Friday, January 11, 2013

Interview with Terry Farish, author of THE GOOD BRAIDER

Welcome, Terry! Thanks so much for agreeing to be a guest on my blog.

Terry Farish is the author of a number of acclaimed books for children and teens. She’s here today to talk about her latest, THE GOOD BRAIDER. It’s a young adult novel in verse about a South Sudanese girl’s experience of war and immigration. In a starred review, School Library Journal wrote, ” Viola’s memorable, affecting voice will go far to help students step outside of their own experience and walk a mile in another’s shoes.”

You work with refugees from Sudan, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries. I’m assuming that Viola’s story grew out of your experience. Was it inspired by a particular individual or event?

THE GOOD BRAIDER came from a thousand places. I worked in Portland where half the novel is set. It was 2001 when many South Sudanese families had obtained refugee status. Catholic Charities in Maine worked to resettle many of the families between 1999 or so until 2005 when a Peace Accord was signed between southern Sudan and the Government of Sudan. I met many teenagers when they were first making their homes in the U.S., first attending U.S. schools, and first facing the challenges of living as Americans and, at the same time, honoring the African traditions of their elders. From the many stories I heard, research about the war in Juba, and travel to nearby Kenya, I wrote the novel.

How did you deal with the challenge of writing about another culture? How have readers and reviewers reacted to this?

I did not consider the fact that I was writing outside my culture until the book was about to be published. For the first time, then, I had space to imagine the impact on readers of writing in the voice of a young Sudanese girl. I first wrote in a more distanced 3rd person and had trouble entering the book. When I put all the research away, and began to write from inside the main character's experience and emotions, I was able to tell the story and that drove the whole process. I researched the book for so many years, was immersed in the culture, and listened to the voices of so many people from South Sudan that the voices were deep inside me as I wrote. The book has been well received as a window on experience unknown to many American young readers or adults.

You’ve said, “Writing is a way for me to try to make sense of what I care most deeply about.” Viola certainly tugs at the reader’s heart. How did you manage to instill such emotion into THE GOOD BRAIDER?

I have written about immigrants before. I wrote about a young woman from Cambodia in IF THE TIGER but viewed her from the point of view of an American character. I could not write from that distance in THE GOOD BRAIDER. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. But the first verse I wrote was the scene in which Viola and her mother are in conflict. I wrote it in first person, very intimate, and in spare lines that worked for me to attempt to capture the tension. I think it was the emotion of the situation I was trying to capture that forced the spare lines.

I love understatement. I am drawn to leave meaning between the lines for readers to explore. I tend to fault on the side of leaving too much between the lines and my challenge in THE GOOD BRAIDER was to heighten the emotion by extending a scene and speaking the impact of a situation on the main character.

In working with my editor, I considered the structure of the novel. I experimented with opening in the present and returning quickly to the past - the war in Sudan. In the second half of the book set in Portland, I reached back to the emotion of a Sudan scene to pull it forward to the Portland scene. Much of my rewriting was the process of remembering with Viola and pulling the memory forward to her present life so that the war became a more visceral part of her process of making sense of Portland.

What does hair braiding symbolize for you and for Viola?

As a child, Viola learned to braid hair by following the movements of her mother's fingers as she braided the hair of women in the compound. Along Viola's journey from Juba to Cairo to Portland, she ceases to care for or braid her hair. She has suffered great loss, the strands of her life, and the braiding to her is like the strands she can no longer bring together. In Cairo, her friend tells her, "You will braid when your are ready. Braiding is from our culture." I wanted braiding to be a metaphor for Viola's evolving skill in leaning to live in a new culture. Braiding also represents her deep bond with her mother.

Viola and her mother have a difficult relationship. Can you talk a little about that element of the book?

Viola and her mother enable each other to survive in Sudan. When they come to the U.S., American culture divides them. I found this intergenerational conflict to be one of the most heart breaking challenges that many South Sudanese and many people from other cultures face as immigrant and refugee families make their homes in the U.S.

THE GOOD BRAIDER is written in verse. You wrote a series of interviews with authors who wrote in verse. Was that in preparation for this project? Can you tell us a little of your process of writing in verse?

I interviewed a number of verse novelists after I finished THE GOOD BRAIDER. Talking to others who have worked in the form was fascinating. I was interested in cultural connections. Can culture be reflected in the form? I had not asked this of myself, but I heard a good response from a reader and reviewer. She suggested that the shape of the poems on the page resembled the shape of braids. My overt intention in writing in verse was to capture the intensity of the scene with spare language and breath. The short lines demand pauses. In writing the articles about other writers' use of verse, I also came to understand my own work better. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the writers I interviewed. So much of the marketing and public presentations I've done since THE GOOD BRAIDER came out has been in collaboration with other writers and I've loved that.

South Sudanese American rapper OD Bonny is writing a song about Viola for his new album. How marvelous! How did that come about?

I am delighted! O.D. Bonny, who is now a student at the University of Southern Maine, wrote a song called , "A Girl from Juba." He is going to produce a video for the song with footage from South Sudan and Portland that we will use as a trailer. I met O.D. through the wonderful Kirsten Cappy of Curious City in Portland. O.D. was a star of the Portland launch of the book and so was a student in the acting group, A Company of Girls, who did a reading from THE GOOD BRAIDER.

You worked with the American Red Cross in Vietnam. Your book, Flower Shadows, is set there. Many of your other books have dealt with war and displacement. Can you tell us about them and your experience in Vietnam?

Yes, I worked for the American Red Cross during the war and was stationed in Cu Chi and Qui Nhon. When I came back to the U.S. I began to meet Vietnamese families who were coming here as refugees. FLOWER SHADOWS was the first book I wrote that drew on research and experience with immigrant families. They helped me understand the culture that I had lived in and had taken me years after the war to begin to make sense of. I think we have experiences in our lives that we may tuck away. But each one shapes us and may form what will become integral to stories we are drawn to tell decades later.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a chapter book about a young boy who lives in Kakuma Refugee Camp and moves to the U.S. with his sister and grandmother. I am traveling to Kakuma in January, 2013.

Thank so much for sharing with us today. We wish you a good journey to Kakuma and look forward to reading your next book!


Jeannine Atkins said...

Always fascinating to hear your thoughts on how you create and balance emotion and restraint, work with breath and tension, Terry. Thank you, and Linda, for the excellent questions. I loved The Good Braider, and this interview makes me want to go back to reread. Looking forward to glimpsing some of what you bring back from your travels, Terry!

Joyce Shor Johnson said...

I love this interview! We all come to our writing with such vast and varied experiences. It is so wonderful to learn Terry's background. Thank you!

Diane Mayr said...

I'm vicariously traveling with Terry this month through the wonders of Facebook!

Terry, are there plans to bring The Good Braider out in paperback any time soon?

Michelle Cusolito said...

Thank you for this insightful interview. The Good Braider has been on my "To Read" list since it came out. I just reserved a copy form my library to read on my train trip to Washington, DC next week. Terry, I was especially interested in your comments about writing from a cultural perspective other than your own. said...

Thank you, Linda, for this wonderful interview. I always respect an author who travels and does research for their writing. And I wish Terry much success with The Good Braider. Keep those fascinating subjects coming!

Sarah said...

Wonderful post, Linda. Thank you!! The Good Braider is an incredible book, not the least of which for the delicacy with which it's told - the spare language Terry talks of, which lets the reader feel the horror in the least intrusive of ways.

Joyce Ray said...

Linda, the interview is excellent. Thank you for inviting us along as you talked with Terry. I loved The Good Braider. Terry's writing language may be spare, but it hits the mark every time. I admire Terry so much for the way she uses her immense talent to uplift the immigrant experience and help us understand how it is for refugees who are becoming strong threads in the tapestry that is America. Well done!

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you everyone for stopping by. And thanks to Terry for sharing about her wonderful book.

The Elephant Rag said...

Dear Linda and all, thank you so much, Linda for these hard questions. You made me find the words for this process. I thought I might be responding to other writers and I do love to talk craft. Thanks for a chance for shop talk. I was in Kakuma when you posted this and just back. I posted photos and journal entries on my blog - It was a sobering experience and I learned things I don't yet understand. Thanks, Diane Mayr for following on facebook. I have a new appreciation for facebook and how it connects when you need it.

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you, Terry, for being my guest, and answering my tough questions while preparing for your trip to Kakuma.
I'm eager to see what emerges from that trip in the months ahead. Keep us posted.