Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Author Skype Visit

From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors is having a Winter Skype Tour of Middle Grade Authors. The author up for a visit this week is ... me! So if you have a class or group interested in India, folktales, or Indian folktales, come on over to From the Mixed Up Files and leave a comment to win!


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Story Water: The Cultural Wellsprings of Storytelling

From Hunger Mountain's Magic and Mystery of Identity Issue:

Tapoor! Toopoor! Rain drops fall
The rivers swell with tides
Lord Shiva’s getting wed
to three pretty brides

One bride eats all day
One likes to cook
One bride has headed home
without a backward look

from The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales by Sayantani DasGupta and Shamita Das DasGupta

Gather ‘round, children, and I will tell you a story.

It is a familiar scene. The storyteller is a village elder, or a grandmother, or a wandering minstrel. The passel of eager-eyed children, and perhaps some adults, sit close. It is the still evening, under the fluttering mosquito-net; or perhaps mid-day, in the shade of an old acacia tree; or a darkening and cold afternoon, by the light of a roaring fire.

The stories too are familiar: princely quests, cautionary tales of greedy merchants, creation myths of how humans came to be, or explanatory stories of why the tortoise has such a hard a shell. They tell of djinn and rakshas, orphans and angels, cunning foxes, and wise spiders.

Yet, while they share these commonalities, each such “stream of stories” (to borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie) is sprung from a culturally specific source, and each teaches us something particular about that community, culture, and history. The sweet waters from Bengali, Hebrew, Finnish, Mandarin, or Igbo stories might all quench a listener’s thirst, but in fact, they each taste a little different.

Take, for instance, a story my father told me when I was young to help me understand the death of a family member. Although, like many such tales from many different cultures, this story helps explain death, it is based on the Hindu Upanishads and is consistent with a religious tradition of reincarnation. This story could not belong to a culture that believes in heaven and hell, or the permanent connection of one unique body to one unique soul. While it holds truths for any reader, it also teaches us specifically about the beliefs of a particular region of the world and a particular people from that region.

The story itself went like this: You must imagine life’s energy as a mighty river, my father said to me. Those flowing waters represent all the souls of all the creatures in all the universes. Our bodies, he explained, are mere vessels holding that precious soul-water for a limited amount of time. Like clay vessels, our bodies are impermanent. When we die, it is simply a process of pouring our vessel’s liquid back into the eternal streams of life. Thereafter, our individual, personal life force may be indistinguishable from the rest of the rushing river, but it never disappears. It simply returns to its original source.

I like to imagine storytelling as a somewhat similar process—of dipping one’s drinking gourd into the eternal stream of stories. The storyteller gives the tale shape and form, but the essential life force comes from somewhere else entirely.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Hunger Mountain

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Are We Still Whitewashing?

Images matter. They matter a lot. Images on magazine and book covers not only reflect what we, as a society, think is beautiful, but they seep into our individual and collective consciousness – urging us to emulate those thinner, younger, taller, richer and yes, whiter images.

Race is a critical part of the images we see. Not to say that there aren’t models or celebrities of color gracing covers and starring in movies, but rather, that standards of beauty change slowly – and not always in a more diverse or more inclusive direction.

Consider this much bru-ha-ha-ed Beyoncé album cover featuring the blonde, almost unrecognizably pale singer. Now, it is unclear if Beyoncé (or her staff, producers, etc.) made this decision purposefully to have her appear lighter than she is in real life, or if this is due to the lighting used that day on set, or some other factor as yet unknown. However, similar critiques have been made of a L’Oreal campaign featuring the singer.

Why should we care? Certainly, Beyoncé has a right to portray herself any way she wants, and the woman is, without a doubt, stunning whatever her skin tone. Yet, as author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said,

“Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad truth that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior… when black celebrities appear to deny their heritage by trying to make themselves look white, I despair for the youngsters who see those images.”

Similar to ideals of extreme thinness, the whitewashing of beauty standards affects women of color in significant ways. In addition, the charged nature of skin tone isn’t a U.S.-centric issue. In South Asia, where multinational companies are hopping on the skin whitening cream market, Bollywood actress, model and former Miss Universe Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is reportedly thinking of suing Elle Magazine for lightening her skin and hair in a cover shot.

To read the rest of this essay please visit Adios, Barbie

Monday, February 13, 2012

Can Feminists Dig Darcy?

Can feminists swoon for Jane Austen's quintissential romantic hero Mr. Darcy? Or does such an act require one to burn her membership card?

Similarly, can someone concerned with classism and class politics also adore Julian Fellowes' early 20th century miniseries Downton Abbey without feeling the need to "Occupy the BBC?"

How do those of us with deep commitments to progressive politics reconcile our tastes in film and books - if those tastes include things that are not (at least on first glance) progressive?

I ask all this because there seem to be a lot of us out there. Progressive activist folks who also read, say, a Georgette Heyer once in a while (not to by any means compare Miss Heyer, that writer of light hearted regency romances, to my beloved Miss Austen), or get twitter injuries while watching Mad Men or Downton Abbey. And I don't mean making commentary on how sexist or classist the characters on those shows might be, rather, nerding out on their costumes or the dowager countess' fantastic one liners like this terribly classist one I just tweeted yesterday:

"Don't be defeatist, dear... it's so middle class."

So how do we do this? Do we, as a progressive friend of mine recently suggested, give certain authors or shows a "pass" because they are from a certain period or written so well? Do we shut off our internal social critic? Do we, as Zeta Elliot has suggested, forget about a certain part of ourselves while we read about such dissimilar characters -- to the point that we don't even recognize this erasure of self? Consider the words of Elliot (as quoted on the bookslut blog),

"Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me -- but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read -- I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much."

Along a similar vein, I recently read this post on Reading in Color called "Is Jane Austen only for white people?" Now, although my family is from a (postcolonial) part of the world that adores Austen and pretty much all sorts of British literature, and I am personally an Austen addict, I think the question is a compelling one.

So, dear friends and readers, what are your thoughts? How do we reconcile progressive politics with a love of, say, Austen? Now, I don't mean to say that Austen is somehow anti-feminist; in fact, her novels are imbued with a deep sense of women's worlds and women's lives - but of course these are a certain kind of women's worlds and lives.

In the end, whatever the reason, my social politics and my love of Mr. Darcy seem to co-exist quite happily together. As deeply committed as I am to feminist or anti-ractist activism, I am still quite likely to swoon over the intricate folds of Mr. Darcy's cravat.

The only explanation I can come up with is that life is complex and we humans are perfectly capable of multiple, seemingly contradictory commitments and passions.

What do you think?