Tag Archives: diversity

Interview with Debut Author Kristi Wientge – KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE

I recently got the chance to read a  new debut, KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE , by the talented Kristi Wientge. It’s a wonderfully funny, thoughtful look into a subject you rarely see —  female facial hair.

When 12-year-old Karma discovers seventeen hairs growing above her lip, she is mortified and determined to get rid of them. Karma’s path to hair  removal includes navigating shifting relationships with her parents, her  best friend, and her comfort level with being the only kid in school who brings sardine masala and chapatis for lunch.

This interview with Kristi was especially fun to do because my son and I read KARMA together, and he contributed a few questions:

How did you come up with the character of Karma? Is she modeled after someone you know? (From my son) (First of all, can I just say that I love that you read this and came up with some excellent questions!)

 Karma evolved as a character. She started off as just a name and a problem: her mustache. Slowly, she became who you read in the book. Her situations mirror mine and things that have happened to my girls, but really she’s very much her own person. Much stronger than I ever was at her age!

How did you first get the idea to write this book? (Also from my son)

 The idea for Karma has been bouncing around in my head since I was ten years old. I wanted to read a book about a hairy girl, but never found one. Once I had children of my own and saw them go through similar situations, I knew it was time to figure out how to make this idea of a hairy girl into a book.

Your main character, Karma, is so wonderful for so many reasons. She’s also very different from many of the tween girls in today’s children’s literature – facial hair and a dad who wears a turban are wonderful distinctions. Yet I also came away with the impression you intended to illustrate not just the lovely diversity in her family and life but also the commonalities that connect all girls this age?

Yes, you really nailed this! The world is so interconnected we can no longer remain ignorant to things outside our normal. The more we explore outside of our comfort zone, the more we find we have in common with everyone.

Madeleine L’Engle famously said that if a subject is too hard for adults, write it for children. You tackle some pretty heavy concepts in this book – karma, spirituality, what it means to be a good person. What are the themes you hope will most resonate with your readers?

 All of the threads in my book really evolved naturally. I didn’t set out to make a statement on diversity or spirituality. I set out to write a book about a girl dealing with facial hair and the rest just layered on organically. I hope that whoever reads this book walks away with a broader horizon and more empathy. I hope that Karma is a springboard into conversations about female facial hair, something I didn’t talk candidly about until I was in my twenties. My last hope is that more facial hair stories get out there so girls can feel comfortable in their own skin. My readers should definitely check out Harnaam Kaur who actually blurbed the book. She has embraced her facial hair and is a fabulous example of self-acceptance.

How will you be celebrating your debut on August 15?

 I’m delaying my celebration until November when my kids and I are traveling to the US. I hope to to meet my agent, Patricia Nelson—which will be a huge deal. Then, my kids and I are going to eat Chipotle like we haven’t had it in 2 years—which we haven’t! Oh yeah, and I can’t wait to down a jug of sweet tea from Chick-fil-a.

Have your children read KARMA?

 No! And they call themselves my children! I really should punish them, but I’m actually relieved in a way. I get so, so nervous when people I know well read it.

What’s next for you – will we be seeing another book about Karma or do you have another book in the works?

For now, Karma’s story is done and I like where I left it. I’m excited to tell more stories with other characters. I’ve got a few things I’m playing with. One I hope Patricia, my agent, and I can get out there.

Is there anything I didn’t ask but you’d really like us to know about KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE?

You guys did a great job with these questions! I’ll let you in on a little secret about the book. You asked if Karma was based on anyone and I said mostly no. That’s true. But Daddy… don’t tell anyone, but he is HUGELY based on my husband!!! There are some word-for-word quotes from him. A few times during dinner, I’d run and get my notebook and chuckle to myself as I scribbled down something he said as I imagined the perfect scene to add it to! I LOVE that secret! Very funny – adds a whole new layer of fun to that character.

Thank you so much to Kristi for this wonderful interview. And because we had so much fun reading her book, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky winner.

Enter the Rafflecopter below!! Note: Rafflecopter will accept entries until August 8 at midnight.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

courtesy of Kristi Wientge

Kristi Wientge is originally from Ohio where she grew up writing stories about animals and, her favorite, a jet-setting mouse. After studying to become a teacher for children with special needs, she spent several years exploring the world from China to England, teaching her students everything from English to how to flip their eyelids inside out. She’s spent twelve years raising her family in her husband’s home country of Singapore, where she spends her days taking her four kids to school, Punjabi lessons, and music. With the help of her mother-in-law, she can now make a mean curry and a super-speedy saag. Karma Khullar’s Mustache is her debut novel.

Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari

Summer is a great time to read a new mystery and FINDING MIGHTY is the epitome of a great summer read. Even better it’s written by Edgar Award nominee Sheela Chari. Sheela and I met several years ago when her first book VANISHED and my SECOND FIDDLE were out in the same year. Both books had a musical element and so we did some events together with a group of MG and YA authors on the Stages on Pages tour. One of the real delights of writing is the people you meet on the journey, and I’m thrilled that my path has crossed Sheela’s again.

 Let’s start with Parkour and why you chose it. Are you a practitioner of this sport?

I came to learn about parkour in a roundabout way. While writing FINDING MIGHTY, I envisioned that some of the graffiti tags that appear as clues in the story were up very high off the ground. I wondered how someone would reach such heights without being slowed down by equipment. So in my research, I came across parkour, and I thought of course! So that’s how some of my characters ended up being practitioners of both graffiti and parkour.

But then as I kept writing, I found myself being drawn to this art form more and more. And I specifically refer to parkour as art because even though it’s an urban movement sport, parkour runners use their bodies in efficient ways that emphasize the beauty of their form. I began to go past the stereotypes we normally associate with parkour – daredevils climbing bridges and jumping off buildings – and see how, like yoga, parkour is about controlling your movement and negotiating physical space. As someone who is fascinated by bridges and yet incredibly afraid of heights, it makes sense to me that I would find parkour beautiful and thrilling. For me, the ability to jump and fall gracefully, and land on your feet is the ultimate superpower. So a not-so secret admirer of parkour? Yes. A practitioner? No. Well, not yet.

If you are curious about what a parkour run looks like here’s a video of one of the more extreme practitioners of the sport James Kingston.

Tell us about the relationship between Myla and Peter and how the racial element of that friendship plays out. I think MG kids are both more relaxed about interracial friendships but also more aware of nuances. Is that your experience as well?

In thinking and writing about Myla and Peter, I came across their characters very differently. In the simplest way – Peter started off as plot and Myla as character. With Peter, his story began with an “Omar” tag I would see on the highway near my home. I would wonder who wrote it and why. Eventually I shortened the tag to “Om” and Peter’s story emerged, not as the person who wrote the tag, but the younger brother searching for his missing brother, Randall, and the tag’s mysterious role in Randall’s disappearance. Myla was more like me as a young person – a highly observant girl who feels largely unnoticed by the world. Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. With Peter, I wasn’t sure who he was yet – I had to write to find his character. As I did, he evolved into someone part Indian, but also a mixture of other communities (Peter’s mother is Indian and his father is half African-American and half white). And I liked the way that organically came to the story. Myla’s and Peter’s racial identities are not the basis for their friendship, but it was a nice meeting ground – the fact that they were sort of alike but not completely. It gave them each something to learn from the other. In the end, FINDING MIGHTY is really about what happens when these two different people meet and become friends, and how their qualities become so important to the other person, whether it is help in finding a lost sibling, or in finding your sense of self.

Tell us a little bit about this gorgeous cover. As a bookseller in a diverse community I love it that you can tell from the cover that the characters are not white. Did you have any input on the cover?

 

 

 

 

Thank you! I like this cover a lot. Myla is modeled after my close family friend’s daughter. The original drawing of Myla was good but she didn’t look Indian to me. So I sent in a photo of my friend’s daughter, and then the cover artist, R. Kikuo Johnson, used that to create the final Myla on the back cover. He did an amazing job, both with Myla, and the whole cover.

Can you share some tips for MG mystery writers. I, for one, think it’s hard to write a mystery when your detectives can’t drive.

  1. MG characters make great snoops. They can be present during conversations and overhear without giving themselves away, because adults don’t often realize just how smart or intuitive kids are. So don’t be afraid to put your characters where the action is.
  2. Lists are a great way to keep track of information. Some of my favorite mysteries, such as THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, use lists to describe theories or clues. Lists are also a very visual and quick way to remind readers what they already know.
  3. Know that as crime solvers, your MG detective will have to take risks. It’s what makes her different from the rest of the mold. At the same time, not every sleuth has to scale a building to prove herself. Although in my case, Myla does, because she’s scared of heights. Which is why climbing out of her bedroom window one night to find Peter’s brother becomes necessary for both the plot and her character. So have your main character take risks, but make sure that they’re risks that test her qualities the most.
  4. It’s true that middle grade kids can’t drive. But they can walk and take the train or bus. Keep those options available – make your characters savvy enough (or brave enough) to understand a train schedule or know which stop to get off on the bus. In both my MG mystery novels, VANISHED and FINDING MIGHTY, my characters have to rely on public transportation to get them where they need to be. And in FINDING MIGHTY, two characters walk 50 blocks in Manhattan to track down a clue!
  5. Even if you’re a “pantser,” try to have a sense of the end of your book before you start. It’s not always possible – I didn’t know the ending with VANISHED until I got to the end. But even if you don’t, it’s important to know what happens during the “Big Reveal.” If you divide your story into beginning, middle, and end, I like to call this point the end of the middle. It’s when your main character finally finds out what they’ve been searching for. The more you know about this moment of revelation, the easier it will be for you to write towards it – like moving to the light at the end of the tunnel. This tip holds true for writing any mystery, or for writing a book in general.

Terrific advice! I’m going to keep it in mind for my next project. Thank you Sheela for sharing your thoughts with our MUF readers. Sheela is giving away a copy of FINDING MIGHTY. Leave us a comment to enter the drawing. A winner will be chosen in three days.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and VANISHED, which was an APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book, an Edgar Award nominee, and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. She has an MFA in Fiction from New York University and teaches creative writing at Mercy College. Sheela lives in New York. Visit her online at sheelachari.com and @wordsbysheela.