Finding My Sister in Young Adult Novels

two people walking on a path in the woods, on the cusp of the open edge of the trees that are purple from the late dusk.Lately all I want to read are young adult novels about sisters.

Young adult (YA) lit has a simplicity that creeps up on you. It’s about falling in love and obligations to the world outside of our daily concerns. And it’s usually disturbing as hell, reflective of how, though we say we lose innocence, as we grow older we really lose darkness. We lose insight into a mysterious world full of wonderful and awful possibilities where so much is at stake.

Seanan McGuire’s Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day follows Jenna, a ghost-girl who works at a suicide hotline in New York, trying to return a debt she feels she owes to the living while looking for the spirit of her sister.

Jenna’s sister Patty left home in West Virginia to live in New York, where she lies to her family about her wonderful life. After Patty ends her life and Jenna drowns in a ravine while mourning her sister, Jenna haunts New York, falling in love with its alleys and diners and rat witches(!), and thinking about the solace and sadness her sister would have experienced on the same streets.

When I was a teen, I made my sister vanish, and she did the same for me. Once, we were ten and eight, acting out a scene from Fiddler on the Roof in the field, and the next thing we knew, we both were in college. I tell her I ran to a boulder in the woods when our mom would harm herself, and she says that she was there too, and how could we have been at the rock at the same time? [Read more…]

Take, Eat

black and white image of hands buttering a piece of naan on a stack of thin silver plates atop a table covered with newspaper. I clutch the edge of the cracked leather seat and close my eyes as the van rattles out of the city towards the slum settlement.

The three-hour church service in Ludhiana, Punjab, India, left me hoarse and sticky: hoarse from leading the worship; sticky from sitting on a plastic chair in a packed second-story room with a single creaky ceiling fan.  

“I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” The song I led during that morning’s worship is resonant in my mind as we drive.

The van lurches to a stop. I look out the window and see huts constructed out of mud, cardboard, tarpaper, and tires, and a crowd gathered.

I am following Jesus to a godforsaken place, the thought rises and then I shake it. I am curious—and perspiring. Sweat mingles with dust on my skin, beading on my forehead, dripping down my back. I am from Southern California, where the sun smiles. On this August day in India the sun is harsh and unyielding.

We are here to dedicate a school established by local evangelists from my father’s missions organization. During our childhood trips to India my siblings and I had encountered countless beggars seeking alms; however today we are not handing out a few rupees and rushing by. Today my father wants us to really see the poor.

But right now they are looking at us. I fidget with my watch, then my hair.

We file out of the van and into the circle of waiting people. I am of Indian origin, but I feel conspicuously American. I paired my Indian attire with Adidas sneakers because, as my father said, “a slum is no place for sandals.” [Read more…]

Muddy River

an image of a black and white subway car moving in a soft blur through a subway station.It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.

When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.

Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say “Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.

The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge. [Read more…]

Share If You Agree

black and white film image of a bowler hat suspended over a bed of tall daisies I have had it with the rage.

It might drive me off social media.

At first, I thought it might just be a problem of living in metropolitan Washington, D.C., where the strident opinions held by many are usually interlinked with what they do for a living. No such luck, though: I’ve been on trips to Mississippi, California, and Texas in the past couple of years, and it has been just as bad there, too.

This social pose has driven me crazy for the past eight years, the ongoing and incessant braying that has filled up my Facebook notifications, the “Honk if I’m Paying Your Mortgage” and “I’ll Keep My Guns and Religion, and You Can Keep the Change” memes, which also appear on bumper stickers that I have to follow on the Beltway. [Read more…]

Weddings, Women, Sweets, and Wishes

Still life of a white cake on a blue tablecloth, messy painting, warm colors. My heirloom cookbook was born during a Washington D.C. snowstorm in February of what was then called “The Year 2000,” in my final months of singlehood before I was to be married in July. That storm barely registers in the city’s memory now: it was neither the Blizzard of 1996, with its eight-foot-high snowbanks, 2003’s freak President’s Day storm, nor was it the incomparable Snowmageddon of 2010 (which I wrote about on Good Letters).

However, the storm in 2000 was significant enough—knee-high drifts under a gunmetal sky and the threat of more on the way—that work was cancelled for two days, and my roommate Paula and I lounged around the apartment filled with snow-glare-white light, drinking wine, ordering pizza (somehow Domino’s still delivered), and watching the first season of Survivor with her boyfriend Johan, who had crashed at our place for the fun.

The second night we were housebound, Paula—a tall, raven-haired engineer originally from Bogotá—announced that she was going to bake a cake. Not just any cake—I, for one, was raised on Betty Crocker—but her Colombian grandmother’s homemade white cake. She went into the kitchen, and once she ascertained that, amazingly, we did have the many eggs and flour and baking powder and mountains of sweet cream butter required, began to separate eggs with the acumen she brought to technical drawing.

Paula beat a sweet yellow cake batter that, once it was poured carefully into floured cake pans, smelled high and sugary in the heat of the oven. The remaining egg whites she beat into thick stiff peaks, to which she added sugar until she’d beat a glossy meringue frosting—her grandmother Sophia’s treasured batido blanco—that held its shape when twirled with the back of a spoon. Once the layers were out of the oven and safely cooled, she sandwiched a layer of jam between them, and spread this thick luxuriant icing all across the top.

We ate. And we ate and we ate and we ate. I have had wonderful cakes in my time, but never one as purely delicious as this. It amazes me that the tight bodice of my ivory jacquard wedding dress still zipped up so easily at the next fitting, the skirt snug over foamy layers of tulle. [Read more…]