Do 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.