Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib

IMG_5274Do you remember the YA books you read when you were in middle school? In some ways, I never got over them. In my essay, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” I wrote about growing up South Asian American—which really meant growing up Gujarati in the 1980s—and I wrote about the books I loved as a child and those I came back to again. These included books in a series like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and books that were geared specifically for girls: Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Sweet Valley High, Trixie Belden, The Girls of Canby Hall, and the Betsy-Tacy books.

“Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” appeared in an anthology called Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004, Ed. Pooja Makhijani). What became “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” began as a short story in my MFA thesis in fiction, but what I was really interested in doing was exploring what it was like to grow up Gujarati and Indian American in a predominantly white suburb of Rochester, New York. I sent the original story to writer and editor Pooja Makhijani, who had a call out for submissions to her anthology, Under Her Skin. Pooja was interested in the story (which was entirely autobiographical), and she suggested expanding it. Through the process of revisiting and expanding the story, it became clear to me that this was a different kind of writing—a marriage of both archeology and choreography; both artistic and imaginative—a personal essay—and it grew into one of my first creative nonfiction essays.

This week I spoke to a class at the University of Rochester about “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” (PDF in link).  My essay has been part of the reading for this course for the last two years and this will be my fourth time coming in to talk to UR graduate students in the Warner School of Education. I realize now that only some of the YA books I allude to are well-known—often because of re-releases or film versions of the books. Roxane Gay has written about Sweet Valley High; Anne of Green Gables was made into a three-part series in Canada and broadcast over PBS, and Nancy Drew was re-released as series now using first person narration instead of the third-person point of view in the original books. A film adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, hit the theaters this year.

But the Betsy-Tacy books are not as well-known. Here’s a quick description thanks to Wikipedia:

The Betsy-Tacy books are a series of semi-autobiographical novels by American novelist and short-story writer Maud Hart Lovelace (1892-1980), which were originally published between 1940 and 1955 by the Thomas Y. Crowell Co. The books are now published by HarperCollins.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib (1941) is the second volume in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. This story introduces the character of Thelma (Tib) Muller, a German-American girl who becomes friends with Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.

The series follows the adventures of heroine Betsy Ray, who is based closely on the author, and her friends and family. The first book, Betsy-Tacy, begins in 1897 on the eve of Betsy’s fifth birthday, and the last book, Betsy’s Wedding, ends in 1917 as the United States prepares to enter the First World War.

I particularly loved Betsy-Tacy and Tib, because of the friendships I remembered from growing up on my street. In all of those books, much as I loved them. I never saw a character who looked like me. From my essay:

In the books I read growing up, there were always words I couldn’t quite imagine. I remember, with a specificity that surprises me, the foreignness of certain colors: kelly green, strawberry blonde…How these series come back to haunt me now, with their sense of ownership over the world, with the ways in which they defined a world…We read these books, but there was no one like us in any of them. Did we think of writing our own? I want to see us. To see the girl I was, the girls we were, back when we lived at home.

Within the “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” essay, I wrote the beginning of an imagined YA book—one that my husband and other friends have suggested I write someday. And I can imagine doing it now—what does it mean to write yourself in a narrative—into a world where you never saw yourself?

The Betsy-Tacy series was set in Mankato, Minnesota and covered the late 1800s into 1917, far away from where and when I grew up but this resonated with me and I wrote “a series about two best friends from the same street who made room for a third. No one felt alone past the second chapter.”

Sejal Shah lived alone with her parents on Pelham Road in western New York State, in a city that had seen better days (“Lion of the West”), that had housed stops on the Underground Railroad….

I did grow up feeling very alone at times, except for books—our middle school was almost entirely white, middle class, suburban at the time, with only one other South Asian American boy in our grade—and he was a close family friend; my mother and his had grown up together in Nairobi. But there were no other girls—and middle school is all about friendships. And of course there were other Indian Americans in the Rochester area. And so I imagined a series about us—about me and my friends who lived in the other towns around Rochester and went to different schools. Here are some of the imagined titles in the essay:

The Gujarati Girls Go to (Hindu Heritage Summer) Camp
The Gujarati Girls Go Skiing 
The Mystery of the Prasaad Plate (A Gujarati Girls Mystery)
The Gujarati Girls Go to Panorama Plaza (to see the latest Molly Ringwald movie—Gujarati Girls Mystery #13)
The Gujarati Girls Get Malaria (also titled The Gujarati Girls Go to India)

My husband and other friends have long suggested I actually write those books—and I want to do that. Because those early books made an impression on me. I loved them and wondered what it would be like to write my way into a book and bring along others who looked like me, but you couldn’t find us in the books in the library.

It reminded me of an essay I quoted from in the introduction to my MFA thesis: Adrienne Rich’s “Invisibility in Academe”—from a talk she gave in 1984 at Scripps College and later published in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. I’ve been thinking about this essay in relation to my work right now and about visibility and invisibility:

…whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard. And to make yourself visible, to claim your experience is as real and normative as any other…

And my teachers were wonderful, by and large, but there were moments, there always are—of misunderstanding, and something wounding—and not with teachers, but just by being out in the world—moments with other people—and I wanted to make the life I lived at home and on weekends, with our friends who were more like cousins and the language we spoke, Gujarati, visible. Legible. Normative. Part of the landscape and not even the most interesting part.

***

In Mankato, Minnesota (a few hours away from where I lived in Decorah, Iowa) there is actually a Betsy-Tacy society. And the house I rented in Decorah was owned by J.R. Christenson, who grew up in the Mankato neighborhood where Maud Hart Lovelace lived. My friend Sandhya, who lives in Decorah and also loved the Betsy-Tacy books, and I talk about going to Mankato someday, and I’d love to take that trip with her—driving and talking on our way to visit the neighborhood where these books were set.

In the end, two of my great loves will always be books and friendships.

None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

Fear of the Midwest

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Refrigerator magnets I got at a rest stop on the NYS Thruway. Yes, I was nostalgic for the place where I live.

Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York and Rochester as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean…to read more click here for my most recent essay for the Kenyon Review.

Writing with Others

Why is it difficult to begin? At least it often is for me. Right now, my friend Rachel, also a writer, is over and we’ve had oatmeal and strawberries and are writing in my living room instead of a cafe. We went to a cafe a few times last week, but the noise and not being able to control the sounds of people on their phones and talking in loud voices rattled me and left me in a foul mood. It’s easier right now to be at home and to have quiet company.

I’ve got Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind next to me—a book I bought in 1991, with the money from a $10 check I received for publishing a poem in the journal Hanging Loose. Goldberg (I want to say Natalie—I’ve lived with this book for so long—and did hear her speak in Newton, MA once) often writes about the writing and processes behind books—about what it means to be a writer and to commit yourself to that life.

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I retrieved Natalie’s book from my bookcase yesterday to look for some words (an idea of hers) that I may use for a speech I’m giving tomorrow at the Rochester Public Library. Although I seem to have public speaking gigs regularly, they still make nervous. The chapter is called “Who Gave You Permission?” As in—who gave you permission to be a writer. She writes:

There’s someone further along the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything. When I say ‘you ask permission,’ I do not mean you have to go to someone higher up on the totem pole and inquire, Is it okay if I write? Write before you ask anyone. As a matter of fact, never ask anyone; always write, but it is about relationship. You know another writer and this reinforces your own love and commitment. It is not about them saying yes or no; it is about encouragement and friendship. And it is about something deep and unspoken.

I want to say something about this to the high school students I’ll be speaking to tomorrow. They’ve all won awards in a literary contest—the same one I won in 1989, when I was in high school. I want to say something about why writing is important and how I hope they will keep writing—whatever else they may do with their lives. My friend Holly is reading my draft now. I’ll see if Goldberg’s words get cut or stay in. Whether or not I need to edit them for my remarks tomorrow, they stay in here in this blog post.

Hin-Jews in the House

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At my Diwali party in 2001 in Amherst, MA. Both Monica and I lived in Massachusetts for many years and went to graduate school there.

Two months ago, my dear friend Monica Gebell and I read together at Writers & Books, the local literary center in Rochester where I teach. We grew up together, have known each other since middle school, and have both been writing for a long time. Time goes by so quickly and already much has happened between then and now—so I’m especially grateful Monica wrote something about our reading.  Read more here…

What If Every Night Were Ladies’ Night? An Interview with Writer Sonja Livingston

Livingston_CVRwithblurb-658x1024International Women’s Day is March 8th and Women’s History Month is March. I’ve always found this both gratifying (to have a day or month set aside) and suspect. To whom do the other days and months belong? And Ladies’ Night at whatever bar or club–who gets the rest of the week? (I think we know who does.) What would it look like to instead consistently foreground and value girls and women?

Creative nonfiction writer Sonja Livingston’s latest book, a fascinating collection of lyric essays entitled Ladies Night at the Dreamland, does just this. She combines history, memory, and imagination to illuminate the lives of enigmatic, little-known American women from the past. Her two previous books (one a collection of essays and another a memoir) are also centered on women and it’s refreshing and necessary to have what is often at the margin (poverty, Western New York, the lives and stories of girls and women) moved to center stage.

I interviewed Sonja, someone I’m enjoying getting to know, over email in March. She lives part of the year in Rochester, NY, and I attended a master class she taught last Saturday, which was terrific (and helped me to get some writing done). Here’s a favorite excerpt from the interview about Sonja’s thoughts on writing. She says:

Paying attention is the main way I feed my writing. There are a thousand quotes about it already, but noticing is everything. In writing, and in life. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my writing is an excuse to make myself notice, and to glom onto people and places without shame.

My full interview with Sonja about her new book is online in the Kenyon Review now. Read more here….

The Kenyon Review & Some Thoughts on Work and Writing

Screenshot of the Kenyon Review
As of this February, I’ll be blogging twice a month for the Kenyon Review. My first post developed out of a question and conversation excerpt I posed on Facebook:

Does it matter to you if your life and work are legible to others?
Family Friend to me: “My husband told me you are not teaching at _______ School. So you are not working?”

What ensued was the most vital comment thread on my wall in months. My post explores this question about work and writing, and also meditates on my favorite poem by Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to.” Click here to read the post. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.