Author Archives: Uma Krishnaswami

About Uma Krishnaswami

Writer of books for young readers. Faculty, Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Born in India, now live in Victoria, BC, Canada.

Bath Spa and Lewis Carroll Sesquicentennial

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Photos courtesy of NG.

2014-09-23 08.01.36So we’ve been talking about the Bath Spa residency at VCFA–a week in Bath with a day trip to Oxford, a dream week for anyone excited about the history of children’s literature as seen through the eyes of writers. Not just that but part of that day in Oxford will be spent with none other than the distinguished Phillip Pullman himself! And that’s not all either Workshops and other offerings at the residency will be led by our very own Tim Wynne-Jones and Martine Leavitt. I know this prose is turning hyperbolic but I can’t help that.

What a treat, too, that this opening residency will take place in 2015,150 years after the first publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! Yesterday would have been Lewis Carroll’s 182nd birthday. Look at all these Alice connections.

Did I say this is open to graduates as well as current students?

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Pushing the Limits

Coe’s post about keeping the momentum and Amanda’s Hey You post both made me think about the mind-games we have to play with ourselves to keep going. Which of course reminded me of my own large project under way right now. It’s trying, poor thing, to get past its saggy-baggy-middle and I often find myself getting royally in its way.

IMG_7905Some of you know that from mid-October to early November, I was part of a group that aimed to trek the Annapurna Circuit. We didn’t do the whole thing because the week we started was the week that Nepal and the world (or at least anyone who was paying attention) got gob-smacked by this terrible catastrophe that killed over forty trekkers and left maybe 50 missing.  We were three days away from that pass and the worst we suffered included bad colds, sleep-deprivation, and mild altitude spaciness. We ended up hiking in some glorious places, meeting some generous, gracious people, and falling in love with Nepal.

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Wait. There’s a writing connection here. I kept a daily journal for the 22 days of the trip. Here’s what I wrote on Day 4:

To Chame, uphill and downhill until I feel I have no breath left at all but still I keep going and somehow at the end of the day I am still breathing and my muscles have stopped emitting screaming pain signals from all this overtime work. Past dozens of waterfalls that are sculpting the rocks. Each striation gleams, ivory on granite, elephantine in scale. You can hear the water roaring down, sometimes half an hour before you round a corner and see it. It is as if the source of all life on the planet is here; here is the heartbeat, and our puny wants and whims fall away at the sight.

And story is like that. You should be able to feel it long before you know what it is. You have to trust that every corner you turn is taking you in the right direction.

Sometimes, too, you have to recognize that there’s an avalanche ahead and you may have to turn back. That’s not failure. It’s letting go your original, logical plan, and going with what the universe has handed you.

That could be an 800 foot waterfall, or it could be laughing children. Be grateful, and keep on trekking.

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From a Joint Discussion, Belonging to Everyone: Diversity in Children’s and YA Literature

Here’s a post I wrote on my newly migrated WordPress version of Writing With a Broken Tusk. It came from the recent discussions on CCBC-NET in which several VCFA alums played an active part.

Uma Krishnaswami

Thank you to CCBC-Net for hosting a month-long discussion on diversity. It was heated at times; it touched nerves. It also gave us the chance to discuss two amazing new titles by Native American writers: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, and How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle.  

In the end, CCBC member Sarah Hamburg brought it all together by developing a list of personal and professional actions in the cause of diversity on the bookshelf. Asked if the list could be forwarded broadly, Sarah said: “It comes from a joint discussion. It belongs to everyone.” That seems a good way to send this list on its way. Here it is, reposted by permission of Sarah Hamburg and with thanks to CCBC-Net. 

  • Many of the ideas focused on personal activism: actively buying books representing a diverse range of voices; committing to…

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Beyond Craft: Reaching for Texts That Do Not Segregate

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Consider becoming a CBC Diversity Partner

Most often, when we talk about writing, it’s about craft. Tools. Techniques. Elements of fiction. For me, those things are inseparable from historical or psychosocial aspects of our field, e.g., the legacy of colonialism and how it lingers in children’s books, or the persistent representation (or non-representation) of characters of color. Just two examples but do they not, even now in the 21st century, still hold the power to stir conversations  to boiling point? And then there are the statistics.

Since last year, the Diversity 101 Posts on the CBC Diversity blog have offered us a refreshing forum for a thoughtful conversation on a variety of related subjects .  Quick peek:

None of us will ever have all the answers here. We all always need to remember that each character, author, and book is individual, and that each deserves our careful reading and consideration. But we hope this “Diversity 101” series will further the conversation with a little more information, and help all of us to write and publish the truest and best books.

And this from our own VCFA graduate Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Excerpt:

Even when the stereotypes are more benign, they serve to set people apart. Because emotional and developmental disabilities are usually invisible, it is tempting to exaggerate behavioral differences so that readers know a character has a disability.

The Sidekick Syndrome from Andrea Davis Pinkney.

It’s a common cliché, and it’s very subtle. In our ever-increasing commitment to include diverse characters in novels, we’ve also, at the same time, increased a stereotype ― that black kids (when they’re among an “ensemble cast”) don’t have much going on and aren’t worthy of the spotlight.
My own forthcoming CBC Diversity 101 post will be about interweaving “foreign” languages into English texts. Why does that matter? What are the alternatives to authorial translation? Oddly, that two-part post led me back to craft, to the details of words on the page in texts I loved as a child. But more, it led me to the truths about worldview that lie beneath a powerful, consistent, accurate voice. Accurate for a place and time and people, but more, accurate for a particular story. Good writing may equal craft but there’s something larger at work here. I think that something is an awareness of the moving, shifting forces that lie beneath craft choices.
In the end understanding our own sensitivities and biases can help us to create texts that do not segregate, texts that can instead reach the whole, rich, rainbow array of young readers for whom we write.

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Emotional Polarities and the Construction of Story

Lately I’ve been looking at the draft of a novel that I should be working on but am not yet ready to pick up again. I pull it up every now and then and read a passage here, a scene there, just to reassure myself that it still exists in my mind. I’ll get to it more seriously this year, I’m pretty sure, but in the meantime I’m just sort of breathing in its energy, assessing where it trips along nicely, flagging the places where it seems to fold in on itself or run out of steam. In a way, I’m stepping back and letting my mind sort it out on its own without consciously trying too hard at the moment.

Yin YangStories so often advance by means of a pulsing of energy–back and forth between emotional points along the storyline. When those moments of shifting energy lead one to another, like darkness to daylight to darkness again, the story also seems to move. When they merely happen in sequence, and aren’t emotionally connected, it can feel episodic, as if it lacked a throughline, as if it were not about anything other than its events.

If I let myself step back and look at my story in this way I can prepare myself to gut the scenes that drain the energy from the story. That in turn will give me room to grow new material with different feelings or moods, with actions that build energy where that’s needed, or images and settings that sustain it.

All of which is really about structure. Only when I think too directly about structure–say in the Aristotleian sense–my head begins to hurt. Instead, give me pulses of energy, positive and negative space, emotional direction. With those concepts in hand, I can fool myselfinto contemplating structure–minus the headache.

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Mosquitoes, Whining in My Ear

In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.

I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.

But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.

When terrible things happen in the world I  find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.

Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.

…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….

From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”

So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.

And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.

So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.

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Challenge: Read a Banned (or Challenged) Book This Week

It won’t be hard to find one. They’re as common as salt, really.

Challenges come from all states, from individuals and organizations, from both ends of the political spectrum. Here’s a list of last year’s most frequently challenged authors:Lauren Myracle, Kim Dong Hwa, Chris Crutcher, Carolyn Mackler, Robert Greene, Sonya Sones, Dori Hillestad Butler, Sherman Alexie, Suzanne Collins, Aldous Huxley, Harper Lee, Eric Jerome Dickey, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Dav Pilkey, Cecily von Ziegesar.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Captain Underpants rubbing, um, elbows with high school curriculum classics, middle grade series titles, YA novels, comic books.  Something to displease just about anyone, it seems. Which is why the American Library Association’s been observing Banned Books Week for 30 years now.

Here’s Bill Moyers on the subject.

I asked Marion Dane Bauer to share her own experience in this area. She wrote back:

Yes, I’ve had experience with being banned . . . my books, I mean, not me.  Curiously enough, the book I know the most about in that regard is On My Honor.  (If Am I Blue? has ever been banned the information didn’t filter back to me.  I have a feeling that one has gotten a pass because it is so obvious up front what it is.)  The interesting thing about On My Honor’s being banned is that I could tell from more than one incident that the people wanting it banned weren’t talking about their real issues.  They objected to language.  There is a hell and a damn in there, also a frigging, which doesn’t usually get mentioned.  I am quite certain, though, that real objection was to the discussion at the end of the story about whether or not there is a heaven.  Dad doesn’t give Joel the “right” answer which would be, “Yes, Joel.  Of course there’s a heaven and if Tony believed in God he’s there now.”  He says instead, “If there’s a heaven, I’m sure Tony is there now.  I can’t imagine a heaven that would be closed to charming, reckless boys.”  What having that book rather publicly banned a number of times taught me was, when writing for middle grade, anyway, to take great care with language.  It’s not that I was offended by having my book banned.  It puts a writer in such good company.  But rather if folks are going to ban a book of mine I want them to have to talk about what really offends them.  I don’t want to give the banner an easy out by giving them a damn or hell to latch onto instead.

Relative to this, I asked: Do you have anything to say to writers on the subject of courage in writing? This is what she said.

Truly good writing can happen only when a writer is being honest with herself and with her audience.  Any hiding, any covering over of difficult topics, any refusal on the part of the writer to plumb your own heart shows in work that lacks resonance.  Having courage in what you write and how you write isn’t easy, but in the long run it’s the only way to survive.

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