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Subverting the Chinese immigrant story

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”

On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.

She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.

Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. 

I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.

Read more at the Paris Review link here

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Forget Cinderella, these 5 books tell kids it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong

(From edexlive. Link to the complete article given below)

From Cinderella to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty — traditional stories may come with morals, but there is no denying the fact that they tend to pander to gender stereotypes and perpetuate biases. The fair maidens and chiseled princes, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armour routine, kissing women in their sleep (sexual assault lawsuit, anyone?) — these stories are riddled with ‘chivalrous’ crap (for lack of a better word) like this. Who said girls can’t rescue themselves or that all boys are brave?

In today’s world, there is no scope for kids to relate to these characters or situations, despite the various retellings and re-readings of these tales over the years. Children need, scratch that, deserve better stories that they can resonate and relate with. And for that, we need better writers. This is where ‘The Irrelevant Project’ comes in and it’s more relevant now than ever. Started by Alishya Almeida and Meghna Chaudhury as a series of workshops, which has now turned into a power-packed punch of five illustrated books that were released this January, these books tell children that it’s okay for boys to cry and girls to be strong.

Let’s do this

If every conversation between Almeida and Chaudhury, ever since they met through the Young India Fellowship, was subjected to the Bechdel Test, they would easily pass as all they spoke about was intersectionality, feminism and the education scenario. “There is space for more and there needs to be more,” says 29-year-old Chaudhury, during our call with the feisty duo. They decided to initiate a pilot workshop to understand the deep-rooted biases that creep into the minds of kids, in 2015. This was done in four classrooms of two government schools in New Delhi. The activities that they conducted helped children recognise the stereotypes that exist in their minds and the environment, along with certain critical thinking and problem-solving exercises. The inferences they gathered compelled them to start The Irrelevant Project. “We have five books with children, who are all of different builds and temperaments so that more and more children connect with them, as the protagonists,” explains 26-year-old Almeida. And this is just the beginning.

Read more at the edexlive link here


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What rereading childhood books teaches adults about themselves

(From The Atlantic. Link to the complete article given below)

When I return to my parents’ house and the neighborhood where I grew up, the tension between sameness and difference is disorienting. The gym is still there, but the bookstore where I hung out after school is now a Target. There are new neighbors renovating the house next door. My parents might turn one of our childhood bedrooms into a study. I see versions of my old self in local kids, running around the back alley or aimlessly browsing our local Sephora. They make me feel both nostalgic and relieved to be an adult.

That’s when I find myself reaching for a comforting set of pastel-colored spines on my childhood bookshelf: L. M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables series. My mom first read it to me when I was a toddler, and I’ve been rereading it ever since. For many years, the main draw was Anne’s love interest, Gilbert Blythe, whom I had a crush on. But now I read it more for the compelling female friendships—“bosom friends,” as Anne would call them—and the gorgeous descriptions of the jewel-toned countryside. Most of all, Anne’s home of Avonlea, animated by Anne’s idealism and exuberance, feels like a refuge from the real world, where those traits can be hard to find.

People’s favorite childhood stories often stick with them throughout their lives. When the book-centric social media site Goodreads tracked the books most reread by its users, many of them were children’s books, including J. K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Read more at The Atlantic link here


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The very hungry caterpillar lied to you as a child

(From Atlas Obscura. Link to the complete article given below)

Do children’s books need to be fact-checked to make them more true to nature?

Think of the best scene from your favorite children’s book. Easy, right? The Very Hungry Caterpillar emerges from his cocoon, now a beautiful butterfly that takes up two whole pages. Sal and the Mama Bear run into each other in the blueberry patch. The rascally mouse gets yet another cookie.

There’s a reason this particular page stuck in your mind. Maybe it surprised you, or taught you a lesson, or made you laugh. But have you ever wondered if it’s accurate?

Yes, children’s books are bastions of fantasy, the rightful homes of dragons and magic crayons and talking cheese. But as kids spend less time outdoors, and more time learning about nature through screens, some experts are taking a closer look at how well the lessons translate. The answer is often a resounding “Needs Improvement.” And fixing up picture books—those colorful gateway drugs to further education—might be a good first step.

Depending on who you ask, there’s a lot to be done, and some scientists have been holding grudges for decades. “When I was working with an entomologist on an insect book, he said that one of his pet peeves is that the editor for Eric Carle’s book about the hungry caterpillar did not vet it [with an expert],” says Donna German, General Manager at Arbordale Publishing. “He cringes to think at how many people, kids and adults, think that butterflies emerge from cocoons because of this one book.” (Butterflies instead come out of chrysalises.)

Read more at this Atlas Obscura link


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The surprising literary history of skin care

(From the Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The story of Bulgakov’s Margarita is part of a long tradition, from Snow White’s wicked stepmother (who wanted to remain “fairest of them all”) to the Germanic legends that granted vigorous youth to men heroic enough to slay a dragon. There’s a spectacular example of youth enchantment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Jason defeats a dragon to get hold of a golden fleece, then implores his wife—the sorceress Medea—to rejuvenate his father, Aeson, using a potion of herbs so exotic they could have been taken from a modern cosmetics catalogue. In her dragon-harnessed chariot, Medea makes a tour of the most glamorous and outlandish sites in the Greek world in order to gather herbs. She fills twinned holes in the earth with the blood of a sacrificed sheep, adds wine and milk, then dips flaming torches in before setting them ablaze. Into a cauldron go roots from Thessaly, sands from Oceanus at the earth’s limit, and powdered rocks from the Far East.

Medea used a desiccated old olive wand to stir the brew; as she did so, it sprouted leaves, then grew heavy with olives. Spatters from the broth caused flowers and grass to spring up on the cold dark earth. At this final sign, Medea felt ready to proceed: she slit Aeson’s jugular veins and poured in her potion. “Quickly his beard and his hair lost their whiteness … New flesh filled out his sagging wrinkles, and his limbs grew young and strong. The old king marveled at the change in himself, recalling that this was the Aeson of forty years ago.”

*

The earliest known text concerned with the elixirs of youth is an early Chinese commentary on the I Ching, the “Book of Changes,” in which chemical substances and processes are tentatively correlated with the book’s famous hexagrams. The I Ching takes for granted that the universe and all beings in it are caught up in cycles of transformation and suggests that the astute application of mystical and medical knowledge can influence those changes for the better.

In Europe, alchemists were obsessed with generating gold, but in China, they preferred to work on youth elixirs. A string of Chinese alchemists claimed to have created a rejuvenating potion; Joseph Needham, the historian, scientist, and Sinologist, was so struck by the frequency with which Chinese emperors were poisoned by these drugs that he tabulated a list of victims. In around 300 A.D., a Chinese alchemist called Ge Hong collated various recipes. Three centuries later, a more detailed treatise specified the inclusion of obscure, exotic substances such as mercurial salts and compounds of sulfur. There are more than a thousand different names for these potions, most of which carried the same basic mineral ingredients.

One of Ge Hong’s near contemporaries in the West, a Byzantine called Synesius, believed that the physical transformations effected by alchemy were less important than the mental positions adopted by its practitioners. A true alchemy of youth didn’t require a laboratory or precious exotic substances; all that was needed was the right kind of incantation and a change in attitude.

Read more at this link from the Paris Review


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Comforting myths – Notes from a purveyor

Who gets to tell stories? Let me answer this quickly: for the most part—and the exceptions are relatively recent—the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror. But wait: writers have been critical of the dominant culture for quite a while, you may say. Look at James Baldwin, look at Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, fine, but criticism of the culture is not necessarily a threat to it. When the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a “political” writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of “minority” writer. In his day Baldwin was considered more a black writer than a writer, and so he still is. If he is inching his way into the canon, it is because the culture has shifted. Overt racism is a bad thing now, so a liberal American can read Another Country and think, sure, there were a few bad apples back then, but this is not about me or how I live. It is easier now to tell ourselves that Baldwin is not talking about us, that he is criticizing people we no longer are.

When I bring this up in conversation, people stop me in my tracks because, you know, Conrad, Heart of Darkness and all that. Didn’t he criticize empire?

He didn’t. A story about a bickering couple does not threaten the institution of marriage. Heart of Darkness might disapprove of colonialism, but it’s not an attack on empire itself. The book deals in strict dualities and reinforces the superiority of Western culture and ideas. Africa, its jungle, is what blackens Kurtz’s heart, and just in case you start to feel uncomfortable because you find yourself identifying with him, the supposed bad apple—the Lynndie En­gland of nineteenth-century Europe—Marlow, the novel’s cordon sanitaire, is there to make you feel better. If that’s not enough, it’s actually some other shadowy narrator telling you what he heard when listening to Marlow’s story, so you, imperial citizen, are at least two steps removed from the apple and its African rot. No need for you to feel yourself in jeopardy. Your world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other, is just simply horrid.

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