From the Heartland: Elsa Marston

Considering authors who write about African American, Latino, Arab or Muslim Americans, Native Americans in my state of Indiana has uncovered a true wealth of authors. It’s a bit funny to see such richness in this state when Indiana in YA is usually seen as the last place on earth. But, to those teens who live here, Indiana is the center of the universe. 

Elsa Marston is an Indiana writer who expands the universe of all young readers. She’s very active in the wThe-Compassionate-Warrior-330orld of YA lit, whether she’s hosting a listserv chat, speaking at a local conference or
 writing another book that focuses on the people and cultures of the Middle East. Elsa has written over 20 children’s and young adult books including Santa
Claus in Bahgdad And Other Stories About Teens In the Arab World and Figs
 and Fate: Stories About Growing Up In the Arab World Today.  Her most recent book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria has won the following awards. 

  • Co-winner of the 2013 Middle East Book Award for best “Youth Nonfiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Midwest Books Award in the categories “History” and “Young Adult Non-Fiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Foreword Review “Book of the Year” Award in the category “Young Adult Nonfiction”
  • 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, First runner-up in the “Culture” category
Later this year, she’ll release The Olive Tree. 
A story for all ages, about how an old olive tree in Lebanon caused conflict–and inspired reconciliation. Based on the author’s award-winning and much reprinted short story. With illustrations by Claire Ewart.
Let’s meet Elsa!

Where did you grow up?

I’m a New Englander from way, way back;  I grew up in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; and then my parents moved to a small town on the Massachusetts Dscf0689bw_web-330coast, Duxbury, just north of Plymouth.  It’s a beautiful place, with beaches, marshes, pine woods, and fascinating houses from the 17th-19th centuries.  I still feel steeped in the culture and history of  New England.  One of my current works-in- progress is set on the coast of Maine at the start of the American Revolution.

How did you end up in Indiana?

So I’m not a Hoosier at heart.  But Bloomington has been a great place to live!   I came here with my husband, Iliya Harik, who was Lebanese (I met him when we were students at the American University of Beirut).  He taught Middle East government at Indiana University for his entire career, with occasional leaves overseas. That made it possible for our family to live in such places as Cairo, Beirut, and Tunisia . . . wonderful inspiration for my writing.  But it was always nice to come home to Indiana.  (I have three sons: Ramsay, a secondary-school teacher of religious studies in Austin, Texas—and my first-line reader!  Amahl, proprietor of a fitness-training studio in Providence;  and Raif, a computer guy in Austin.  And grandchildren Savannah, starting health-care studies, and Kahlil, a 2-year-old ball of sunshine.)

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a book-filled home—my dad was a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston—so becoming a reader was as natural for me as loving to climb trees. From my very young childhood I remember Barbar the Elephant, and in grade school I loved the E. Nesbit books and Mary Poppins—delightful blendings of fantasy and realism.

What three things would you like to add to a list of world treasures?

Oh my,  I’ll probably have some brilliant ideas tomorrow—but here’s what I’m thinking today.

The coast of Northern California, for the sheer beauty of its long, wide beaches, golden grass-covered slopes, redwood forests…..

Two or three piano concertos by Mozart—although I dare say he’s already on the list.

The translucent alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, every inch covered with tiny hieroglyphs painted  a heavenly blue—for the beauty and sheer amazingness of the thing. (It’s in the Soanes Museum in London.)

What book(s) are you currently reading?

One I read recently that made a big impression on me was Big Fat Disaster by Beth Fehlbaum (Merit Press, 2014).  It’s about a girl in Texas, a compulsive eater, whose dad—a rising politician—has just been hit by scandal;  he abandons the family and they have to move, virtually penniless, to another small town.  So Colby has a lot to feel bad about, and she handles it by gobbling sugar.  What I especially liked  is that Colby is not particularly likable: she’s irritable, irrational.  But we always care about her and hope that eventually she’ll find the strength to become the confident, sympathetic person that’s hiding inside all that baggage. 

When did you realize that you are a writer?

My dad was a writer and a storyteller, who made up bedtime stories for my sister and me.  I think that gave me the idea that I could tell stories, too.   At the age of eight or nine, I started to write two “novels,”  one of them set in ancient Egypt.  Naturally neither got beyond the second page, but I enjoyed them while they lasted.  And discovered, many years later, that my novel The Ugly Goddess, set in a  fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history, was the realization of that very early dream! It may take 40 or 50 years to realize your dreams—but it can happen! 

What stories do you most enjoy telling?

I like to tell stories about young people who face challenges or troubles and somehow manage to end up in a better place.  When I started writing, wanting to use the unusual places I’d had a chance to spend time in (Cairo, Carthage, Greek Islands), I wrote rather complicated mystery/adventure stories about young Americans in those settings.  But at a conference the well-known author Avi once told me:  “I think you should write stories that move people.”  I now feel  that the stories in my collection Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World best express what I want to do and perhaps can do best.  They still have an “exotic” element, being set in a variety of contemporary Arab societies, but my main concern is to depict young people trying to deal with the lives they were given, and make the best of it.

How did you decide to write about the Middle East and North Africa for young adults?

Since early childhood I’ve been intrigued by “other times, other places,” so I always had an international bent.   A Rotary Foundation fellowship took me to the American University of Beirut, and my marriage to the young man I met there—and the combination of his work and my own lifelong interests—led naturally to specializing in that part of the world.

But there’s another reason.  The Arab world is badly misunderstood, rejected, and disparaged in this country—even though Arab-Americans have always been exemplary as an immigrant community.  Since the founding of Israel in the Arab country of Palestine, in 1948, this prejudice has been drastically hardened by political complications, which are harmful not only to Arabs but to the interests of the U.S. and ultimately, I believe, to Israel.  I feel a mission as a writer to counter some of the ignorance and  politically motivated prejudice by presenting the people of the Arab world in ways that Americans can comprehend and relate to sympathetically.

You’ve described the whole Arab/Muslim world as invisible through use of the term “people of of color” and through their lack of representation in children’s literature.  Could you mention a few of the significant events, authors or books in children’s lit relating to books by and featuring Arab/Muslim Americans of which we should be aware?

Until the mid 1990’s there were very, very few books for young people with a positive Arab viewpoint—largely, I firmly believe, because of the prejudice mentioned above.  The door started to open with the publication of two very successful books by an already successful writer, Naomi Shihab Nye:  the novel Habibi and picture book Sitti’s Secrets, both about Palestine.  This showed publishers and writers that it was possible to produce books that give a favorable view of Arabs—without a storm of criticism.  Two other picture books published at about this time, by Florence Parry Heidi and Judith Heidi Gilliland, The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Egypt) and Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Lebanon), were also important “door openers.” 

Since then, we’ve seen a slow but pretty steady increase in accurate, fair, and sympathetic books about Arabs, by British, American, and Israeli authors.  But very few Arab or Arab-American writers!  Although there are many Arab novelists, poets, and essayists, the idea that literature for children is an important and worthy use of literary talent has been slow to catch on.  Books for kids have been published in Arabic for years in such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Kuwait; but they very rarely attract attention for translation and publication in the U.S.  I keep hoping!

I keep a list of recommended books, mostly fiction, mostly about the Arab world,  which I think is as comprehensive a list as you could find, going back to the 1970s.  I’d be happy to send it electronically to anyone who gets in touch with me  (elsa.marston@gmail.com)   Besides the ones mentioned above, here are some that I especially recommend:

Ibtisam Barakat, Tasting the Sky:  A Palestinian Childhood

Anne Laurel Carter,  The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Palestine)

Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground   (Palestine)

Zeina Abirached, A Game for Swallows  (Lebanon)

Alalou, Elizabeth and Ali, The Butter Man  (Morocco)

Carolyn Marsden,  The White Zone  (Iraq)

Mary Matthews,  Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Egypt)

Jeanette Winter,  The Librarian of Basra  (Iraq)

Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me;   Does My Head Look Big in This? (Arab-Australians)

Claire Sidhom Matze, The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky  (Egypt, Egyptian-Americans)

Cathryn Clinton, A Stone in My Hand  (Palestine)

Maha Addasi, The White Nights of Ramadan  (Gulf States)

What does diversity mean to you?

Talking about books, I take diversity to mean inclusion of good books about the Arab/Muslim world!  But of course I would include all cultures and countries—and encouragement of good writing and storytelling, that will hold up well in translation and publication in diverse societies.  I also welcome positive attention to all sorts of human conditions.  It’s wonderful to have books that broaden our understanding and appreciation of different experience—whether social, gender, religious, occupational, or virtually any other walk of life.   

 

Previous Posts From the Heartland

DHARATHULA “DOLLY” HOOD MILLENDER

KEVIN WALTMAN

From the Heartland: Kevin Waltman

My recent interview with Crystal Allen got me wondering who are the Indiana authors who write about teens of color? This is an important question when you consider how many YA books are set in NYC. Teens in Indiana , or any state, benefit from stories set where they live because setting can provide one more way for young readers to relate to their reading. Stories that mention the Pacers, Fort Wayne or Turkey Run State Park not only resonates with readers, but they also let readers  know that where they live matters and indeed they must, too.

Local authors are also important for teachers and librarians. Little can emphasize the importance of reading and writing more that a visit from these experts! Don’t we all get giddy around these rock stars of words and imagination?

You’ve met Crystal and I have several others for you to meet over the next couple of weeks. While some have lived in Indiana their entire life, others passed through for a few years. “Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier!”

These are the authors those students I used to teach in Indianapolis would just love to meet!

Kevin Waltman lived in Indiana for his childhood, high school and college years. Indiana is where Kevin developed his love of basketball, partially because, well this is Indiana! But more important, his dad was legendary college coach Royce Waltman. Kevin currently lives in Alabama. Most recently, he’s been writing the D-Bow High School Hoops Series (Cinco Puntos Press). The first book in the series, Next came out in 2013 and Slump releases in October.

Where did you grow up?

            I was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where I lived until I was 11. After that, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, for five years, then in Greencastle, Indiana, where I went to high school and college (DePauw University). After college I lived briefly in Washington, D.C., before moving to Indianapolis for five years before moving down to Alabama, where I’ve lived since 2001.

Do you have any pets?

          Our dog Henry. Technically, he’s my wife Jesssica’s dog, as she adopted him before we started dating—but we’ve been together for 9 years now, so Henry feels very much like my dog, too.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

            As a little child, I read and read, but the series of books that stand out in my memory are the Black Stallion books. I just couldn’t get enough of those. Like a lot of boys, I hit a bit of dead period in my reading in my teens, but The Catcher in the Rye got me jump-started again.

Which famous person would you most like to write a review for your book?

           Roy Hibbert or Mike Conley, Jr. They’re both NBA players with Indiana connections, and they seem genuinely interested in helping young people—my potential readers.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

            I just started The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, but I’m only a couple pages in, so it hasn’t taken over my imagination yet. Before that, I read On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, which is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in some time, at least since The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. And I’m also reading a tale from The Complete Sherlock Holmes in between every other book I read.

Is there much difference between life in Indiana and life in Alabama?

            Alabama’s hotter. Okay, that’s a bit of a joke, but in some ways that underscores other differences. The more rural nature of Alabamians, their relationships to the land, their penchant for comfort food—all of it seems influenced at least in part by the Southern weather. There are, certainly, other differences. Alabama, like other Southern states is more conservative, more religious, and poorer than Midwestern counterparts. However, though those traits are broadly true, the differences on those fronts don’t seem particularly pronounced when compared to Indiana.

                  Then, of course, there’s sports. I sometimes get rather quizzical looks when I tell Alabamians that I’m writing novels that focus in part on basketball, where in Indiana that is rather central to most people’s activities. Down here, it’s football first. And second. And always.

I have noticed that you teach writing at the university level. I would think teaching writing would be so difficult because there are just some things about writing that one cannot teach. What is it about teaching this skill that you enjoy?

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Click to hear a podcast interview with Kevin.

            It depends on what type of writing you’re talking about. I teach a lot of English Composition, which is really about preparing first-year students to write academic essays: how to research information and cite it; how to analyze and develop arguments; how to explore a topic as even-handedly as possible. That seems quite teachable if a student is actually earnest in wanting to learn. Creative writing is trickier, and I think that’s probably what you’re referring to here. In some ways, teaching that is largely telling students to break all the rules that they’ve been taught in English Composition. Rather than one or two accepted styles, there are endless styles. Rather than painstakingly developing “argument,” they can let go of “having a point” altogether. They can fabricate things. They can make up words. They can re-invent themselves over and over again. English Composition is like teaching students how to make a good lasagna, with a few possible variations they might try once they master the recipe. Teaching creative writing is like taking students to a kitchen and pointing out all the possible ingredients, then saying, “Have at it.”

                  In both cases, though, there are times when, as an instructor, you can actually see moments of recognition in students. You’ve maybe told them something a dozen times, but for whatever reason that final explanation clicks for them, and you immediately see a breakthrough in their writing—which also means a breakthrough in how they conceive of themselves as scholars and writers. That’s rather rewarding.

What attracted you to writing about basketball?

            My dad was a basketball coach (in order: Bedford High School head coach; assistant coach at Indiana University; then head coach at DePauw University, the University of Indianapolis, and Indiana State University). Basketball was a part of me from the get-go. Though I played poorly and quit my high school team, I always loved to play—and I was an avid pick-up player until a few years ago when I hurt my knee. But more than playing, I watched endless hours of basketball. When I was a kid, I’d get dropped off after school at the Bedford gym where my dad was running practice. As a teenager, I watched every game on ESPN every single night. I went to hundreds of my dad’s games. I went to Pacers games, to random college games, to tournament games in Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Nashville. To Final Fours in Atlanta and Denver. Alabama games. Summer league games. I once tried to estimate how much time I’ve spent watching basketball—it came out roughly to a full year of my life.

                  So, to answer your question: writing about basketball feels almost as natural as breathing.

How did you decide you wanted to write for teens?

            This is a little trickier. I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision, as much as it was a happy accident. Sometime in 2000, I met the now-somewhat-famous-y.a.-author David Levithan, and he was busy scouting authors for a new y.a. imprint at Scholastic, where he is an editor. I sent him some material. He liked it. And that’s how my first y.a. novel, Nowhere Fast, began. I followed that up with Learning the Game for Scholastic in 2005, and then after a hiatus where I was working on other projects, I returned to y.a. for Next. It’s good to be back.

Is it difficult to maintain Kevin’s character over 3 books? In what ways does he develop?

            Well, I’m in the middle of writing the third book now. And this is the first time that I’ve ever written a series. So the tricky part has been balancing “maintaining” characters while changing them enough so that there’s real development from book to book. At the same time, I can’t totally reinvent Derrick or any other character when I start a new manuscript—they need to have some consistency. In fact, Derrick—because his basketball goals keep him so focused—has been in some ways the slowest to change. He changes all right, but his end goal stays the same, and as I work on the third book I find that other characters—Wes, Jasmine, Uncle Kid—are undergoing more radical changes around Derrick.

It sounds like there are many generational messages in the D-Bow series. What influenced you to put those relationships into your stories?

            I think there are two forces. The first is that, with sports, it’s hard to separate the player from his parentage (in whatever form that may come). One of the most touching moments in sports over the last few years was Kevin Durant’s MVP speech, particularly his words for his mother. Any player, if he’s honest with himself, owes something. For Derrick, his parents keep him grounded and disciplined, and they keep him from taking an easier—and more questionable—path. Meanwhile, Uncle Kid has been vital to his development as a player. And even if it’s not about growth as a player and a person, the way people experience sports when they’re young is often a way to share an experience with a parent: watching or going to a game together.

                  The other forces are personal. I’ve recently become a parent, and as any parent will tell you that changes everything. There is not a single idea or object in my world that hasn’t been somehow altered and made more brilliant by our daughter’s presence. Her exhilaration at her world becomes mine. So while I’m not consciously putting anything in my books about her, I’m a fool to think that anything I do is left unaffected by her. And, finally, I recently lost my father. Again, that’s not something I’ve consciously worked into the books—in fact, I revised Slump so Derrick’s father’s health problems were less similar to my own father’s. But, again, my own relationship to sports is inextricably tied to my own relationship to my father. So my dad—and my history with him—hovers like a shadow beside every sentence I write in this series.

What does diversity mean to you?

            To me, it means a goal that Americans still need to meet. I don’t mean to deny the progress America has made, not just since the pre-Civil Rights era, but since I was a kid. Most students I encounter now almost reflexively champion the benefits of diversity, though there are still exceptions. That’s great, but I think sometimes it’s lip service. That’s true of individuals who praise diversity publicly because they’re “supposed to,” but who don’t embrace any policies that might actually bring such diversity about. And it’s true of America in general, too. I live just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was recently featured in The Atlantic in a story about how our public schools are being re-segregated. It makes sense to focus on Tuscaloosa, since it’s in the self-proclaimed “Heart of Dixie,” but the sad truth—and I don’t offer this in any way to acquit Tuscaloosa of the charges that article leveled—is that such re-segregation is happening all over the country. And that kind of segregation creates a persisting “underclass” that Americans—or at least too few of the officials we elect to office—don’t seem to care that much about, no matter how much we extol the virtues of diversity.

                  So, yes, we’ve come a long way, but I think there’s a self-satisfaction because we see “diversity” all over our televisions, or at college graduation ceremonies, or even in some board rooms. Those images, important as they are, blind us from the segregation that exists between the haves and the disproportionately minority have-nots. There’s work to be done.

Indiana Youth Summit Scholarships

Indiana Landmarks, Indiana Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology and Indiana Freedom Trails invite students in grades 7-12 to participate in the Indiana Preservation Youth Summit.  Selected students travel to southern Indiana October 4-6, 2013, visiting Underground Railroad sites in New Albany, Jeffersonville and Madison while meeting with Underground Railroad experts, community leaders, and tourism and museum staff.

Students advise local communities on ways to engage youth in the study of preservation of local history and landmarks using Indiana’s Underground Railroad sites as the platform. Selected students also share their experiences during a town hall meeting October 31 at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in Indianapolis.

Participants selected through a competitive application process receive a full scholarship for transportation, meals, lodging and materials.  Four educators will also receive full scholarships.

Please share the attached flyer with students or go to http://www.indianafreedomtrails.org/youth_summit_application.pdf  Application deadline is September 9.

Library Diversity Initiative

The State Library recently announced receipt of a $1 million grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services for recruiting and educating 30 ethnically/racially diverse students for Indiana’s Librarians Leading in Diversity project. Potential candidates must apply to the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science (IU SLIS) by September 15, 2008. The Fellowship Application process is open until 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 3, 2008.

Ten candidates a year for three years are eligible to be selected for this Master of Library Science (MLS) Degree Fellowship program. Potential candidates who have applied to IU SLIS, and completed the fellowship application must also request two letters of recommendation from people (not relatives) who can speak to their professionalism and leadership potential. See the Fact Sheet for more details.