Friday, June 24, 2011

Poetry Friday: All Things Shift in the Body of Nature and the Mind of Man

I've just finished writing up notes for my lecture at this summer's residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The lecture is all about riddles, metaphorical thinking, ambiguity, living with uncertainty, the Japanese concept of "satori," zen koans - well, it goes on and on, and my next job is to cut it down to a reasonable size.  But to finish up my series of posts about riddles here at the Drift Record, I'll share one last bunch of my favorites. These are not the "punning riddles" of most joke books, though there's a lot of fun to be found in those. Puns remind us us of the flexibility and strangeness of language. But there are other riddles - "literary riddles" they are sometimes called -- found in all cultures, across geographical boundaries and language groups and centuries and levels of sophistication, and those are the riddles that make me feel the momentary "hesitation" than I like so much - the riddles which illuminate this line from Craig Williamson's wonderful book, A Feast of Creatures:

All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, 
the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. 
When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.

With those words in mind, here are six final riddles. Answers are at the end of this post.

A blue calabash
with toasted kernels of corn.

Aztec riddle, first recorded 
by Bernardino de Sahagun in the 16th century, anthologized in 
Touching the Distance: Native American Riddle Poems by Brian Swann

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters, 
Toothless bites, 
Mouthless mutters. 

 (from J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit)

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

(traditional riddle from The Real Mother Goose)  

Sliver of moon, 
slice of star.
Rhinestone in
 a jelly jar. 

(from Rebecca Kai Dotlich's Lemonade Sun and Other Summer Poems)

She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond. 

(from a poem by Emily Dickinson - not written as a riddle; still, a riddle.) 

Who am I 
that when I fall
I make no noise? 

(traditional riddle from the Democratic Republic of the Congo)


Today's Poetry Friday Round-up is over at Carol's Corner. Head there to see what other people have posted.

Answers to the riddles: stars in the night sky, the wind, an egg, a firefly, a sunset, the night.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Punjabi Riddle-Poems

Has anyone ever noticed that India is shaped a bit like a question mark....
...especially if Sri Lank is the dot?

More riddles - my latest obsession.

This time, three riddles from Punjabi folklore. Give them a minute or two, don't try to guess  - just let the metaphors rise up in you. Think about the saying, "Everything that rises must converge." Convergences, areas of similarity, consider those. Then, if you need solutions, you'll find them at the end of this post. 

Riddle #1 -

Tied in a blue cloth,
this handful of rice -
lost in the daylight,
found at night. 

Riddle #2 -

See her coming,
see her going,
thinner than water,
sweeter than sugar.

Riddle #3 -

I'm the son
who can climb to the roof
before his mother is born.

As do many countries and cultures, India has a long history of riddle-making. If you want a little more flavor of India, take a look at my blog post from Wednesday, a "virtual cup of tea and interview" with children's author Uma Krishnaswami  about her wonderful middle-grade novel THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING (starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.)
Still from a Bollywood Movie

Uma Krishnaswami's Wonderful New Book

Pilgrims in the Golden Temple in Punjab, India ..where even the floors are riddles.

You'll find today's Poetry Friday round-up over at Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day. Head there to see what other people are posting.

Oh - by the way - the answers to the riddles?
#1 - Stars
#2 - Sleep
#3 - Smoke

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything - Tea and a Chat with Uma Krishnaswami

Starred Reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly
Cover Art and Interior Illustrations by Abigail Halpin
Today I have the wonderful Uma Krishnaswami with me to talk about her new middle-grade novel, THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. But first, let me say that upon finishing it, this is the mood I was in:

Reading THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING is a little like listening to music that just won't let you sit still - you realize you're tapping your foot, you start to sing along, you want to get up and dance. And the dance is going to be a pure Bollywood grand-finale-with-a-happy-ending dance.

Here's an edited version of the publisher's description of the story: Eleven-year old Dini loves movies—watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own—especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to India…and, not even to Bombay, which is the center of the Bollywood universe and home to Dini’s all-time most favorite star, Dolly. No, Dini is moving to a teeny, tiny village she can’t even find on a map. Swapnagiri....So now, Dini is hard at work on a new script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly. But, life is often more unpredictable than the movies and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control. This is a joyful, lively Bollywood inspired story is full of colorful details, delicious confections and the wondrous, magical powers of coincidence. Uma Krishnaswami will have you smiling from ear to ear. 

That's a fine basic description - Uma did have me smiling from ear to ear! - but you have to read the book to find the rose-petal chocolates at Dreamycakes Bakery, the out-of-control monkeys, the madcap taxi driver, the sweet Bombay postal carrier, the film star, the film star's producer, the girl who can chirp like a bird, her forlorn uncle, Dini's loyal friend back in the States, the look-look listen-listen, the push-pull....and that's not to mention the hilarious (and wise) writing advice Dini delivers as she goes, nor the whole idea of kismet (destiny - but with a definite Swapnagiri flair....) 

Uma and I both teach in the MFA-Writing for Children and Young Adults program at The Vermont School of Fine Arts.  When I finished the book, there was nothing I wanted more than to invite her to sit down with me and just chat about it. So that's exactly what I proposed to Uma -   and she graciously accepted.


Julie: Here goes (imagine the table, a pot of tea, two teacups, maybe your cat lounging in the sunshine of the dining room window - or my cockatiel chirping away in the background.....)
Imagine Uma and I sitting at the table, talking about her book....

Uma: Julie how nice to be at this composite virtual kitchen table. Let's just be sure we keep my four cats well away from your cockatiel! And could I have a little milk and sugar in my tea, please? (stirs) Oh, that's perfect.

Uma would be looking at me just like this.
Julie: How lovely to have you here all the way from New Mexico, but with no jet lag - imagine! It's hard to have friends who live far away, isn't it? Dini and Maddie in THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING know all about that. Such a push-pull thing.

I have a few questions about THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING.....

In a novel, when the main character's voice comes through loud and clear, I usually assume that the writer, too, heard the voice very early in the creative process, and that staying true to that voice is one of the goals all the way through the revision process, when many other aspects of the story are changing. But since I haven't ever written a novel, that assumption might be wrong - it might just be an outsider's view of things. Dini's voice is one of those distinctive voices I'm talking about. So how did it work for you?  Did you "hear" Dini's voice from the get-go, or did the way she talks (her thought process, her way of expressing herself, her personality) come into focus slowly for you, over time?

Uma: Oh, my characters always seem to run away from me as fast as they can. I know that sounds crazy but that's how it feels to me, like trying to chase them through a labyrinth hoping they'll let me eavesdrop and knowing they'll shut up if they realize I'm listening. In early drafts they often feel a bit wooden, as if they're trying out for the part and it's not quite a fit yet. Dini was no exception. Her way of thinking too, all that "life-as-movie" stuff, crept in gradually.

Julie: It's a tribute to your writing skills that Dini comes across as so engaging, with that quirky way of looking at her life as if it were a movie she could script and direct herself. You've created someone who feels fully formed and real - and charming.  Any tips for beginning writers about how to develop an ear for the difference between "wooden" and "real"? Especially for writers of children's books - what do you suggest to writing students to help them crawl back inside the head of a child and hear a voice that sounds as natural - not forced - as Dini's?

UmaThank you, Julie! I think there are a few ways to do this, and I forget them and remember them in turn as I write. It's amazing how often I can forget the same things over and over again, but here they are--maybe now I'll remember them more reliably!

The biggest tip of all--READ. Read lots of great prose, whether or not it's anything like the kind you mean to write. Read poetry, whether or not you think of yourself as a poet, or even as "getting" poetry. Just read so that the best of all possible words can leave their imprint on your mind. When you read fiction, pay attention to how the consciousness of great characters makes itself felt on the page. 

Don't even try to get into the character's "head". That leads to a cerebral way of being that character. Don't try to "see through her eyes." That can lead to a simplistic camera angle. It can come off as a series of static observations. That kind of portrayal is usually not in skin-to-air contact with the setting. Instead try to get under the character's skin. Try to feel what it's like to live and breathe and be that kid you're placing at the heart of your story. Write many scenes off the page. Take the character to some common place--the grocery store, the shopping mall, a park. Feel that place through the character's experience and be sure to pull the place in as well. None of us exists in a vacuum, so our characters can't either.

Finally, don't beat yourself up if this doesn't happen all at once. Learn to read your own work carefully so you can spot the places where you do get it. Then try to pull that sensibility through the work, every time that character shows up. 

There's more to it, of course--motivation ranks high, so do the interactions among characters. But that holistic imagining is the best starting place I know.

Julie: Good, good advice for writers who spend way too much time inside their own heads and in the heads of their characters. Reconnect with the body! Get under the skin. Feel all the senses. 

Here, Uma, have a little sweet biscuit to soak up the last of that tea. And I'll put the kettle on for another pot. 

Uma: Mmm, nice biscuits, these. A hint of ginger, I think, and was that..? No kidding! Rose-petals?

Julie: Yes! Rose petals - Dolly's favorite, though no chocolate. Here is the way I imagine Dolly....and the way I imagine Filmi Kumpnee, the fan magazine Dini and Maddie read:

Aishwarya Rai looking the way I imagine Dolly.....
Uma: Seriously...Yes, that's Filmfare, the magazine of which Filmi Kumpnee's a spoof. Look at Ash! She could be Dolly's cousin.

Julie: While the tea water comes to a boil, here's another question, one I'm sure you've answered for other people asking you about the book. When/how did you decide to include those wonderful moments when suddenly we are in someone else's world - the world of sweet Lal and the Indian Postal Service, for example, or the world of a goatherd who comes back at the end of the book. It's a risky thing to do, but it works perfectly.

Uma: Risky, maybe, but why else write? The thing is, it wasn't a conscious decision. I had Dini and Maddie taking shape at the time, and Dolly. I had Dini write her letter to Dolly, sort of the way I once wrote a letter to P.G. Wodehouse! Same general idea, a fan letter. (He did reply to me, by the way.) So then I was stuck; I didn't know which foot came next. I slept on it, and woke up early with this narrative voice in my head that went "The Blue Mountains rise unexpectedly out of the hot land of south India." I got up and wrote that whole passage, which stayed mostly unchanged, beyond a little tinkering.

Once that voice had meandered on about mountains and roads, it really did feel as if it could go anywhere. That single passage opened up the story for me. I felt vastly empowered, being able to flit around wherever I wanted to in the story, which then became this larger web of story with Dini and Maddie's friendship at the center. It's a good thing I did it all incrementally and in small chunks. If I'd stopped to  think about what I was after, I'd probably have quit in a panic.

Julie: I do think reaching for that  "larger web"' (as you do) is so important. Good stories reach for something large and lasting - a  "Grand Plan," so to speak.

Uma: I suppose so, although in story construction as in life (real lives or fictional ones) the plan you think you have often disintegrates and needs revision. Is it Tim Wynne-Jones who says he never knows the themes of his stories until the reviewers point them out? When you're in the story forest you can't see its contours.  

Julie: I wonder if your understanding of a bigger picture, though, is a result of your world travels, speaking two different languages and having home exist for you in two places on opposite sides of the globe - India and the United States.

Uma: Maybe so. Or maybe it came from listening to people who had an instinctive grasp of narrative. My mother is quite a wonderful raconteur. The anecdotes she tells (from her youth, mine, family lore) get better with each telling, and they have a real sense of timing and direction). So I think I had many of those through-lines absorbed and digested quite early in my life without knowing it.   

Julie: Can you talk a little about whether going between the two expands your sense of belonging or restricts it - that is, do you feel completely at ease in both cultures, or do you feel like you never quite belong in either? Do you always long for one or the other, experiencing what Dini describes as the "push-pull " of wanting both places at once? Has any of that affected what you choose to write about?

Uma: It's like living in a perpetual state of contradiction, where things work differently depending on where you are. I find my accent changing, for one thing, which may seem like an affectation, but it's not, it just comes from a sense of needing to be understood in two very different contexts. I used to be  self-conscious about that but now I just accept that I can slip on the voice I need, where I am. It's a kind of chameleon quality that serves a fiction writer reasonably, perhaps. And yes, if we keep writing the same story over and over, mine has to be about living with contradiction and merging geographies.

Julie: How about telling me just a bit about your cats?

Uma: Oh our feline four! There's Yoda the senior, who's slowing down now, but has great dignity and resolve. Muon, Mu for short, is named for a physics particle (she's small and fast). And Frodo and Sam, the twins who showed up in the yard one summer with their mother, were orphaned in a dreadful plot twist by a passing truck, and now consider poor Mu to be their mother. She resists this role with great vigor but occasionally gives in and condescends to be nice to them. Stop me, stop me! I could go on about them. They're alien souls, no question, from some other dimension.

Julie: Thank you, Uma! As always, you are so generous with your time. I wish our chat-with-tea-and-biscuits had been real. You've written a wonderful book, full of life and full of lovely little bits of wisdom. Here are some of my favorite lines:

Favorite #1: "This is a thing that no one ever needs to do in the movies, but real life can require a good blowing of the nose sometimes. "

Favorite #2, when Dini accidentally spits out a bite of biscuit:  "It is too bad they can't just do this all over. Retakes are a good thing, but life doesn't let you save the bloopers for the archives and try that scene again."

Favorite #3: "Dini wants to tell Chickoo Uncle that if he'd only told her this in the first place, it could have sped things up a bit. But then she thinks, That is just the way it is with plots. Tell too much too soon and it's all over. There's no story left. Besides, while coping with heartbreak, a person cannot hit the pause button to go off and tell other people small details like this. That kind of thing just ruins the fillum."

Notice to the many Hollywood producers who read The Drift Record: This is a natural for a movie!!                            

Illustration by Abigail Halpin

By the way, today (June 8th) is Best Friends Forever today - here's to Dini and Maddie!!!

Here is a link to a video trailer  about the book, with scenes from India, too. And here is a link to Uma's blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk. And there's even a GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING Giveaway! Here are the details:
Bangles and Books for the Giveaway

A Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. To enter, send an e-mail to In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.

Wow - there's even a downloadable Activity Kit with word searches, sari art, a recipe for Curry Puffs...! You can read more tomorrow at the next stop on the blog tour - Write Now. And to order the book online, try Powell's Books, a lovely independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon.