Crossing Over

The Website of Author Marina Budhos

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Balancing the Artistic Inner Life and the Civic Life

Recently, I’ve handed in a new project and am looking up from my desk, blinking, taking care of the masses of errands, responsibilities that always pile up and languish when I’m immersed in a manuscript. Some of these are purely domestic–camp decisions, electricians, curtain rods–which, I will admit, bring me a lot of pleasure when I am feeling lighter, and less burdened with deadlines.

But I’ve also been shooting e-mails to people around what I would call my ‘civic’ life–two groups that impact the community I live in; a blood donor drive; organizing a cohort of parents for potential study abroad programs for our children. This is the part of me that belongs and joins, and I must admit, I have always been highly inconsistent in this regard. I have bursts of intense, almost executive energy, and then I withdraw into the personal cocoon of my own writing and creating.

I think most artists are torn about how much to give to our civic life. In a way, art is a selfish act. You block out the rest of the world, and only what is right in front of you matters. In fact, when I am deep into a project, I am suspicious of any demand on my time, and regard most activities as a dilution of my real calling. As well, since part of what I do is give public talks and readings, that feels like yet another heavy demand–one I enjoy and appreciate–but which can drain me and leave me rattled. I’ve also watched marvelously creative people diffuse themselves needlessly, and never get that manuscript done.

And yet, some part of me craves something of a civic life, and has real ideas about what what needs to be changed. I admire the people who are far more energetic in this regard–those who serve on boards, volunteer, coach teams, join groups. But I could never be that consistent. Is it good enough to swoop in now and then? How do other writers and artists create this balance between their private and public selves?

Kolkata Return: The Heritage Site

Still jet-lagged and bleary from an over-three week trip to India, I did want to make mention of the inauguration of the heritage site at the Kidderpore Docks in Kolkata, honoring the over 1.5 million indentured workers who left India in the 19th and early 20th century.  This was the same place that a number of us visited 3 years ago, and since then, the project has blossomed into a full-fledged site and potential museum.  While I was unable to attend the actual ceremony, thanks to Gautam Chakraborty of the Kolkata Port Trust, I did take a small boat with my husband and boys, up the Hooghly.  We sat huddled under shawls, sipping cha, squinting out at the diminishing gray winter light, trying to imagine the monumental journey these emigrants took.  Not sure if my sons, in between squabbling, quite understood the import of our little voyage, but it was a start. Continue reading

In Memoriam: Jay Colton, photographer, Parkway kid

About a week ago, my brother told me about reconnecting with an old friend of his, Jay Colton.  Though their friendship had only just been rekindled, he just learned that Jay died suddenly while at the working at the Paraty em Foco International Photography Festival in Brazil.  Jay was a beloved figure in the photography world with a longtime career as photography editor at Time magazine.

I had not seen Jay since I was a young girl, but the Colton brothers—Jay and his brother Jimmy—are  seared into my memory, part of the teenage boy legends that made up Parkway Village in the rebellious sixties and seventies.  I was just a little girl then, hearing them thump past my door in the narrow hall to my brother’s room, or showing up, gangly-limbed and starving, eating up my mother’s meals. Continue reading

New Year

Yesterday, I ushered my two boys to their teachers at the same school—one to kindergarten, the other to 5th grade–an event that will happen only once in their lives, given their age difference. A wonderful convergence in their lives. And for me, too, since it is also my send off.

Six years ago, six months pregnant, I left my life as a freelancer and part time creative writing teacher and began my university job. Everything suddenly sped up: I had a second car, a second child on the way, and a second contracted young adult novel, along with a nonfiction book and adult novel already underway. Thus began the busiest, most crammed, overloaded six years of my life. There were classes to teach, seminars to attend, essays and chapters and reports to write, trips to make, stroller and Leggo in tow, and of course, those nagging flyers to take out of the backpacks, baseball games to watch, birthday parties to shuttle to. So it seems appropriate, at the very exact moment when the almost-six year old is waved off, I can take a breather. Continue reading

On Bad Reviews

This post recently appeared in my friend Judith Lindbergh’s The Writer’s Circle:

Every published author has experienced the harsh, dismissive, or critical review. Recently I received my first bad notice of a new novel, Tell Us We’re Home. Up to this point, I had been basking in the glow of a wonderful launch: two well-attended book readings where I could sense, in my audiences, a startled, intense listening; a starred review in Kirkus; other enthusiastic, appreciative notices. I felt myself lofted out of the gate of publication into the starry universe of success–every writer’s fantasy. And then of course, comes the negative reaction that sends you plummeting down to earth. You land with a hard thump, stunned, dazed, wondering if you can ever write again. Continue reading

Immigration: The Generational Gap

Today there’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the generation gap over immigration.  Those who are younger are less forgiving of the tough Arizona law, while those who are older favor such draconian measures.  This is attributed to the fact that young people today are growing up in a far more diverse and multicultural world, whereas their parents–many of them aging baby boomers–were shaped by a more segregated, ‘white’ world.

This accords with what I’ve seen and noticed both among my students and living in the suburbs.  The suburbs may ‘look’ the same–the sweet little orange buses rolling through leafy streets; the baseball and soccer games filling the green parks every weekend–but they have fundamentally changed.  Children of different backgrounds and races are tipping their hat visors as they take the pitcher mound or ringing your doorbell to sell Girl Scout cookies.  Even the most insular of suburbs have begun to give way to ethnic and racial demographics that look like what the cities suspiciously used to look like. Continue reading

When Someone ‘Gets’ You

Today I received a lovely blog post and review from Uma Krishnaswami (a writer whom I much admire and who has done so much to expanding our notions of children’s/ya) about Tell Us We’re Home.  What moved me about her post is that she articulated something that I have long felt: after I wrote and published The Professor of Light, I had a sense that I would venture into young adult.  I would not abandon the world of adult fiction or nonfiction, but I knew there were many coming of age stories I wanted to tell.  For me, writing young adult has enabled me to touch a certain part of myself–a bit less guarded, not yet clapped into adult attitudes, still striving, still yearning.  It’s rare to have a reader be so attuned or even cognizant of your own arc and development as a writer–a true gift.

The City of Your Final Destination

Today I was walking down Maplewood Avenue on a sunny day, passing our little movie theater, and was pleased to see the poster for “The City of Your Final Destination.” Several years ago, I reviewed the novel by Peter Cameron for the Los Angeles Times, which I thought quite wonderful, especially the droll dialogue, and its sense of drawing room humor set against the atmospherics of a crumbling Urguayan compound. (My own motivation for reviewing the book was two-fold: my family here had recently reconnected with lost relatives in Uruguay and I had become fascinated with the place, also, have always like Cameron’s work) In the review I had even conjectured that it would make a fine Merchant-Ivory film–one could picture the Chekovian characters storming about the grassy lawns:

“It takes a certain slight of hand to write a novel that is so infused with place . . . What’s sly about this novel is that the bigger dramas are kept offstage . . . Cameron has crafted a fascinating domestic drama . . . succeeds as a comedy of manners that pokes fun at literary careerism and turns entertainingly on people who are not happy, and would not admit it if they were. I kept envisioning this as a cross between a West End Edwardian play . . . and a Merchant-Ivory production …”

Lo and behold, it’s the first film, other than the White Countess, that James Ivory has made since the death of Ismael Merchant a few years ago.

The film is about a hapless graduate student, Omar Razaghi, who is egged on by his more ambitious girlfriend to head down to Uruguay to seek out the surviving family of a novelist, whom he is writing about for his dissertation. Instead he is soon embroiled in long simmering feuds and dramas and his own life takes a surprising turn. There was, in a way, very little in atmospherics as I had originally assumed–instead, however–the novel turns on a cast of characters simmering in lives that are not quite right.  It has a graceful, light touch and I’m eager to see what Ivory has done in the film version.



On Saturday, Rita Williams-Garcia and Neesha Meminger joined me for a panel on YA at the WPU Spring Writers Conference. On Monday, Neesha returned to my Asian American class, along with Kavitha Rajagopolan, author of Muslims of Metropolis, to discuss the Asian American experience in a post 9/11 world. Neesha has blogged about it on her blog, along with a picture of the three ladies in black:

Notes on Teaching Nonfiction in an English Literature Class

This essay, by Rob Nixon in the Chronicle of Higher Education, prompted a few thoughts on my own interest in teaching nonfiction in literature courses.

I happen to enjoy mixing it up with nonfiction in my literature courses.  My two favorite courses, which are part of our Asian Studies Program, are Asian American Literature and Modern Indian Literature.  Because I am teaching students largely unseasoned in the actual experiences of Asian Americans or with only a vague understanding of the history of India, nonfiction and documentary materials become a vital spine to these courses.  And geeky history minor that I was in college, I just can’t resist injecting historical context into my literature courses—theory, post modernism be damned. Continue reading

Young Adult Lit Comes of Age

I came over to young adult many years ago, with my first nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers, arriving like a shy newcomer. But it was only when I published Ask Me No Questions several years later, that I understood the world of young adult and its lively appreciative audiences. And, happily enough, I’ve been watching the rising tide of interest from all quarters–adults and young adults alike, as evidenced by this article in the LA Times today: Young Adult Lit Comes of Age.

As someone who devoured young adult literature when I was a teenager, lounging on hot days to read Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, this is cheering. What I loved then–and still do–is the immediacy of this fiction, the sense that they are creating complex, literary worlds where a young person is at the very center. To this day those books flicker like old favorite movies in the back of my mind, mysterious, yet familiar. That did not mean I was not reading great literature written for adults–what is Jane Eyre but a coming of age novel? Or Oliver Twist? Or even Tess of the D’Urbervilles? All of those were consumed in that same bedroom when I was a teenager, too. Yet young adult novels evoked the Raider: depth and strangeness of that period in one’s life–the awkward, half understood truths; the shimmering, jagged edges of self that are just emerging. For me, all of those books have a gratifying lack of completion, because, of course, they are capturing someone who is still on their way somewhere; still forming.

The Elusive Balance

Can one write too hard?  Work too hard?  And still not feel like you’ve done enough?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve set this goal of finishing a long novel this summer, since this is the time when I can have uninterrupted time, five days a week.  And so, for the past few weeks, this is exactly what I’ve done.  To some extent, it has worked.  Unlike the rest of the year, when I am dashing and juggling an impossible set of responsibilities,I actually have enough time to go to not one, but at least two yoga classes, while getting work done.  Even a few swims, once the pool opened.  What a miracle!  And taking care of many of the niggling domestic improvements that are the bane and joy of house living.  And still sit at my desk!  The healthful sense of balance was achieved—I felt energetic both  mentally and physically.

But this past week, something went awry.  I plugged ahead, but by the end, I was lagging.  I somehow never made it to yoga.  Forget swimming.  My sciatica kicked in and began to distract me.  My right wrist began to hurt.  I finished out the week feeling run down, headachy, not entirely pleased with the most recent passages.

There’s no doubt that when I don’t take care of myself, physically, and then drive myself to sit at a desk like a prisoner to my manuscript,  it backfires.  Alas, I’m all too prone to this—I can easily talk myself away from all those replenishing activities–a walk, a bike ride, a call or visit to a friend–and instead guiltily chain myself to work.  Friends have commented on ‘my discipline.’ But it’s not always the best discipline because ultimately, if I’m not refreshed, or deeply rested, the work is not either.

Endings & Best Laid Plans


My plan, this summer was to force myself to write to the end of my historical novel, a book I have been working on for a number of years, off and on, while I completed other projects.  Summer is my best writing time, when I am home, puttering around my house, the children off in camp, and no teaching responsibilities fracturing my attention. My aim, then, was to bring this all to a head, especially since the end of this novel is meant to be very dramatic and also violent, a crescendo of so many parts, voices, themes.  And yet even the most thoughtful of plans have a way of upending. Continue reading

Welcome to Crossing Over, the blog of author Marina Budhos.

Parkway PlanI grew up in Queens, NY, in Parkway Village, a community built for U.N. families, and a haven for international, mixed, and American families during the ferment  of civil rights and social change.  Over the years I’ve come to understand that this sense of crossing over, of mixture, permeates my way of seeing the world.  And it drives my writing too.  I am an adult author who crossed over into young adult; a  fiction writer who frequently crosses over into nonfiction; and a writer who loves to create worlds that capture these cultural complexities.

But I’m also leery of categories that can be too confining.  To me, that’s the very spirit of crossing over–resisting easy labels.  So, in its broadest sense, Crossing Over aims to capture what all writers do: we cross over into territory both familiar and unknown.


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