Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ten Questions with Pooja Makhijani

When I started this blog and wrote that I would be reviewing Under Her Skin for an upcoming Bookslut review, I received a kind e-mail from editor Pooja Makhijani offering to extend the discussion started in her book. Naturally, I took her up on this and posed ten questions related to the composition of the book and the experiences we had growing up as women of race. These are Pooja's thoughtful answers. We both hope that the book inspires you to continue this discussion on your own, too.

1. In the introduction, you name the incident with your Sikh classmate as one of the defining moments in your childhood, one that led to the conception of this book. What brought you from the point of thinking of the book as a good idea to something that you actually wanted to do? How did the project fully come into being?

I have always been interested in issues of race, ethnicity and identity, in one way or the other. In my nonfiction writing, I found that I tried to deconstruct and decipher these things in my own life. When I started discussing my writing with friends (both writers and non-writers), they would always connect with my work by saying, “When I was a child…”. I just discovered that people were overflowing with stories to share, maybe because they never had the opportunity to do so before. And as I say in my introduction, “And I then knew I wanted to create a space - a safe, artistic place - where those childhood moments could be shared, questioned, analyzed, forgiven.”

The project came into being in a "non-traditional" way. I had worked with Seal Press as a contributor to one of their previous anthologies, Women Who Eat, edited by Leslie Miller. Leslie was also an acquisitions editor at Seal Press. I sent her a one line email - "Hey, I have an idea for an anthology. Who should I send my proposal to?" - fully expecting to spend a few months working on putting together a cover letter, outline, sample essays, etc. In minutes, she emails me back: "What's you idea?" And so I told her. We exchanged a half-dozen emails in which we fleshed out the idea together and thought through the editing, positioning and marketing of the book. And now, here it is, a fully realized project.

2. How did you solicit submissions? Were there any writers you wanted in particular or anyone whose story you knew that you requested be written for you?

I relied exclusively on email and the Internet. Once I had written an engaging call for submissions, I post it on every listserv and message board I knew of. I reached out to women writers, women of color writers, academics, activists, artists. Eventually, on the web, these things sort of take a life of their own. In the end, I got over 240 submissions.

I approached Esmeralda Santiago (author of When I Was Puerto Rican), Marie G. Lee (author of Finding My Voice and it’s sequel, Saying Goodbye) and Lorene Cary (author of Black Ice). Ms. Santiago couldn’t send me an original piece, but we did include a reprint from one of her memoirs. And, I did write very gushing (and pleading) letters to Barbara Kingsolver and Anna Quindlan, but they had too many other commitments to contribute to this project.

3. Okay, so I’m a bibliophile too, yet I can’t think of anything I’ve read that addresses the experience of race as it happens to girls. There’s got to be some stuff out there, right? Why do you think this area of culture has been largely passed over?

When I searched for similar titles on as I was working on my proposal, I couldn't find anything, really, and nothing that pertained exclusively to girls. The closest matches I found were a series of fiction and nonfiction anthologies titled Growing Up Jewish, Growing Up Black, Growing Up Asian American, and Growing Up Chicana/o. However, these anthologies aren't contemporary; they are compilations of writing from the past century. I did find several books about race and childood in general, but many of them took an academic tack.

I am not sure why this area of culture has been largely passed over. (Since the book has come out, I've heard, "I can't believe no one thought of this before!" about two dozen times.)

Is it because discussions race and race politics are still taboo? Is it because such discussions make people uncomfortable? Is it because we are too caught up in being politically correct and, as a culture, are easily offended? What terms do we use? Black or African-American? White or Caucasian? Asian American or Asian-American, or something more specific, like Hmong? South Asian American or Desi, a slang term for people from South Asia?

I think we’re still working through it all and I do believe that this book can be a tool to start the conversation.

4. Did your desire to produce Under Her Skin stem from the lack of literature in this area?

I say in my introduction to the book that writing "gave me an avenue to talk about race with people around me in places where I felt it wasn't usually discussed" and when I shared my stories, "I discovered that folks were overflowing with stories to share, because they never had the opportunity to do so before.”

It was a selfish, self-indulgent desire to surround myself with like-minded, creative people. Really. I wanted to broaden my experience, extend the conversation to others, and learn something in the process. I am thrilled that the book, and the experience of others reading the book, now allows me to extend the conversation even further.

5. It’s interesting that you also include stories about girls’ first interactions with others of minority races – the insider looking out vs. the usual outsider looking in. Having read the book I’m really glad those stories were there because it’s so easy to forget that they’re important, too. What made you decide to include them? Did you seek out stories specifically of this nature or, having received them, were you then inspired to include them?

I always intended to compile a collection that discusses how being "other" (in the context of race) has defined childhood, both positively and negatively, and to create an anthology that displayed the diversity of race in America. That being said, I think it is pretty obvious that you can't talk about race in America without the points of view and histories of white women.

6. What makes Under Her Skin work so well, I think, is that there’s something every girl can identify with. One for me is being Mexican and not knowing Spanish, but being expected to by everyone else. It’s like everyone knows what being Mexican should mean and doesn’t care what it actually means to me. I’m sure there are specific points in the stories that you commiserate with – where do you see yourself in Under Her Skin?

Something in every piece resonated with me, but the three that I see myself in are:

“Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” by Sejal Shah. In this essay, the author imagines a series of Nancy Drew-like books with characters like the girls with whom she grew up. “Sejal, when not solving mysteries (“The Case of the Unfinished Homework”)…spent her days in the company of Esprit-wearing white kids, trying to avoid the ball in volleyball, running fast in track,” she writes. “On the weekends, they headed to each other’s houses. All of them parodied their parents’ accents… taught each other how to use curling irons... ate Hot mix... practiced moon walking… kept secret track of who got her period first… watched their mothers make chaa and finding the crushed red pepper to sprinkle on pizza.” I could relate to the "double life" she describes so vividly - a set of vocabulary for her "Indian" life and home and another for her "American" life outside.

“Running Girl” by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. In this essay, Nnedi’s describes the strength of her immigrant, physician as one of the first black families in the neighborhood. “… We were taught that all ailments physical and otherwise – could be worked with, if not cured,” she writes. “My parents were essentially healers; it was their job to make people feel okay, and my sisters and I were no exceptions. Their words were like vitamins to us.” My parents were a strong pair as well.

“Mangoes and Sugarcane” by R. Hong-An Truong. Hong-An writes, “In the June issue of YM, there is a young woman named Rachel, and she is beautiful. Her peachy-tanned, lightly freckled face fills the glossy page; her head is turned to the side, blue eyes squinting from the sun, her bronzed mouth open and puckered… I wonder what it is like to be her – to be Rachel with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes and have millions of people focused on full, colored lips, biting into a tender mango dripping with juice.” I remember feeling like that; she captures it so poignantly.

7. Aside from the introduction, we don’t get to hear much of your voice throughout the book. Was this intentional? Did you always plan on keeping your experiences separate or did you think about including a narrative of your own?

I never thought about including a narrative of my own, but even if I wanted to, between editing and planning my wedding (Manuscript Due: June 1; Wedding Date: June 26), I really didn’t have time to write something that was nearly as well-written and insightful as any of the pieces in this book!

8. One of my favorite stories is Sejal Shah’s “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” because it involves searching for characters of different ethnicities in children’s books, something that’s so rare, even today with the current boom in children’s and young adult publishing. There seems to be little effort to incorporate ethnicities in these books – as a children’s author, do you agree? Also, do you foresee that ever changing and, if so, what do you think needs to happen to make children’s literature more inclusive?

When I was young, the closest I got to a child character that was “like me” was Mowgli in Jungle Book. Kipling was brilliant, but he was also a product of his time. There was nothing contemporary that I could relate to. But, I definitely think that’s changing. Small, independent presses like Lee & Low Books in New York City and Children’s Book Press in San Francisco are devoted to creating picture books that are inclusive, giving all children a sense of their culture and history. Most recently, I’ve read wonderful books by Christopher Paul Curtis and Anjali Banerjee and admired beautiful artwork by Yangsook Choi and Ruth Jeyaveeran. I am looking forward to reading The Not-So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins, Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park and Tofu and T. Rex by Greg Leitich Smith, all of which feature children/teens of various ethnicities.

Do I think it could be better? You bet! I think once people of various races/ethnicities/cultures become a critical mass in the publishing industry (editing, publicity, sales, marketing, bookselling), more of these stories will make it to the bookshelf.

9. Dude, what is with the hair? It didn’t occur to me how much our hair affects how we construct our racial identities, but there were so many of your writers that touched on hair as a crucial element of being the outsider. I can’t disagree. What’s your hair story?

When I was in the fourth grade, my mother used to pull my unruly shoulder-length hair into two, tight, oiled braids. Coconut oil is considered a necessary beauty product for an Indian women – it is believed that it nourishes the hair and produces shiny, black (the only suitable color), long hair that cascades down your back in lush waves. (Never mind that my hair is a medium-dark brown; my father and grandmother share this trait…). This was the way that she wore her hair when she was nine years old, with red ribbons at the ends; this was the way I was going to wear my hair.

Oh, what horror it was! Braids in the fourth grade? Coconut oil? It smelled awful to me and my classmates. (But not so much now; I heat it up in the microwave and dip my slightly damaged ends into it. It really is a good conditioner, but we always learn these things too late.)

So, I undid her perfect plaits the minute she dropped me off at school and used the ribbons and rubber bands to make one simple ponytail at the nape of my neck. Each afternoon, she would ask me what happened to my braids and I would reply, “Dodgeball. Gym class.” Even if she caught on, she never said anything. I was undoing what made me a little Indian school girl; I wanted to be an American school girl.

10. You’re currently going on tour with the book – how have the readings gone? Have reactions to the book been what you expected? How do you think producing the book has furthered your goal of creating a safe space for this topic to be discussed?

Absolutely awesome, so far. At Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, we had over 130 people in the audience and sold boxes and boxes of books. The Q&A after the event was most engaging. People had complex concerns, and asked questions that definitely can’t be answered in a 25-minute session: How are issues of race in America changing as families change – biracial children, children adopted from other cultures, blended families, same-sex parents? When, at what age, did you become comfortable in your skin? Should we even use the term "race" with all its charged connotations? After the event, everyone was revved up and I heard snippets of conversation here and there in the bookstore. People were talking about serious issues. All in all, I’ve been very happy with reactions to the book.

In many ways, I hope that Under Her Skin, similar books and other forms of artistic expression can be a catalyst for conversation about our differences and similarities. I wrote in my introduction to the book, "I liked these essays a lot, they made me think, they got under my skin. I hope that as you read this collection of essays will admire the candor and courage in these pieces, you might pick up a pen or sit down at the computer, and add on your own story." I truly believe in the power of the written word as a start to sharing, questioning, analyzing and forgiving.

I am heading to the Bay Area and then to Cambridge and New York City. Wish me luck.

Bonus Question: I’m taking recommendations for the 52 Books 52 Weeks Challenge. What’s the one book you’d most like everyone to read? (And by “everyone” I mean “me”. If I’ve already read it, I’ll ask for a runner up.)

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. Smith is most famous for 101 Dalmatians, but this one is better, I think. From the back of the book, "I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has 'captured the castle' - and the heart of the reader - in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments."

Runner Up: Harun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie


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