today I’m supa-happy to welcome and interview author Brenda L. Baker on Multiculturalism Rocks! If you haven’t visited her website yet, and haven’t had a chance to read an excerpt of her debut novel SISTERS OF THE SARI, don’t delay. You will discover a unique and funny narrative voice , topped by a contagious appetite for life.
Seat belt buckled? Let’s fly to India and learn more about Kiria and Santoshi, as well as writing outside one’s culture.
Multiculturalism Rocks!: Hi Brenda, thank you for joining us today at Multiculturalism Rocks! I’m fascinated by your journey as a writer, as well as your adventures as a teacher, your experience with former slaves in India, which is one of the elements that make SISTERS OF THE SARI such a powerful story. Please, tell us a little bit more about it. As a woman coming to India from the United States, how were you able to relate to these women?
Brenda L. Baker: I’m delighted to be here, Nathalie. Thank you for inviting me.
Relate might be too strong a word to describe my interactions with the women in the shelters. Only two of them spoke English and we communicated primarily through translators. When none were available, we played charades. We shared few common paradigms and those we did were compromised by our different social standings.
Because I grew up prior to women’s liberation and worked below the glass ceiling for many years, I had a strong tendency, at first, to project my own thoughts and feelings onto the words and actions of these women who’d been stranded on the fringes of society. Eventually, I learned to step outside my cultural straight jacket with the assistance of my landlady, Lalitha, a well educated woman with a relatively sophisticated world view.
I rarely shared the opinions and motivations of the women I met in India, but I did come to appreciate their validity within the culture. For example, in the west, we value qualities like assertiveness and independence. Most Indian women strive for ideals like duty and submissiveness. To the best of my ability, I tried to understand my new friends in the context of their value system.
MR: SISTERS OF THE SARI has two main characters: Kiria, the CEO of an American technology company, and Santoshi, who is a former slave living in a homeless shelter. Regarding Kiria, I’m assuming that you drew from your culture and maybe from your personal experience. What were some of the challenges of writing Santoshi’s story?
BLB: Actually, Santoshi’s story was the easiest one to write because I had so much material to work with.
Her personality is a composite of two women from different backgrounds whose remarkable intelligence was hampered by their social standing. I had difficulty accepting the wasted potential of such amazing minds, although I believe neither of them valued intellect, perhaps even felt it was more of a burden than a blessing. In the book, Santoshi’s quick wits made her a success. This was wishful thinking on my part. In real life, I doubt either of the women who informed Santoshi’s character will be given the opportunity to spread their mental wings.
Santoshi’s background story is purely fictional. I cobbled it together from case histories of women in the shelters, observations of the child beggars on the streets, a few trips to visit the family home of a friend who came from a poor rice village, and the plotline of a skit I performed with the social workers who supervised the shelters. It was a little morality play about how human traffickers target their victims. We acted in schools where the children were young enough to appreciate the drama, also in slums and villages where illiteracy precluded the use of pamphlets to warn about the risks of trafficking.
MR: Like you in real life, your character Kiria experiences a cultural shock upon her arrival in Chennai. If I may ask, and from a Westerner point of view, what was the most surprising or maybe unsettling element during your time there?
BLB: Most unsettling? The discovery that toilet paper is not a universal concept. Guide books do not give this topic sufficient coverage. I was also extremely disturbed by the Indian worship of pale skin. I suppose it’s no different from our western obsession with body fat, but I come from Canada, a country with a long history of racial tolerance. For many years, I lived in Toronto, an ethnically and racially diverse city that was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad . I could not wrap my head around the idea of judging a person’s worth by the color of their skin, even though lack of melanin worked to my advantage in India.
What surprised me most? Definitely jasmine. It’s not the Indian national flower, but it should be. Indian women wear it in their hair, but my hair was too short, so instead, I went out every night to buy a strand of jasmine from one of the street vendors, who sat by the side of the road twisting tiny white buds into fragrant ropes by the light of oil lamps. I hung it on the mosquito net over my bed and woke up every morning in perfumed bliss. Jasmine got me through some very tough times. It symbolized the Indian love of romance and the scent was a constant reminder to appreciate the beauty of the moment.
MR: A value from the Indian culture you wish everyone knew or drew from is…
BLB: Interdependence. There is a passage in the book about Kiria’s driver asking for directions. It’s intended as humor, but it’s also true.
I was deeply impressed by the cooperative nature of Indian society. People expected assistance from total strangers and they usually got it. Small kindnesses formed a kind of karmic currency. Mutual advantage was explored in the most casual conversations. People addressed new acquaintances in terms of relationship, calling each other auntie or uncle, little brother or big sister, in recognition of the importance of connection.
Here’s a little story I love to tell that illustrates this wonder aspect of Indian culture:
In Mysore once, my friend Esther and I were waiting to cross a busy road with our driver, Senthil. A blind man stepped out into traffic. Senthil pulled him back to safety and chatted with him as we crossed the street. When we reached the other side, Senthil asked Esther and I if we’d mind taking a short detour on our way back to the hotel because he wanted to give “uncle” a lift to the train station. It wasn’t a short detour and Senthil ate the cost of the trip, which came out of the gas allowance he’d been given by his employer. At the train station, the old man got out of the car, casually nodded his thanks in Senthil’s direction, then accosted the first person he bumped into for assistance getting to the ticket line.
Senthil eventually started his own tour company, no doubt helped by the bushels of good karma he collected with acts such as these.
MR: SISTERS OF THE SARI is your first book, as you made the transition from writing software to finally giving into your long time passion for novel writing. Congratulations on your achievement, I honestly couldn’t put your book down. I’m loving Kiria’s voice—funny and bluntly honest. What would you say is the most valuable lesson you learned during your writer’s journey?
BLB: Before writing a novel, my literary triumphs were limited to technical documentation and program specifications, both of which present facts in a way that precludes misinterpretation by the reader. Fiction is a medium that only works with the reader’s active participation. My first attempts to tell the story fell sadly flat, bogged down with clumsy footnotes and over-explanation. I had to trust in my readers’ intelligence, have faith in their ability to connect the dots of dialogue and action into a meaningful picture of motivation and theme. I still don’t trust completely, but I have learned to let go.
Side note: I asked Brenda if there were any non-profit organizations that she would like us to know about. With her authorization, I’m adding her answer, which I find surprising, spiced with a bit of a challenge. I think she just invited us to go to India (if we can) and help.
BLB: I’m a bit conflicted about non-profits right now. I saw many abuses of the non-profit system during my time in India and no effective solution to the problem of human trafficking. Like drug trafficking and prostitution, slavery is too lucrative to be eradicated by anything short of massive social upheaval. However, if you’d like to phrase this as a question, here’s how I’d answer it:
While there are many ways to donate money to causes, there is no substitute for donating your time and effort. In the spirit of “teaching a man to fish”, you are a role model for the people you want to help, a vision of what could be, a window into a better world. It’s also extremely rewarding. Who knows? You might end up writing a book about it.
BLB: Salted lassi. When I have one, I remember the first time I tasted it, on a houseboat just after sunset, cruising the backwaters of Kerala , watching geckos skitter over the woven rattan ceiling while the scent of frangipani and hibiscus wafted across the water like a kiss.
MR: Dear Brenda, I thank you, once again for your time and for your passion. I wish SISTERS OF THE SARI much success, and can’t wait to read what will follow!
Thank you, Nathalie. I really enjoyed this opportunity to revisit so many wonderful memories.
Good News: GIVEAWAY/CONTEST! (U.S. Only) From Tuesday June 7, 2011 until Sunday June 26, 2011
Heartfelt thanks to NAL Accent, a division of Penguin Group, that is graciously donating two copies of SISTERS OF THE SARI: one to a reader; the other to a high school library.
To enter the giveaway:
1- Visit Brenda’s website, and read the (short) excerpt from SISTERS OF THE SARI
2- Email me at nathalie dot mvondo (at) yahoo dot com.
3- Subject line: SOS Giveaway
4- Briefly share your thoughts about the excerpt read. *note: if you’re the winner, this will be published on Multiculturalism Rocks! on June 28, 2011.*
5- Nominate a high school library of your choice, if it applies. A shout out to the librarian(s) would be appreciated.
The winners–reader and high school library–will be announced Tuesday June 28, 2011!
Thank you all for participating and for spreading the word.
*In case you missed it: MR’s Review of SISTERS OF THE SARI*