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An Explosion of Color: Mama’s Saris

25 May

Mama’s Saris
by Pooja Makhijani/Illustrated by Elena Gomez

Pub Date: 2007

Publisher: Little, Brown

Level: Picture book/ages 7-up

Copy checked out from my library

A couple of years ago, I purchased this beautiful book for some family friends who just had a baby girl. I’ll be honest here – it’s the book I would’ve enjoying sharing with my mother. Or maybe a daughter. But this book wasn’t published when I was little, and I don’t have any daughters. Still, I’m not going to be deterred from reading Makhijani’s lovely tale with my two little guys. So much of this book resonated with my own experiences, making it that much easier to give my children a vivid snapshot into my childhood.

In Mama’s Saris, an Indian-American girl celebrates her seventh birthday raptly watching her mother gently unpack a leather suitcase filled with brightly-colored saris, each one with its own personal history. “Inside are her saris–the yellow satin one she wore for Uma Didi’s baby shower, the peach-colored one that is as fine as a spider’s web, and my favorite, her red wedding sari…” (pg. 3) The imagery of saris in a suitcase reminds the reader that this is a story set in the diaspora – the little girl is most likely a first-generation Indian-American. In fact, my own mother stored her saris in a suitcase that traveled with her from India to London, and finally to the United States. During the rare occasions she opened it, my sister and I would huddle around her, grabbing at the pieces of silk, trying on the petticoats and the cholis (blouses). The saris varied in style – some were very informal (georgette crêpe) and some very ornate (South Indian Kanchipuram).

In the book, while her mom occasionally takes out her saris, the girl’s Nanima (maternal grandmother) wears a sari every day. This small detail struck me, because of its allusion to generational gaps; I can attest to the fact that I have never seen my own grandmother (who has lived in the United States for over 35 years) wearing anything but a sari. On the other hand, my mother stopped wearing saris soon after arriving in the States in 1980. And I wear a sari once in a blue moon.

With my husband, Bryan, on our wedding day. Red is the traditional color for wedding saris.

In Mama’s Saris, it’s clear that the sari is much more than just a garment to adorn oneself; the little girl realizes that it’s her cultural legacy. Wearing a sari signifies the transition from girlhood to womanhood. “Mama is silent for a long time. Then she says, ‘I remember the first time I wore one of Nanima’s saris. It made me feel like a big girl.'”(pg. 17)  The story beautifully comes full circle when the girl, dressed up in one of her mother’s sari’s, looks into her mother’s eyes and proclaims, “I think I look just like you.”(pg 28)

In her introductory note, Makhijani writes that she “wrote Mama’s Saris after realizing that [her own] fascination with her mother’s fancy clothes was not unique. It seemed as if each of [her] female friends, regardless of ethnicity or age, remembers being captivated by her mother’s grown-up clothes.” (pg. 1) It’s interesting that Makhijani describes her mother’s clothing as “fancy” – for those of us who were raised outside of India, wearing a sari seems like a novel thing. But for our mothers and grandmothers who grew up in India, the sari is the means by which to keep tradition alive. The sari isn’t just “fancy,” it’s “home.”

Elena Gomez’s illustrations are intricate and vibrant, and combined with Makhijani’s wonderful writing, make Mama’s Saris an outstanding read. I would pair this book with Kashmira Sheth’s My Dadima Wears A Sari, along with Sandhya Rao’s My Mother’s Sari.


Getting in touch with culture: Shine, Coconut Moon

2 Mar

*Sorry, I have to comment on how awesome it is, that her body hair was not airbrushed out of this book cover.

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Released: June 2010

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry

Level: Teen/Ages 13-up

17-year old Samar “Sammy” Ahluwalia doesn’t really know a whole lot about her Punjabi heritage. Raised by her single mother, Sharanjit in New Jersey, Sammy’s had a fairly Americanized upbringing. Between school, hanging out with bestie Molly, or sharing tender moments with Mike, her boyfriend,  Sammy hasn’t really had the time to get in touch with her culture. And it’s not like Mom has been especially encouraging, either – Sharanjit has been estranged from her parents since her daughter was a baby. In fact, Sammy has never even met her grandparents. But one day, a stranger in a turban shows up at Sammy’s door, and her life dramatically changes. Uncle Sandeep desperately wants to know his niece, and teach her about Punjabi and Sikh traditions. But Sharanjit, who left home years ago to get away from her parents’ stifling restrictions, wants no part of it for Sammy.

In Meminger’s novel, the term “coconut” is a casually tossed pejorative (from a Punjabi classmate who assumes Sammy isn’t Indian), describing someone who is “brown on the outside, white on the inside.” With her Indianness called into question, Sammy becomes especially determined to get in touch with her Sikh and Punjabi heritage. As she gets closer to discovering herself, Sammy begins distancing herself from Mike, who can’t fathom the importance of his girlfriend’s personal journey. Mike’s lack of sympathy and his racist attitude eventually get him kicked to the curb. Even Molly doesn’t get it at first, but thankfully (because I didn’t want the bestie to go away!) she rallies around her friend. And when Sammy finally meets her Nani and Nana (grandmother and grandfather), you’ll definitely want to have some tissues on hand.

Shine, Coconut Moon is an incisive look at how distorted perceptions of race, ethnicity, and religion profoundly impacted treatment of Middle-Eastern and South Asian Americans following the tragic events of 9/11. Reading about Uncle Sandeep’s car being bombarded with garbage from racists yelling, “Go back home, Osama!” set my heart racing. I was in junior high school in the early ’90s, during the Persian Gulf War, and I vividly recall being told “Go back to Iraq!” Perhaps the most hurtful thing I took away from those encounters was a feeling of Otherness–like, I wasn’t really an American at all (despite immigrating to the States as a 1.5 year old). Meminger’s book really hit home for me, and was an emotional read. I’ve also had my Indianness called into question many times – when I took a course at Cal on Hindu Mythology (totes aced it by the way), I remember another student telling me (after hearing that I didn’t speak any languages other than English), “What kind of Indian are you?” I was stunned, but I definitely didn’t let it get me down. Like Sammy,  I realized it’s a personal journey, and today, I’m comfortable in my skin.

Despite having a South Asian protagonist, I think Shine, Coconut Moon will appeal to anyone who has felt like an outsider and/or is trying to bridge two cultures.  Highly recommended.

Copy checked out from my library.

South Asian American youth literature and the bi-cultural experience

26 Feb

As a youth services librarian, and the mother of two children of bi-racial/bi-cultural heritage, I’m strongly committed to highlighting books mirroring a broad spectrum of cultural differences. I also find myself experiencing a renaissance of sorts, as I see a plethora of recently published multicultural children’s and young adult books. For example, during my childhood, I NEVER read a single book with an Indian-AMERICAN female main character~believe me, if I had, it would’ve changed my life! Now, I put “AMERICAN” in all caps, because reading a book about Indians is so not the same as reading a book about Indian-Americans. Seriously, after several arguments and debates with my own parents (both born in India) about the differences between the “way people do things in India” versus “the way people do things in America,” I’ve realized there is a BIG difference between the two.

My sons, both 3.5 and 1.5 years old, are the product of a bi-racial marriage- I’m Indian-American and my husband, Bryan, is Caucasian-American. It’s been a mission of mine, since before the boys were born, to find books accurately reflecting a bi-cultural sensibility. So you can imagine how pleased I was to recently discover children’s and young adult books with South Asian characters balancing dual heritages and cultural experiences.  With that said, I’m beginning my inaugural blog post (sorry, the introduction doesn’t really count as the “first” entry) discussing two books featuring bi-racial characters with South Asian heritage.

The Whole Story of Half A Girl by Veera Hiranandani

Released: January 2012

Publisher: Random House

Level: Middle-Grade/ages 9-12

The summer before sixth grade, Sonia Nadhamuni’s life is thrown into upheaval when her father loses his job and becomes depressed. Sonia and her sister, Natasha, can no longer afford to attend their progressive, but incredibly expensive private school, and their mother is forced to take extra hours at work. Sonia enrolls in a large, public middle school where her classmates don’t quite know what to make of her mixed Jewish American and East Indian heritage. Sonia also can’t decide whether to befriend popular cheerleader, Kate, or hang out with the very awesome and smart, Alisha, who’s not exactly at the top of the social totem pole. When Mr. Nadhamuni disappears, Sonia takes stock of her situation, re-evaluating her friendships and ultimately decides that her dual heritage makes her a “whole” rather than “half” a girl.

Hiranandani’s debut novel is heartfelt, discussing cultural identity, family dynamics, mental health, and the timely issue of economic hardship in such a way that’s not too heavy for a middle-grade reader. There isn’t a “happy” ending in this book–Sonia still has a lot of stuff to work out with her family, as well as with herself–but I felt that it ended on a moderately high note. Perhaps the most important take-away from the novel is seeing a truly realistic depiction of cultural differences. In that respect, Hiranandani nailed it.

The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Released: January 2011

Publisher: Flux

Level: Teen/ages 14 and up

After a classmates calls her a “towelhead,” Asha Jamison who is half Indian, a quarter Mexican, and a quarter Irish is inspired by the negative experience. She and her best friend, Carey, who is half Chinese and half Caucasian, decide to start up a club, “The Latte Rebellion,” promoting awareness about students of mixed heritage. Oh, and they try to make bit of money on the side for a graduation trip by marketing t-shirts with the logo of their new project. Before they know it, the club gains traction, attracting a variety of socially conscious people. Soon, Asha and her friends are caught in the middle of a brewing political movement. Stevenson deftly handles complex issues related to race and identity, but also realistically depicts typical adolescent drama, including the heart-breaking end  of a lifelong friendship.

Gosh, how much do I adore this book?! Well, first of all, I loved that it was set in Northern California, in a location that was totally recognizable and identifiable to me. Not a big issue for most readers, but for this one, it was a personal issue. In fact, Sarah and I have our alma mater in common – we’re both UC Berkeley grads (Go Bears!), and it’s kind of nice to see that this book gives mad props to Cal. More importantly, The Latte Rebellion made cultural and racial identity issues its central theme – for some, this might feel heavy for a young adult book, but for those teens interested in political movements and cultural studies – this book speaks honestly, and directly to them.

ARCs provided by School Library Journal for professional review. The Latte Rebellion was reviewed for SLJ in February 2011. The Whole Story of Half A Girl was reviewed for SLJ in February 2012.