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Archive for the ‘Southern Asia’ Category

Diversity and disability are two themes not often found together in one story, which is why I felt attracted to A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman. With regards to both, A Time To Dance didn’t disappoint me. Surprisingly, I also appreciated the novel’s third theme of spirituality. A Time To Dance is a moving and lyrical narrative of an Indian dancer who not only refuses to give up after losing her leg but also discovers love and faith.

First let me cover the diversity theme. What stood out most to me is how universal the main character’s story is, but yet at the same time how intertwined culture was to the story. Veda grows up having a passion for dance, not atypical for young women anywhere, but what’s more unique is the Bharatanatyam dancing Veda does. Veda’s mother is less thrilled, feeling that a dance career won’t provide an adequate income. Again, this isn’t an atypical parental response. What’s perhaps more unique is the hope that Veda will become a doctor or engineer. Veda’s family lives in a concrete high-rise apartment, not an atypical setting. However, other details are more unique such as the mosquito-netting that covers Veda at night in the hospital after her accident. From the mother’s attire of a sari, the grandmother’s snacks of cooked semolina, and even the sesame oil used to massage Veda’s muscles after a dance practice, the background is naturally woven into the story. Even Venkatraman’s style itself fluently draws upon Indian culture. For example, she compares the grandmother’s attentive watch to a snake following the motion of a snake charmer’s pipe. One can’t read A Time To Dance without being immersed into the Indian culture and yet the story could have happened outside of India.

Next let me turn to the disability theme. What surprised me most is how educational Veda’s story is, while at the same time being an entertaining narrative. When Veda is in a car accident that leaves her with just one leg, she has to decide whether or not to continue to dance. Maybe I should have been more aware but, prior to reading A Time To Dance, I had no idea that such a choice would even exist. Yet Venkatraman draws on actual research with real doctors to show how Veda could use a prosthetic leg to still pursue her dream. The leg is even custom-made to fit her dancing needs. Within certain constraints, if there is ever a step Veda can’t perform, the leg is tweaked. You’ll notice that I said within certain constraints. There are still some moves that can’t be replicated with a prosthetic leg. For the most part though, it seems that with extra work and practice, a dancer can resume their full original performances. Veda even learns of dancers throughout the decades who have overcome disabilities, some with less help from science, to maintain their profession. Of course, as Veda is educated, so are we as readers to how little a disability has to limit one. As such, A Time To Dance carries a very inspirational message.

Finally let me cover the theme of spirituality. When Venkatraman’s agent saw the word “God” on the first page, he apparently felt scared because few writers dare to approach this topic. He told Venkatraman it was hard to write spirituality without coming off as proselytizing or religiously bigoted. As for Venkatraman, she says that while Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the Hindu religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious but spiritual. Veda’s awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context, and the novel doesn’t try to push a particular religion. I do think that one will gain an awareness of the Hindu beliefs from A Time To Dance, which might make some adults feel hesitant about it. At the same time, Veda also asks spiritual questions common to those of many faiths. She wonders is God real, does God hear prayers, and why suffering and death happen. While I didn’t always agree with her answers, I did appreciate that the questions were asked. Believers of every faith will at some point want to explore their beliefs and few novels acknowledge this important reality.

A Time To Dance is told in flowing free verse, a fact that initially prejudiced me against it. I still can’t get used to the idea of my novels being poems. But, I need to overcome this bias. Most every verse-novel I’ve read has been not only easy to read, but also held merit in every way that stories should. Similarly, A Time To Dance has a strong plot, complex characters, detailed descriptions, and many thought-provoking themes. Highly recommended!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

PadmaVenkatramanPadma Venkatraman is an award-winning American author who lives in Rhode Island. All three of her critically acclaimed novels have been Booklist Editor’s Choice Best Books of the Year and American Library Association Best Books of the Year. Venkatraman enjoys discussing her work with interested audiences and has provided keynote speeches at teacher and librarian conferences as well as commencement speeches at schools. She’s also been the chief guest at international book/author festivals, along with having been invited to participate on various prestigious panels. Tomorrow I’ll review her book A Time to Dance. Save the date: June 17!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Born in the south of India, Venkatraman completed her schooling and her undergraduate studies there, but then moved to the United States to further pursue her studies. She obtained her doctorate degree in oceanography at The College of William and Mary and is currently Director of Graduate Diversity Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. She enjoys writing for young people, and her stories combine her knowledge of science and mathematics with her passion for literature and writing.

Beyond the above, I couldn’t find much personal background about Venkatraman, except for answers to some random questions asked by Penguin Teen Tumblr. Here is a sampling:

Who is your favorite hero or heroine of history? Sangamitra, a princess, daughter of Ashoka, the most powerful monarch to rule the Indian subcontinent. She gave up all her wealth and power, became a Buddhist nun, and lived a colorful though peaceful life during which she traveled one heck of a lot.

If you could spend one year on a deserted island with one character from literature, who would you choose?

  • Winnie the pooh, because he’d help me philosophize;
  • Frog and Toad, because they’d make me laugh;
  • Hermione Granger, because she’d magically get me a laptop to write with and also help me get home sooner than a year.

What is the best concert you’ve ever been to? Zakhir Hussain, an amazing drummer who plays the tabla. He’s handsome, too, so being at one of his concerts is a treat to the eyes as well as the ears.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever tweeted? I just started tweeting (@padmatv), and my funniest tweet so far is my daughter’s words: “Mommy, I love your three books the best in the world even though I haven’t read them yet.”

If you could teleport anywhere in the known universe right now, where would you go? Just got back from an exhilarating but exhausting week in Trinidad. I’d love to teleport to a tropical beach there, as I didn’t get enough time to enjoy the sun and waves.

What is your idea of earthly happiness? Items number 3, 4 and 5 on my multi-racial, multi-religious daughter’s Christmas list last year: No ill people; No cruel people; Nobody too poor. Plus, one item of my own: everyone loving all three of my novels and everything I write in the future!

BOOK BACKGROUND

A Time to Dance is about a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee and shatters her dreams. What follows is background information gleaned from Nancy Tandon.

Written in verse, A Time to Dance reads like a long, narrative poem. Venkatraman shares that she initially fought against this form because although she loves poetry, she’s never studied. However, the voice of character of Veda spoke to her in verse. An opportunity to sit in on a poetry workshop also helped Venkatram overcome her fear of experimenting with this form. Moreover, her editor was a stalwart supporter and stood by her through numerous revisions. Finally, as Venkatraman was revising my work, she realized that the form was particularly well-suited to two of the three main themes in her novel: Veda’s love of dance and her spiritual growth.

Venkatraman notes that many young girls learn Bharatanatyam in India, just as many in the West take Ballet lessons. She herself took lessons from a few different teachers. Although Venktraman views herself as having zero kinesthetic ability, she feels lessons helped her appreciate what it takes to become a great dancer. Her flirtation with dance informs Veda’s serious pursuit of it.

When Venkatraman’s agent saw the word “God” on the first page, he apparently felt scared, because few writers dare to approach this topic. He told Venkatraman it was hard to write spirituality without coming off as proselytizing or religiously bigoted. To her relief, even in the draft phase, her agent had nothing but praise for this aspect of the book. As for Venkatraman, she says that while Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious but spiritual. Her awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context, and the novel doesn’t try to push a particular religion.

As part of her research into A Time to Dance, Venkatraman spoke to several disabled people, physical therapists, doctors, and physiatrists when she wrote her novel. She also spent a lot of time doing experiments to simulate the tactile illusion of a phantom limb, using crutches, etc. In her late teens, Venkatraman also narrowly escaped the loss of a leg and so in some ways Veda’s experience was near to her heart.

One of Veda’s love interests, a doctor named Jim, was inspired by several American volunteers whom Venkatraman met who travel to other countries to help with the making of prostheses. When she visited India, she also came across many programs to aid socio-economically deprived people including those who were disabled. While noting that several groups of people in India and elsewhere inspired her, Venkatraman recognized that Robert C. James and his son Josh James, who create artificial limbs in Rhode Island, gave her more time than probably anyone else. In part to honor them, she named her character Jim.

One other piece of novel trivia involves Veda’s grandma who makes a hot snack for her after school. The snack is Sojji or sweetened semolina. Here’s a link to the recipe and a photograph of it on the web: Food and The Fabulous.

In conclusion, Venkatraman says it took years to get A Time to Dance right. After it was done, she was terrified. It was a tremendous relief then that A Time to Dance was released to starred reviews in five review journals. Many newspapers also carried glowing reviews. In addition, A Time to Dance is a Booklist Top 10 book for youth!

Twenty-Two Cents by Paula Yoo is a literary and visual experience. As an adult, I enjoyed reading this biography of Muhammad Yunus who established the first microbank. In considering whether or not to recommend Twenty-Two Cents for its target audience of children, I also thought a lot about the wide variety of picture books that exist, including those which are intended to be read aloud.

In being a literary and visual experience, Twenty-Two Cents is the perfect example of a mentor text or a good example of writing for students. The narrative is thorough. It starts at Yunus’s childhood when he first noticed the terrible conditions in which the poor lived, covers his college years when he first met the women who were unable to break out of poverty, and finishes with his senior years when he became known as the Banker to the Poor. Yoo’s prose is both inviting and detailed, as seen even from the initial paragraph: “Muhammad’s stomach growled as he and his brothers and sisters watched their mother mix rice flour, sugar, and coconut to create….” As for the pastel chalk illustrations by Jamel Akib, in reflecting both the richness of Bangladesh and the harshness of poverty, they also enhance this unique story.

As an adult, I enjoyed being introduced to an individual whose accomplishments led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yoo invokes admiration within me for Muhammad Yunus who from a young age felt compassion for those in need. The list of how Yunus provided help is extensive: As a Boy Scout, he raised money for the poor; As a young adult, he studied economics so he could teach people to manage their money; As a college professor, he moved his classes outside to learn how poor villagers managed to survive. Yoo does not skimp on the details of Yunus’s life. If anything, there are times when I’d have appreciated even more anecdotes.

With some reservations, I think that young people will equally enjoy Twenty-Two Cents. As I noted above, reading Yoo’s book inspired me to reflect on what exactly a picture book is. Picture books are most often aimed at young children, but can also be suited for youth and adults. When aimed at young children, the text is often designed to help develop reading skills. The text might be easy enough for independent reading or it might be sophisticated enough that adults will need to read it aloud. The text-heavy pages and challenging vocabulary of Twenty-Two Cents will require adult guidance. Discussions might also ensue about heroes, banks, and other thought-provoking topics.

Twenty-Two Cents provides an engaging look at a relatively unknown hero from Bangladesh who helped change the world. The afterword includes additional information about poverty and the role of microbanks in alleviating it. Several author sources are also provided. This is a text which could inspire adults and students alike to become activists.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

When my step-mom returned to her home country of the Philippines for a visit, she took my siblings with her. To wrap up my two weeks of features related to the Philippines, I thought it would be fun to interview my brother about his experience.

Although the visit happened a few years ago and so he didn’t remember a lot, he still offered some details. The statement he made which most stuck with me involved what he missed. He said that before the Philippines, he took family and things in Canada for granted.

a resort in the Philippines

a resort in the Philippines

ALLISON: What did you like about your trip to the Philippines?

ROBERT: What the Philippines looks like. The food. Getting to meet cousins. I enjoyed pretty much everything.

ALLISON: What did you dislike about the Philippines?

ROBERT: The heat. I’m not a fan of hot weather.

ALLISON: What did you find most different?

ROBERT: The climate.

Yard of Leonora's childhood home

Yard of Leonora’s childhood home

There were lots of gravel roads. The main roads or highways were paved.

They didn’t have soft couches. The hard chairs weren’t comfortable.

People walked barefoot in the house.

There wasn’t good internet. You had to pay for access. It was just a few cents, but here you can use the library or the college to get free service.

The Philippines isn’t the richest. They don’t have as much as Canada. But stuff was cheaper here.

ALLISON: Did you find any similarities?

Rice served on bamboo leaves

Rice served on bamboo leaves

ROBERT: They eat rice there too. Actually, there they eat it there pretty much every meal.

ALLISON: What were your favorite foods?

ROBERT: I don’t have favorites; I just eat. They had some fruits we don’t have here. There weren’t many desserts.

ALLISON: What were your favorite activities?

ROBERT: Games. We ran around and played sports.

ALLISON: What did you miss most about Canada?

ROBERT: Dad didn’t go because of the heat. I missed him and our pets.

ALLISON: Would you go again? Why?

ROBERT: I don’t know. It’s expensive. If I did, I’d like to see my cousins again.

Robert at Pagadian City

Robert at Pagadian City

I also thought it would be fun to ask my step-mom to compare her life in the Philippines where she grew up to her life in Canada which is now her home. The statement she made which most stuck with me is: “I liked my life there and I like my life here. I’m happy with my life.” Sounds like a good philosophy to live by!

ALLISON: What did you find most difficult about adjusting to Canada?

LEONORA: The cold weather! How fast people speak English.

ALLISON: What do you most like about living in the Canada?

Leonora and her siblings at a store

Leonora and her siblings at a store

LEONORA: People are friendly here. There are things we share too. When I worked in home care, people would talk to me about when they grew up here in Newfoundland. Some of it resembled my life in the Philippines: there weren’t paved roads and people didn’t have a lot of conveniences.

ALLISON: What are some things that are different?

LEONORA: The Philippines has bumpy roads. We use pumps for baths. There’s no snow, but there are floods and landslides. We eat rice every day. Foods are cooked by a fire and they taste better than meats here. There isn’t any television; just radio.

It’s slipperier and colder here in the winter. We go to the store for everything instead of making it. There are more conveniences such as microwaves. Newfoundland doesn’t have snakes!

ALLISON: What foods would you like to make here?

Getting a ride on a motorcycle

Getting a ride on a motorcycle

LEONORA: If I could cook anything I wanted to, I’d make all Filipino food. Whenever I get homesick or don’t feel good, I make adobo chicken. I prepare recipes by how my mom taught me; not from a cookbook. I can’t make stuff that needs sticky rice, because it isn’t locally available.

ALLISON: What do you miss most about the Philippines besides family?

LEONORA: The warm weather! I liked not having to wear a coat. Here, we have to bundle up in layers.

ALLISON: How has the Philippines changed since you lived there?

LEONORA: My family now have their own TV, DVD, and cell phones. They use their own motorcycle for transportation. The roads are better and there is bridge instead of a river to our house. The government has improved some of the area.

Dancing

Dancing

Growing Up Filipino II is an anthology of twenty-seven stories compiled and edited by Cecilia Brainard. What struck me most is that some of the stories felt distinctly Filipino, while others felt as if they could have happened anywhere to anyone. Moreover, the stories featured young people from a wide range of ages, with the youngest perhaps being eight and the oldest being a single parent. There also seemed to be a reasonably equal proportion of stories told from the male and female point of view. Given all of these factors, the collection should be enjoyable to a wide audience.

Let me start by highlighting those stories that felt most strongly Filipino. One of my favorites is “The Price,” which is about Amador, whose uncle wants help cultivating a piece of land. Everyone else feels that land is worthless, but Amador puts aside his studies to help fulfill a dream. In addition to the storyline, the description of the town, the lifestyles of the townsfolk, and the importance of land all feel unique to the Philippines. Other stories are set elsewhere and as such are instead about the challenges of dealing with a new culture. “Here in the United States” is about Alma, who misses her old life and resents her family for leaving the Philippines. As she watches her mom struggle at her new job, she realizes that perhaps her family is equally disappointed but are trying to make do. “Double Dutch” is about eight-year-old Alicia. Along with her public school friends, she skips rope, braids hair, and rides her bike. When it’s time for Alicia to head home, she’s eager to share her stories from her day but doesn’t get the expected enthusiastic reaction. Instead she is criticized for having a black friend and “trying to be black.” Alicia then recalls an incident from the previous day when a store owner treated her mother as if she were deaf, just because he couldn’t understand her accent. Alicia handles these two sides of racism by trying to become invisible and escape attention.

Now let me turn to stories which felt most strongly universal. One of my favorites is “Period Mark,” which is about a girl named Lili who waits for what feels like forever to get her period. Another story which will resonate with many readers is “Vigan,” which is about ten-year-old Rosario who struggles with grief after her father dies. She hates that her mother would need anyone else in her life and so seeks out a curse to get rid of the new man. I similarly enjoyed “Son of a Janitor”. The narrator manages to finish high school and college, but what he most remembers are the moments of cleaning toilets with his dad. “Outward Journey” is about David, who is orphaned along with his sister at a young age. A pen pal encourages David to date, and serves as a confidant in other troubling matters. When this friend dies and his first girlfriend breaks up with him, David faces the realization of both the brevity and heartache of life. The end of the story is particularly poignant, when he obtains a train ticket for college and notes that it’s the adult fare. In these examples and others, references to Filipino locations, foods, and traditions provide a local flavor.

In trying to write this review, I struggled for various reasons to know what to say. First, an anthology is about how well a group of stories work together more so than about how its literary elements. Although those within Growing Up Filipino II aren’t grouped by theme, they do weave a fascinating tapestry of adolescent life. Second, in being a collection of fiction, there are only a few text features. With regards to the appearance, the anthology suffers in the same regard that most do, of being plain and text-heavy. Novels can look this way too, but have the perk of being about one main character whom we’re pulled to keep reading about. There is an introduction, which left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s scholarly and so will not appeal to young people. On the other hand, it does provide a background to the stories within the collection, which is particularly useful to someone like me who isn’t Filipino and may have otherwise missed out on certain cultural nuances. And there is a Contributors section in the back pages which lists each author’s credits. I would have preferred for each author’s information to precede their story, and for the list of credits to be replaced with insights into their stories.

My final struggle came in how to evaluate Growing Up Filipino II on its merits as a cultural book. What I most appreciate about anthologies are the multiple points of view. And while all of the authors featured in Growing Up Filipino II are, of course, Filipino, they represent a range of experiences. For example, some of the authors live in the Philippines, some emigrated to the United States or Canada, and some were born in the United States or Canada. There is plenty here to stimulate discussion and encourage an appreciation of Filipino writing and culture. However, I’ve also emphasized the universal appeal of the stories because I feel that the collection can also be enjoyed outside the classroom.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

  • You can also catch some of the contributors readings their stories in the anthology at this link: PAHL Books

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