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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Sameer Pandya, Lee Wardlaw and Poet Laureate Sojouner Kincaid Rolle

What’s a writer to do with several finished short stories and a manuscript not long enough to make a full book? If you are local author Sameer Pandya, you put some of those short stories together, add the short novel, (called novella) and end up with a book, The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella (University of Hawai’i Press).

Sounds like a slam dunk? Hold it a minute. It’s not so easy.

Pandya, born in India but raised in California, attended UC Davis and received his Ph.D. from Stanford University. For his “day job” he teaches literature and creative writing at UC Santa Barbara. He had his first story published 10 years ago, “Welcome Back, Mahesh.” It is now included in the book.

The two of us talked about how an author decides which stories to use and in what order. After going through his writings, Pandya chose nine of them, a number common with collections of short stories. Some works jump out as perfect; others can be like problem children.

“I kept tweaking and rewriting four of the nine,” he said. “They wouldn’t come together. Finally I put them aside and worked on another 10-page short story.

“The more I worked on it, the more it grew. It ended up being over 100 pages and became the title story.”

The novella format offers the advantage of writing more sustained narratives.

“Themes that had popped up in my short stories, like fatherhood and motherhood, echoed in the novella,” Pandya said. “I could stay with those themes and develop them and the characters with more depth.”

Next he had to arrange the chosen stories in an order the reader could follow, similar to pacing the plot of a novel.

“I wanted to start the book with flashes of short stories and then finish with a longer one,” he explained. “That’s where the novella fit in. When looking over my final collection, I found one with the mother as the protagonist and another with the father.

“They became the first and last of the five short stories. In between are three stories from the point of view of sons.”

Another irony of looking back on the stories is how his own life has changed. Since Pandya’s first published short story more than a decade ago, he admits that his age allows him to see his earlier work in a new light.

“Planning the book allowed me to say ‘This story works,’ or ‘That one doesn’t,’” he said. “The four I took out of the original nine are still on my hard drive. Some of those characters I’m devoted to and like, but right now is not the time to use them.”

Pandya is drawn to thematic issues about domesticity and family.

“The strange thing is that much of my writing is about families with young sons — long before we had two boys,” he said. “In one story, the older boy has an allergy to wheat and dairy. As it turns out, my younger son has allergy to dairy.”

Two of the stories deal with conflicts between sons. Although Pandya has no brothers, he has two older sisters and a strong family life.

“My writing is often about Indians living in California, but my intent is to make the stories more universal, make the characters like all of us,” he said. “Stories are often about life you don’t have.”

                                                                  •        •        •

For those of us who have a keen interest in books, we owe huge thanks to children’s book authors. They are the key to literature’s future and the ones who make it possible for children to learn to read for pleasure, get drawn into a story and to discover something new.

The best of children’s books, I believe, are the ones that please parents and grandparents, as well. A recent favorite in our family has been Lee Wardlaw’s Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, about a Siamese cat that a family adopts and how the cat adjusts to its new home.

Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry, has a sub-form called Senryu, which tells tales and adventures. Wardlaw uses this form and it works. Even our 3-year-old grandson chooses her books time and again. OK by me.

Now Wardlaw has a follow up book, Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku, about the same family adopting a dog! Talk about sibling rivalry. Wardlaw gives the story universal appeal so all the parents in our family like reading it out loud as much as the kids love hearing it.

Spoiler Child Alert: These books make great gifts.

                                                                  •        •        •

As a part of National Poetry Month, poet, playwright, educator and mediator Sojouner Kincaid Rolle stood before the Santa Barbara City Council earlier this month to be named the city’s sixth poet laureate. Behind her in the standing room-only chambers sat three previous poet laureates: Perie Longo, Paul Willis and Cryss Yost, the outgoing honoree. All were awarded the position for their poetry and active roles within the community to encourage creativity and enrich our lives with the spoken word.

Kincaid Rolle, dressed in a flowing Tibetan coat with a gold-trimmed scarf and head bandeau, wore a wreath on her head. It was a gift from Willis and his wife, Sharon, who together made the wreath out of laurel leaves.

“I have been lucky to have received many honors, but this is among the most significant,” Kincaid Rolle began her acceptance speech. “... Since the announcement I have received hundreds of messages. It’s overwhelming to have all that energy directed toward you. I’ve been lifted.”

A former lawyer before becoming a poet, she has led and encouraged creative writing and poetry across our community from UCSB classes to workshops in the schools as well as within the whole community. Her last count reports more than 300 active poets in Santa Barbara.

At the end of her speech she read her first public poem (scroll down the page for the poem), this one about Santa Barbara. It received a standing ovation.

For the next two years, Kincaid Rolle will be part of several city events and ceremonies. Look for our poet laureate with a new poem in hand to help us see our city and its people with refreshed eyes.

A Song of Santa Barbara

We honor the first people of this place:
Chumash, Barbereños.
We honor the elders
the keepers of this ancient culture.
O’ the beautiful city by the sea,
city by the side of the Royal Road.

Stately palms sway in harmony with the wind
and the soaring hawks.

Dancers, yellow hibiscus blossoms
in their hair, twirl and clap.
Magenta bougainvilleas snake along the pathways,
crawl across scape of land,
climb the stucco walls.

In the name of Saint Barbara,
patron of mariners and surfers,
we pay homage to the dolphin
relating the legend of the Rainbow Bridge.

We honor those whose forebears
built a life here.
We know their names.
They are as familiar
as the names off our streets,
our paseos, our placitas:
De la Guerra,
Gutierrez,
Carrillo,
Cota,
Ortega ...

We take shelter beneath
the Moreton bay fig,
a canopy of hope.
We hang our holiday lights
on the Norfolk Island pine.

We are known for graceful palm
the lavender jacaranda,
the California scrub oak.

Caretakers
to the watershed,
we lift our eyes
to hills.
Our creeks — Mission,
Sycamore, Arroyo Burro —
some dry beds,
carry the precious liquid
more valued than gold.

We are keepers of bees.
Hummingbirds flitter
among birds of paradise.

Monarchs graze in our front yards,
traveling the yellow-blossomed coast
clustering in the warm embrace
of our eucalyptus groves.

We share our plenty with the seagulls
and the crows.
We hold sanctuary for the California condor,
the bald eagle, the brown pelican
the snowy plover, the green turtle,
the island fox.

We wake each day
to the sounds of a mixed flock.
Mockingbirds serenade us
through long afternoon into night.

Singing a song of Santa Barbara.

— Sojourner Kincaid Rolle
​April 7, 2015

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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