Friday, March 11, 2011

Colorful Interview with Neesha Meminger!

Everyone get ready to be blown away! Today I have the absolutely phenomenal Neesha Meminger stopping by, yay =D

Neesha is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love and I admit, I count her as one of my dear friends. Even if we didn't interact so much online though, I would still be in awe of Neesha's brilliance (and yet she still manages to sound very down-to-earth and funny). Read on to see what I mean....

One of my favorite quotes from the book occurs when Tyler and Jazz are looking at the stars. Jazz says "The stars. They were like a thousand suns. And at night, that's what they felt like, little pricks prodding everyone to do what's deep down inside, and not worry about anyone or anything else. They were like a veil, letting the secret part of you be heard-the part you kept shut and quiet under the harsher light of the daytime sun." (pgs 142-143). Do you put a secret part of yourself in books? And growing up, did you feel as though you could never lift that veil?

A: I think I do put a secret part of myself in books. Somewhere in those pages are things I've never told anyone. And when I was growing up, it wasn't safe to lift the veil. It would have put me in a position of having to choose between people/things I didn't have the resources or emotional capacity to choose between. But there was always a part of me that knew. There was always that wavering, flickering voice down there that held the truth. That's why I wrote Jazz in Love - it's all about listening to that inner voice that knows the truth, even if the truth is not popular, "acceptable", or about to get you into a whole heap of crap.

And that is why book bloggers/reviewers feel a tinge (or in my case-a pang) of guilt when they criticize a book! The resounding messages of having to choose and the truth not always being acceptable, are ones that make Jazz in Love universal.

Cindy and Jazz have a relatively drama-free friendship. Today it seems that in YA friendships between girls always revolve around guys and guys are the ruin of the friendships. Jazz and Cindy talk about guys but most of their discussions have to do with schoolwork, food and getting together Auntie Kindner and Dr. Babaloo. Why did you decide to keep Jazz and Cindy's friendship very low-key?

A: A couple of reasons. 1) There *are* drama-free relationships between girls. What gets media play, of course, are the cat-fights, the rivalries, jealousies and backstabbing. I've written extensively about the Reena Virk case in Canada, where the media picked up this *one* story of "girl-violence" and played the "girls can be bullies, too" angle incessantly. The truth is that the story was far more complex than that. It was a devastating story, no doubt, but for the media to play the "girl violence" angle over all the other issues that were in play was problematic. And (2) When we create stories, part of what we do is create new possibilities and realities through the rules of the world we create. Women and girls have had functional, loving, caring, nurturing relationships for centuries. Women can work together in teams and partnerships where there is respect and compassion. That doesn't mean there isn't conflict - and this does occur between Cindy and Jazz when Cindy disagrees with Jazz's relationship with Tyler. Remember--they stop talking for a while, but that conflict is resolved respectfully and with love.

You briefly take us to the UK in your second storyline between Dr. Babaloo and Auntie Kinder. What kind of research did you do to get a feeling for being Asian in the UK?

A: Well, I grew up in Canada, which started as a collection of British colonies until it gained full sovereignty (in my lifetime) and Britain ruled India for almost a hundred years, so my connection to the UK goes way back. And it is still embedded in my pores in many ways. But besides all that, I spent a lot of time in parts of Britain when I was growing up. We visited yearly for a while and stayed with aunts and cousins in Birmingham and Wolverhampton - all of my British family members fascinated me.

I was in awe of the South Asian scene in Britain because South Asians really seemed to have made a home for themselves there. And in spite of this, those South Asians still struggled with being viewed as outsiders and immigrants, even when they'd been there for generations. But I loved all of it - the different regional accents, the connection to South Asian culture (in a way I didn't have when I was growing up), the over-the-top way of celebrating functions, etc. It was an entirely different way of being South Asian based on the history and geography of the nation.

Then, in my twenties, when I was in the thriving arts and culture scene of Toronto, I was part of an organization that brought a lot of UK-based South Asian artists and activists to screen their films and participate in a festival. We brought Gurinder Chadha (director of Bend it Like Beckham) to screen her first film, Bhaji on the Beach, and Pratibha Parmar, who screened her groundbreaking film about the South Asian LGBTQ community, Khush. There were many discussions then about the arts and culture scenes of London and Toronto and how the two compared politically, socially and economically, and how the South Asian communities were evolving in both places.

I suppose all of this filtered into the novel.

I've only read a few books about South Asian teens in the UK and a few more about South Asian teens in the U.S. but I would agree that the way of celebrating being South Asian seems to be very different in the UK than how it is in the U.S. Not necessarily better (to my mind), just unique. I wonder if there are more South Asians in the UK or the U.S.?

It must have been so much fun to visit your extended family in the UK! Then to go home to Canada. It's fascinating how you didn't grow up in the U.S. but (I would argue) your 'voice' is distinctly American. But I never would have thought Canada had a thriving South Asian community.

Jazz loves romance novels. A South Asian TEEN loving romance novels? You can practically hear the gasps of shock. Why did you decide to give Jazz this love of books that are often looked down upon and dismissed?

A: I guess because *I* was a South Asian teen who loved romance novels! Also, it's not a stretch for South Asian teens to connect with romance novels because most grow up with a strong connection to Hindi movies (also known as Bollywood films) - almost all of which have a strong romance component. And most of the teens I knew when I was growing up (and the ones I know now) - South Asian or not - weren't too concerned with what was looked down upon. If they liked something, they read it/watched it/listened to it. Even if they had to do it in secret, which is what Jazz does. :)

Do you have any recommendations of some good romance books, YA or not (bonus points if they're multicultural ;)?

A: I really enjoyed Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix - it was such a sweet, beautiful romance mixed with adventure--how could you not love it? I've always loved Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. I also liked The Season, by Sarah MacLean, very much. But I think I have a special soft spot for His Own Where, by June Jordan.

I will forever be grateful that you introduced me to His Own Where, a pure and simple love story with captivating language. I LOVE it! I second your recommendations of The Season (fun historical romance!), Silver Phoenix (we need a romance resolution though!) and Born Confused (awww).

Do you see Jazz in Love as chick lit? Do you feel that this label is beneficial or potentially hurtful?
A: Personally, I don't take offense to the term, but I can see how it could be limiting and trivializing. Jazz in Love has many layers and is more than just a book about a girl who wants to date. There are topics like spousal abuse, dating violence, class, and caste that are explored. I would hate for people to gloss over these important issues just because I didn't hit the reader over the head with them. The truth is that people navigate these issues while they are living their lives and having experiences and relationships--and other things, like falling in love, or falling in crush, are just as important when you're young. Maybe the term "chicklit" makes these books seem shallow and unimportant, somehow? That would be sad--and potentially turn away readers who might otherwise really connect with the characters and story.

You mention a few Bollywood films and what's good and the bad about these films. Do you have a favorite Bollywood film, and would you mind sharing it with us?

A: I have several! I loved Paheli, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee; Chak De India; Veer-Zaara; Swades; Jodhaa Akbaar; Asoka; Fanaa; Mangal Pandey; Dil Se and so many more. Bollywood, like romance novels, is a genre. There are traits unique and specific to the genre and you either love it or you hate it. Bollywood films tend to be epic, or sweeping, and lavish with very dramatic music scores and over-the-top acting. They are completely escapist and the good ones are great fun :).

You took the leap and self-published Jazz in Love. From experience, I've read some not-so-great self-published books. but I've also read some great ones (A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott and now Jazz in Love). Do you have any tips for those who also want to self-publish? And what would you say to readers who are wary of giving a self-published book a chance?

A: The best tip I have for anyone who wants to self-publish is to make your book the absolute best it can be. It will be competing for attention on bookshelves and it has to be able to hold its own. The production quality has to be excellent, the cover has to be arresting, and the story has to be engaging to its target audience (therefore, you really have to *know* your audience!). I would strongly advise people to hire a professional editor, if at all possible. If you don't have the finances for it, save up. Seriously--you NEED an editor.

For readers, I would say that things are changing. Most readers are not wary of independent film or independent music because these are accepted forms of expression. Publishing is heading down a similar path where there are options for people who have stories to tell, but for whatever reason, aren't finding a home for their work. I would read a sample or excerpt of an author's work before buying it--Google has a preview function, as does Amazon. A few pages of writing will give you a sense of whether an author has a style you enjoy, and a few chapters will let you know whether you're interested in the story enough to continue reading. I would check the author's track record, their online presence, the marketing they've done for the book--are they professional? Do you connect with anything else they've got out for readers (i.e. a blog, guest posts on others' blogs, interviews, etc.)? But I would definitely encourage people to broaden their reading choices. L.A. Banks, who is a NY Times best-selling author, self-published this year because no publishing house would acquire her YA novel. Imagine ruling out her YA books simply because she chose to self-publish?

YES to the needing an arresting cover! Even bigger yes to needing an editor! I've read quite a few self-published novels with some serious potential but they are poorly edited.

In a guest post at the Rejectionist called "A Kind of Blindness to the Truth" you make the most excellent point that "more and more people are looking behind what is shown. More and more people are less and less fooled by our constant diet of the single story and a culture that, however unintentionally, promotes a kind of blindness to the truth. I see it everywhere, all around me-people want the truth, they want what's real, they want to live in a world based on values of justice and equality and they want to see that reflected back in their stories and mythologies. This is the information age-people are getting smarter, and less likely to be fooled. Myth-makers and image-creators would do well to take heed, and some are. In the long run, it's about so much more than just the bottom line." This post is specifically talking about science fiction and fantasy, but it could apply to any genre. How do you think, as readers, we can make publishers see that every culture has more than a single story? Obviously there's no easy answer but do you think there are small, concrete steps we can take?

A: I think the power of persuasion is in the bottom line. Publishers, film production houses, music labels--all tend to give something a chance if it will make money (and perhaps if it conforms to certain accepted ideals). And the only way for a product to make money is if consumers "vote" with their dollars. If you are a librarian and find that your collection is scant in books by and about marginalized voices, make a concerted effort to order more books reflecting diverse experiences and put those books front and center for readers. If you are a teacher and find that your curriculum/syllabus is mostly offering one or two types of stories, include a wider range of voices and encourage students to seek out diverse opinions and perspectives. And if you are simply a reader who enjoys lots of different kinds of books, talk them up. Enthusiastically share all the diverse books you've read with everyone you know :)

In Shine, Coconut Moon, the main character, Samar is called a coconut. Jazz arguably fits the bill of being a coconut, especially in the eyes of her cousin, Camel (well actually her name is Kamal) who is annoyed by Jazz cutting her hair and says "it takes courage to assert your Indian-ness in the west." Yet she never outright calls Jazz a 'coconut'. Why did you decide to make this a non-issue in Jazz in Love?

A: Jazz is far more immersed in Indian culture than Sam ever was. Sam's mother deliberately raised her to be "American", whereas Jazz is having the same struggles that all her other cousins and South Asian peers have--they live in a country where most things are black and white. There are very few images of South Asians in the media, in magazines, and in books. So, Jazz is making her own choices, sure, but she is definitely in the same boat as other South Asian teens around her. Her cousin, Kamal, might see courage in asserting "Indian-ness", but Jazz might argue that playing by the cultural, traditional, familial "rules" is the easier way out. And that it takes courage to go against one's parents, community, culture, and traditions in the pursuit of one's own truth and one's own path of learning. Jazz wants to be able to make her own mistakes--make her own choices and deal with whatever consequences arise as a result.

I was clear, at the onset, that Jazz in Love was not going to be a novel about identity. Jazz doesn't struggle with whether she's Indian or American, or both or neither. That's never an issue for her. Yes, her parents want her to be *more* Indian, but she never worries about whether she's American enough and she never really worries about whether she's Indian enough. For Jazz, this is a struggle for autonomy. She wants to be able to do what *she* wants to do. She questions some of the restrictions and limits her parents place on her, but that is a generational battle that has to do with culture, tradition, religion, and gender roles.

I wanted more Tyler time! And more Jeeves time! And more time with everyone in Jazz's world. Is there a possibility that we will get to revisit Jazz and friends? Or at least, do you have any plans on writing another YA contemporary?

A: I really missed the characters in Jazz's world when I finished writing the book. They were a huge part of the reason I decided to put the book out myself, in the end. I *know* young people like Jazz and Jeeves and Tyler and Pammi. I felt such a strong sense of responsibility and . . . love . . . toward them (sorry to get hokey) that I couldn't help feeling I was letting them down if I didn't succeed in putting their representations out into the world. I am in a position to tell their story and have it heard by people who wouldn't normally listen. If I didn't do it, it would just be one more step toward invisibility for South Asian youth.

As for revisiting . . . I am already, mentally, sketching out a Jazz 2 plot. But shhhh--that's a secret ;).

My (very early, very very early) review of Shine, Coconut Moon and my more recent review of Jazz in Love. Thank you so much Neesha!

*I am currently on a (mandatory) school retreat so I have no Internet access. Don't let that stop you from leaving comments! I will check my email and reply to all comments upon my return :)


  1. Totally unrelated but 'Wolverhampton', that's where I work! It's very rare to find The West Mids mentioned in British books, or by British authors (London gets all the play) let alone those across the pond so randomly excited.

    Really enjoyed this interview, especially the bit about self-pub authors needing editors. Also mentally looking forward to 'Jazz 2' now.

  2. Just found ur blog via Ibi Zoboi, nice! Didnt know such a place existed! Ive only read a bit of science fiction/fantasy like Fledging(O.Butler) or 47 (W.Mosley) but Im very interested in illustrating for some of the companies who publish POC YA novels. Got any suggestions on who to pursure in that arena? Take care.


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