The Scarsdale Inquirer – Hometown newspaper of Scarsdale, New York 10583

 

July 22, 2011


An author finds her voice in 2 cultures

Sheela Chari
 
By DEBRA BANERJEE

Navigating between two cultures is something author Sheela Chari understands very well. Born in Bangalore, South India, Chari moved to the United States at the age of 3 when her father, a professor of mechanical engineering, took a job at the university in Ames, Iowa. Chari had what she calls a typical suburban American childhood in Iowa and Washington State, but was grounded in a strong ethnic identity. While she considered herself just like her friends in all ways, an Asian Indian family living in the Midwest in the 1970s was something of a curiosity. What is commonplace now was seen as exotic then.

During an interview with the Inquirer at her home, Chari, now 38, remembered her childhood as a time when even vegetarianism was a foreign concept. Chari’s family kept their traditions and culture, followed a South Indian vegetarian diet, and spoke Tamil and Kanada as well as English at home.

She spoke about finding her way to fit in and the ways she didn’t fit in. She laughed at the memory of her parents unwittingly buying the wrong kind of Christmas tree every year, a perennial source of shame for Chari growing up.

“It was a different time and place,” Chari said, describing Iowa in the 1970s as “a lovely place to grow up. Kids played outside. We walked to school. When I write, I remember that time. Kids were more independent.”

Growing up, there were no characters like her in the books she loved to read.

With “Vanished” [Disney-Hyperion, July 26, 2011], Chari’s debut novel for ages 8 and up, the author wrote the kind of book she wished she had as a child, a mystery story with an Indian-American character. The transcontinental adventure began as a short story Chari wrote for her niece Neela in 2005 as a birthday present.

“Vanished” features a sixth-grader named Neela Krishnan who lives in Boston with her parents and brother. Neela is on the trail of a stolen veena, an Indian musical instrument, which was a gift from her grandmother in India. Chari’s protagonist is a smart and spunky young girl, an average American middle-schooler who is perfectly comfortable with her dual identity.

Chari wanted to write a mystery about an Indian-American because “there wasn’t anything like that out there.” She wanted a story where the character did something out of the ordinary. Using the veena instrument as the focus of the story “brought a lot of cultural nuance and history,” Chari said.

The character Neela, like Chari’s niece, is “well-balanced, comfortable with East and West. That’s the kind of personality I want to write about.”

In the book Neela tells a friend, “My parents want me to be both Indian and American.”

Chari weaves into the story Indian cultural norms that may enlighten some young readers, like the discouraging of dating and deferring to elders, and explains customs like the “dot” Indian women wear on the forehead.


Finding her voice

The author will appear at a book party and signing for “Vanished” on Saturday, July 30, at 2 p.m. at the Voracious Reader, the children’s bookstore at 1997 Palmer Ave., in Larchmont. Chari will also appear in October for an event at the Scarsdale Library, where her niece Neela will play the veena.

Chari lives in Heathcote with her husband Suresh, an IBM research scientist, and two daughters, Keerthan, 8, and Meera, 3.

Chari said she “always enjoyed writing,” and told her mother in the third grade that she wanted to be a writer, but at Stanford University, she majored in economics, a “safe” subject, where “I would be able to get a job, and still be a professor some day like my father. But I had no passion for it, and at times, the subject made me downright miserable,” Chari said.

Her turning point came when a classmate urged her to sign up for a creative writing class. The class was so popular students had to sleep out in the quad overnight, Chari said, if they hoped to get a spot.

The class with Stegner Fellow Alice LaPlante “changed my life,” Chari said. “No one ever took my writing seriously. She made me feel special.”

Chari wanted to go for her M.F.A. in creative writing, but the first year she did not get into any of the writing programs she applied to.

“At the time I was very disappointed. M.F.A. programs, especially the more prestigious ones, were extremely difficult to get into — some had hundreds of people applying for 10-15 slots. But there was a good side, which is that when I applied in the fall of my senior year at Stanford, I still had nearly a year left to take courses.”

A course on the evolution of the short story form opened her eyes, she said, to the craft of writing.

“Even though I was rejected that first time around, it was probably for the best. My portfolio simply wasn't strong enough. But after another year at Stanford, I was able to find my voice, take risks, and show that I now had an understanding of the short story form. I think I was really lucky that I had that extra year, and that I had a teacher who made me feel talented. They both gave me the confidence to believe that I could try again and get in.”

Chari worked as a technical writer in Palo Alto, then did a one-year master’s in creative writing at Boston University. She also got used to putting her work “out there,” she said. After a year she was accepted into the M.F.A. program at New York University.

Chari started writing for adults, but found herself drawn more and more to fiction for children. For “Vanished,” “I realized my story would have to be plotted,” Chari said. She had to provide clues and the only ending the story could possibly have “so the reader doesn’t feel betrayed,” she said.

“Writing as an 11-year-old resonated with me,” Chari said. “I think like a kid. I found my voice. I have my sense of humor. I have to trust that. It’s not just about expressing yourself. You have to think about plot and pacing. I don’t like a lot of description, flowery prose. I like stories about characters and how they change. I was never a big plot person.”


Publishing

Chari didn’t know much about the business side of publishing, but learned a great deal online. She joined a blogging community for writers of middle-grade fiction and learned the nuts and bolts of the business. “Vanished” took her a year and a half to write, six months to revise, six months to get an agent, one year revising the book with an agent and one year sending out. In between, she had her second daughter. The book was eventually picked up by Disney Hyperion. She “got panicky” when the departure of her editor at Disney left her an “orphan,” but a new editor “pushed her hard” through intense rounds of revisions, asking questions and letting her find the answers. “In the end, I’m so happy with the way it turned out,” Chari said.

After such a long process, it was when Chari received the unbound galley that she felt “this is going to be a book.”

“My daughter was 2 when I started. Now she’s 8. At 8 she could read it.”

Getting the word out about the book is part of the author’s job. “We’re all expected to do that,” Chari said. “We’re equal partners with the publisher.”

Blogging and social media avenues help. Chari spends about 10 hours a week participating in discussions and blogging, sharing info, trying to get her work reviewed. She is part of a debut authors’ blog called the Elevensies, authors who will be published in 2011, and From the Mixed Up Files. One of her favorite blogs is http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/afuse8production/, written by School Library Journal blogger and New York Public Library librarian, Betsy Bird. “This is one of the best blogs I've seen for children's books, ages 12 and younger,” Chari said. “She does reviews and shares/aggregates industry information, and does other types of commentary.”

“It’s a lot of work,” Chari said, taking time away from writing and from her family. “You have to balance.”

Chari presented a workshop at the Young Writers’ Workshop at Scarsdale High School in May. As a writer, she said, “It’s always been helpful to set goals. I try to write between 500 to 1,000 words a day, on the days I write (and I really try to write every day though it isn't always possible). Sometimes I try to write a chapter a week. It depends on where I am in the project — in the beginning stage or somewhere in the middle, or if I'm revising. I used to write only when my children were at school, which essentially meant the time when my younger one was in preschool — this was roughly two hours, three times a week. But nowadays I find that isn't enough time, so I try to work in the early mornings every day for about an hour if I can.”

How did her parents feel about their daughter undertaking an unconventional career path for an Indian woman?

“They were scared, of course,” Chari said. “No one they knew had ever studied writing before, and certainly no one from the Indian families we knew. This was before Jhumpa Lahiri became famous and won the Pulitzer. How would I earn a living or support myself, and how would I handle all the rejections and disappointments that any writer would have to face in what was a hugely competitive field with so very few rewards? They had no way of measuring my talent, of knowing if I would succeed, and what would happen afterwards. My parents eventually came around, and have become the strongest advocates of my writing career. Nowadays when my parents hear a program on NPR, or read an article in the newspaper about children's literature, they can't wait to share the story with me. It's a really nice feeling, knowing that they have come to understand and respect what I do.”



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