While I was out

Despite a lingering cough and the need for frequent naps (ok, more frequent than usual), I think I’ve more or less recovered from my recent assorted ailments.  And during the weeks I was coughing / sneezing / sleeping, a lot of cool things have been happening around the book launch.  Here’s a roundup:

  • The most amazing thing is that Alice Walker (yes, THAT Alice Walker!) blurbed my book! Here’s what she has to say:

I love Minal Hajratwala’s book LEAVING INDIA. It is what I imagine India itself to be like: incomparable, sprawling, rich, surprising, very old and wise and forever capable of re-creating itself, no matter where pieces of it land. Minal Hajratwala is a fine daughter of the continent, bringing insight, intelligence and compassion to the lives and sojourns of her far-flung kin. For those of us who have needed to understand the presence of so many Indians in our various lands, this book is a wonderful primer.

If I were an engineer/electrician/sculptor, I’d wire this up in flashing lights and carry it around on my body and look at it every time I started to feel the slightest bit discouraged, or cranky, or anything less than completely grateful and excited to be alive and to be a writer.
I received the email about this blurb (incomparable!  sprawling!  rich!) when I was so very sick that I was spending about 20 of every 24 hours in bed. I printed it out, taped it up next to my pillow, then spent the next two days doing this: — blow nose — read Alice Walker quote — have coughing fit — read Alice Walker quote — try to sleep — get woken up by coughing — spit green phlegm and blood — read Alice Walker quote —
The green phlegm is gone, thank goodness, but the quote remains.  There’s still something very unreal about it for me. Alice Walker is one of my real heroes:  a writer who made me want to write, an activist who made me want to believe.  Her work has been a guiding beacon for me in terms of craft as well as integrity, story-telling, and spiritual depth.  For many years I had a larger-than-life framed photograph of her up in my writing space for inspiration and encouragement.  So I barely believe she’s real, let alone that she really read and commented on my work!  
In practical terms, this is way cool because it gives us something to put on the book jacket. Blurbs can help readers decide to take a chance and buy a book, even if they haven’t heard of the book’s author.  At least, that’s what publishers hope; so a fair amount of behind-the-scenes energy and strategizing goes into deciding which people to ask, how to approach them, etc. My editor asked me for a “wish list” of people I’d like to see endorse the book, and even though most of them were long shots, we sent out copies; and she responded.
We’re still working on getting other blurbs, of course, but for me, this one is more than enough — and I haven’t stopped being thrilled every time I read it.
  • Little things have been happening too, like pre-publication listings in Library News (which helps librarians figure out what books to order) as well online booksellers like Tower and Amazon (where you can even pre-order a copy!  same goes with your local independent bookstore).  By the way, for my fellow narcissists out there, Google Alerts is a great tool because instead of obsessively googling myself every day or hour, I can let Google do it for me, and get email notification whenever a new website has my name in it.  These listings make me appreciate what a vast machinery is in place to get books into the world, and how all kinds of people I’ll never meet have hand in getting my book out to readers. Hoorah for interdependence
  • The first readings have been set up, which is super-exciting!  Tentatively, I think I’ll be in New York and Washington DC in mid-March, and then come home for a reading at my awesome neighborhood bookstore, Booksmith on Haight Street, on March 26.  Then it’s down to Los Angeles for a gig at the L.A. Public Library.  Details to come…
  • We’ve been laying the groundwork for a publicity campaign, putting out the word to my friends and old journalism buddies as well as the media at large.  I’m working with a lovely and very smart publicity manager assigned to me by my publishing house, and despite all the horror stories one hears from authors about their publicists, so far so good for me!
  • I did my first magazine interview for the book last week, with a very patient reporter who put up with me being on codeine brain and talking verrrrry slowwwly. It’s interesting to be on the other side of the interview, trying to sum up many years of work in a few pithy yet authentic comments.  I think I’ll get better at it with practice. 
  • Having been a journalist for years, I don’t get too excited about just seeing my name in print, but seeing my baby’s, I mean my book’s, name in print is still exciting. So if you happen to be a reader of Buddhadharma magazine, you can see a teensy item on me in the Mahasangha News section in the back.  

  • So, that’s quite a bit…  It’s delightful that even as I’ve been at my most UNproductive, things continue to click along.  There is momentum, and my personal sweat-power is not as crucial at this moment to making it all happen … which is really very fabulous.

    “On Being Ill”

    Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

    –Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

    So opens V.W.’s lovely little essay, which G gave me a couple of years ago when I was convalescing from a particularly dramatic attack of carpal tunnel syndrome. 
    In the essay, V.W. explores some of the reasons and consequences of the fact that illness has not become a theme of (Western) literature on the par of, say, love, or evil.  Perhaps readers would revolt, she says.  Perhaps we’d rather dwell in the dramas of the mind than admit we have a body.   And then, there isn’t very good language for it:  

    The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

    I’ve been noticing this lack of language, myself.  What language there is sounds rather mundane, and doesn’t in any case communicate the actual experience to someone who hasn’t had it.  “I’m still pretty sick,” for example, is a rather dull way to describe how I’m feeling today, but I’m quite sure it’s preferable to a detailed version of my day, which would be mostly a very tedious account of various states of congestion and phlegmaticness and the various remedies and efforts and decisions I made to attempt to alter these states.  Really, who cares?  I certainly wouldn’t, if it weren’t my very own body.
    Another reason there’s probably not so much writing about illness is that it makes you too tired to write.  I’m starting to feel better (relatively), which I can tell by the fact that this morning I was able to sit up for half an hour and write in my journal with tea this morning, which I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to do.  (Somehow blogging, in bits, is easier.)  
    I’m very relieved by this, since on Friday I was coughing up blood, which was rather scary.  
    (We interrupt this story with a brief bitch session about the health-care bureacracy.  So, since I was coughing up blood, I called my regular doctor’s office to speak to the Advice Nurse to see what I should do.  The Advice Nurse herself is a money-saving device to prevent people who don’t need to see a doctor from taking up valuable time, so I felt rather like a virtuous Model Patient as I did this.  However, the person who answered the phone took my health-card number and then told me I couldn’t speak to the Advice Nurse because I’d been dropped as a patient.  Why?  Because I hadn’t been to see my doctor in more than three years, and now they aren’t taking “new” patients.  What?  Yes, basically I had been TOO HEALTHY to be a patient.  So, with no notification, I was dumped.
    Now,  if you’ve ever been in managed care, you know that without a designated Primary Care Provider, you are … SCREWED.  You may have insurance, but you have no access to the system.  So after some prolonged bitching, during which I actually had to say something like, “Look, I really don’t care, my issue is that I’m coughing up blood and I’m calling my doctor’s office about it, and you need to either connect me with the nurse or find me a number where I can talk to someone,” this gatekeeper actually *did* connect me to the Advice Nurse.  Which sort of made me even more mad, because then I realized, “Oh, you CAN do it, you just have to HASSLE me first!”  Anyway, the advice of the Advice Nurse was to go in to the urgent care clinic.  And now, back to our regular scheduled drama.)  
    So the medium-nice doctor in the urgent care clinic (not quite as nice as the previous one, but still fine) listened to my lungs and said they sounded fine but ordered a chest X-ray just to be sure.  He put a little face mask on me to wear through the hallways “because sometimes we send people up there who are coughing who have something infectious.”  He didn’t say, but I took this to mean tuberculosis.
    Walking through the various wings of the hospital with my “just in case” mask did give me a healthy (ha) sense of perspective.  I was fairly confident I didn’t have pneumonia or tuberculosis, let alone something more tragic like emphysema or lung cancer; or even a relatively benign but still pain-in-the-ass condition like asthma.  And here I was walking past doors marked with things like Fetal Intensive Care and Advanced Radiology and Spinal Surgery Center.  So although this is probably the sickest I’ve ever been, in the larger scope of things I’ve spent my 37+ years thus far in remarkably good health.  
    And even though I was feeling sicker rather than better, I also had full faith that I would recover.   Suffering through something that I fully trust will eventually go away, although not as quickly as I’d like, is a completely different experience than it must be to have either a chronic or fatal illness.  This alone puts me in a totally fortunate and privileged position, and I feel more grateful than ever for the resilience and good grace of my body.  As I’ve been sick, I’ve also been meditating from time to time, and just feeling grateful for each breath as it comes and goes has been an excellent practice.
    Anyway, the x-ray showed my lungs to be perfectly clear, so the blood was probably just from my trachea being inflamed from several days of violent coughing.  I spent the weekend re-calibrating my various medications, taking them on a schedule that felt right according to what was going on in my body, rather than what I’d been originally told to do, and that has started to work better.
    And so, that is probably way more detail than anyone wants to know about my health right now.  I do understand why (some) old people get tedious with their health complaints; when you’re not well, it’s hard to focus on anything or anyone else.  And yet, there is a kind of relaxation in it, stepping out of the huzzah and busy-ness of (at least my) everyday life.  To quote V.W. one more time:

    Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we r
    aise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested … 

    Meanwhile, with the heroism of the ant of the bee, however indifferent the sky or disdainful the flowers, the army of the upright marches to battle. Mrs. Jones catches her train. Mr. Smith mends his motor. The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dog barks. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably…

    Saga from the sickbed

    I have been absent from the blogosphere for some days, which may be leading some of you to wonder: What has that Minal been doing during this historic week, a week of change, when hope as well as hate were victorious, when people celebrated and rallied and held vigil and slaughtered goats with large testicles in the streets?  Has she been out canvassing and campaigning and agitating?  Has she collapsed from exhaustion and exhilaration?  Has she been busy preparing for her new duties as President Barack Obama’s Poet Laureate?  Has she burrowed into her cave again to write her next masterpiece, perhaps for National Novel Writing Month?
    My friends, I am here to report that I have been extremely productive.  Specifically, I have had what is known as a “productive” cough.  Even more specifically, what I have been producing is great, chunky gobs of guck.  They are approximately this shade of bright green and they come from my lungs; in particular, the bronchi, for which this delightful ailment is named. 
    And since I am an overachieving model minority type, bronchitis is not the only thing I am doing.  I am also serving as host to a complete set of upper respiratory bugs:  sinus infection, ear infection, and what the nice resident at UCSF called a “classic case” of conjunctivitis.  Yes, even my maladies are perfectionist.  It’s a party over here, for sure.  
    I’m not quite sure how this happened, as I am the type of person who usually goes straight to bed at the first sign of a sniffle and doesn’t wake up till I feel totally better.  I am a total baby about being even the wee-est bit sick.  
    I guess this time, I just didn’t do that.  See what I get for trying to buck up and be a good sport!  Never again.
    I first started feeling a bit sick last week in Michigan, while visiting my brother’s family for Divali.  One evening we were having dinner at Red Robin, which, for those of you without balloon-age children, is quite the family diner chain restaurant experience.  It was very cold out, especially for a wimpy Californian such as I’ve become, and I felt a little soreness in my throat.  So when the waiter came around to get our drink orders, I asked for hot water.  
    Apparently this was a fascinating and novel concept, because the Babyfaced Twin looked slyly at me and then started chirping, “Hot water! Hot water!”  And that is what she ordered to drink.  And so did the Bespectacled Twin.  The bemused and amused waiter came back with the adult drinks in real glassware and the kiddie drinks in plastic cups with straws, and quietly told us he’d put a few cubes of ice in their hot water so it wouldn’t burn their 5-year-old mouths, and everyone was happy.  I distributed pink plastic tiaras and mermaid money for all, which provided enough minutes of entertainment to hold us until the burgers and fries and whatnot arrived.
    After dinner I should have gone home to bed, but instead I went to see an old friend who lives in Ann Arbor. We stayed up till about 11 p.m., catching up with three years’ worth of news and loves and dramas over tea.  By the time I got back to my brother’s house, I had not only a sore throat but also sniffles and aches.  The next day I felt like I had either a bad cold or a not-so-bad flu.  
    And then I got on an airplane.
    I should have gotten a clue from the fact that my ears did not pop from the descent until the *next morning*.  And yes, I did cancel some things; I did not go to yoga, nor did I carve pumpkins with the Lesbo Minister. And I was really good about doing my home remedies like steam therapy, sinus rinse, lemon ginger tea, and Nyquil (which does TOO count as a home remedy).  
    But then it was Halloween, and I never do anything for Halloween, but this year I was so excited about my Kinky Ladybug Queen costume, and about my writer friend’s Halloween housewarming party, and I had pumpkins all the way from Half Moon Bay to be carved, so I just had to go out.  How could I not, with something so fabulous to wear?
    And so, what I’d thought was a nasty Michigan cold morphed into the miserable thing you see before you.  Well, actually, you don’t see, which is really for the best.  I know some people reveal all in their blogs, but I will not be posting any webcam photos of my crusty bleary snotty self this week.  No sirree.
    On the up side, during my prolonged convalescence I have discovered:
    – that my crappy bare-bones what-a-self-employed-writer-can-afford health insurance is actually better than I thought; 
    – that the UCSF Parnassus urgent care clinic is an efficient, adequately staffed, and friendly place with good intelligent caregivers; 
    – that I have wonderful friends and family who are willing to do the glamorous stuff like bring me food and meds, come over and wash dishes, and pick up prescriptions;
    – that I really, really like codeine;
    – that even if you don’t have energy for anything else, you can still somehow spend a lot, I mean A LOT, of time on Facebook;
    – that those supposedly clever political blogs are not nearly as entertaining as catching up on my friends’ blogs and what people think of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe;
    – that we have a tree in our lungs
    – that my cat really likes it when I stay home in bed 23 hours per day, just like him.
    Well, time to take my evening meds and go be “productive” again before bedtime.  
    And that’s the news from Lake GooBeGone, where all the dreams are codeine sweet, all the rooms have their own boxes of kleenex, and all the snot is green.
    P.S.: For a more entertaining take on boogers, please see “The Case for Nose Picking” on my genius friend Martha’s blog.  She’s a real humorist.

    Divali and election greetings

    This morning I sent this message to my family members who live in California and Florida, as well as to my friends.
    Dear family and friends,

    Happy Divali!  I’m happy to be spending the holiday with my Michigan family this year.  I hope you are all well.
    I am writing this especially to those of you who are or might be registered voters in California (or Florida).  I wanted to let you know the personal importance for me of one of the ballot measures, Proposition 8, which eliminates the right to marry for me and thousands of other Californians. (In Florida, it is Amendment 2.)
     In researching my book, Leaving India, I learned about the status of our people in South Africa in the early 1900s, and Mahatma Gandhi‘s movement on behalf of Indian rights.  One of the crystallizing moments of his time in South Africa was when the South African court decided that the marriages of Hindus, Muslims, and other peoples were not “valid” because they were not conducted in the Christian manner.  Overnight, many thousands of Hindu and Muslim marriages were deemed invalid, and thousands of wives were at risk of being deported.  
    That court’s decision was based on pure prejudice.  White South Africans thought Indians were barbaric, barely people at all, and certainly not deserving of human rights.  They believed that, because we were different from them and they did not understand us very well, our traditions and feelings and choices did not “count.”  Mahatma Gandhi was a young man, but he others organized the Indians of South Africa to protest in the streets against this injustice.  And eventually, these protests were successful.  The right to be married was restored.  
    This was among the beginnings of the satyagraha movement, which eventually helped lead to India’s independence.
    If Gandhi and our other ancestors recognized that the right to be married was so fundamental, and that the attempt to take it away is rooted in prejudice, I hope we can also see that today.  
    There are many different ways to approach the question of marriage, and everyone has his or her own beliefs about it.  It may be that we don’t understand others’ lives very well.  But I believe that you and I come from a tradition of tolerance, of accepting that each person has his or her own karma, and that even if we don’t understand, we can accept that every one of us is a spark of divine light.  So before we make a decision, perhaps we can put ourselves in another’s shoes:
    – Imagine if your spouse was in the hospital and you were not allowed to visit him or her.
    – Imagine if your marriage license was suddenly taken away, and your children were suddenly assigned at random to one parent, with the other parent not having any rights to visit them or even pick them up from school.
    – Imagine if your family tried to buy a house together, and wasn’t allowed to because you were not considered legally a family.
    – Imagine if your spouse passed away and you were denied all pension benefits, life insurance, inheritance, custody, and even the right to decide what kind of funeral and final rites would be conducted to put him or her to rest.
    This is what could happen to thousands of Californians who are *already* married, if Proposition 8 passes.  In California, we are blessed to have the right to marry for all. This is guaranteed by the state Constitution.  This ballot initiative is an attempt to manipulate you, the voters, into overturning this fundamental right. From what I can tell, it is not motivated by anything but hatred and fear.  Our desi community strongly values marriage and families.  It takes a lot of hate and fear and misunderstanding to work so hard to take away family rights like the ones I mentioned above from caring, loving, committed couples and families. 
    I hope you will join me in voting NO on Proposition 8 in California on November 4.  (Or Amendment 2 in Florida.)  Please feel free to forward this email to others, and to ask me more questions or talk to me about it if you wish.
    Sending you love and light, and saal mubarak (happy new year) wishes,

    Q&A with author of “Marrying Anita”

    I had a lovely online interview with journalist, author, and hottie (pictured below) Anita Jain, whose book Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India came out earlier this year.  We did the whole thing on Google’s email chat feature, and yes, it’s been a long time since I did any reporting, because I was *thrilled* by the fact that gchat saved our whole interview.  Way easier than the olden days of transcribing voice interviews.  All I had to do was add punctuation!

    Of course, some bits were edited out.  We were chatting right after my LitQuake show last weekend, and I mentioned that I’d just come from the event, where I read a couple of selections about sex.

    anita: don’t you know indian women don’t have sex?

    me: lol dammit, i keep forgetting!

    Obviously our conversation was off to a good start!  Read the interview as published on MSNBC.com here:  Looking for the right man in a foreign land: Author Anita Jain talks about the search for love and sex in the New India. There’s also a video interview on there, which had nothing to do with me.


    Women Authoring Change

    Tonight my home was filled with good food, creativity, and twenty amazing women. It was an alumnae potluck for a place that those who have been there know simply as “heaven.”  

    Imagine a little cottage made just for you.  Upstairs is a cozy sleeping loft.  Downstairs is a wood-burning stove, a desk configured with plenty of space (and plugs) for writing, a big loungey chair with a hand-knit blanket to match, bookshelves with a few inspirational titles as well as space for your own stuff, a floor area with pillows for sprawling, and a window-seat looking out onto acres of woods and meadows and ponds.  
    Now imagine that at lunchtime, someone brings a basket of delicious food to your doorstep.  And at dinner, you walk down to the farmhouse and dine with other women writers on fresh, organic meals made with produce from the gardens.  And all the rest of the time is yours — to walk, write, daydream, nap, wander down to the beach, go for a bike ride, or just do whatever you need to do.  
    And it’s completely free.
    That’s Hedgebrook, a writer’s colony for women on Whidbey Island in Washington state.  Since its founding, 1,050 women writers — known and unknown, young and old, from all over the world — have found refuge there to create in peace and community.  Getting together with other alumnae gave me a chance to remember what it was like for me.
    I don’t remember who first told me about Hedgebrook, but I remember that when I heard about it, I knew that I needed to go.  I was in my mid-twenties and working 40+ hours a week as a newspaper editor, trying to carve out time to write poetry as well.  I applied for and received a five-week summer stay, took a leave of absence from work, packed up my Macintosh SE (yes, this WAS a long time ago, grasshopper! it had a 40MB hard drive!), and drove three days up the coast to Washington.  
    Six writers stay at Hedgebrook at a time (there are six cottages).  On the first evening, we all introduced ourselves by our first names.  On the third evening, I was listening to one of the women talk and suddenly I realized who she must be.  “Gloria?”  I said.  “Are you Gloria… Anzaldua?”   
    “Yes,” she said, with a slight wry smile.
    “Wow,” I said.  And for the next five minutes or so, that was all I could say: “Wow. Wow. Wow.”  
    It’s not often that I’m at a total loss for words; in fact, this is the only time in my life I can really remember behaving this way. But Gloria Anzaldua was one of my heros:  not just a writing hero, not just a woman of color hero, but a Hero, period.  Her work was so brave and beautiful and revolutionary, it made me want to write; it made me believe I could write; it gave me writing to aspire toward. It was so huge and amazing, it didn’t seem possible she was actually a person, a smallish one (about my height), sitting across from me at dinner, doing normal person things like chewing and talking and smiling.
    Gloria was gracious and sweet, and after giving me a decent amount of time to come up with something else to say, she simply replied, “Wow.”  
    As the days passed, I was able to actually have cogent conversations with her.  Though she was struggling with health issues and was deep in her own work, she kindly agreed to read and critique a short story I was writing.  Her handwritten comments on it are more precious to me, now, after her passing, than the story itself.
    I did more writing in those five, concentrated weeks than I was normally able to do in a year. I made a talented writer friend I’m still in touch with, met the fabulous Hattie Gossett (who arrived the day I was leaving), and felt a bit of borrowed glory from the fact that Gloria Steinem would be there later in the session, after I left. And I felt, for the first time, like a Real Writer.
    Hedgebrook also started a chain reaction of events that led me directly to my life as a writer now.  At the time it seemed like just a few random strokes of luck, but really I think it was something else:  not anything as grand as destiny, but just the experience of door after door opening up, and walking through, and finding something wonderful on the other side.
    A year or two after my stay, someone on the Hedgebrook staff called me.  An alumna, Gabrielle Idlet, was launching a new writing fellowship at the Sundance Institute and was looking for California writers of nonfiction.  Would I be interested in applying?
    I was, and flew down to the Sundance offices in Santa Monica for the interviews. I and three other writers, one of whom is now a dear friend, became Sundance “fellows.”  We got to go to the film festival, summer and international workshops, and a weekend writing workshop for just the four of us with Lawrence Weschler, a writer for the New Yorker and McSweeneys.  Weschler read my work, noted that I was a journalist, and suggested I apply for a mid-career arts fellowship at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism, where he was a senior fellow.
    So I became a “fellow” again (there has to be a better word for these things!).  The Columbia fellowship (which no longer exists; it was the National Arts Journalism Program, funded by the Pew foundation) meant I could take or audit classes throughout the university.  I took a nonfiction book writing seminar with Sam Freedman, whose class has become semi-famous for producing dozens of published authors. With Sam’s incisive guidance and feedback, I wrote the proposal for the book that eventually became Leaving India.
    I include all of these details because I think the path of becoming a published writer is often unnecessarily mysterious.  I know it was to me.  Certainly, plenty of hard work and strokes of universal grace were involved.  But there’s also a much more nitty-gritty element, and it is one that women, especially women of color, have often not had access to.  It has to do with connections, networks, information, and knowing the right doors to knock on at the right times.  The Old Boys Network is alive and well, so it is good to know that we can create our own pathways — boys and girls — to share vital tips and resources, and get our voices heard.
    Hedgebrook helped me at one other crucial juncture:  As I was writing Leaving India, I was often very severely blocked.  During one of these difficult periods, I was fortunate to have a short, ten-day alumna stay at Hedgebrook.  I did not write much there, yet it was deeply productive, and helped me turn a corner with the writing in a way that even now, I’m not sure I can entirely explain.
    I remember that it was about this time
    of year, Diwali — the Hindu new year and festival of lights.  I was feeling a bit out of sorts because I had no community or family to celebrate with, and although the cook (ahhh, the lovely Hedgebrook cooks! a whole other essay!) did her best to create an Indian meal and we lit candles at the farmhouse, it didn’t feel the same.  
    Back at my own cottage, I lit small lights and settled in for the evening.  I am nocturnal by nature, so I was in the habit of working in the afternoon and then again late at night after dinner, then sleeping till noon.  So that evening, I made some small drawings, with flour I think, on the hearth to welcome the goddess.  I created a temporary altar, with huge fallen maple leaves I’d collected that afternoon from the grounds, and photos of my ancestors that I had brought along for inspiration, and the Black Angel cards I had been using as aids in my writing process.  Then I sat, and I listened.  
    What I heard is a story for another time and place.  Here I want to just say how right it felt:  to commune in my own particular quirky way on that semi-wild land on the night of the new year:  a Real Writer, in the woods, in the dark, inventing a ritual, making up a new story.
    Thanks, Hedgebrook.
    EDITED TO ADD:   Click here to see photos of the event (pics by Patty Tumang).

    Performance highs

    LitQuake 11oct08 Bollyhood.jpg

    Here’s a photo my friend Patty H-C took with her iphone of me reading at the South Asian American reading at LitQuake.  (Thanks, Patty!)  Do you love my tiara, or what?  I’ve been wearing it non-stop since I got it at the mall during a two-for-one sale last week.
    So, it was my first time at Litquake, a crazy brilliant annual San Francisco event that packs a dozen or so venues within a few blocks with hundreds of writers and thousands of audience members.  I’m grateful to everyone who braved the hordes and came out!  The reading was curated by my dear friend, the talented Pireeni Sundaralingam, for an anthology called Writing the Lines of Our Hands, which will be the first anthology to focus purely on the poetry of South Asian Americans. I read a couple of sections from the book, and a poem. I had the pleasure of reading along with several talented poets and prose writers demonstrating a huge versatility of style and content, from a slam poet/psychiatrist (Ravi Chandra) riffing on his mother’s holy commitment to rice, to a professor (Falu Bakrania) describing her investigative forays into the desi club scene.  
    Bollyhood Cafe hosted us, one of my fans bought me a drink, and a sweet friend treated me to some of their yummy bhel afterward.  The Bollyhood team is always fabulous, and it was fun to read in front of a standing/sitting/crouching-room-only crowd!  SMALL COMMERCIAL:  Go to Bollyhood… on 19th St just south of Mission St in SF … it’s really more of a bar/lounge than a cafe, they always have great events going on, awesome community space, and the food and drinks are delicious.
    On Friday night I went to a HOT, AMAZING show featuring an incredible lineup of queer/trans people of color performances.  Now, I’ve seen a lot of performance in San Francisco — I mean, a LOT — so it takes a bit to impress me.  Taking your clothes off?  Yeah, yeah.  Syncretizing your childhood trauma and your incisive grown perspective on the injustices of the world?  Uh-huh.  Reclaiming a cultural icon to be queer-positive?  Been there, done that.  
    But this show was all that and … MORE.  I’m always excited and impressed to see my dear friends like Vixen Noir, Simone de la Ghetto, and Leah-Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha take the stage, and they were gorgeous as always.  I got chills during Leah-Lakshmi’s reading about love between brown-and-brown, brown-and-white, and the differences between them. And on top of that, there were some sweet surprises.  La Chica Boom blew me out of the water with her taco show (I can’t really say more, but it is NOT to be missed) and her foul-mouthed Virgen de Guadaloupe.  Nico el Rico did a sweet and moving piece about masculinity, growing up with a drill sergeant father in Argentina.
    Mangos is kicking off a tour, with a show tonight (Monday 10/12) in Oakland (8pm Eastside Cultural Center, 2277 International Ave, Oakland) and dates in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Denver.  If you have friends in those places, send em to the schedule on the Mangos With Chili myspace page.
    Twas a very fun weekend… hope yours was just as fabulous, in whatever way was right for you.

    Nine nights for the goddess

    Navratri is my favorite holiday.  Here is a bit of what I wrote about it in Leaving India:

    It is October and the women are dancing. All around the world we put on our long skirts and tight bodices, wrap ourselves in gauzy shawls, fasten jewels at our throats and bells around our ankles.  We dance barefoot in temples, where we have temples; or community centers, high school gymnasiums, even bare fields. The dance is what remains the same: a sacred circle.

    Garbaa, the word for the Gujarati folk dance, comes form a Sanskrit root, grb, for womb. Round and round we twirl to celebrate Navratri, the lunar festival of nine nights of dancing in honor of the goddess… As the garbaa speeds up, the cut mirrors that decorate our skirts scatter the light: swirl of dancers and audience, children, men, old people, teenagers; deities perched on altars, carved or sculpted, garlanded in gold and flowers; a moonless sky full of stars.  If we could track one tiny mirror’s journey, all that it reflects and refracts, we might see the world entire.

    At night we dream of circles, spinning, the earth tilting under our feet.

    Last night I went to the seventh night of dancing at the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple.  I went with my mother and her friend, danced up a sweat, and then took a break to walk around and hand out fliers created by Trikone urging our community to vote No on Proposition 8.
    I’ve blogged earlier about my mixed feelings on the marriage issue as the hub of queer activism, but it’s also very clear that the initiative, trying to change the California Constitution in order to eliminate a civil right, is just pure hate and wedge politics.  I was also really moved when I first saw the beautiful posters, which feature my friend Inder, his partner Ken, their children Mira and Kabir, and Inder’s mother, Mrs. Gurkirpal Kaur Dhillon, speaking about the importance of protecting her family.
    I started by walking around and placing a few fliers here and there on tables.  Then I went up to small clusters of people and asked if they were registered voters in California.  It was interesting that this question was a bit threatening; there were long pauses in some cases, and one woman even started to explain that she was here on a visa, etc.  I would say about two-thirds of the people I talked to said they were not voters, of whom most were probably not yet citizens.  If they said no, I said thanks and walked away.
    If they said yes, I asked if they would like an educational flier about one of the propositions on the ballot.  Then I gave them fliers, thanked them, and moved on.
    Overall the response seemed friendly and open. Only one woman looked at it and gave it back to me saying, “Here, you can recycle this.”  But she wasn’t scowling or anything, and smiled at me later as we were back on the dance floor.  I have friends who have done a lot of canvassing and who have a whole developed patter and way of engaging people, but I felt more comfortable letting people read the flier, which really speaks for itself, and maybe take it home and consider it.  I didn’t really want to have conversations or debates.  It also felt respectful of the fact that people were in the middle of conversations, social activities, and a prayerful environment and were kindly letting me interrupt them.
    The dancing was great, really wonderful singers and musicians, and not too crowded since it was a weeknight.   I also like the short hymns we sing at the end of the night as a closing prayer.   Handing out the posters felt like a lovely offering to make — a way to share more of myself during the goddess festival.

    Slacker City

    A couple of Saturdays ago, I was sitting in my car, sick with the flu, with a half-hour window in between a mandatory class and a mandatory rehearsal, thinking about all the things I needed to do, just trying to breathe — literally, since my chest was tight from coughing and being sick — and to grab a few moments of rest so that I could go on to the next thing.  And I had one of those flu-delirium revelations, which was: Why am I living like this?

    I remember that in my 20s, there was a lot of buzz about our so-called “slacker” generation. It completely bewildered me, because no one I knew had even a moment of slacker-ness. Whether artists or entrepreneurs or professionals, everyone I knew was incredibly driven in pursuit of some goal or, usually, multiple goals.  Those of us in journalism were writing and editing articles about our supposedly slacker peers, but we were completely missing out on the joys of slackerdom.
    So, during my flu, I resolved to do some serious catching up.  My dear friend Sunita kindly delivered a Margaret Cho DVD along with “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” 
    I felt that this behavior earned me immediate slacker points — until I realized that the whole idea of earning points is probably not in the spirit of slackerdom.  Yes, it’s definitely still a learning curve for me!   Wait — slackers don’t have learning curves, do they?  Hmmm…
    Now that I’m feeling better, I’m trying not to revert to my habitual overachieving model-minority behavior.  It’s hard, though.  Yesterday, for example, I woke up spontaneously at 4:30 a.m., had cereal, wrote in my journal, checked email, and started editing the index for my book (which came in at 80 pages, and needs to be reviewed/shortened!).  I spent a few hours working on that, then got sleepy and crashed again, then woke up and:
    – cleaned the bathroom, kitchen, and living room
    – made two conference calls for work
    – tried to figure out how to convert my media/publicity list from Excel to Word
    – planned out work for the rest of this week 
    The problem is not so much that I did this stuff, which was kind of cool. It was Monday, after all, and a certain amount of drive and direction and optimism about all I can achieve is to be expected — but still, this was nowhere close to slacker behavior.  I should have been hung over from the weekend and bemoaning the unreasonable brightness of the sun, or something, right?
    But, after all, being neither independently wealthy nor in possession of a live-in houseboi/personal assistant, these were all things I needed to do.  The problem wasn’t the activity so much as the little nagging voice telling me I should be getting more done.  Actually that voice is not so little, and I’m getting kind of tired of it.  I realize that when I’m feeling sort of miserable and oppressed and overburdened, I need to wake up and fight back.  I need to get in touch with my slacker side.
    I have a fantastic lounging couch that helps with this.  But I’ve noticed lately that, when I’m sitting on my couch, I am often plagued by the subtle and persistent feeling that I should do something else, like get up and meditate.  Now, what is the point of getting up from sitting still to go to another corner of the house and sit still?  That’s just ridiculous.
    I think this way of thinking is a mental tic developed over seven years of book-writing, when I constantly had the feeling that, no matter what else I was doing, I should be writing.  
    So, since I can’t change my basic personality at this point, at least not overnight, my new strategy is to utilize my Type A skills in pursuit of the slacker life. So far, here is my four-point plan to slack off more:
    1.  Recruit friends to do slacker-type stuff with me. (I’m thinking I could come over and watch TV… that would count, right?)
    2.  When I get anxious and overwhelmed by my To Do list, re-label it a To Don’t list.  
    3.  Just sit on the couch and don’t do anything.  I mean nothing.
    4.  If all else fails, go to the beach.
    Today, I woke up reminded of strategy #4 by my dreams, which were very beautiful and involved a lot of wild swimming.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  I got out of bed after noon, made my morning protein shake, and sat on the couch.  I felt this was an excellent beginning for a slacker-ish day.  So I went down the hill to the bakery, ate a grilled-fennel focaccia, had an affogato across the street at the gelato place, and drove to the beach.  I boogie boarded and swam in the ocean for a couple of hours, then laid on the beach for a while.  Now I’m off to dinner with a friend.
    Yes, I did sneak in some activist emails, continued to set up my new computer, planned some marketing activities, and accomplished a few other little productive tasks.  But — miracle of miracles — I did them with joy, not because the little voice was nagging me.  
    So actually, the slacking was productive!  Hmm:  perhaps I’ve discovered a new paradoxical principle of the universe.  In any case, I feel SO much better!!  Perhaps there’s hope for me yet…
    What do you think?  Are you a slacker, or in touch with your slacker side?  If so, please share your slacking tips!


    Rave reviews count, even when they’re from a dear friend!  Here’s a link to Ms Kristy’s assessment of the show:  “Hey, Sailor” transforms and delights. Thanks, Kristy, you are ever so sweet and awesome!
    Six shows left:  8pm Th/Fri/Sat through Oct 4.  Click here for tickets & info or call 1-800-838-3006.  If you’ve already seen the show, please tell people about it and consider posting your thoughts/reviews on the SFGate page.
    We had a wonderful first weekend, I’m finally over the flu, and looking forward to enjoying the next six performances.   Miraculously, I still remember all my lines after four days off!  Once a show has seeped into my body, it’s there for good– I wonder if I’ll be reciting Squeak’s syphilis monologue for the next ten years…??  The show is just getting better and better, as all of us get more comfortable in our characters, in the theatre, and with our lines. 
    On Saturday I felt well enough to go with friends out after the show, which is my favorite thing to do, since I’m usually wired from performing and excited to see people. It was a balmy SF night so we walked a couple of blocks to Mel’s Diner and through the giant Oracle craziness in Yerba Buena Gardens, which was sort of magical-looking, with tents and fairy lights everywhere.  As we walked and talked, we realized we’re all in some form of big life/career transition.  Maybe that’s what our late 30s are about…  M wrote and received a giant government grant, so now she’ll be moving from being a professor to administering a campus-wide program to improve outcomes for underserved Asian Pacific Islander students.  F is thinking of leaving his corporate training gig so that he can actually learn something new himself.  And J is only two weeks back from a long stint Beijing and still in culture shock, yet people keep asking him “What are you doing now?”  
    I shared my own personal metaphor for that, when people ask me what I’m doing next — before the book has even come out!  It’s kind of like there’s a woman having a baby, and they’re cutting her open, and the crown of the baby’s head is just coming out, all bloody and sticky, and the baby hasn’t even taken its first breath yet, let alone cried or fed or pooped or puked, and someone says to her, ‘So what are you going to do NOW?’ 
    Really, what I’m doing now is just trying to BE in the transition.  That has a few elements:
    – Being in “Hey Sailor” … shifting from the inward and isolated mode of writing to a much more extroverted art form, working in collaboration with a great cast and crew.  Aside from the awesomeness of the script, it feels like great pre-book-tour training as I learn what it takes for me to perform, connect with audiences, and stay sane and healthy.
    – Working with a coach, who is helping me to set goals and clarify where I want to be in a year, and how to get there.
    – Writing up a business plan for myself, a culmination of a great class I took from the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, which has helped me understand things like “cash flow” — i.e. why some months I can afford shoes and other months I can’t!  The business plan is great because it gives me a sense of how I’m going to be supporting myself over the next 18 months, how much & what kinds of paid work I need, and how to get it.  
    – Laying the groundwork for marketing and book touring, connecting with folks everywhere.
    – AND, enjoying life, relationships, family, friends, myself, yoga, the City … Just taking time to, as a friend suggested, bask in the feeling of completion.  Sometimes I still don’t *really* quite believe that durn book is DONE!