Sahana’s first library blog.

It is fantastic to have my child as a coworker. And even more so when she writes blogs, a book review, for our library blog post. So I can not help but share.

The “goods” in the week of September 27th.

Ross Gay, the author of The Book of Delights: Essays has inspired me to find delights in little things around me and since I am trying to emulate him in looking deeper and feeling deeper, I discovered I find delight in hearing the tak- tak suction sound that my vacuum cleaner makes when it sucks in the little particles of debris into the vacuum cleaner. That sound is truly very satisfying. A audible result of me trying to clean the house. I discovered this delight yesterday as I vacuumed my oft neglected basement. The vacuum cleaning was good of the week, sure, but that discovery of delight was the real good.

Most days last week were sunshiny with blue sky. Durga puja is around the corner and the sky of America resembles my sky of Kolkata around this time. I find no joy in Durga puja but I love the sky. On my walks, either in the fields behind my house or on my breaks at work when I take walks around the grounds of the library, I soak in the sun and the sky. This weather will not last and I will revisit this sunlight in my mind during the dark days of winter.

The plants in my flower garden are still giving me some flowers. Obstinate ma plant is threatening to bloom. I touch her leaves sometimes and smile.

Sahana absolutely loves her new job and everyone at her new work place have been extremely kind to her. It makes my soul happy to hear her talk enthusiastically about helping people get their print job, or find the book that they are looking for. Working at a public library is extremely rewarding and people are mostly good. It reaffirms my faith in humanity.

Ryan was quite sick over the weekend, but seems to be on the mend today.

We had my friend’s dog for overnight. She was good for our souls.

Sean fixed all the light fixtures in our house that needed fixing. That man is a true giver in every sense of the word. He spent his entire weekend trying to make our lives easier and more comfortable.

I am currently reading Sooley by John Grisham. I can not say I am loving his style of writing. However, I did write a blog for our library blog post and I see they published it today. If you want, you can read my review of the book If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha here.

Not simply the ‘goods’ but the best thing this weekend is my friend’s love to me in the form of an exquisite shawl that she knitted for me. She gave it to me in the garden at work while we were having lunch in front of the paver stones dedicated to my parents. Her love and kindness – “bests” this week.

Hope your list of ‘goods’ is long. Have a great week.

My heart is full because I read this book.

The beginning of the pandemic was a chaotic, extreme anxiety provoking, fearful time. On top of a deadly virus killing off human beings physically, there was the political rhetoric in the United States of America that was killing us emotionally. Once maniacal political drama subsided, we started getting hopeful about vaccines and then plunged right back into uncertainties about our turn, distribution, fairness, cutting in line, guilt. Now we are slowly opening up and again we are anxious about our ability to mingle with human kind while keeping everyone safe. Phew! That was an exhausting overview.

Amidst all this, I read a lot of books. Last night, I stayed up till midnight (despite it being a work week) to finish a children’s fiction called The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart. It filled me up with a warm fuzzy feeling as I read the last page, smiled at the fact that Gemeinhart was an elementary school teacher/librarian and thanked him for giving this reader solace during these times.

Twelve year old Coyote lives on a school bus driven by her dad Rodeo. They have been crisscrossing the country in that school bus for the last five years which they converted into their home. Five years ago, Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash when she was just seven years old. Since then, her dad left their home in Poplar Springs and drove around with her in their mobile home, the school bus named Yager. They stop at gas stations to fill up with gas, get food – most importantly slushies, and when Coyote can find a kind lady with a cell phone who lets her use it, she calls her grandma at Poplar Springs. Grandma always asks when she was coming home. But Coyote does not have an answer because Coyote and Rodeo do not plan to go home which, they fear, will bring back memories that will torment them for ever. During one such phone conversation, grandma tells Coyote that the park where she used to play with her sisters is being torn up by the city to turn it into a parking lot. But Coyote has a memory box buried underneath a tree in that park which she must rescue. The memory box was created by her mother and her sisters. They intended to go back for it after 10 years but 5 days after burying the memory box, her mom and sisters died in the car crash. Now Coyote needs to get her father to drive back home in exactly four days before the construction begins but she can not tell him that they are going back to Poplar Springs because going back is a hard ‘no go’ with Rodeo. So Coyote must plan to get her way without letting Rodeo know that they were actually heading home. Who knew the journey home is going to be the most difficult one? But Coyote is nothing but tenacious. She figures out a plan to make Rodeo drive in the direction of home. And during their journey back Coyote picks up some misfits who are also searching for their own destinations. There is Lester who needs to find his lady love, Salvador and her mama, Esperanza Vega is running away from a difficult situation, Val is looking for acceptance and of course Gladys needs to go to her mom. But 12 year old Coyote’s first friend, before others joined them, was a cool kitty named Ivan.

The writing is so full of heart, Coyote is such a fierce and spunky girl who carries her sorrow with such bravery and compassion, Rodeo may look like a bearded hippie but one has to look into his eyes and see the kindness that is brimming in him. Everything about this book touched my soul, the tragedy, Coyote and Rodeo’s grief, their overwhelming love for each other and humanity, the friendship, the good will. The author does not shield his young readers from the harshness/reality of life. Life is not easy, tragedies happen, violence happens, lack of acceptance happens but to balance the scale there is love, kindness, friendship, good will and most importantly resilience. The will to continue on this beautiful journey called life wins at the end.

Funny in Farsi and me

First, a few lines about this funny and beautiful memoir by Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America.

Firoozeh’s father Kazem, an engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company, got assigned to consult for an American firm for about two years and moved to Whittier, California with his wife Nazireh, 7-year-old daughter Firoozeh and 14-year-old son Farsheed in 1972. Farid, their oldest son was already in US completing his high school education. Firoozeh Dumas begins her memoir, by documenting her experience at Leffingwell Elementary school where she sat in the classroom with her non-English-speaking mother as her elementary school teacher tried to make them feel welcome by talking about Iran and inviting her mother to point out Iran on a world map in front of the class. Firoozeh’s mother had no idea. With brilliant humor and wit, Dumas writes her experiences in this memoir of growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America, pre and post Iranian revolution. At the beginning of her memoir, Dumas is touched by the kindness that Americans show towards her immigrant family. She feels people are truly interested in knowing their culture and making them feel welcome. She is also perplexed in equal measure at the ignorance of folks about cultural life in Iran, asking her if she went to school in a camel and if so, where they kept their camel. And how many Persian cats she had. She went to school in her father’s Cadillac, but she resorted to answering the camel question by saying they kept the camel in their garage.  She also writes about her experiences as an Iranian in America after the American hostage crisis in Iran and how American perspective about her family changes overnight. However, she does not harp on the cruelty she faced as an Iranian immigrant. Instead she focuses on her crazy yet fun extended family, their love and support for each other, their ambition to see their children succeed and their unmistakable love for their adopted country. In this memoir Dumas introduces us to her sweet and endearing dad, who fully immerses himself into the new culture that America offers which involves fast food, seeking to be rich via Bowling for Dollars, and every opportunity to save money, her elegant mother who never really learned English, her several aunts and uncles whose eccentricities and kindness make the readers smile.  Just when her family thought they finally got over the culture shock of being in America, Dumas falls in love with a French man and subjects her family to yet another novelty that they must experience and learn. At the end though, love wins.

Quite a few of her experiences as an immigrant reflect mine. Like her, I have been asked if I went to school on an elephant (not camel) and if I were an Indian princess. I have experienced what I now label as microaggression and have learnt to respond with humor and hopefully, without malice or anger. There were two aspects in this book, however, that really spoke to me. The first one is food!! Oh, how I want the Iranian food that she writes about! And the second was family. Dumas writes about her close knit extended family who emigrated from Iran and chose to live near each other in USA. They congregated, feasted, celebrated, loved and supported. That is every immigrant’s dream. I must say this made me envious. I remember little Sahana desperately wishing that her family from both sides lived in our neighborhood next to each other. “Wouldn’t it be so fun mama if didiya, dadai, mashimoni, mashun, moni, mamai, shi dadai, shi didiya (her Indian family) lived on one side of the road and Grammy, uncles and aunts (her American family) lived on the other side?”  Many immigrant children as well as children whose parents move to different states feel the absence of their grand parents, aunts and uncles in their lives as they grow. No one present on Grandparent’s day at school, no one to cheer from the sidelines in sports events or school events, graduation ceremonies or festivals. This is a big void. Immigrants form close relationships with other immigrants in a new land and they, over time, become family. But I can say from personal experience, that the faces that loom large when there is a major life event to share are those of the ones we left behind back home.

I was thrilled that Firoozeh Dumas grew up surrounded not only by her mom, dad and brothers but also by her loving aunts, uncles and cousins. I was also jealous. But ignore my base instinct, pay heed to my suggestion instead. If you want to read something heartwarming during these difficult times, pick up Funny in Farsi. I guarantee you will have a smile on your face.

Where are you from-from?

I answer that question with joy. Too much joy perhaps because my face lights up (or at least I feel my face lights up) when I say I am from India. And when I see a glimmer of recognition or some encouraging words from the questioner, I expound more on my birth country. Sometimes the person asking that question encourages my exuberance and sometimes, s/he gets glassy eyed. I have matured enough to know the signs when to continue and when to stop. This question is not difficult for me. I am a brown woman who speaks English with an accent, who came to this country in her mid twenties, lived here for years and ultimately became a naturalized citizen. There is no doubt of the fact that I am originally from a different country.

But if this question is asked to any other brown skinned person who was born here, that is stereotyping and racial profiling. This is the premise of the book Don’t Ask Me Where I am From by Jennifer De Leon. Liliana Cruz is a 15 year old girl who lives in Boston with her parents and annoying twin brothers. Her mother is from El Salvador and her father is from Guatemala. And although Liliana is a citizen of United States, her parents are both undocumented. Liliana’s family is not rich but they are relatively happy. She is a gifted writer who goes to Boston public school where she has friends who look like her, understand her culture, share similar background. Her seemingly uneventful life, however, is rudely disrupted when her father vanishes one day. Liliana does not know where her father disappeared. All she sees is that her mother is anxious and is trying her best to remain under the radar of authorities and earn as much money as she can. During this turmoil in her life, Liliana finds out that she has qualified under the METCO program to go to a predominantly white school in a suburb of Boston. METCO stands for The Metropolitan Council for Educational opportunities. “METCO is a school integration program that enrolls Boston students in grades K-10 in participating suburban public schools to reduce racial isolation” – according to their website.

Liliana is devastated to leave her old school and friends, but she chooses to go because she knows her papa would be proud of her and would have wanted her to sieze this opportunity. She soon realizes though, that although the initiative of this integration program was a noble one, the ground reality in her new school is completely different. There is another form of segregation where the METCO kids stick together and the rich kids have their own groups. The METCO students try to prove their worth by exceling in sports, academics, extracurricular activities yet they never become part of the main student body. They are different than the rest, inferior somehow because of their skin color, their style, their way of speaking. And then there is that invariable question that they are asked, “Where are you from?” When they answer that they are from Boston, the follow up question almost always is “No, but where are you from-from?” Liliana is of Hispanic origin but she was born in Jamaica Plains, MA, USA. That is where she is from-from! Many Americans like her, who are people of color, are asked this question and Jennifer De Leon makes a powerful point in this book through this story about insensitivity ingrained in that question, especially when posed to people of color. People are here, they are part of the community. Accept them, acknowledge them, respect them, dignify them.

Liliana’s father, we find out along with her, has been deported. Liliana’s world crashes around her as she discovers how vulnerable she is. Her parents could be taken from her anytime by authority and then what would happen to her? Despite the uncertainty and huge unrest in her life, Liliana grows strong, faces her challenges and searches for solution to end racial inequality instead of wallowing in self pity.

De Leon confronts some difficult issues head on. Liliana is a 15 year old girl who speaks in a lingo I am not familiar with and I do not particularly like. I found the narration of the story in Liliana’s voice somewhat detrimental to fully appreciating the story but I am not the target audience of this book. I wonder if young readers will relate to the narration. I recommend this book for the issues and the way Liliana grows in character.

‘Where are you from’ perhaps is a valid question if it comes from a place of honest curiosity to learn about a different country/culture. The follow up question, “No, but where are you from-from?” is the one to avoid.

Difficultly beautiful

Author Brit Bennett gifted me a phrase that I have been looking for all my life to describe myself and my dark sisters in this world. Growing up in a country where beauty is measured in how little melanin one has in one’s skin, I understood and related to what Jude Winston, a character in Brit Bennett’s breathtakingly beautiful book, The Vanishing Half felt in her school, her blue black, dark skin a contrast to the light skinned African American children. She was called a ‘tar baby’. Nobody wanted to be her friend or sit with her fearing her dark color would contaminate their fair skin. The question, of course, arises why did Black people revere their light skin and why did Black people shun Jude for her dark, glistening color? Because white skin meant (and means) freedom, white skin meant (and means) opportunity, white skin meant (and means) grabbing the lion share of world’s resources. And white skin also meant (and means) beauty.

Of course, colorism in African American community is just one aspect of the story. The Vanishing Half tells the story of 2 sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were born in a small town called Mallard in Louisiana. A town which was so small that one could not find it on a map. The town had a history though. The founder of the town, Alphonse Decuir, a newly freed slave was son of a white man and a black woman. His color was white and he married a light skinned woman to start off a progeny of very light skinned, white passing African American descendants. The Blacks in the town of Mallard could pass for Whites. The Vignes twins, great, great, great, great, great granddaughters of Decuir, were no exceptions. On August 14th, 1954, when they were sixteen years old, Stella and Desiree, finding no future in Mallard decided to run away to New Orleans. No one in Mallard, including their mother Adele heard from them in 10 years. After 10 years, one morning the townspeople saw one twin, Deisiree walking towards her mother’s house holding a little girl’s hand. Desiree returned back to her mama with her baby girl Jude, but Stella was gone. Stella, the quiet one of the two, left Desiree in New Orleans itself and word had it she lived as a white woman. Why? Stella hoodwinked the world and existed in it as a white woman to free herself from the shackles that bind black people. An incident in their childhood involving their dad imprinted in Stella’s mind that white people had the ability to hurt non whites and not be held accountable for it. Stella wanted to protect herself from that possibility. However, as we read about her life the question arises at what cost did she choose to lead a life of lie? Desiree had not set her eyes upon her twin those last 10 years. It seemed like Stella had disappeared into thin air. Jude, however, does not look anything like her mother, Desiree. She is dark like midnight. And no matter what her white passing grandmother applies on her skin, her color never fades. For inhabitants of Mallard, this blue black child is like a fly in milk, a ‘tar baby’, ‘ugly.’ And later in the story, she is perceived as beautiful, “difficultly beautiful” for some perhaps.

The story is told from perspectives of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Stella’s daughter, Kennedy to give a fuller understanding of the characters and the story. The progression of the plot is non linear, jumping from 1954 to 1968 and then backtracking a few years, only to jump ahead. But this technique was so seamlessly done that it adds to the fluidity of the plot. The book touches on many issues like race relations, transgender, relationships between sibling and children, domestic violence and love. And they all are folded in beautifully within the story of the sisters, the lives of their daughters and other supporting characters that build the foundation of the plot.

This book is brilliant. And I am grateful to Brit Bennett for she the gift of the phrase that will stay with me forever. Difficultly beautiful. Those of us with dark skin grew up hearing:

“You are ugly because you are dark.”

“Black is ugly”.

“Too bad her skin is so dark, she could have been pretty otherwise.”

“Nobody will marry her because she is so dark.”

And it went on and on and on.

We are beautiful, though. We are difficultly beautiful. Difficultly only to those who have been conditioned by society to define beauty in the way that society, media, race dictates. We can only hope they can break out of the shackle. It must be so binding!

The Princess reigns still, but for how long?

I heard of ‘Cinderella ate my daughter’ by Peggy Orenstein from a friend, a mother of a ‘princess’. The title caught my attention, although, being the mother of a non princess, the book wasn’t particularly relevant to me.

Sahana watched her share of Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White movies but when she was taken to a toy store, she always gravitated towards motorized scooters, magic trick boxes, spy kits and such like. From a very early age, given a choice, she chose a book store over a toy store. She wore a Snow White Halloween costume to her kindergarten Halloween party. I believe she did that to conform to the collective consensus on princess costumes among her girl friends in class, not from her heart’s desire. First grade Halloween party saw her as a ghost with a simple, home-made costume, the subsequent years were lady gansta, warrior Xena and so on. Now in middle school, Halloween means an orange shirt and a swagger.

In the book, Orenstein raises the question ‘how dangerous is pink and pretty anyway – especially given girls’ success in the classroom and on the playing field?’ ‘Does playing Cinderella shield girls from early sexualization – or prime them for it? Could today’s princess become tomorrow’s sexting teen?’

Personally, I think it boils down to what mom and dad are telling their daughters when they hand them their princess dolls or buy that ultra expensive Disney princess alarm clock for their pink room. If the message to the child is clear that the princesses and their lives are make believe fairy tales and reiterate that playing in make-believe world is ok as long as one is using one’s imagination. I haven’t seen many women walking around in their Cinderella costume, or being affected for life by the impact of helplessness portrayed by the Princess stories. It would be wrong to blame the Princess doll, a child hood playmate, for the insecurity or helplessness that certain girls grow up with. The root cause for those afflictions go deeper. In the stories, Belle changes a beast to a Prince with her kindness and love, Ariel sacrifices her voice for love. Maybe I am not feminist enough to see these acts as a submission of a woman to get a man, but as gestures of kindness and love for another human. That is how I interpreted the story to my daughter. The fact that the girl feels the love and makes a change is a positive, pro active move – for me. But I understand, my interpretation of these stories is debatable. What I find annoying is the fact that the damsels are being constantly rescued by a prince! It is always a man saving a woman, I wish once in a while a woman would save a man – if not for anything but to maintain that precarious balance in nature! But then again, these stories were written long ago, when the fabric of our society was different. The world was ruled by men. The world now is PREDOMINANTLY ruled by men, the women are making their niche slowly yet steadily. There is a difference.

Orenstein concurs with my thought on page 16 where she says ‘I have never seen a study proving that playing princess specifically damages girls’ self esteem or dampens other aspirations. And trust me, I have looked.’ She says that there are ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. There is also ‘reams of studies show that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity – especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.’

She makes another interesting point that was relevant to my life and my children. She wondered which sex has greater freedom when it comes to choosing toys? Girls get to choose sequin dresses, baby dolls or spy kit, both are acceptable. But a boy, due to imposed masculinity, primarily by the dads and also by society, would rather die than be caught with a tutu or a pink bicycle. One of Ryan’s preschool friends came for a play date and teased Ryan for riding his sister’s hand me down, pink scooter. After the friend left, Ryan refused to get on it – ever again. I held my ground and refused to buy him a blue scooter because I didn’t want him to give in to peer pressure over the gender differentiating colors. He gave up riding scooters altogether and moved on to bicycles. He chose a blue one, at age four.

My husband proudly wears pink shirts saying ‘real men wear pink’ and points out the pink cleats worn by professional football players (breast cancer awareness) when my son talks of the color disdainfully. It was somewhat enlightening to read in Orenstein’s book that according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, children were not color coded at all until the early twentieth century. Babies wore white before the advent of washing machines, since the sure way of getting clothes clean was boiling them. In fact, pink was considered more masculine since it was a watered down version of red – a color depicting strength. Blue, on the other hand, was associated with Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness and symbolized femininity. I was curious if ‘real men wear pink’ idea emanated from that concept of red being the color of strength.

She made a few other interesting observations which I think are worthy of mention here. She made me see the character of Bella Swan in the notorious …errr I meant famous Twilight series. Like Orenstein, reading the book ‘makes me grind my teeth until my jaw pops’, yet she made me see the heroine in a new light. What a contrast Bella Swan is from the other heroines that main stream media churns out with perfect skin, perfect teeth and perfect body for the teenage girls to emulate and fret over. Bella Swan is a regular, run of the mill girl. She isn’t particularly pretty, nor is she the sharpest tool in the shed. She is not the most exciting girl in school yet the most enigmatic, handsome boy falls head over heels in love with her. Orenstein says ‘Twilight lets a girl feel heat without needing to look hot’. I may not turn up my nose in disgust at the mention of Bella Swan from now on since she may have given girls what they needed – find their love on their own terms.

The other issue that the author raises, which I found interesting, is the separation of cultures which results in an us-versus-them mentality between males and females. According to experts, typically girls, around age two, move away from playing with boys who are too rough and rowdy. Shortly after that, the boys follow suit, avoiding the girls as much as they can. By the end of the first year of preschool, children mostly play with other children of their same-sex. This segregation continues till middle school when children start finding the opposite sex interesting but for different reasons altogether. Studies show that same-sex play in childhood MAY lead to less relating to the other sex and can cause hostile attitudes, lack of empathy and lack of understanding, leading to increased rate of divorces and domestic violence.

I was never interested in dolls or make up, although I love the color pink, mainly because I look good in it. I was considered ‘one of the guys’ growing up and I am still ‘one of the guys’ among my friends. But I love to see a woman made up immaculately and looking gorgeous. I just lament the fact that I lack the skill to put on make up tastefully. My daughter has followed my footsteps when it comes to make up and pretty dresses. She buys comfortable shirts, sometimes from the boy’s section in the department stores, she likes prints and designs that are labeled by society as ‘boy’ prints. And she stays far, far away from anything pink/flowery and paisley. Oh, and no glitter either, please. Orenstein writes, in her zeal of steering her daughter away from pink and princess, she created a little girl who looked disdainfully at her peers who actually liked to play with princess dolls. It is difficult for a child to decipher her mother’s dislike for the idea behind the princess stories rather than the color pink as such. Her daughter had interpreted her aversion to the princess culture differently and misdirected her disdain to the ‘girlie girls’. Sahana’s dislike for pink and floral motif made me curious about how she felt about her friends who were into pink and make up. I asked her if she looks down upon girls who make choices which will be labeled girlie by many. She said “I don’t scorn make up and girlie designs on my friends if they put it on and if it makes them feel good about themselves. I don’t feel the need to put make up on my face. I do, however, draw a line, when the desire to put make up becomes an obsession and girls constantly whip out mirrors to check their mascaras. To me, that’s annoying.”

The book was interesting, well researched, well written. Did I agree with all she said? No, I didn’t. But I was happy to read her perspective that she presented so well. Certain aspects of the book was relevant to my life and my children, which I mentioned earlier. I do, however, agree to everything she says in the last paragraph of the book about preparing our daughters to thrive in this world:

‘…staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one’s values while remaining flexible. The path to womanhood is strewn with enchantment, but it is also rife with thickets and thorns and a Big Bad Culture that threatens to consume them even as they consume it. The good news is, the choices we make for our toddlers can influence how they navigate it as teens. I am not saying we can, or will, do everything “right”, only that there -is power – magic – in awareness. If we start with that, with wanting girls to see themselves from the inside out rather than outside in, we will go a long way toward helping them find their true happily-ever-afters.’

Not an easy task, teaching our girls to see themselves from inside out, given the media frenzy environment they are growing up in. But we have to try – what other choice do we have?