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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters + Author Interview

OleanderGirl.Grandma

When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – “when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.

That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.  [... click here for more]

Author interviewFeature: “An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,” Bookslut.com, August 2013

Readers: Children, Adult

Published: 2013

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The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam + Author Interview

Blind Man's GardenFrom the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF‘s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers – published stateside just in time for his appearance –is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.

The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England – self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” – where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.

After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors’ newest titles.

Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year’s The Blind Man’s Garden in hand, I couldn’t even peek at Vigil‘s first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls – Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.

Aslam traveled extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both “sides” of an incomprehensible conflict; that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.

With Vigil finished, I might have hoarded the promising potential of Aslam’s Garden for a few more years (as it was, I had the galley for a good six months before its publication date) – had I not been assigned this interview. As a bonus, I also had a copy of Aslam’s 1993 first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, which finally made its stateside debut in March of this year two decades after its British publication, clearly timed to overlap with the May publication of Garden.

Dovetailing the reading of Aslam’s first and latest books reveals unexpected parallels. Rainbirds – spare and atmospheric – proves to be a character study of a remote Pakistani village’s inhabitants after the murder of one of its leading citizens. Garden is another detailed, careful observation of a not-so-dissimilar isolated town in Pakistan, the spotlight shrunken onto a single extended family and what happens when two sons – one by birth, the other by informal adoption – disappear. Garden tunnels deep into the tragic “war on terror” to examine the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes. When one brother secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the other immediately decides to join him. Together (and too soon apart), they embark on a harrowing journey of Odyssean feats in an attempt to return home.

For readers who have experienced Aslam before (and the apt word really is “experience”), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose in Garden. Of course that sense of awe comes at a high price for me: as grateful as I am for the one-to-one opportunity to chat, I remain bereft that preparing for our authorly exchange cost me all lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Now having finished his entire oeuvre, I wait (and wait and wait). Patience is not my virtue.

Is it true that you write your novels by hand? Is that why I’ll have to wait so long for the next book? And how, if ever, does the computer play a part in your writing process?
I write the first draft longhand. There is a feeling of direct contact with the paper through the nib. And the words seem to be flowing from my mind into my hand, then down the pen, and onto the page – blood becoming ink. But after the first draft, I move everything onto the computer, mainly for editing. (I use an eight-year-old Dell laptop, very heavy and gray.) I print out each chapter in three font sizes: First in 12-point, which is my usual size. Then in eight-point – which is the smallest size available, so there are more words in each line – and therefore the eye reads faster, instinctively. The eye, in its hurry to get to the end of each line, takes in more words – so you think not about individual words but about the overall narrative and the storyline, the pacing. Then I print the chapter in 14-point – which means there are fewer words in each line, so the eye slows down, and you do think about every word – the weight of it, the lightness of it. [... click here for sooooo much more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Nadeem Aslam,” Bookslut.com, July 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman + Author Interview

On Sal Mal LaneAllow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman‘s On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I’ll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the “glossary” at book’s end. You’ll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.

As in Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.

The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from 7-and-a-half-year-old Devi to 12-year-old Suren, “were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.” In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another – “the way they stood together even when they were apart … every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together” – is a gift to behold.

Even as the Heraths’ lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades … And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Freeman surely doesn’t disappoint. As she unwinds what happened – with prose both lingering and breathtaking – the children, even the lane’s bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they’ll shatter your heart. “To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing,” Freeman’s prologue concludes. “If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?
First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War – July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn’t set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me – via Google Chat – reminiscing about that time and there it was – the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Feature: An Interview with Ru Freeman,” Bookslut.com, May 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer + Author Interview

Tomorrow There Will Be ApricotsIt began with a story. I know, I know, that’s what they all say.

But Jessica Soffer‘s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, really did begin with a short story she wrote in 2009 for a graduate school assignment. In sharp contrast to the novel’s lyrical title, the short story was severely entitled “Pain,” and encompassed a woman’s life from early childhood to adulthood lived in, well, pain. The story’s protagonist was a self-harmer, addicted to pain. “There was something about her voice that I found so compelling,” Soffer explains, “and I wanted to make her something larger, to take her with me.”

Four years later, that woman reappears as the teenager Lorca, half of Soffer’s protagonist duo in Apricots. “Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together in a kitchen,” she recalls. And thus Victoria, the novel’s octogenarian widow, came to life: “Victoria is a nod to my father’s [Iraqi Jewish immigrant] culture.”

In a city of millions, Lorca and Victoria are isolated, lonely Manhattanites. Separated from her country-dwelling father in New Hampshire, Lorca lives with her less-than-maternal mother in her aunt’s apartment. A wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader, Lorca is suspended when she’s discovered in the bathroom harming herself (yet again), and has just one week to convince her mother not to send her away to boarding school. She’s convinced that if she can duplicate her chef mother’s favorite dish – the elusive grilled fish called masgouf, redolent of memories and spices – she will somehow escape further separation from what is left of her family.

Lorca’s search leads her to Victoria, who once upon a time with her husband ran the Iraqi restaurant in which Lorca’s mother last tasted that perfect masgouf. The uptown restaurant closed years ago, Victoria’s husband Joseph has just passed away, and Victoria’s one leftover relationship in the world is with the needy upstairs neighbor for whom only Joseph seemed to have any patience. In the week following Joseph’s death, Victoria must confront their decades together, filled with too many secrets and unsaid truths that refuse to remain buried. In the maelstrom of Victoria trying to reclaim her life, Lorca appears at Victoria’s door – impossibly young, beautiful, and perhaps even hopeful enough for both lonely souls.

“I’ve always found that something profound exists in a relationship between an older and younger person,” Soffer says. “They can illuminate corners of life for each other in such a unique and energizing way.” That profundity – and the shared humanity – is at the core of what becomes Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Reading Apricots, I admit, made me so hungry. Those sort of descriptions has to mean that you’re very facile in the kitchen. So, who taught you to cook?
My father’s mother was a healer in Baghdad and instilled in my father the notion of eating for one’s wellbeing. There was nothing processed in our house when I was growing up. For a cold: ginger, ginger, ginger. For dessert: honey on an apple. My parents weren’t big cooks or fans of elaborate eating, but they did think about consumption, about nurturing the body through food, in a way that stuck. I imagine that a childhood like that, with an emphasis placed on eating mindfully, is likely to turn out a person deeply interested in food, which I am. I learned about flavors from my father and his sister – but I’ve been self-taught from there on out. I read insatiably about food, watch cooking shows, eat out, ask questions: I’ve absorbed a lot of cooking know-how from the world.

And you’ve also discovered a way with words. How did you decide to become a writer?
My mother is a voracious reader, and an editor, grammarian, and true crime writer. She put a book in my hands before I knew what to do with it and so it began. Red pens, manuscripts, books on every surface of our apartment attributed value to words above all else. Words for decoration, for work, for pleasure, forever. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write and, perhaps more importantly, when I didn’t organize my thoughts in sentence form. There’s a constant narration stream gushing through my head always and the only way to interrupt it is through writing. So I write.

I wasn’t quite sure from this part of your bio: “the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor.” Are both of your parents Iraqi Jewish? How did your ethnic history affect your identity formation?
My father is an Iraqi Jew. My mother is not. Her grandparents came from Russia, but her parents were born in Brooklyn, and she was born in Florida. Her parents were the only grandparents I knew and big fans of pickled herring, matzo brei, gefilte fish. They ate Chinese food on Sundays and went to the movies on Christmas and lived in Boca Raton and played Barbra Streisand in their Cadillacs. I like matzo brei but I can’t say that my grandparents’ “experience” informed mine. My parents built their own bubble of culture around art and books and New York City and that is the particular background I owe most to. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Jessica Soffer,” Bookslut.com, April 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu with MeiMei Fox

Bend, Not BreakThis is not a spoiler: If you take a good look at the cover of the recent memoir Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, you know the pages will deliver a happy ending … okay, if not happy, then certainly marked with all the signs of outward success. Author Ping Fu’s name is clearly annotated with “Founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc.” At top right, the single blurb from Tony Hsieh – the founding CEO of Zappos.com, who authored the New York Times #1 bestseller Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose – makes his public declaration of support for Fu’s journey to “the top of the American tech world.” Turn to the back cover where further endorsements are many, from bestselling authors, publishing executives, and well-placed journalists. The book all but shouts, “Get your next great American success story here!”

No shortage of feel-good, do-good, against-all-odds survive-and-thrive true stories line the bookshelves in libraries and bookstores. Some are just okay, too many are predictable, but every so often, a few are stunners. Bend, Not Break falls in that last category. Think you’ve heard it all? Try just the first chapter of Fu’s story – three English phrases (“hello,” “thank you,” and “help”), a generous stranger, a kidnapping, two mothers, two fathers, a stolen childhood – and see just how far you get. I’ll confidently predict all the way to the final page. Written with clarity and purpose – choosing journalistic-like detachment over self-pity in the worst of times, allowing for open vulnerability and empathy in moments of achievement and joy – Bend, Not Break is a significant accomplishment befitting Fu’s extraordinary odyssey from privilege to deprivation to imprisonment to lasting freedom.

For the first eight years of her life, Fu grew up in a grand house, the adored youngest child to five older siblings in a well-educated, wealthy family. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution arrived in Shanghai – its sophisticated, international veneer no longer able to protect its cosmopolitan citizens from the onslaught of Chairman Mao’s less-than-equal communism. Wrenched from her family, Fu was sent alone to Nanjing, where she spent the next decade in room 202 of a Nanjing University dormitory.

She learned with great shock that she was not a pampered Shanghai last daughter. Instead, she was the firstborn of a couple she believed to be her aunt and uncle. She arrives in Nanjing just in time to see her birthparents forced away by the Red Guards for destinations unknown. With a desperate shout from the crowded truck, Fu’s Nanjing mother transfers total responsibility for the left-behind 4-year-old Fu thought was her cousin. Still so much a child herself, Fu becomes sole parent – nurturer and protector – to an even younger sister she never knew she had.

Marked as a “black element,” Fu is stripped of all rights for the crime of being born into an educated family. Endlessly, she is told she is less than nothing. She is ridiculed, dismissed, beaten, and forced to eat “bitter meals” made of dirt and animal dung. At age 10, when unspeakable horrific violence is perpetrated on her already deprived little body, she is labeled a “broken shoe,” an insult so severe she will not comprehend its heinous implications for years to come.

Fu survives, sustained by moments of unexpected kindness in a bewildering world of daily abuse and deprivation. An unknown generous soul leaves much-needed food outside her door. A faraway uncle visits, bringing with him unimaginable delights contained in forbidden Western novels. A first best friend – whose peasant roots make her an ideal citizen – risks her own safety by becoming Fu’s brave companion and outspoken champion. [...click here for more]

Review: Reviews, Nonfiction, Bookslut.com, February 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Chinese American

The City of Devi by Manil Suri + Author Interview

Let’s go back about seven years.

So a writer walks into a bar. It’s dark, but thankfully not smoky. The majority of the people there are more bookish (including Booker-ish!) than biker brutish. The writer finds a drink, and is standing slightly off the side with a couple of companions.

The trendy bar is the venue where the venerable Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center (my former day job) and its co-sponsor, the Network of South Asian Professionals, are hosting a pre-event welcome reception in anticipation of the annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival that begins in just over 12 hours. The close friends and admirers of four notable writers (including Kiran Desai, fresh from her 2006 Booker win) and two filmmakers with a debut film each, have gathered to celebrate. Among the guests, although not slated for the Smithsonian stage (that year – his turn comes two years later), is Manil Suri.

At first sight, he’s exactly as I expected the author of an exquisite, nuanced literary novel – The Death of Vishnu, his 2001 award-winning debut about the memorable inhabitants of a Bombay apartment building – who also happens to be a university mathematics professor, might look like. He’s elegant, genteel, and soft-spoken; he has an ever-so-slight hint of nervous energy about him, but that could be because his mind is moving so quickly that the rest of his body needs to contain his excess brain cells somehow.

So much for first impressions.

By the time he takes the Smithsonian stage in 2008, he’s published the second installment of his planned trilogy, The Age of Shiva, which features a headstrong young woman who becomes an overly protective mother to her less than appreciative only son. Suri’s literary star has been highly polished over the years since his debut, as have his creative impulses. What’s making the Internet rounds just in time for his Smithsonian appearance is a most revealing – campy, shocking, delightfully entertaining – video of Suri at the Brooklyn Book Festival, garbed in elaborately embroidered red drag, channeling his inner Bollywood diva. He certainly proved he can do more than just write bestsellers and teach a mean linear algebra class.

This month, Suri completes his promised trilogy with The City of Devi. Kiran Desai provides the most prominent blurb: “The City of Devi combines, in a magician’s feat, the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller… Manil Suri’s bravest and most passionate book.” If Vishnu was subtle and controlled, and Shiva impetuous and emotional, then Devi proves to be a psychedelic, surreal overthrow of expectations and conventions.

The end of the world – at least in one part of India – is nigh. The apocalypse is coming in four days, delivered via nuclear bomb directly to the city of Bombay. For the first time in centuries, the teeming city is virtually empty as its citizens flee in hopes of finding shelter somewhere, somehow. Sarita is one of the few left behind, frantically searching for her missing husband Karun who walked out of their apartment – into global chaos – claiming he was attending a conference.

Meanwhile, a mysterious young man seems to be following her: Jaz trails Sarita, his hopes also focused on Karun… and what will happen if they actually find him? In a lawless new world in which a single religious label is enough to excuse murder, cause war, and threaten complete annihilation, Sarita and Jaz are running toward true love. Just who belongs to whom will be a wee small detail they’ll have to work out, after they survive gangs, kidnappings, glowing goddess servants, elephants, a levitating multi-armed goddess-in-training with quite the nasty temper, and an evil thug with a bit of a God-complex. Oh, and did I mention the steamy sex scenes? Somebody (or rather, some bodies) must practice how to repopulate the world after annihilation, even if reproduction isn’t the actual goal. Practice makes perfect, right?

Did you plan Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi as a trilogy from the beginning?
The plan for a trilogy happened after I wrote the first book, The Death of Vishnu. I realized there were three deities in the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, so why not a book for each? By the time I tried to back out of this rash announcement, my publisher was already excited about the idea, so my agent told me I was writing a trilogy whether I liked it or not. After the second book, it became clear that what I had was a triptych, rather than a trilogy (since the characters and plots were unconnected), and by the time I started writing the third, poor Brahma (who’s supposed to create the universe in a single breath) had been shunted aside by the mother goddess Devi. Devi does make more sense than Brahma, because she has a lot more worshippers than he does. Besides, in the words of Karun’s father from the book, “Creation comes from the womb, not the breath.” And, of course, there’s Mumbai, which is a common thread in all three books. The patron goddess of the city is Mumbadevi. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Manil Suri,” Bookslut.com, February 2013

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Prophecy [Book 1 of Prophecy Series] by Ellen Oh + Author Interview

As the mother of three young girls, Ellen Oh is constantly on the lookout for good books that showcase female empowerment. She’s found a few here and there – say, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and maybe a few others – but to ask for characters with whom her Korean American daughters might directly identify seemed too tall an order. So the former entertainment lawyer and adjunct college professor decided to write her own: Prophecy, the first of a planned trilogy, debuts this month.

“People feared Kira,” the heart-thumping, fantastical young adult novel begins. With her yellow eyes and unprecedented fighting skills, Kira is hardly the average teenager, much less the picture of modesty and subservience befitting a court royal. Her uncle the King considers her a “freak of nature, and a terrible embarrassment to the royal family,” and yet he must rely on her warrior strength to protect his only son and royal heir.

Throughout a fantasy version of third-century Korea, demons, imps, hobgoblins, and shamans threaten the entire peninsula, falling the seven kingdoms one by one. In Kira’s home kingdom of Hansong, evil forces are moving through the ranks, possessing even once-trusted officials. The horrific events that the great ancestor, the Dragon King, prophesied are proving true: “Seven will become three. Three will become one. One will save us all.”

When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you? Did Kira arrive fully formed like Athena? Or did you struggle to bring her to life?
Kira and [her cousin Prince] Taejo were the easiest characters for me to write, because they did literally spring out of my head, much like Athena – I love that analogy, by the way. I like pretending I’m Zeus! The cousins arrived fully formed, with very specific details about how I wanted them to be. When the idea for Prophecy first came to me, it was about a young prince who is believed to be the hero of a legend. But as the legend progresses, his female cousin – who is also his bodyguard and a far better warrior – turns out to be the true hero. I initially wrote Prophecy from Taejo’s perspective, but he was coming out too whiny and jealous. That changed when the point of view switched over to Kira’s. That’s when the story became more alive, moved faster, and became more relatable, at least to me. Which makes sense because the story was always about Kira – I just had to let her tell it.

Besides the shift in perspective, did the story change in other ways over the various revisions?
I think, overall, the story became more emotional. As a writer, I tend to be oriented more toward action, action, action. Both my agent and editor were really good at making me pause and ask, “Yeah, but what does Kira feel when this happens, or that happens?” I always knew the “how” and “what,” but during the revision process, I had to really work on expressing Kira’s reactions, her emotions.

Besides the obvious fact of your Korean ancestry, why did you choose to set your first novel in ancient Korea? As a fantasy writer, you pretty much have unlimited freedom as to where and when.
I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical – I couldn’t find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal – ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue. But the specific moment I realized I had to write about ancient Korea was when I read a Genghis Khan biography and came to a point in the book when the Mongols invade Korea, and the entire royal court flees to Ganghwa Island (which is at the mouth of the Han River), where the Mongols aren’t able to cross the river to get to them. The Korean leaders are out there laughing, while the poor peasants are getting raped and killed by the Mongols. And then the royals, who’ve been safe and sound in their island fortress, come back to tax the hell out of the peasants and steal all their food. All those layered dynamics between the haves and have-nots were just so visual, interesting, and ultimately inspiring to me. That was feudal society at its best – from my perspective as someone who’s interested in the history – and at its worst – from a human perspective because you really see the worst of what people in power do to their citizens. And through it all, the common peasants endure and survive. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Ellen Oh,” Bookslut.com, January 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Publisher Interview: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press

Early this year, at almost 18 years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York’s publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in “books from the Asian diaspora,” moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.

With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee… although she does have the fairly new title of “Publisher and Editor.” Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of “The Best Magazines of 1995.” Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive – and thrive – living up to its namesake: “Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE,” their website officially explains. “Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India.”

Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro’s already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.

The word “kaya” echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also “summer night” or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means “rich”; in Indonesian, “prosperous”; in Tagalog, “to be able”; in Sanskrit, “body”; in Turkish “rock”; in Zulu, “home.”

For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she’s worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs – from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly – in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she’s settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee’s ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.

It’s been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what’s your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We’re publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we’ve had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students – they’re 25% part-time – and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement – both undergraduate and graduate students – means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I’ve been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that’s been really gratifying. [... click here for more]

Publisher interview: “Feature: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press,” Bookslut.com, December 2012

Readers: Adult

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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng + Author Interview

I can count on one hand the books that I’ve given by the dozens to lucky relatives and friends over the decades. One of those counting fingers belongs to Tan Twan Eng‘s debut stunner, The Gift of Rain. With the impending American release this month of his long-awaited second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I grabbed the chance to interview the young writer … only to thoroughly embarrass myself by the third question by revealing my inexcusable myopia, as I referred to Tan’s native Malaysia as an island.

“Terry,” he gently corrected, “Malaysia isn’t an island, but a peninsula, and Penang is an island off its northwest coast.” My mortified apology was met with “It’s a part of the world not many people know much about,” which gave me yet another reason to continue to spread Tan’s titles far and wide.

Longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2007The Gift of Rain was an astonishing accomplishment. Its protagonist is the half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton, the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Philip finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate.

Endo begins to train Philip in the Japanese martial art aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as the much-feared Japanese military finally lands on Malaysian shores, surviving the war will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.

Like Rain, Tan’s second novel is exquisite; like Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists arrives stateside with Booker-longlist approval, announced just weeks before the U.S. publication date. This time, Tan’s protagonist is a damaged, wary woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who has just taken early retirement from a lauded career as a respected judge; she has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia.

She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia to Yugiri – the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists – where she’s agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri’s creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan. Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a murderous World War II Japanese prison camp, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo; she sublimated her fear and loathing in the hopes of learning to create the perfect garden to honor her older sister who died in the camp. Almost 38 years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record her, his – their story.

In both unforgettable novels, Tan manages to intertwine the redemptive power of storytelling with the elusive search for truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan’s inhumane war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. His is a challenging balancing act, and yet he never falters, intimately revealing his stories with power and grace.

Because you’ve set both novels primarily during and after the brutal occupation of Malaysia during World War II, both are understandably infused with a symbiotic mixture of horror and beauty. What is your fascination with that time period? You were decades from being born.
The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (as it was then called) was one of the country’s most traumatic experiences. Growing up, I heard some stories about the Occupation from my parents. My father was a child when it happened, so he didn’t have any terrible experiences, but he heard about them from his family. My mother has no direct experience of it either, as she was born after the war.

Do you think you will return to that time again in future works?
I don’t know if I’ll revisit that terrain in my future works. If I do, I’ll want to find something new about it to write, angles that haven’t been explored before.

How have you lived with the terror of your homeland’s history – World War II through the “Emergency” that finally ended in 1960 – that you recreated in your books? Both books must have taken years to write, which means you must have had to endure long years of inhabiting the historically accurate world you had to conjure forth on the page?
I’ve always been interested in that period of our past, so I had been reading up and collecting materials on it for years. When I wrote The Gift of Rain, I had all the details I needed in my head and it was a just matter of crafting the story. There comes a point when the writer has to forget his research and just, simply, tell the tale.

Writing The Garden of Evening Mists, on the other hand, required more extensive research. The settings and the time period were different from Gift‘s, and I was never much of a gardening man, so it took a lot of work to learn how to create a Japanese garden. But the more research I did, the more fascinated I became with it and the more I appreciated it; I realized that the principles of gardening could be applied to life, too.

Dealing with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the violence of the Malayan Emergency was at times emotionally draining, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to feel, and then to convey those emotions to the readers, otherwise the writing will come across as lifeless. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tan Twan Eng,” Bookslut.com, September 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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The Collective by Don Lee + Author Interview [in Bookslut]

Don Lee is definitely a good news-bad news sort of guy, albeit all in the same breath.

Good news: he’s not going to Texas this summer, because his fourth and latest book, The Collective, is published this month and he’s going on a book tour so he can meet his waiting readers across the country. Bad news: he’s not going to Texas this summer – specifically to Marfa, one of his favorite places to write – because he’s going on a book tour so he can meet his waiting readers across the country.

Good news: as soon as he gets back, he’s planning to start another novel. Worst bad news: as soon as he gets back, he has to get working on another novel and start the whole cycle of worry all over again.

In spite of all that neurotic hand-wringing, Lee has figured out how to deliver with every book. Lee the writer arrived pretty much fully formed in 2001 with his quirky debut story collection, Yellow, which was populated by the inhabitants of fictional Rosarito Bay, a northern California seaside town not unlike Half Moon Bay. His memorable cast of characters was so real, I was convinced I knew at least a few of them (I lived in that area for a few years). His many awards – that began with the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters –  proved well-deserved; Lee’s steadily garnered continuous kudos with the novels that followed, Country of Origin (2004) about the disappearance of an African American hapa woman in Japan, and Wrack and Ruin (2008) which returns to Lee’s fictional Rosarito Bay of Yellow to the unexpected, wacky reunion of two very different brothers.

The Collective is, undoubtedly, his most personal novel, although don’t let the overlaps with his real life fool you – Lee’s an incorrigible storyteller. The title refers to the 3AC, the Asian American Artists Collective, founded by three friends who meet at Macalaster College and reunite after graduation in Boston. Eric Cho, who narrates the novel, is a Korean American from southern California with hopes of becoming a published writer someday. Jessica Tsai is an independent, feisty artist, the child of Taiwanese immigrant parents from upstate New York. Joshua Yoon is a brilliant, angry Korean adoptee, raised as the privileged only child of two liberal Harvard professors. No spoilers (this happens in the second paragraph): Joshua’s violent, shocking suicide opens Lee’s third novel.

Burning first question: I have to start backward just to be contrary since I leaked the beginning. So Joshua’s first book, which gets glowing reviews, is called Upon the Shore and it’s set in Korea’s Cheju Island. And, of course, his (chosen) last name is Yoon. Immediately when I saw that title in your Collective, I thought of Once the Shore, the much lauded debut title from Paul Yoon, which is set on an imaginary Korean island not unlike Cheju. Then I noticed that Paul Yoon gets a nod in your acknowledgments so obviously you must have a personal relationship with him. Upon the Shore, Once the Shore, Joshua Yoon, Paul Yoon? Any correlation intended? You would not want to wish Joshua’s career and life on Paul, would you?
I’m good friends with Paul Yoon, and it was all an inside joke, but now you’ve outed us, dammit! I first met Paul in Boston. His girlfriend, the writer Laura van den Berg, was my student at Emerson, and then in 2008, the three of us became close when we were all living near Harvard Square for the summer, within blocks of each other. They’ve become two of my dearest friends. Paul is famously reclusive and private. For a while, Laura maintained a hilarious fake Twitter account for him, @No1Hermit (he made her take it down eventually). So to needle him, I initially used the title Upon the Shore in a short story of mine, referring to a cheesy fictitious film, and then decided to use the title and his last name in The Collective for Joshua, and it grew from there. But no, Paul is not at all like Joshua. He’s a strangely upbeat person. I’m much more like Joshua than he is – morose and prone to depression and pessimistic by nature.

Now that you’ve ‘fessed up to your resemblance to Joshua, I must ask the next obvious question: how much of The Collective is real? I know writing in first person sometimes can bring up that sort of question, and this is your first book in first person, right? Certainly the details of Macalaster College are authentic as you were there for a year teaching, and you were also an editor at Ploughshares for years and years before your Midwest gig. You don’t necessarily have to reveal details – although you’re more than welcome to if you want to! – but maybe you might share a few general overlaps to real life?
Yup, first thing I’ve ever written in first person. That was the challenge I posed for myself with The Collective. With each book, I try to do something very different, both technically and tonally, which is not, actually, a good career move for a writer. It’s easier on everyone – booksellers, publishers, readers, agents, reviewers – if your books follow a somewhat familiar trajectory. It’s confusing to people if you don’t, I’ve learned.

There are quite a few autobiographical elements in the book – a few of my romantic disasters and a lot of the staging, like the old Ploughshares office in Watertown, which was the shithole I describe for Palaver – but not as many as you may think. I didn’t hang out with many Asian Americans in Boston, because often I was the sole non-white person in the room when I went to literary events. I was never in an artists’ collective, though later on I had friends in the Dark Room Collective [founded in 1988 in Boston by a group of established and emerging African American poets]. I never got caught up in any of the racial controversies that are portrayed (I based the rigmarole with Jessica and the Cambridge Arts Council on my friend Hans Evers’s experience way back in 1994, but embellished it with a racial component). I’ll say this, though: this is my most personal book yet. A lot of what these characters feel, I have felt acutely at various points of my life. But most of the main actions or events in the book are made up.

I loved Joshua’s obsession with Haruki Murakami the runner… I’m still chuckling at the oddest moments over the “Is that him?” reference. I myself am a running-Murakami groupie, that is, I’ve so enjoyed running with a Murakami title stuck in my ears. So does this mean you’re a runner, a Murakami groupie, or both?
Both. I was a real Murakami junkie for a while, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle remains one of my favorite books. I used to run every day along the Charles River in Boston for something like 15 years, but eventually my knees gave out, so I started biking. Man, I miss running, the simplicity and accessibility and meditative quality of it.

The only time I caught sight of Murakami was at MIT, where he was giving a reading. There were no seats left, and the guards started herding the people who were standing, including me, out of the auditorium, so I never got to see him read, but I veered down a hallway and passed right by him as he waited to enter.

We published a story of his in Ploughshares, but I only dealt with his agent in New York, his assistant in Tokyo, and his translator, Jay Rubin, at Harvard. But the assistant asked for five extra copies of the issue to be shipped to Minami Aoyama, and it made me happy to imagine Murakami thumbing through them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Don Lee,” Bookslut.com, July 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean American