Aside from the part of my youth I’ll call “the Judy Blume years,” I have never been the biggest fan of young adult fiction. I can tell you only two young adult books in the past ten years that I thoroughly enjoyed– Skunk Girl and Born Confused. These books about South Asian teen girls in America clicked with me the same way good girlfriends do when you first meet them at 3 AM in the dormitory hallway at college.
But when Marina Budhos came to Atlanta recently to teach a class on “How to Write Young Adult When You’re An Adult”– using an incredibly moving passage from Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of Part-time Indian– I became a young adult fiction convert.
In Alexie’s novel, as well as Budhos’ own young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home, the protagonists’ captivating voices and their emotional urgency nearly knock me over with their purity and awareness. I understand a little better, now, Budhos’ lesson– that YA captures all of the dreams, doubts, and insecurities of those adolescent years, which still linger in our adult selves. Good YA writing calls on us to resolve the complexity and rawness of our pubescence, to wipe the cobwebs off a time when our younger, unsure selves stumbled through development, and blossomed into adulthood.
From her novel Tell Us We’re Home:
Once they were gone, Jaya broke away and fled onto the back lawn. Crouched near the hedges, she wrapped her arms around her stomach, bent over her knees, and wept. Hard, bitter cries, the kind that no one should see. How could her mother do this to her?…Hot stupid tears kept flooding out of her. And it was only when she had finally stopped crying and wiped her cheeks that she saw something glittering on the ground. She bent over and scooped it up, cool and teasing, into her palm. Then it came to her. A piece of memory, a tiny knot of an image.
We adults can write YA successfully, because who we were as adolescents never goes completely away. And thank goodness for that– those old emotions make for some of the most compelling, heartfelt reading.
WHEN DOES MARINA WRITE?
Nowadays I write when the saws aren’t whining downstairs or one of my boys isn’t tumbling into my study, complaining about his odious brother. Seriously, right now—living through a kitchen renovation during the summer, my prime writing time—has been a huge challenge. It’s discombobulated my otherwise pretty disciplined rhythm, which I established in graduate school years ago. At that time, I felt so guilty about leaving a ‘real’ job, and living on the tiny scholarship, I felt I had to be at it, every morning. I lived in a tiny studio, worked at the kitchen table and listened to the family next door in a gorgeous Victorian back down their driveway every morning, going off to the ‘real world’. I remember feeling terribly deprived, sure I would never have such a life, and yet pure, Spartan.
Many years and locations later, the routine has loosened—it’s bound to, now that I have my own family, my own house, a teaching job, and many other obligations. And though I often wander and sift away from my desk, I still have a nagging sensation that I must take a crack at writing, every day, every morning.
I also find that that ‘pure’ unsullied space of early hours, still on the rim of wakefulness, is not my deepest, creative time any longer. There is e-mail, a variety of stalling tactics, and minor obligations to clear away. There are socks to throw in baskets, school flyers to file. I settle down. I have a lovely view, a corner office with two big windows, a huge tree outside. Eventually there’s a slow gathering in the brain, a kind of unraveling and tightening all at once, what will become the taut knit of sentences. And if I’m lucky, I will make not a bit of darning, but whole passages, new and splendid to touch.
BIO: Marina Budhos is an author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom & Science, co-authored with her husband Marc Aronson, was a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist and an ALA YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor.
In that same year, she also published the young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home, praised by the New York Times as “elevated by writing that is intelligent and earnestly passionate” and soon available through Scholastic Book Clubs. Her prior young adult novel, Ask Me No Questions, has received numerous honors, including ALA Best Books and Notable, winner of the first James Cook Teen Book Award, NY Public Library Books for the Teenage, Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best, is taught in school districts throughout the country, and is currently being developed as a feature film.
She has published the adult novels The Professor of Light, House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. Her books have been published in Germany, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, and India and her short stories, articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared in publications such as The Daily Beast, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Nation, Dissent, Marie Claire, Redbook, Travel & Leisure, Ms., Los Angeles Times, and in numerous anthologies.
Ms. Budhos has received an EMMA (Exceptional Merit Media Award), a Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, and a Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. She has been a Fulbright Scholar to India, given talks throughout the country and abroad, and is currently an associate professor of English at William Paterson University.
Her website is www.marinabudhos.com
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