”.

What a treat it is to discover these books! Biographies as picture books are a fine art form. It is an excellent way to introduce an eminent person to a younger generation. It is not an easy form to tackle but if done well it is purely magical. In the case of Silent Days, Silent Dreams there is something extra special for one artist describing another’s life and discovering the many similarities.

Dream books to possess!

Allen Say Silent Days, Silent Dreams Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2017. Hb. 

Allen Say Drawing From Memory Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. Hb. 

Allen Say The Inker’s Shadow Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. 

6 May 2018 

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “Dear Ijeawele”

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a slim little book which developed out of a letter she wrote to her friend. It contains advice to Ijeawele on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. There are some fine pearls of wisdom such as “Teach Chizalum to read.” Or ” Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense”. Chimamanda Adichie selects fifteen of the classic arguments associated with feminism that are bandied about which are primarily internalising patriarchal arguments. For instance, mixing up feminism and femininity, choice of dress being confused with morality,  perceiving marriage as an achievement and using the language of ‘allowing’ which encapsulates the power equations, learning about gender-neutral roles instead of capitulating to definitions that are primarily patriarchal constructs, rejecting the idea of gender roles, appreciating to identify yourself as an individual who is composed of many parts to make the whole — motherhood is not the sole definition of a woman’s identity, talking about female sexuality and celebrating it rather than being ashamed of it, and finally not to be caught in biological arguments that ultimately constrict a woman’s movement and ambitions.

But, but, but…Dear Ijeawele  reads too much like a primer for feminism. Agreed it is a good starting point for those who want to understand what feminism is about, the exercising of choice and all genders being equal. Adichie does warn against generalisations from one’s personal experience and does try and encompass various aspects of the feminist spectrum. Yet it is too simple and reductive. For instance it is all very well to stress on the independence of a woman and how to negotiate for her spaces in the world but how can she do it if she does not have financial independence? Adichie touches upon it but specifically within the context of Igbo culture being materialistic so “while money is important — because money means self-reliance — you must not value people based on who has money and who does not”. Whereas this is the crux of feminism and a woman’s identity for economics is the basis of any relationship. Most cultures around the world are deeply embedded in patriarchal structures that essentially clip a woman’s financial means by domesticating her and reminding her of her primary responsibilities being towards the family and children. But if women are taught to be financially sound to earn their independence it will be the first step in “correcting” the social imbalances which exists today in relationships. Otherwise all the good advice which a commercially successful author such as Adichie gives on feminism will sound hollow. ( Brittle Paper, 27 March 2017 “As Sales Approach the Million Mark, Is Americanah Now Adichie’s Signature Novel?” . Also see “New Yorkers just selected a book for the entire city to read in America’s biggest book club“, a “One Book One New York” programme started by NYPL. )

Ultimately feminism like any other ideological language has to be lived daily. The basic tenets can be taught and shared but it varies from individual to individual on how to practise it and thus bring about the social change is aims for. As for bringing up children and introducing them to feminism — the best way is by the parent/s being role models. Children learn best through action and not instructions.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 68 Rs 250 

 

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

It is a novel worth reading.

Here are a few more related links:

9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!

Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

I read The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka last night. I could not put the book down. A brilliant example of historical fiction from contemporary writing. It is about the Japanese immigrants chasing the American dream in the early 1900s. Told from the perspective of a collective group of Japanese women, who remain nameless. But it tracks them from the time they board the ship in Japan as the modern day equivalent of mail order brides to land on the hallowed shores of America, the birth of their children, the various menial jobs they hold or travel in search of better jobs till the time of WWII when the “Japs” are looked upon askance. These women are caught in a terribly painful situation of being ostracized by society, treated like worse than filth by their patriarchal husbands and what is worse, distanced by their own kids who do not want to really have anything to do with their parents, who are so obviously alien to the American culture, modes of lifestyle and language. Julie has written this slim (it is only 117 pages) novel after loads of research. She lists some of the books that were consulted for her writing. It is the perfect little gem of historical fiction. Brings you immediately into the story (the hallmark of a good storyteller) and creating a moment in history evocatively, putting in sufficient background details to place it in a period setting, but without crowding the text or obstructing the narrative/story/plot. Read it, if you can.