Today I have author Marina Budhos to answer a few questions, as part of the Teen Book Scene blog tour Marina’s doing for her YA debut, TELL US WE’RE HOME, a novel about three immigrant girls and their relationship with each other.
You've been a Fulbright Scholar to India, and given talks throughout the country and abroad. What's your most memorable experience with this?
Certainly the whole experience of living in India (now many years ago) left a deep impression on me. In fact, because of that experience, I’ve made it a point to go back every few years, watching the country go through breathtaking changes. One of the events that most affected me had to do political events—I was there in 92-93, when riots broke out in the country between Hindus and Muslims around the storming of the Babri Masjid Mosque. Where I was living at the time—Calcutta (now Kolkata)—it was not nearly as bad as what engulfed other parts of the country. But I remember being at a party with friends when suddenly we began listening to the BBC radio; and then suddenly there was a curfew and it wasn’t clear any of us could go home. For the next few days we remained inside, venturing out for a few hours, the city tense, while other areas of the country were exploding. My friends would stay up night after night talking, debating what was happening. It was a painful, soul searching time for the country, and it impacted me to be a part of that.
On a lighter note, one of my strangest experiences was giving book readings for my prior novel, Ask Me No Questions, in Germany. I went to several schools, and somewhere along the way, I lost my voice to laryngitis! There I was, squeaking away to the students, who themselves were just solidifying their English. And yet somehow we managed to communicate.
What inspired you to write a story about immigration? Were the hardships your characters in TELL US WE'RE HOME in any way based on your personal experiences?
This story was inspired by my ongoing interest in immigrants, and particularly, the lives of young immigrants. Years ago, I had gone around the country interviewing teenage immigrants, and their stories, their perspective really changed me.
This book came about in a slightly roundabout way. I had originally thought I would do a nonfiction book about the relationship between mothers and nannies. I had recently become a mother, had hired a nanny who felt like a kind of sister to me, making for complex emotions between the two of us. So I began to interview both mothers and nannies. Over time, though, I became more drawn to the nannies, and their stories. And finally, it was the stories just glimpsed, between the lines—that of their own children, who were sometimes calling them while we sat in the park, while their mothers tended other children. Then I moved to the suburbs (which for me was a kind of immigration, since I am a city person, through and through). My eyes were opened to the fact that immigrants are now much more in the suburbs—they are really what makes these places hum, the invisible corps that make our lives possible. And so I began to conceive of a book in a kind of typical, well-to-do suburb, but seen from the other side.
Once I had my characters, I would say there were aspects of them that were drawn from myself—in each of the girls there’s a little bit of me.
Have you always been a writer? Even as a kid?
I don’t know if you could say I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve always written. As a child, I wrote and drew constantly—my own TV shows, novels, stories. I’ll never forget that when I went away to sleep away camp, I used to sneak off to particular stream where I would sit and work on my novel-in-progress. After I graduated from college, though, I was a bit nervous about this whole notion of becoming a writer. My father was an immigrant, and though he was very supportive, it seemed like an irresponsible thing to do. Then I applied to graduate school in creative writing and received a scholarship and living stipend. So, dutiful as I was (and still feeling guilty about my career choice) I told myself I would write every day, as if it were a job. The good thing about that is it established a pretty fierce discipline and set of habits that continue to this day.
What was the hardest part to write in TELL US WE'RE HOME? The easiest?
The hardest was finding the structure of the novel. Because this is a novel ‘told in the round’ with three characters’ perspectives, I had to do justice to each of their stories, let the reader get to know each one (though I consider Jaya the main character), while moving the story forward. The novel has actually been criticized for this, but I felt strongly that this was a book that needed all three, especially since it is a novel about friendship, and that it would have been a much less rich novel if I had isolated it down to only one character.
What do you want readers to walk away with after reading TELL US WE'RE HOME?
I guess I would like readers to see their own world, their own town and school, from another point of view. To see what they take for granted through new eyes.