Universal Preschool Access

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President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

In both his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses, President Obama called for universal preschool access. His focus on early childhood education and care comes in response to a national emergency: the United States ranks 28th internationally in preschool access; childcare now costs more than college for some families; and yet the quality of care in the majority of American preschools and daycares ranks abysmally low.

“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives,” Obama said in his 2013 address. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Today Obama is holding a summit on early childhood education. As part of the summit, he will announce the release of $1 billion dollars in funding to support early childhood programs, and the beginning of the “Invest in Us” public awareness campaign.

Limited access to high quality preschools impacts children, persistent class divisions in the United States, the quality of life and marriages of working parents, and gender inequity in the workplace. My current project, a parenting memoir entitled Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate: A Meditation on Motherhood with An Indian Twist emerges from this crisis. In 2007 when my first son was born, my husband and I were living in the East Bay of California. I taught community college and he was a graduate student. We were comfortable living within our very limited means until we were pregnant and were faced with the prohibitive costs of quality daycare in our area. Because of our income, we had two choices: upping my work hours so that we could afford to send our son to a depressing daycare just down the road from the neighborhood liquor shop; or having me trade in my beloved teaching job for state-subsidized, full-time motherhood.

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Me, my husband, and our one-year-old son Liam in Tamil Nadu, India, where we spent the first two years of Liam’s life, in part to avoid the prohibitive costs of American daycare.

We settled on a third, albeit unconventional, option: we outsourced the exorbitant cost of raising a baby in America and we moved to India where we could afford to hire a part-time nanny and where I could take afternoons off to bond with our child. The memoir is about those two years with a baby in India, as well as my research into the history and attitudes that have shaped America’s systemic failure to support young families.

Though India proved to be a good home for our family in those first two years, I applaud President Obama for his current efforts and look forward to a day when the prospect of an American family moving around the globe in order to afford raising their child truly is an absurdity.

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Girl Power: The Key to Change

This is a guest post I wrote for the wonderful middle-grade blog, From the Mixed Up Files of…Middle Grade Authors, to celebrate the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl:

International Day of the Girl

October 11th marks an exciting day for young people. It’s the third annual United Nations International Day of the Girl, and it’s not just the UN that is celebrating girls. Increasingly, development organizations around the world are learning that if you want to fight injustice or poverty in communities that are struggling, don’t waste your time trying to enact change with local government, or even with adults in general. Instead, empower the girls in those communities. Provide them with access to quality education and healthcare, and before you know it, those same girls will be paying their privilege forward, making life for everyone better.

unA Girl Called Problem

GCP cover high resThis notion that girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world makes for a pretty compelling story, a story which is increasingly popping up in middle-grade literature. I’m the author of one such novel. A Girl Called Problem is set in late 1960s Tanzania, right after that country achieved its independence from Britain. The main character, Shida, is a spunky, 13-year-old girl. Shida has dreams of attending school and becoming a healer, but she also faces some pretty formidable odds: her father is dead; her mother is so depressed people label her a “witch”; everyone reminds Shida that no girl has ever grown up to be a medicine man; oh, and her name translated from Swahili literally means “Problem.” To make matters worse, when Shida starts going to school, fellow villagers and even one teacher say girls shouldn’t be there. These naysayers go so far as to blame girl students for cursing their village and causing the death of a child. Fortunately Shida isn’t a kid who easily gives up, and when the village is on the brink of collapse, Shida and another girl student prove critical to their community’s survival.

Although A Girl Called Problem is quite simply a coming-of-age mystery about an unyielding kid, it is also a celebration of exactly what the U.N. is honoring on October 11th: the world waking up to the notion that when girls are empowered to learn and lead, everyone benefits.

Other Books and Videos to Celebrate

International Day of the Girl

Because many of the challenges faced by girls around the world involve them having their childhoods eclipsed through early marriage and sexual violence, books about girls facing and overcoming injustice tend to be for the young adult audience (Sold by Patricia Cormick, for example). Nevertheless, there remain a number of other great resources for middle-grade readers.

Fiction

  • The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is the story of an eleven-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, under Taliban rule, is forbidden to go to the market, attend school, or even play outside. When her father is hauled off for having a foreign education, Parvana is forced to disguise herself as a boy and to take on the task of breadwinner for the family.breadwinner
  • Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal is the story of a fifth-grade girl and poetess who is forced to skip school when her alcohol-abusing father walks out, her family moves into a motel, and her now-desperate-for-work mother needs her to stay home to watch her little brother. It’s a good reminder that kids in developed countries face challenges that keep them away from school, too.
  • Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a picture book based on a true story of a girl in Uganda who longs to go to school, but whose family doesn’t have the money for schools fees. Then her family receives a goat, and with the milk and the bits of income that follow, good health and even Beatrice’s dream of going to school come true.

Non-Fiction

  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Youth Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick is the inspiring story of the world’s youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Encouraged to stand up for her belief that all children should have the right to attend school, Malala was shot in the head while riding home on a bus after school but, as we all know, even that shot didn’t stop her.malala
  • Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins profiles six women, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, who became important scientists, writers and teachers. The book describes how they were sometimes discouraged from pursuing their interests, but how they persevered and went on to play an important role in how we think of the natural world today.
  • Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is the tale of a brave young woman who in the 1940s leaves her Inuit village for a residential school to pursue her dream of learning to read. There she is relentlessly harassed by a nun, but she manages to stand up for herself.

Videos

  • Consolata’s Day is a couple-minute video a Tanzanian friend and I produced to give Western kids a sense of what it’s like to be a girl in Tanzania today.
  • Girl Rising is a powerful, feature-length profile of nine courageous girls living in the developing world who face tremendous challenges to pursue their dreams.
  • The Clock is Ticking is a moving three-minute video that succinctly sums up the challenges girls face in many parts of the world. Its producers also manage the website Girl Effect, which is a great resource for learning about the critical role girls can play in ending poverty.

Let’s Celebrate

So on October 11th, help us celebrate girls everywhere: delve into an inspiring story or video about girls facing insurmountable odds, write a letter, make a donation, grab the hand of a girl you know who could use a little encouragement, and celebrate the power of girls to transform our world.

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Obama’s Summit on Working Families

Today, President Obama is holding a summit to encourage employers to adopt family-friendly policies. This discussion is long overdue. As Obama pointed out in his weekly address: “Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave – three – and the United States is one of them. It’s time to change that.”

Image Image: CSM.

I fully agree with the President that it’s time to change our paid family leave allowances, but that’s just the beginning. The United States is also behind much of the developed world in its failure to provide high-quality, affordable childcare to its youngest citizens, as well as legal protections, including proportional pay and benefits, for part-time workers, who often happen to be parents (and more often moms).

Much has changed in the last fifty years for American families. In 1975, 34 percent of women with children under the age of three worked outside the home. By 2010, that number had nearly doubled. And, yet, virtually no legislation has passed to reflect this massive social transformation. Discussions around working moms in this country tend to focus on the individual and how she simply must strive to work harder–set the alarm for 4 a.m., do lunges while folding laundry, embrace the Crock Pot–rather than our systemic failure to support modern families.

Image Image: Real Simple.

My current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir set in India. Though at first glance, it might appear an unlikely candidate for addressing the issues and politics surrounding the modern American family, in essence it is just that. My husband and I moved to India with our son, shortly after his birth, in part because we couldn’t figure out how to afford raising a child in the U.S. on our limited income. India might seem a questionable choice of location for a new baby. But I can tell you what we discovered there: a beautiful home at the top of some cloud-scraped mountains; a Tamil nanny, who was a veritable Mary Poppins; and the head-space to see how crazy American parenting has become. With this fresh perspective, I embarked on two years of research, trying to figure out why American parents manically run like hamsters in exercise wheels, rarely looking up to ask, “Hey, now, why isn’t my government looking to give me a hand?”

The result is a story, peopled with a collicky, screaming baby; alcohol-abusing boatmen babysitters; a raving, holy-man sadhu prone to dishing out child-rearing advice; and some expat, Swedish parents who thought it perfectly normal to receive 13 months of paid leave for every child they brought into the world. My hope is that the memoir will entertain, but also that it will lead parents to look up and start demanding that America catch up with the rest of the world in supporting its families.

Ideally in a decade our president will commit a week, not a single day, to working families. If we’re smart, she’ll also be demanding that the change come in the form of federal legislation, rather than voluntary employer concessions.

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“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

When I meet with teachers or other grown-up readers, I often get the question, “So, how do you do it?” Many of these folks have stories in mind that they’d like to get down on paper. They’re curious about everything ranging from the anthropological research I had to do for A Girl Called Problem to the self discipline it takes to write a book. Perhaps because writing is such a solitary endeavor, I am equally fascinated by fellow writers’ processes and the real-life experiences that inspire their stories. So when I got an invitation to address some of these questions as part of a blog tour, I jumped on it.

The “My Writing Process” Blog Tour has been whistle-stopping its way around the web for a number of months now. The idea is that each writer is invited by another writer to answer a few questions about her writing process, and then she passes the torch to other writer friends to keep the tour moving along.

I was invited by my wonderful friend, Anna Vodicka. Anna is a talented writer, as well as a true adventurer (and, lucky me, she is also my sister in law). At the moment, she and my brother, Brian, are living in the island nation of Palau. Here’s one of Anna’s recent photos from her blog:

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 10.55.51 AMNot bad, eh? In addition to swimming with sting-free jellyfish and kayaking around amazing tree islands like the one pictured above, Anna is spending her year in the Pacific working on essays, a memoir, and her blog, The Coconut Wireless. Anna recently crafted a beautiful post in response to the “Writing Process” questions below.

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And, now, here are a few thoughts in answer to the blog tour’s questions about my writing process:

1) What am I working on?

My current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir about motherhood and adventure set in the mountains of southern India. Yes, as you can see, I made the inadvisable decision to genre hop from kid lit to memoir for adults. But after spending two years with my new baby in India, I felt like I had a book handed to me, so I took the plunge.

IMG_3427Here’s a quick synopsis of Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate:

Friends in California thought we were crazy, toting our infant son halfway around the globe, but I was a “have-it-all” sort of gal, certain that with a little gumption I could marry motherhood and international adventure, while still keeping my foot in the professional door. Besides—and this was perhaps a greater motivating factor than I was willing to admit—nannies are considerably cheaper in India. So, as our firstborn neared three-months of age, the three of us boarded an international flight, dreaming of succulent curries, resplendent Hindu weddings, breathtaking hikes to remote mountaintop villages, and the opportunity to define parenting on our own terms, free of the rat race that is America. India’s curries didn’t disappoint, but also on the menu was ubiquitous corruption, a head wound in a remote mountain stream, and the widely-held belief in the evil eye, which casts a death sentence on a baby should he or his mother leave the house during the first year.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One of the primary challenges for my character in the memoir was coming to terms with being a mom. My struggles related to a larger discussion being had right now about how we define motherhood and womanhood in American culture. In the popular media, you might have heard of books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, and Debora Spar’s Wonder Women. Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate shares a good deal of content with these other books, but as a memoir I believe it will be approachable for a much broader audience. Set in a cloud-scraped town in the mountains of South India, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate will entertain readers with a cast of delightful characters, including a raving, holy-man sadhu; a slew of alcohol-abusing boatmen/babysitters; and a sage in the form of our beloved Tamil housekeeper and nanny.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’ve been fortunate to live abroad for a number of years. Living in the midst of other cultures can be wonderfully stimulating, but also challenging. These experiences have allowed me to see nuance and complexity not only in others, but also in myself, which has inspired me to write and share stories. This fascination with people, places, and cultures other than my own is also something I look for as a reader. For example, I recently finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland, and I greatly admired it as an example of cross-cultural writing that taught me something profound about what it is to be human. I was drawn in by what to me was exotic and novel–the Naxalbari movement in Calcutta in the 1960s–but I was moved by the many universals I found in the characters’ lives, including their struggles to understand what it means to loyal and to be good family members, while also making space to be autonomous and to self define.

4) How does your writing process work?

Ever since I started writing books, my writing time has been limited either because I was teaching or I was raising kids. At the moment, I work on a set schedule of between 0 and 3 hours a day. In many ways these limits have sharpened my focus and lead me to treat writing time as sacrosanct.

My writing process tends to be recursive. When I sit down at the computer, I generally revise what I wrote the day before and then move on. I’m the sort of writer who spends a good deal of time in the pre-writing stage, hashing out detailed outlines, studying similar books in the genre, sketching out characters, shaping scenes, and thinking about how different themes will weave in and out of the narrative. This process easily occupied six months for Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate. Once I start my first draft, I allow myself simply to write, not worrying too much about quality, because I trust that the book will go through several subsequent major rounds of revision. I enjoy rewriting. It often feels like I’m working on a complex logic problem, because a simple tweak–let’s say changing a character’s tone in a particular scene–can lead to adjustments all throughout the book, such as how that character evolves in future scenes, my portrayal of other characters, or even what themes I choose to include in the story. Throughout the entire writing process, I am always reading others’ work, drawing inspiration in terms of voice, subject matter, structure, or whatever craft issue I’m grappling with at that moment.

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Those are my thoughts on my writing process. I’ve invited three other Maine-based authors, all of whom write wonderful books for young people, to follow me next week on the blog tour. Please look out for their posts on May 29th, when we’ll all get to learn about their writing processes. They are (drum roll, please): Megan Frazer Blakemore, Ellen Booraem, and Maria Padian, two of whom I am honored to be joining this year as finalists for the Maine Literary Award in Young Adult Literature.

Megan Frazer Blakemore is the author of three wonderful books for children and young adults: Secrets of Truth and Beauty, The Water Castle, and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, which was released earlier this month. In addition to having over ten years of experience as a children’s and school librarian, Megan has taught writing to high school students and through the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. Megan lives with her husband and two children as well as a cat and, as of this month, a hive of honey bees.

Young adult novelist Maria Padian worked as a broadcast news reporter, congressional aide, National Public Radio tape cutter and freelance journalist before settling down as a full-time fiction writer.  Her books for young readers include:  Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress; Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best; and Out of Nowhere.  She lives in Brunswick, Maine with her family, where she is at work on a new novel.

Ellen Booraem’s Texting the Underworld, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee, is a Kirkus Reviews “best book of the year,” as were her earlier books, Small Persons with Wings and The Unnameables. A former weekly newspaper editor, she lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon.

Thanks to Megan, Ellen, and Maria for graciously agreeing to keep the tour moving along! I can’t wait to learn from their insights into the writing process.

 

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Growing Up With Ujamaa: An Interview

Interested in learning more about the history behind A Girl Called Problem? Following Common Core and looking for a nonfiction supplement to the book? I hope you’ll be as fascinated as I was with this first-hand account of what life was like growing up in an ujamaa village, much like Shida did.

I interviewed my Tanzanian friend, George Mutalemwa, whom I first met in the late 1990s at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania. At that time, George was a stand-out student of Mass Communication and the editor of the student newspaper. George has since gone on to get a PhD, and he is now a professor at the same university where I once knew him as an undergraduate. George is currently on leave teaching at a university in Germany. I asked him to share some of his experiences growing up in Tanzania under the presidency of Nyerere and the ujamaa movement. Here are some snip-its from our conversation:

Mutalemwa

My friend, George Mutalemwa, who generously agreed to share
his perspective on growing up under the leadership of Nyerere.

KQ: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, George. It’s such a treat for me and for my readers to get a personal, real-life perspective on what it was like to live in Tanzania during the ujamaa period. As you know, A Girl Called Problem, my middle-grade novel, is set in Tanzania in 1967.

GM: Congratulations and thank you for writing A Girl Called Problem. How I wish it were translated into Swahili already!

KQ: I would be honored to have it translated into Swahili—perhaps that’s a project you and I could work on someday. So, 1967 seemed to be a critical juncture in Tanzanian history—it was just a few years after Tanzania achieved its independence and the same year President Nyerere put forth his plan for ujamaa, or familyhood, in the Arusha Declaration. I’m assuming you weren’t born yet, but can you give us a sense of what was going on in your family’s life right around 1967? For example, where were they and what do you think their thoughts were about independence and then about the Arusha Declaration?

GM: Days following the independence of Tanzania or Tanganyika as it was then called were of great optimism–citizens felt they had ownership of the country. My mother was a housewife and my father a schoolteacher in Bukoba, North West Tanzania. Schoolteachers were then highly respected. They were few, well trained and reasonably well paid. The cost of living was also not as high as it is today. It is important to remember that our first President, Mwalimu Nyerere, was a schoolteacher too. Mwalimu is a Swahili word for teacher. I assume he was a role model for all teachers and he earned them respect.

KQ: It’s lovely to think of a society in which teachers are so highly revered. Going back to the Arusha Declaration, can you give us, as American readers, a sense of what it means to you? What do you think of when you hear ujamaa?

GM: The Arusha Declaration was a set of guidelines with principles, which were set to bind the nation together. These principles included equality and dignity of humankind, common ownership of national resources, self-reliance, work, and building a classless and just society. Although for some the Arusha Declaration is dead and buried, the principles are alive and kicking. When I hear ujamaa, I think of the neighborhood, how people used to come together to address common issues, celebrations, funerals and keeping rivers clean, for example. By extension, common national issues could be dealt with more collectively, at least through our representatives, for the common good. Now, we are becoming more and more individualistic and more and more egoistic.

KQ: That’s interesting. Certainly as an American, I was impressed by the collectivist mentality of people in Tanzania, even in the late 1990s. For example, I remember going to funerals and being asked to make a donation that was then publicly recorded in a log book—people really relied on the community in times of need.

Nyerere remained president until 1985 when he resigned. That was more than twenty years of leadership. How did Nyerere’s term affect your family’s personal history? For example, did your family end up relocating to an ujamaa village?  Did their access to education change during his term? What other aspects of their lives changed as a result of Nyerere’s leadership?

GM: Let me begin by saying that my family did not end up relocating to an ujamaa village. This was because in Bukoba, where I was born and bred, people had been living in villages long before Nyerere introduced ujamaa villages elsewhere in Tanzania. The same applies to Kilimanjaro and Mbeya regions, for example, where people lived a well-organized and productive life. So Nyerere did not do random villagisation, if you wish. If you think about how dispersed people were along, say, the central route from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam in large part, then you tend to see sense in Nyerere’s vision and action. Houses were simply too far from each other–you sometimes needed a kilometer to find your next-door neighbor, let alone a shopping center or dispensary! Not much has changed today.

KQ: The beginning part of that central route that you describe, near Mwanza, is where I imagine A Girl Called Problem taking place. I’m curious what legacy you think Nyerere left Tanzania? What were his greatest accomplishments?

GM: Nyerere helped Tanzania win its independence. He established the state called Tanzania. He made people identify themselves as Tanzanians first and foremost. He taught us that real development was people-centered. His stand against corruption was remarkable and getting people with 125 regional languages to speak one language–Swahili–was no small achievement. The list is long.

KQ: One thing that makes Tanzania remarkable, in my mind, is how peaceful it has been since independence. Its northern neighbors (the neighbors I’m most familiar with)—Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo–all have been plagued with some form of ethnic conflict and, sadly, even genocide in some cases. Tanzania, on the other hand, is home to more than 120 different ethnic groups. I read recently that it is the only country in Africa that has indigenous ethnic groups hailing from all four African language groups. Some of these people were traditionally agriculturalists, some were herders and some were hunters and gatherers. So, you have all of these people from very different cultural and language backgrounds whose borders were assigned to them by colonizers who certainly weren’t thinking first and foremost about national harmony, and somehow they have managed to get along. That’s a big deal! Can you talk about why you think Tanzania has remained so stable? What choices did Nyerere make that contributed to this stability?

mapeastafrica

A map of Central Africa, showing Tanzania and its neighbors.

GM: Fortunately Tanzania has remained relatively stable in comparison with our neighbors although nowadays fear is beginning to creep in from religious tensions, cheap politics and corruption. Nyerere was a mature leader. He worked for what he was convinced was the good of the nation. He avoided personal enrichment in favor of national development. He practiced what he said and was really trusted. Some people blame him for not developing his home region, Mara, for example. But he was not a leader for Mara but for Tanzania. Some leaders plunder national resources to develop their own regions and amass personal wealth. Tanzania has had four presidents since its independence, including Nyerere, and they all stem from relatively small regional groupings and no one knows where the fifth one will come from. In Kenya, for example, we can assume the next president will be a Kikuyu if not a Luo or its alliance—ethnic tensions begin there!

KQ: The main character, Shida, in A Girl Called Problem is a 13-year-old girl. Do you think Nyerere’s leadership had any particular effects on children and young teenagers?

GM: Oh yes, these were children who were brought up chanting the catch phrase ‘long live Nyerere’s ideas’. One of these ideas was education for self-reliance and for all children. Good conduct, work and sports were graded at school. At around the age of 13, each of us had a small garden in our family on which we worked after school or on Saturdays. This was part of self-reliance. Unfortunately, at that time schools were few and far between and usually one or two out of 45 pupils would be selected to join secondary school. I feel sad about many of my neighbors who were doing very well in class but ended up with only primary education. Nowadays, 98 out of 100 pass to join secondary school. We are doing well, in terms of numbers, thanks to the Millennium Development Goals.

schoolkids-TZ

Tanzanian school kids.                                      Photo credit: theguardian.com

KQ: That’s wonderful to hear. When Nyerere resigned as leader of the nation, he admitted that his economic policies had largely been a failure. Tanzania was and remains relatively poor—although, I have to point out that the early 1980s were a particularly hard time in the world to be a poor country. To what extent do you think Nyerere is or was to blame for Tanzania’s poverty?

GM: Yes, Nyerere left Tanzania a poor country but he had not inherited a rich country either. A number of external and internal factors are to blame for poverty. Nationalizing major means of production which ended up benefitting a few of Nyerere’s trusted civil servants was a let-down. The few industries that Nyerere had helped build became dysfunctional. Now we’re importing toothpicks from Taiwan and toilet paper from China. Should we blame Nyerere for this, too?

KQ: Nyerere was also criticized by groups such as Amnesty International for policies of coercion—meaning forcing people to do things they didn’t want to do. His government was said to have discouraged dissent. In other words, they didn’t allow people to speak out against Nyerere’s policies, and they eventually forced villagers to relocate to ujamaa villages. Do you personally know any people who were treated badly by Nyerere’s government for resisting his policies? Do you think Nyerere was justified in any of these tactics? And—just to saddle you with one more question–were there other mistakes Nyerere made that I have not mentioned?

GM: Personally not. However, as school children we used to sing bad songs, villifying Oscar Kambona, Nyerere’s first Foreign Affairs Minister. He had to flee the country because he was opposed to Nyerere’s socialism and villagisation program. Another man who lost his job or jobs was Aboud Jumbe. He was Vice-President of Tanzania and President of Zanzibar. He was blamed for ‘polluting the air’ because he challenged the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, seeking more autonomy for Zanzibar. One of the persons who was said to be brave enough to challenge Nyerere was his college mate and later Justice Minister, Abdallah Said Fundikira. This one was opposed to one-party democracy and he is said to have been involved in a plot to overthrow Nyerere. He later joined the opposition before returning to Nyerere’s political party. Abolishing the chieftainship was a blow especially to chiefs and their clans. Nyerere too was a son of a chief. He preferred building a nation to maintaining chiefdoms. In all these issues, Nyerere was keen to do what was in the interest of Tanzania and this makes him stand out from the rest, despite some failures.

KQ: In spite of the failures we’ve mentioned, my impression is that almost every Tanzanian I met really respected Nyerere. I guess this impression comes largely from the year Nyerere passed away—1999. We were both living in Tanzania then. My memory of the month after his death was that everything shut down for a full thirty days: radio stations played the same mourning songs over and over again; graduations, sporting events, and weddings were postponed; and the nation really stopped to mourn. What is your memory of the month after Mwalimu’s death? Would you agree with my estimation that most Tanzanians were and remain proud of Nyerere? What do you think it is that makes him such an important person in African and world history?

nyerere-headshot

Mwalimu Nyerere

GM: It was the passing on of a respectable father, Father of the Nation. The nation stood still, mourning and musing on the fate of Tanzania without Nyerere. I remember two months later, it was Christmas and you could hear some people listening to mourning songs instead of Christmas carols. Nyerere was exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, faithful and a person citizens wanted to identify with. He spearheaded the liberation struggles and the release of Nelson Mandela. He spoke for the poor of the world, especially as leader of the South-South Commission. He stood for justice, dignity and equality of all humankind.

KQ: Thanks so much, George. It was very moving for me to witness your nation’s reverence for Nyerere when I was living in Tanzania, and it’s inspiring to be reminded now as we talk that the world can and hopefully will continue to be graced by such principled leaders. What else have I not asked that you’d like to add?

GM: Thank you, Katie, for challenging me to talk about this special person and leader, an orator, an author, a teacher, a thinker, a president who was seen working in a garden, attending church regularly, riding his bicycle, translating some parts of Shakespeare’s works and the Bible into Swahili. There was a time when he was blamed for favoring fellow Catholics. Then he asked for the names and denominations of his cabinet ministers. He said he was surprised to find out that he and Sir George Kahama were the only Catholics, adding that Sir George was even a more advanced catholic because he had a second wife! He had a great sense of humor. Currently, a process is underway to declare him a ‘saint’, something I guess he would have laughed about.

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Write what you know. But, what exactly do we know?

Over the last academic year, I’ve met with a variety of students–8th graders to college kids–to talk about the craft of memoir writing. The invites have come because I’m currently working on a memoir about two years I spent in India as a new parent. Having written A Girl Called Problem first and now this memoir, I can say that distilling a story from my own life experience often feels more challenging than writing the story of a Sukuma girl in 1960s Tanzania. Surprising, I suppose. Am I not “writing what I know” with the memoir, and grossly violating the old dictum with my novel set in Tanzania?

Zoe Heller wrote a great column in the New York Times recently about “writing what you know.” She clarifies: “In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination.” She goes on to talk about the challenge of finding worthy stories in creative nonfiction, offering us an example from V.S. Naipaul, who wrote an account of a trip he took from Trinidad to England in his late teens. Naipaul realized in retrospect that he was so keen to find what was literary in his experience during his trip that he failed to record the most important details–what he was truly feeling.

Heller’s column is here. I strongly recommend reading it.

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We try to “write what we know,” but what exactly do we know?

This discussion of what an author knows also loops back on discussions about the appalling lack of characters of color in contemporary children’s literature. The very accomplished author, Walter Dean Myers, recently made the case in the New York Times that we have a pressing need in this country for our children’s literature to reflect its diverse readership. As he says, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” I would argue that this call to depict characters of color in children’s literature should not fall solely on the shoulders of authors of color. I wrote about a village in East Africa populated by people who look very different than I do. But I did my research and sought out help from friends who had connections to that time and place. The final step–and this bit was scary at times–was to claim the story of A Girl Called Problem as one I know. I’m glad I did.

 

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A Girl Called Problem comes full circle

I started writing A Girl Called Problem as part of a graduate creative writing class taught by Kathryn Reiss at Mills College. In addition to being a very prolific and talented author of teen mysteries, Kathryn has taught young-adult craft classes and workshops for years and is quite the expert! In fact, last year she was quoted in The Atlantic for a story on young-adult fiction.

By the time I had completed Kathryn’s young-adult workshop, I had an outline for A Girl Called Problem and about four chapters of the book written–this was the jump-start I needed. I was joined that year by graduate students Nina LaCour and Carly Anne West, both of whom have gone on to publish wonderful books for teens.

This last week, Kathryn’s current students read A Girl Called Problem. Here they are:

Mills GCP

It’s exciting and an honor to see A Girl Called Problem come full circle. Thank you to Kathryn and to the students at Mills who took the time to study my novel!

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