Interview: Neesha Meminger
Many thanks to author Neesha Meminger for stopping by today to talk about her writing, characters of color, and her most recent book, Jazz in Love.
What is one book you have read recently that you wish you had read as a teenager?
I just re-read Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and fell in love all over again. I would have LOVED to have a book like that around when I was a teen!
You have written poetry, novels, and films. Is there a medium that you prefer? Do they accomplish different things for you? How do the writing processes for each compare?
Each of those mediums is different and exercises different creative “muscles.” Poetry is a very emotional form for me – it’s sort of “stream-of-consciousness” and free flowing. I love it because to me it’s almost like therapy. I don’t have to worry about what I write having to be perfect. I can make mistakes and give myself permission to write utter crap because I don’t have that internal editor wagging a finger and saying, “You know better than to put a comma there,” or, “That’s spelled wrong!”
Novels, on the other hand, are very much a craft that I have been working on for years. And because I share them with people I don’t know, the editor in my mind is alive and strong when I’m writing longer fiction. It’s tough to get out of that mode of editing/censoring as I write, but it’s so necessary when creating “living” work – work that is not dead on the page, and pumps with feeling. When I do get into “the zone,” though, there is absolutely no other feeling like it.
Funny you should mention film, too. I haven’t made a film in years, but lately, I’ve been feeling the bug. I love the combination of words and images. Film appeals to a part the consciousness that the written word does not and vice versa, and lately I’ve been stitching together short film sequences in my mind. I don’t know what, if anything, will become of them, but the pull is there.
I don’t prefer any one form over the other – they each appeal to me at different times to express different things. It’s sort of like when you think about communicating with someone. You think about what you have to say and the best way to convey it. If you’re going to give someone bad news, would it be better to call or do it face to face? And if you want to say “thank you,” do you want to send a hand-written note, or an email?
If what I want to express is powerful and intense, I might want to add images to make my expression more effective. But if it is about a fluid, abstract emotion, I might choose poetry and take the reader on more of a journey with me. And if it needs more space, more exploration and layers, and there are different perspectives and viewpoints, then it’s definitely a novel.
Your books are some of the only YA titles I am aware of that portray Indian culture. When writing about your characters’ heritage, have you felt any pressure or responsibility to depict the culture in a particular way? To what extent do your own experiences shape the lives of your characters?
Yes, there is some pressure and responsibility. But I put that on myself. It’s important to me to convey things within a context because it’s so easy to take things out of context. We all do it. I do it with email all the time. So, since there are so few depictions of Indian/South Asian teens out there, I want to do the best I can by my readers. It’s important to me that South Asian teens read my books and truly see themselves in my characters. This is just as important to me as non-South Asians reading the books and understanding things that are unfamiliar and culturally specific. It’s a bit of a balancing act. I know I am writing to both groups and I don’t want to leave either out.
But here’s the cool thing – I’ve discovered that, ironically, the more specific I am, the more universal the story is. Really, we are all dealing with the same things in life. Teens are now and will always be dealing with family, fitting in, identity, dating, sexuality, relationships, parents, school, etc. What makes my stories different is that the teens dealing with all these issues also happen to be Punjabi Indian teens with their own unique set of issues, and slightly different terrain to navigate. But the points of connection between all teens are the universal themes.
Many authors of books with characters of color have expressed concern about “whitewashed” covers. Has this been an issue for you?
Fortunately, no. I didn’t have any issues with inaccurate representation of the main character, Samar, in Shine, Coconut Moon. My editor was wonderful in listening to my concerns and she made the big changes I asked for. I feel for those authors who are caught in the crush between their creative vision and the marketing/publicity decisions of an experienced team. Both are pretty strong forces and compromises aren’t always possible.
For Jazz in Love, I had full control over the cover and I had two designs I was deciding between. The one I didn’t go with was a full face shot of a South Asian girl. She was lovely and the cover was striking, but her face felt too young and innocent for the wise-cracking smarty-pants that Jazz is. So, when I looked around for more images, I found this one with the gorgeous saffron-colored flower in the foreground – and it was like ding-ding-ding! because there is a saffron-colored marigold in the story. And the girl in the background, though I would have preferred her to have a face, is South Asian and wearing a head scarf. Plus, since I am considering writing a “Jazz 2,” I wouldn’t want to limit the look of the next cover with a specific face, so this image worked out perfectly.
If you could spend a day hanging out with Jazz and Sam, what might you like to do together?
What a beautiful question!! I’m envisioning a nice, hot summer day. I would love to get some iced lattes and sit by a pool all day with light snacks. I love swimming, and sitting by a pool and plunging in periodically to cool off is my idea of complete bliss. I hope it’s Jazz and Sam’s idea of fun, too! After a day of sun and swimming, I would take them both out for a yummy dinner and maybe catch a movie. *Sigh* Now I’m yearning for those warm summer days!
You can find out more about Neesha Meminger by checking out the other stops along her tour with Teen Book Scene.
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