Interview with author Rose Kent
by Aline Pereira*
Rose Kent is a children's book author, New Yorker and wife, mom and stepmom of a wonderful, wacky blended tribe with six kids. Kimchi & Calamari (HarperCollins, 2007) is her first novel.
How did Kimchi & Calamari, your deliciously thought-provoking first novel infused with teen energy and identity confusion, come about? Please tell us about your choice of themes for this debut.
Thanks! I must admit that what's in my heart and on my mind often lands splat on the written page. Actually, the inspiration for Kimchi & Calamari arrived wrapped in a diaper, all the way from South Korea. I'm referring to my son Connor. Adopting Connor was a true joy, and it also left me reflective. As happy as I was that he was part of our family, I realized the joy of his adoption was attached to a loss for him that I could never fully take away. I knew he'd become more aware of this with time. I wanted him to understand, as he grew, that even if I couldn't fully "get it" -- understand how it felt to be adopted – I wanted to.
Kimchi & Calamari came from a place where I was reflecting on family and identity and race - and what happens when they all merge. I chose to get to know a lovable, quirky boy named Joseph and tell his story. And as I got to know him better, the themes that matter to me appeared along the way.
Your love of food comes across in every page: with chapters such as "Pouring on the Guilt Gravy" and "Shrimp Connection", not to mention a series of food-related references, such as when Joseph refers to himself as an "ethnic sandwich", the metaphors food lends itself to are endless. Was it obvious from the beginning that you would be combining the themes of food and an adolescent journey of self-discovery?
It's true that I'm a hopeless foodie. Food matters a great deal to many of us, especially to kids. Food comforts. It gives us something to look forward to after a bad day. It excites us. And within families, it offers a way to show love. If your grandma takes the time to bake you homemade cookies, you know you are a lucky person!
Yet as with the themes that land in my writing, my goal isn't to write a foodie fable. I try to remember the advice of the talented author Patricia Reilly Giff. Pat once explained that the job of the children's writer is to create a character, make him walk and talk, give him a problem, then make the problem get worse and worse - until the end, when the problem is somehow solved - or at least hope is found. That is what I set out to do in Kimchi & Calamari. The foodie references came out after the first draft, as I got to know my character and his family. But it is funny that as they came out, my reaction was, "Well of course food would play a huge role here." Joseph comes from an Italian family and my Italian friends and historians like to say that food equals love to them. And Korean families seem to express love with wonderful, labor-intensive meals as well.
I didn't consciously stir these themes like ingredients in a story soup, even though I do love soup (whoops, I digress).
The pot of 14-year-old Joseph Calderaro's life starts boiling when a school assignment forces him to write an essay about his ancestry as part of a "Celebrating Your Heritage" campaign in schools across America. Joseph's character is so real and endearing that I found myself looking forward to the day when my 5 year old is 14 and can display the same mix of vulnerability and worldliness... What role did your own children play in helping you define his voice?
You've captured the seesaw of adolescents well with the words 'vulnerability' and 'worldliness.' Kids today, and especially boys, really teeter back and forth with these attributes. It was important that I capture this early adolescent voice, and I have to give my children much credit for their help. I listened a lot to the way they spoke with their friends. And my kids read plenty of Kimchi & Calamari early on and provided a reality check. You know how it goes in families: kids don't hold back when something sounds "dumb," and I'd hear that sometimes, too.
Why do we see chopsticks in a bowl of spaghetti & meatballs instead of kimchi and calamari dishes on the book cover? I should say that I find it very effective. It makes one stop and think...
Like the story inside, the Kimchi & Calamari cover was intended to shout "combo platter!" That's exactly how Joseph feels about himself. We also realized that as fun as it is to say "kimchi & calamari" (try it three times fast), not all kids would recognize these foods (plus I'm betting kimchi would be hard to draw!). Kids all know that spaghetti and meatballs is Italian food-- and of course chopsticks send the message that the story has an Asian flare as well. My favorite part of the cover though, is the subtle hot pepper background. Joseph loves to spice up his food, and he'd be very pleased.
Between school assignments, band practice, family interactions, super-heroes' comic books and girl crushes, calamari connoisseur, Joseph tries to find out about his birth mother and to come to terms with his Korean roots. His confusion about life and about who he is, is magnified by the fact that he is adopted and "don't know didly" about his ancestors. How much of the book is based on your own experience of having children of Korean heritage as well as adopted children?
My experience as an adoptive parent certainly stirs into the writing pot. I wrote Kimchi & Calamari projecting out some years to when my adopted children would be reflecting on their identity and wondering about their birth stories. Yet I think all kids can relate to Joseph when he describes himself as an "ethnic sandwich." What kid today doesn't feel "sandwiched," whether it's s due to parental expectations, divorce, peer pressure, ethnicity, you name it. I've been discussing this at school visits and I can't tell you how many hands go up to tell these stories. Once in a while a teacher will raise a hand and explain his/her sandwich story as well!
Joseph's parents, both of Italian heritage, are very believable characters, and seem to provide a supportive environment for his quest (even if Joseph doesn't always see it that way). Would you say that adoption adds complexity to parenting adolescents?
I'd say adoption does add a factor to parenting adolescents. Of course everything good or bad doesn't go back to adoption, and sometimes a teen having problems may be for a million non-related reasons. But our origins have so much to do with our identities and teens are sorting all that out, right? Still, I think we adoptive parents can't forget about adoption, no matter how busy we get and how much "the same" all kids seem. I think communication matters big-time when parenting adopted kids. Talking with our children, keeping our families connected with the adoption community, and keeping our children connected to their culture if they are from a country or ethnicity other than our own. I love the expression "It takes a village" because, in parenting, it really does.
Adolescence is a turbulent period for many children, whether they come to their families through adoption or not. Would you say your book is more about the universal theme of coming of age and self-discovery with a touch of adoption, or did you write it specifically as a tale of transracial and transcultural adoption?
Above all, Kimchi & Calamari is a coming-of-age tale about a kid who just happens to be adopted discovering himself. Joseph is Korean in an Italian family, but certainly one could change the family's ethnicity and Joseph's and the story would ring with the same theme. I think that is why kids tell me they relate to Joseph, whether they are adopted and/or Asian or not. I love that old proverb that says children need to know their roots to develop their wings. Nobody cruises through adolescence without some struggle to figure out who they are and where they fit in.
I've read somewhere about what you call, in reference to your writing, "a series of small serendipities". Could you tell us a little bit about the idea behind it?
When I write a story, I'm taking a trip along with my character. And that trip, as in road trips, is often chockfull of surprises. It makes me think of Forrest Gump's mama saying that life is like a box of chocolates, and you don't always know what you're going to get. In Kimchi & Calamari, I didn't plan to have Olympic runner Sohn Kee Chong appear in Joseph's dreams. I also didn't intend to learn about Italian superstitions and the malocchio (or evil eye) - but it all fell out of getting to know the characters. As I wrote, the road veered that way, and I'm glad it did.
I think writing and life are full of "a series of small serendipities:" happenings or meetings that we never expect but from which goodness comes. And sometimes I think other cultures recognize this much better than ours, because they slow down enough to notice serendipity, while in the United States we are often racing ninety miles per hour, worried about our to-do lists.
In your opinion, what are the underpinnings of a successful young adult book? Do you have any favorites featuring multicultural characters?
The book has to be a rollercoaster ride worth the admission ticket price. It has to zigzag with highs, lows, yikes and uh-ohs. It must make me keep turning the page to find out what happens. And I've got to care about the character. To really care, even with the characteer's flaws. I want to know those flaws too because that makes me relate. Finally, I want to get a satisfied feeling at the end. Every problem doesn't have to be solved, but something must happen to at least leave me with hope. TThis sounds 1-2-3 simple, but of course it's not. I am in awe of every author who pulls this off and delivers a memorable tale.
There are many terrific YA novels with multicultural themes. A book read early on that influenced my thoughts on race and writing was Necessary Roughness by Marie Lee (HarperCollins, 1991). This YA novel depicts a loving (however imperfect) Korean family coping with life after moving to a lily-white suburb in Minnesota. Other books I love where interracial families and/or friendships or ethnic families are presented include Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001); Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Scholastic, 2006); Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, by Greg Leitich Smith; Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes (Hyperion, 2005) and, of course, the classic, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Dial, 1976).
Right now I am reading Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins (Random House, 2006). Jazz Gardner is such a relatable character for all kids, and yet her ethnicity (plusthe spectacular setting of India) makes the story even more splendid.
I must throw some kudos your way because PaperTigers.org is a fantastic source for multicultural literature. It was after reading your interview with Mitali Perkins that I decided to read Monsoon Summer, and I'm so glad I did. Your website is kind of like a treasure box for many of us looking for rich stories from and about the Pacific Rim and South Asia.
Thank you for your generous words about PaperTigers, Rose. Now about reading to your children... Any special memories or rituals you would like to share?
Reading out loud with my children is a treat I give myself as much as I do the kids. I know I'm not alone; many PaperTigers readers enjoy this simple pleasure.
We start snnuggling together in our PJs, and soon we enter into this lovely slow rhythm of listening, breathing, and being together. It just doesn't get any better than that, does it?
Some of the read-out-loud memories that come to mind: my kids cheering as Mathias protected the Abbey against the evil Cluny in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques; my children rooting for Meg as she freed her brother in the well-loved classic and 1963 Newbery Medal winner, Madeleine L'Engle'sA Wrinkle In Time; and my littlest girl Theresa repeating back Comfort's wise words after the loss of her dog Dismay in Deborah Wiles' Each Little Bird That Sings. For me, reading wonderful books out loud is a way of teaching a life lesson - and I get the lesson too.
Are you cooking up any new treats for all of us Joseph fans?
Scooping one up might be the better phrase : ) I'm finishing a middle-grade novel about an artistic girl who moves to upstate NY from Texas with her mom and deaf brother to open an ice cream shop in the dead of winter (research has involved dozens of trips to ice cream shops - poor me!). And I'm beginning a baseball story in tribute to the Mets-Yankees-Red Sox fans in my family who share a crazy love – a passion for the game. I won't give away details but I promise that all future books will have food, fun and some struggle in them - just like in my home!
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor
Posted May 2007
back to top