Conversation with Gloria Whelan

November 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with one of the winners of this year’s National Book Award.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The award for young people’s literature went to Gloria Whelan for her novel “Homeless Bird.” It tells a contemporary story of a 13-year-old Indian girl’s journey toward a new life after she is married and soon widowed. Gloria Whelan has written more than a dozen books for young readers. She also writes poetry and short stories for adults. She lives in the woods of northern Michigan. Congratulations.

GLORIA WHELAN: Thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Please tell us the story of this girl who was married and widowed at age 13.

GLORIA WHELAN: Well, Coly at age 13 is told by her parents, because she’s one more mouth to feed, it’s time for an arranged marriage. She goes to the marriage, meets at the marriage itself for the first time the bridegroom whose name is Hary and she finds to her surprise that Hary is very young and very ill and that the and that the dowry was to take him to Beneres so that he can bathe in the Ganges and recover. And he does go to the Ganges but he does not recover and she’s a widow and has to spend the rest of her life, it seems, with the kind of miserable mother-in-law being kind of a house slave. But then she finds a way to escape.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And she escapes partly by learning to read. That’s a very big part of the book and through her art. It seemed to me the story of a young woman learning that she’s an artist. Did you mean it that way?

GLORIA WHELAN: I did. Actually I saw the story of these white saaried widows, thousands of white saaried widows in the city of Bernasi, and they’re taken there by their in-laws, left there like so many abandoned kittens. They have to make their living by chanting in the temples for four hours a day and in return… They’re fed by the monks. And I didn’t want Coly, the girl that I was going to write about, this 13-year-old widow, to have to spend her life that way. A few days later, I happened to see an exhibit at Asia House, embroidery done by Indian women. And that gave me the idea for a way out for Coly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So these two things came together in your mind and produced the story. Is that how it usually happens?

GLORIA WHELAN: That’s always how it happens. I have to have two things. One thing doesn’t seem to do it. There have to be two things in juxtaposition and suddenly the story comes to life for me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It seemed to be very much – it was very lively. There was so much of India in it and yet you never went to India, did you?

GLORIA WHELAN: No, I didn’t. It’s really very exciting. I do a lot of writing about other times and other places and as you do your research and you begin writing the story, you get so immersed in those other places that you actually feel that you’re there. So it’s a kind of a magical way to time travel, to write these stories about distant places or other countries or other times.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you hesitate at all or was it risky for you to write about death for this age group. This is for the age group about 10 to 13, right?

GLORIA WHELAN: Yes, yes. Actually, the death comes very early in the book. You know almost immediately that it’s going to happen. It’s a very sad event, but it’s a very small part of the actual story. And so the story goes on very quickly from there and what happens to Coly is really the story, and the death is just the beginning and not a major event in the story.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read a little bit for us, please.

GLORIA WHELAN: Yes, I’d love to. Hary is the bridegroom who has died and sauce is the India word for mother-in-law. “In her sadness over Hary’s death, Sauce grew bitter. Her angry words buzzed around me stinging like wasps. ‘Your dowry did not save Hary and now we are burdened with one more mouth to feed,’ she scolded. She made my name hateful to me all day long; she sent it screaming to the house across the courtyard. ‘Coly, we need water. Coly, sweep the courtyard, the geese have soiled it. Coly, the clothes you washed are still dirty.’ I did the best I could, thankful for a bed to sleep on and food to put in my mouth. Each morning I got up before the sun swallowed the darkness. It was so early that I felt as if I were the only one awake in the world. I made a respectful puga, bowing to go the household shrine. I washed at the courtyard well and brushed my teeth with a twig from the Neem Tree. I gathered dried leaves to light the dung in the stove so the water for the tea would be boiling when the family awoke. I hurried to the well for a pail of water. When you hold water in your hand, it weighs nothing. But put it in a pail and it is as heavy as a stone. I threw sticks at the bandicoot, at the nasty rat that lived under the house, to keep it from getting our food. If Sauce had let me creep quietly about my tasks, I would have been content. I still would have had a little place inside of me to go, a place I could wrap myself in like the cocoon a caterpillar makes. You can touch the cocoon, but you cannot touch the little thing inside unless you tear it apart. That is what my Sauce was doing to me: Worrying and badgering me with her never- ending orders and scoldings.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love the image of the cocoon. I saw many images that seem to come partly from your life as a poet – the heron – the embroidery, itself. Do you think your poetry influences the way you write, this sort of novel?

GLORIA WHELAN: The poetry and then we live in the woods. The nearest house to us is a mile away. We live on a little lake. So the heron is something that I see out my window. The caterpillars I see when I’m out walking in the woods. So that really makes a difference in what I write about, too, although I’m writing about another place, those things are in my mind, and I know that those things exist in India and so I have that connection.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Whelan, why did you start writing young people’s fiction?

GLORIA WHELAN: Well, we lived in northern Michigan, and we had gone there from the city of Detroit because we wanted the wilderness and the quiet. And we were there for, I think, two weeks and someone knocked on our door and… with a cowboy hat and boots and said they wanted to drill for oil on our property. We didn’t have the mineral rights. So we couldn’t say no so they bulldozed a road into our property and cleared three acres. We watched the derrick go up. We watched that process. I began to write about a young boy who worked for one of those oil wells. And that kind of got me started. It was an experience that I actually lived through.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is the process quite different from the process you use when you write for adults either in your poetry or your stories?

GLORIA WHELAN: Not at all. It really isn’t. The character… Might be younger, the story might be somewhat more simply told, but actually the process is exactly the same. You get it down. You revise. You think about it. You grope for something. You find it. You’re surprised. It’s the same process.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Will this award make a big difference in your writing or in your life?

GLORIA WHELAN: Well, I think it will make a big difference in this sense: It sort of sets a standard. It pushes me to try to do better. It’s a kind of responsibility, and it’s also a kind of affirmation. It makes me feel that somehow the stories that I’m writing are stories that are being received by somebody.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Gloria Whelan, congratulations again and thank you very much.

GLORIA WHELAN: Thank you very much.