Past Alumni News Stories
Kate Hopper (MFA), writer & teacher
Kevin Fenton (MFA), writer & ad creative
Alex Mueller (PhD), professor
Ellen Boschwitz (BA), consultant
Ethan Rutherford (MFA), writer
Tina Karelson (BA), advertising creative
May Lee-Yang (BA), playwright
Elizabeth Larsen (MFA), writer/editor
Angela Smith (PhD), professor
Jerr Boschee (BA), social entrepreneur
Reina del Cid (BA), bandleader
Dr. Arthur Schuhart (BA), CC professor
Amanda Coplin (MFA), novelist
David Wojahn (BA), poet
Dr. Sarah Wadsworth (PhD), professor
Mark Baumgarten (BA), writer/editor
Andrew Nath (BA), banker
Esther Porter (BA), editor
Dr. Gerald Jay Goldberg (PhD), writer
Peter Geye (BA), novelist
Sam Kean (BA), science writer
Dr. Joyce Sutphen (BA, MA, PhD), poet
Susan Taylor (MFA), CC professor
Sheila O'Connor (BA), novelist
Susan Niz (BA), YA novelist
Scott Burns (BA), screenwriter
Swati Avasthi (MFA), YA novelist
Dr. Marilyn Nelson (PhD), poet
Garrison Keillor (BA), radio show host
Dr. Carol Mason (PhD), professor
Amy Shearn (MFA), novelist
Dr. Virginia McDavid (BA, MA, PhD), prof
Tim Nolan (BA), poet
George Bowman (BA). business exec
Dr. Kevin Reilly (PhD), higher ed admin
Michael Tisserand (BA), journalist
Words and pictures tell the story of a teenage girl's slide into mental illness
Swati Avasthi (MFA 2010) published her first novel for young adults while still a student in the MFA program. Split, about a 16-year-old named Jace who gets kicked out of the family home after hitting his abusive father, won a silver Parents' Choice Award and was named a Best Fiction for Young Adults title for 2011 by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). During her second year here, Avasthi began a book that she envisioned would include graphic novel elements. Chasing Shadows (Knopf), published this fall, follows two teenage girls after the murder of one’s brother. Young adult fiction is enthusiastically supported by a web of bloggers, and Avasthi has been visiting YA blog sites in a “blog tour” since the book’s publication (list and links here). Below are quotes from the Q & A on different sites, including a couple questions Avasthi posed herself.
1. How did you make the decision to divide Corey, Holly and Savitri’s story in Chasing Shadows into prose and graphic novel sections? [From Alice, Marvels]
I wanted to use the graphics for those moments when our words leave us entirely, when they cannot encompass the way the world has shattered. For Holly that happens when she sees a gun pointed at her and Corey. After that, everything is different; she has entered another realm—The Shadowlands, Kortha’s world, which is always in graphics. So, speaking in code so as not to give away too much: the rule of narration became when Holly feels grounded in the reality she knew prior to the shooting, she narrates in prose. When she is in the world that haunts her post-shooting, she narrates in graphics.
Savitri, on the other hand, is Holly’s anchor to language and all she knew before the shooting. And, while Savitri is in deep grief, she is never exposed to The Shadowlands the way Holly is. So she remains in prose throughout.
2. Were there any specific comics that inspired the story? [From The Enchanted Inkpot]
In Chasing Shadows, one of my narrators, Savitri, retells the Hindu story she was named after, Savitri. The first time I read that story, I read it as a comic from Amar Chitra Kata, an Indian publisher. Obviously, I loved it. It influenced the book, for sure, but it also influenced me and the way I thought about loyalty, which really plays into the story and into Chasing Shadows.
I didn't really read American superhero comics until I started writing this story. But I love The Killing Joke [by Alan Moore] and The Joker [by Brian Azzarello]. Those were my favorites and, in fact, there's an epigraph in the book from The Killing Joke.
I know it is unconventional, but I believe that villains and antagonists are done better in comics and graphic novels than in any other form. The immediacy of the conflict, the way that they invite the reader's imagination, their complicated motivations (sometimes) are really compelling. Comics are rooted in the antagonist's realm, in my view.
3. Your first novel, Split, was centered around two brothers, while Chasing Shadows focused on the friendship of two girls. Did you find the shift between these very different narrators difficult to make? [From Holes in My Brain]
Well, yes. I find it easier to write characters who are more unlike me than those ones who are like me. And Savitri is a lot like me, in terms of race and personality. So I struggled quite a bit with her. Her voice was hard to grasp and, in a way, to make interesting.
Regarding Holly, I also think it's harder to write girls who are sarcastic. I kept hearing feedback that the girls sounded "snarky.” When I told this to a colleague, Sheila O'Connor, she said, "Do you think it's because they are girls?" And I realized she was right. What would be considered funny from Jace is often deemed uglier from girls. It's a fascinating phenomenon really that, I think, demonstrates some of the deep and subtle gender bias in our country today.
That said, I think I'm using a female protagonist for the third novel and letting the sarcasm fly. It can be done; it should be done. We need to hear voices equally.
4. Avasthi: Given that I’ve been an 18-year-old Indian girl, why was it harder to write Savitri’s point of view? [From Diversity in YA]
[Holly’s] voice felt immediately authentic. Savitri’s felt tentative and fearful (which as a freerunner, she certainly wasn’t).
Who was fearful? Me.
Harold Bloom wrote about “the anxiety of influence”—how authors become nervous given all the greats that have come before them. But perhaps equally concerning is the anxiety of the unknown: that insecurity involved in broaching a topic that was unexplored—interracial friendships. Was this experience universal enough, I wondered, for anyone to relate to? Would it have cultural resonance to first generation [immigrant] kids? Would others “get” that interracial friendships can be, by their very nature, uneven?
[U]nevenness in interracial friendships [can] manifest in lots of different ways:
1) Knowledge. The person of the mainstream culture (in this case, white) does not have a “need to know” the minority culture, but the person of the minority culture must know the mainstream culture in order to get by. So, for instance, I can quote from the Bible, without having to explain what the Bible is, but few know what the Ramayana is or that calling its stories “mythology” is as inappropriate as calling Biblical stories “mythology.”
2) Misappropriation. In Chasing Shadows Holly elects to know Savitri’s culture, but then misappropriates one of these stories. Because the unevenness can present itself in another way: a passing interest in a culture in an effort to adopt it, change it, own it, and sometimes profit from it without much regard to the original. We’ve seen enough of this to recognize it easily (Miley Cyrus).
Or 3) Exoticizing. I am the only PoC in my neighborhood, and when I moved in, one man immediately started asking me questions about my heritage. Oh, he loved India; he’d studied India; he’d even been there. He could get his “India fix” just down the block after he’d finished his morning of mispronouncing namaste while doing yoga. Grabbiness does not equal good friends. . . .
Maybe not every first gen’s experienced uneven interracial friendships, but it was [my experience]. And, as it turns out, maybe that’s enough. . . . it wasn’t my responsibility “to get it right” because who’s to judge when it’s “right”?
Maybe I just need to tell my truth about race through the novel, that power can be uneven, that friendships can fracture because of it, and that some friends—those who are comfortable enough to even out the ground—are the ones that last. No matter what their race.
5. Avasthi: Why do my stories come out so dark? [From Bookish]
Imagination is our tool to reconcile that which we can’t understand. Or those things we aren’t equipped to understand when they are presented to us. Write what you know? Write what you want to know.
When I was 18 I learned from a news story that a friend from middle school, whom I hadn’t spoken since we went to different high schools, was shot and killed in what is still an unsolved case. . . . I was stunned into a prolonged silence about it—not talking to her family for 20 years, until I finally found the simple words I needed to say: I’m sorry for your loss, and I grieve for all that she didn’t get to do with you and your family.
That frozen state, those events that we can’t handle in the moment, are fertile ground for the imagination. We can’t make sense of the gulf between the old normal and this new reality, so we let the know-it-all in our brains try.
Our imaginations are a great way to solve the unsolvable, fix the unfixable, recover the unrecoverable. Because fundamentally, the other thing the imagination is, even for the darkest of us, is an optimist.
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