It’s Poetry Friday!
I have been featuring Asian American authors on my blog as part of the annual #AuthorsTakeAction initiative. In each post, I’ll share a recommended middle grade or YA novel by an Asian American author and a read-alongside poem.
Before we get to today’s featured book, though–a quick announcement.
This month, on May 18-19, author and poet Padma Venkatraman is offering “Poetry as Inspiration: A Two Part Mini Course” through Highlights. Padma has invited me and verse novelist Aida Salazar to guest teach with her! If you’d like more information, please click here.
On to today’s book and poem pairing…
This week’s featured book is Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.
According to Goodreads:
Prairie Lotus is a book about a girl determined to fit in and realize her dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. Hanna, a half-Asian girl in a small town in America’s heartland, lives in 1880. Hanna’s adjustment to her new surroundings, and the townspeople’s prejudice against Asians, is at the heart of the story.
This was one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2020. I love stories about bicultural kids, because of my own history as a first generation American. In Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park shows how racism — whether it’s ugly and overt or communicated through a small gesture of exclusion — can undermine a young person’s self-confidence. Hanna’s story is rich, detailed, and powerful.
But it’s not just the story that stays with me. In the backmatter, the author openly shares how setting out to write a diverse novel inspired (in part) by Little House on the Prairie led to her own learning, especially about indigenous cultures in the Midwest. As authors’ notes go, this one is truly brilliant.
I could do an entire post on dressmaking as a theme in fiction! As I have learned from my collaboration with Saadia Faruqi (my co-author for A Place at the Table), when women and girls move to a new country or even a new community they often rely on soft skills for survival. Even those with advanced degrees (which aren’t always honored in their new home) might turn to cooking, cleaning, and sewing to make ends meet.
If this theme appeals to you, read Ruth Behar’s middle grade novel Letters from Cuba after Prairie Lotus. It’s about a young Jewish refugee whose dressmaking skills help her family adjust to their new life in Cuba. Or check out the play (for adults) Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. The play is about an African American seamstress who makes intimate apparel for wealthy white women. It is set at the turn of the last century. You can view an introduction to the play here.
Dressmaking, women, and survival. There’s a poem for that. I hope you enjoy, “Dressmakers,” by UK poet Jennie Carr.
By Jennie Carr
I think of her dresses: cream sateen with beige flower print,
wide-collared, three-quarter cuffed sleeves, full skirt –
rainbow-striped silk, straight and sleeveless, thin belted.
As a girl, she told me, she stood still while her grandmother
wielded the scissors to cut neckline and armholes freely.
Her mother, more the designer, added hand-crocheted
trimmings, buttons or a tassel, so when it came to the thrifty
years on the farm, just the three of them and the evacuees,
they were adept at a tuck and a turn, adapting the pattern
to make do and mend – something that never really left her…
Read the rest at The Poetry Society (UK).