Marina: At the very beginning of working on the book I had tried it from Jaya’s pov, but that felt much too constricting for this story is really a novel told ‘in the round’ and each of these girls gives you something different as a daughter of a maid or nanny. Later on, I also tried first person, but the novel lost a certain narrative cohesion, the language became a little less interesting, and the setting–which is so important to this novel–fell away. So I realized my challenge was to take you inside each girl’s world as evocatively as possible, but allow you to move between them with a slightly wider angle. In terms of the three perspectives, they all came pretty easily to me, as they were so distinct. Yet even though I alternate pretty equally between the three, I continued to consider Jaya to be the main character since her struggle is much more internal and it is her mother who is accused of the theft. Finally another challenge was the rhythm of the book since the characters spend so much time apart as they each try to deal with the fall-out of their friendship. I actually read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants because I admired how Anne Brashares moved in and out of the three girls in short bursts. In my process, this became like a kind of film cutting where I would move scenes around and see how the contrast worked, and what kind of tension could be built with these parallel, developing stories. For me, the structure then became the arc of each girl and how they cope with a difficult situation, how it exposes the frailities in their lives, and the little, important insights they gain along the way. The other thing I really enjoyed about writing the novel was the fact that I had three very different immigrant worlds to capture. It was great fun–sinking into each distinct setting with its own set of secondary characters, textures, memories.
Q. This novel, and your previous "Ask me no questions," balance immigrant politics with the usual YA issues of teenage angst, parental conflict, issues with friends and school. How do you achieve that balance in your YA writing?
Marina: That’s a great question. In one of my earlier drafts, which I had shown to my editor she kept laughing at me and saying, "You’re so ambitious for this book!" I realize that perhaps this is my place in the YA world–I just see all these things, these experiences as interconnected, especially for the kinds of characters I write about. The challenge for me, though, and which my editor kept pushing me to do, is to see those larger social issues through the very concrete details and perceptions of a teenager. As someone who did come over to YA from adult, this was a learning process for me, where I couldn’t quite rely on an omniscient or more distant analytic narrator. But once I hooked into those details–such as Maria’s responses to Tash’s home; the way she perceives something as small as the professional-like photographs his family have of him on the walls–all that came flooding through the writing. Then the writing became a kind of pleasure because I kept amplifying and adding these little moments, some of them heartbreaking, where the girls navigate their social status and they come to understand their own place in this town. But one thing I will add: even as I wanted to give all the material around the social externals of their situation, their predicaments as daughters of maids and nannies, I knew each girl had a journey to go on that was quite personal. For all the girls that especially had to do with grasping their relationship to their mothers and the weight and responsibility they felt, even as they were trying to separate and become their own person.
Q. What was the impact of post 9-11 social politics – the patriot act, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the like – on your writing? On the writing of other authors of color?
Marina: Obviously it had a big impact. My prior book, Ask Me No Questions, really tore out of me in the period as I contemplated the impact on young Muslim teenagers who were undocumented. But in the next period, as I was writing this book, I was thinking more about not so much characters who were on the frontlines of the post 9/11 period, or affected by the Patriot Act, but those who had ‘settled’ in the U.S. and were trying to come to terms with ‘becoming American’ when frictions around immigrants were on the rise, especially in the suburbs. I kept clipping articles on those stories to keep it in mind. As well I became aware that much of what the country was going through with respect to immigration wasn’t taking place necessarily in the traditional places, such as cities, but in suburbs all over the country, for this is where immigrants moved, and it was often the immigrant economy of maids, nannies, landscapers, construction workers, who were making our lives plausible. This does bring me to what I’d mentioned earlier–I think part of what I like about YA, or at least the YA I’ve been working on for the past few years, is fusing some of my interests as a journalist to YA stories.
Q. In fact, there seems to be a rush of fabulous South Asian YA writing lately. Why is it that South Asian women write such amazing books? Any theories? (:)
Marina: Oh, I wish I had something brilliant to say! My biggest thought, I suppose, is it was just a matter of time. That is, we’ve of course witnessed the marvelous rise of South Asian literature (I think it is no longer a boom but is here to stay) And yet so many of us also grew up on ya and children’s literature and so knew it was time to try our hand at that literature as well. I was a voracious YA reader as a teenager, and I felt it was just a matter of time before I tried my hand at that world, but with characters that I hadn’t seen written about.
Q. You have written adult novels, nonfiction books, and now YA books. Tell us how you make the decision to write in one genre or another. What are the challenges and joys of each? What has been the reaction of the publishing industry to the variety in your work?
Marina: Part of the challenge is simply figuring out what ideas work best in what genre. I think that’s become clearer to me over time. The hardest part is balancing the different ideas and projects I have–I also have a teaching job and so split my time between teaching at my university and usually working on an adult and a young adult manuscript (not simultaneously, but sequentially). For me the joy is I think I’m simply not a person who ever wanted to be defined by one genre or approach and so I just love that. I’ve always wanted to be a ‘working writer’–someone who produces in many realms, who has something to say through different forms and audiences. I think that’s become a bit harder in the American market, but you see this in other countries all the time. I have loved coming over to ya–there’s a built in community of readers, librarians, teachers, and others, including blogging teenagers, who care about this literature and thus nurture along the life of the book over a long time span. This is very different from the adult world, where books either soar or vanish within a rather short window of time. In terms of response, I sometimes think the publishing industry has a memory that goes back one day. I’m aware of the range and the interconnectedness of these different genres I’ve worked in, but each project is almost a separate one, that you must sell to an editor or a house. But I’m always so pleased when I discover a reader who has really followed these different books and also doesn’t mind following me from ya to adult, or fiction to nonfiction.
Q. What projects are you currently working on?
I have just finished a very big manuscript, an adult historical novel, that I have given to my agent, so I’m a bit drained from that. This has been a six year project that I have been working on and off on, while doing the ya, and it entailed a deep amount of research and travel to India and the Caribbean. During this time as well, my husband and I were working on a new nonfiction book, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science
, which actually dovetailed with the setting for my novel, a large portion of which takes place on a Caribbean plantation. This year I am on sabbatical and so my plan is 1) to recover a bit and 2) to start researching and begin the writing on a few projects (I always think in ‘bundles’) One is a memoir that is also a social memoir, and will involve interviewing others (don’t want to say too much more, because I fear it won’t work out). The other is a ya idea I have that is set in Newark, NJ, and is very urban and will be from the pov of a young man. And finally I have a novel or novella that I never got right that I think I may fiddle around with during this time. While it may seem like these are disparate projects, they’re all connected in a certain way–they are urban in their setting and about coming to terms with a city. But at the same time, I want to be open to the process taking me wherever it takes me. Frankly, I’ve been going at a pretty intense and scheduled rate the past few years, and I’m mostly looking forward to letting the ‘barrel’ fill up a bit and not lashing myself to a writing deadline.
Q. Tell us about your creative process – do you have rituals or other creative practices that keep you going? What’s your go-to solution for when you get creatively "stuck"? (or do you never get stuck, in which case I’m jealous!)
Marina: I can’t say I get stuck but sometimes I’m a bit ‘dry’ or I can’t quite find the solution to things. Or I only manage to write a paragraph or two. One of the challenges for revision is you have this structure, this story line already laid down and it’s a bit difficult to get back inside and generate new material, which is needed. So sometimes I find myself making very minor tweaks or finely tuned additions, when what I really need to do is break it open a bit, riff, and not worry about whether it fits into the existing structure. So what I do is I actually go into a kind of brainstorming, thinking aloud mode. I turn on the all caps and just ‘go’ with various ideas or associations and soon enough that can be molded into a paragraph, a scene that can be slipped into the story. Another challenge for me is the stage I’m at right now–beginning. That is the hardest. Somehow I’m always a little creaky at the start of something and everything sort of sputters and I am sure I have no imagination. Once I get momentum and the wind is at my back, frankly I’m pretty obsessed because that world has become so real and compelling to me.
As to rituals–I like to get right to the computer before anything else, which sometimes is hard with the jumble of family life. And then, as I’m working on a book, I carry around a moleskin book in which I write down various ideas that might come to me in the course of the day, or where I put down my research notes.
Q. I know you teach at university – what sorts of courses do you teach? What are your favorite pieces of writing advice for your students?