How to Talk about Race

You’ve probably been in the room when someone starts off with “I don’t want to sound racist BUT —”

The speaker goes on to expand on a stereotype that is likely to make the other listeners uncomfortable.

Or, you’re at the dinner table a friend’s house and without any warning, someone drops the N bomb in casual conversation.

“They like him, for a nigger,” a man said, standing in my friend’s mother’s kitchen.

Lucky for him, and me, and them, my hosts, his Southern accent muffled what I heard, and we moved on.

I grew up in the UnitENGL 103 Privilege Bingoed States as an the child of Indian immigrants. Race was everywhere around me, in how people reacted to what I brought to school to eat to what they said to me about dating.

“Oh, I don’t think of you as black,” was an often repeated phrase, intended as a compliment.

But I’m not white either I would think. So what am I? Who am I in relation to you?

I didn’t have ways to talk about race when I was teenager. The prevalent idea then was that we didn’t have to: the Civil Rights movement had solved all our problems.

Post 9/11 anti-Islamism and recent cases of police brutality show us that race and ethnicity are still very much divisive forces.

We have to talk about them and in ways that are useful, that go beyond excusing ourselves for holding on to stereotypes.

We can begin simply by questioning our assumptions.

A friend, who teaches anthropology gives an exercise which goes like this: everyone in the room anonymously writes down racial stereotypes and passes them in. She reads them out. “Pakistanis smell,” read one card. She keeps going until anyone is so uncomfortable that they call out “Stop.”

Another friend, teaching a class on migrant labor, had all the students play Privilege Bingo. I heard someone present about this at a conference. You restructure the game of Bingo to make all the categories related to positions of privilege: access to education, living within city limits, specific religions, etc. When someone calls out Bingo, thinking they’ve won, you explain the categories.

You can give everyone in the room a ball (or a piece of paper to crumple up) and ask them to toss into the same basket.

On and on. Students seem an easy group to begin this type of dialogue. Talking about race is our collective responsibility.

Have you had any uncomfortable or productive talks about race?


Secrets to Cooking Veggie and Well

New Year’s Day 2014, while driving to the first lunch of the year, I debated in the backseat of my sister’s mini-van. Meat or soda? Which would be easier to give up? Sitting at the table, waiting to order, I still couldn’t decide. I had identified a healthy lifestyle as high on my list of priorities. I love New Year’s Resolutions, since I follow them through with the gusto of someone with OCD. Meat seemed the easier choice, since a world without soda was as foreign as life without the Internet. _DSC0984-Doha-QA

December 2014, I ‘m happy to say that I’ve been meat free for 12 months. What began as an experiment, has become a lifestyle.

The strange thing about becoming vegetarian is that it triggers an interest in food: my passing fancy for cooking grew into an experimental passion which you have been following through the Sunday Supper posts.

The results will soon be shared, as a cookbook. Stay tuned!

What changes have you had this year?

Writer Wednesday: Edgy YA fiction, Cassidy Jones and the Luminous

Cassidy Jones  The latest installment in the exciting Cassidy Jones series by multi-tasking mother-teacher-writer Elise Stokes.

How to Get Rid of Santa

I felt very much like one of Ms. Hannigan’s girls, growing up as a Hindu child in north Florida. “Santa Claus, who’s he?” When friends called in the afternoon on Christmas Day, asking me what I had received, static filled the line on my end.

In the years since, the holiday season became a tradition of giving and exchanging gifts between the doting auntie and uncle my brother and I had become to our three nieces. The tree, the gifts, the anticipation were part of their childhood, if not ours.

There was no pretense of Santa in my father’s house. His insistent “Who gave that? Who? How much?” said after each present was opened – always in ascending order of our ages, beginning with the youngest niece.

Fast forward to becoming manager of my own house and the Christmas tree is decorated by little ones while adults scurry around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Santa and I have a continuing contentious relationship now that I am a parent. Why should he get all the credit for my hard work all year? I haven’t raised the idea of Santa to our sons. But I didn’t need to, when Mickey’s Magical Christmas could do it for me.

The recent crackdown in Doha against Christmas, is seen as a competition with the December 18th observation of National Day, inappropriately flashing holiday glitz in hotel lobbies and street poles.

Teddy Bear Tea apparently is no longer allowed to have Santa to grace the occasion, the entire reason any parent would spend close to $100 for an afternoon’s entertainment.

“We are not allowed to have Santa this year, ma’am,” said the apologetic hotel receptionist.

Schools have been banned from trees, winter performances, and snowmen. Nurseries, however, have not, as I found out being summoned to my one year old’s Christmas party in the middle of the workday.

My ambivalence to Santa has been challenged.

Sunday Supper: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

You know how I feel about soup: we should eat it once a day in the cooler temperatures. If you have broth and a slow cooker, you have the makings for a low prep, nutritious and filling meal any day of the week.

Tougher vegetables like potatoes or squash, take on a delicious tenderness when allowed to simmer.

Through in a good base of either bullion cubes + water, or homemade broth, plus your vegetables of choice. I did squash, carrots, and onions in this one that was our Thanksgiving first course.
Pulsing the contents about 10 minutes before you serve (with a hand-mixer or transferring to a food processor) can give a clear broth more texture.

Give the Gift They Don’t Have

Want to save yourself the stress of finding a unique gift for that person or child who had everything?

Get him/her a book in a subject they’re already passionate about. Someone gave our son The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Years later, here’s the result. We hadn’t practiced him reading during the Qatar-Brazil festival. In fact, he was begging me to leave before he spied this book on the shelf.

The other option is to make a donation in their honor and give an ornament or a magnet to commemorate. I started doing that in high school for my best friend, and now my grown up Christmas tree is littered with ornaments from an almost 20 year old tradition.

Superb Ways to Show Without Telling

nanoIn the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, I know exactly which creature I am: the hare. This was evident when I was younger: studying a bit all semester and sleeping while my college roommate crammed all night, her Dr. Pepper’s lined up on her desk. When the exams were handed back we each had an A; hers was .5 higher than mine.

The memory of the lesson I learned that day stays with me: do a little bit at a time and you’ll be done by the deadline. This was my secret to NaNoWriMo 2014. I began the month on an overnight flight to Prague for a conference, with my laptop out, typing away. There was a week or so where I thought the story I was telling was utter rubbish; then the detective found his sidekick and sparks flew.

You’ve got a great story, I told myself, in the lead up to Thanksgiving when it was unlikely I would be able write one word, while hosting 7 adults and 7 children. 30,000 words that didn’t exist before November 1.

Then an interesting thing happened: I went through my chapter list on Saturday and Sunday, adding words to those under 1666 (the daily NaNo average).

11:30 p.m. on November 30th (the last day you can get in your 50,000 words) I uploaded my manuscript.

Yesterday I wrote another 1200 words. That hare won the race. This hare has more story to tell.

Here’s the final excerpt I’ll share in my NaNo journey.


Amita, Manu’s sister, is looking for her brother who was reported to have entered the country a few weeks ago. Her dismay is representative of the many families who do not hear from their relatives once they enter their host countries.

Stay tuned for more updates about this work in progress (and the title is still missing…).

PS this scene employs the infamous writing adage “Show, don’t tell” the reader what’s going on with your characters. We try to experience Amita’s confusion with her, rather than learning about it second hand.




Amita took another step forward, grateful he hadn’t pushed past her like so many other Europeans did when given half the chance. “I look for my brother,” she said. She pushed the passport copy of Manu and his approved work visa under the opening.


“You housemaid?” The man asked, his hands unmoving.


“I’m looking for Laxmi Pande,” Amita switched to Hindi.


The man’s narrowed gaze is why she had hoped Madam Cindy would take her to the embassy; her whiteness would have shamed him into being helpful.


“She not here.”


“My brother missing,” Amita said. “He here for three weeks. I no see him.” She managed in the English he was forcing her to speak. “Miss Laxmi she arrange contract for him.”


“That’s terrible,” the woman murmured behind her.


The man picked up the sheet of paper. There was no nametag for her to record a name, like Sir Paul had asked her to get before he left on his trip. He would have come with her but he had to go to a conference in Paris. Busy. Everyone was busy.


“Contracts,” he said, tossing the paper back at her.


“This not contract?” Amita asked in confusion. This was the document the woman had supplied the last time she visited the embassy, looking for a job for Manu. She had promised an office job, as a kitchen service man, boy as they were called here, where he would bring water, tea, coffee, or juice to those having meetings.


The man turned in his chair and tapped the window in the direction of one of the stations in the main room. “Contracts, there. Go see contracts.”


Amita picked up the copies of the visa and passport, the only tangible proof she had that her brother had made plans to join her in the Arabian Gulf. She moved through the rows of chairs to the counter the receptionist had indicated. There were two men here, one seated, the other standing and pointing out something in a stack of papers. Similar stacks rose like little towers on every surface of the room, some in chairs as well. The men in this room stopped talking when she approached. “My brother,” she said. She pressed the papers forward again. “I no hear from my brother.”

Violence Against Women is a Men’s Issue

UNiTE to End Violence against Women

Where to Find a Detective’s Sidekick #nanowrimo2014

I’m twenty-three chapters into my first crime thriller. There’s seven more to go, and the falling action is as exciting as the setup. Hopefully this is the payoff readers are hoping for.

In the meantime, allow me to introduce you to another member of our ensemble cast: Fatma, an enterprising student, on the verge of several discoveries. In this excerpt, we see her visiting a family owned labor camp to get an interview for a class assignment. What she discovers triggers a cascade of events from which she cannot turn back.


“Here,” she repeated. They were stopped across the street from the entrance to the worker accommodation for her father’s company. What Fatma could see in glimpses, as other buses kept rolling by, looked like an anthill. There were men streaming from buses outside the gates, blocking the guard station, but backlit by lights mounted on the top of a fence that rose several meters. They were dressed alike and of similar build and height that they blended, one into the other, like an endless column. The bus driver hunched over a wheel the size of the GMC’s tires, his eyes closed, as if the effort to get everyone offsite was his only animation.

Fatma took a deep breath. I’m fine she reminded herself. This is the safest country in the world and I can get home any time I want. At the sound of the door opening, Babu turned in alarm.

“Madam, where are you going?”

“Inside,” Fatma retorted with more confidence than she felt. The SUV’s mechanized running board hummed into place. She hovered on it for a second before stepping on the dirt beneath.

“No, no, no, no,” Babu said. He also climbed down. “This not allowed.”

Fatma began walking, knowing that Babu would not reach out to touch her. She crossed the street. Most of the men had filed inside the compound. A few stragglers were moving more slowly toward the accommodation. She walked quickly, her edges of her abaya swirling in the dust, thankful she had worn her Converse. The guard took a step back in surprise when she rapped on the window of the office.

“Yes?” There were three of them.

“I’m Sheikha Fatma,” she said, swallowing again, clenching and unclenching her hands behind her back. “And I want to see our facility.”

The men looked from one to another. The first one to speak to her had a handle bar mustache that he smoothed on either side before speaking. “No one is –“

“I own this camp!” She said. “Our family,” she corrected. “And I will see it now.”

Babu arrived, out of breath, next to her. He exchanged words with the guards, both men becoming increasingly agitated. She knew their dilemma. It was the dilemma of servants all over the country: if they let her in, they could be in trouble later. If they didn’t let her in, then there would be in trouble with her right then.

The back door to the office was cracked. Another guard came in, taking a step back when he saw Fatma.

“I call supervisor,” the first man said.

“No, it’s fine,” Fatma said. “I’ll be very quick.” She darted through the exit before anyone else could say a word. Babu called out for her but she kept going, stepping down the concrete blocks assembled as a dismount from the portacabin. A distinct splash sent fetid water shin length on her abaya. Fatma saw smaller pools, glinting green in the intermittent light, scattered around the ground in front of a squat, two story structure, that looked more like a forgotten motel than worker accommodation.

Her heart sank at the sight of so many blue uniforms hanging up on the guardrail out front. This was how they dried their clothes? She moved quickly, into the nearest staircase, lest Babu lead a charge of people after her. There was a door open on the ground floor. Without a glance to the left or right, she entered. She put her hand to her mouth, as much as for the smell of her skin to mask the odors in the room, as in surprise. The room was a concrete rectangle, with light blue gas tanks on the floor, plugged into hot plates on the counter. Nearly all the surfaces were tinged black, as if there had been a fire. And there had, she realized, dozens of little ones, likely on a daily basis. There were discarded skillets and a large pot that had once been red, handles on opposite sides. A flashlight whose protective cover had broken or long been discarded exposed the only light, hanging from a socket on the wall. A few meters high on the wall were spatters of hot oil and spices. Blue tape held together the top of the pipe descending from the skin. She breathed lightly, not wanting to take in any more air than necessary. This was a kitchen, where the men cooked. She took a series of photos, without the flash, on her phone, without pausing to focus. Fatma heard voices outside passing by and swept from the room. She took a left, away from the front entrance, towards the back staircase. Her long legs allowed her to take a two steps at a time, moving soundlessly through the unlit stairwell. She shivered, despite the humidity. On the backside of the building, there was no light from the street or the office flittering in. The doors were shut, under a low roof that looked like a sulking lip. She tripped on a knot of discarded plastic bags. Fatma caught herself before falling, scraping her hand on the unfinished concrete. I should go home she thought. Yuba would kill me if he knew I was here. She turned to go, sucking the knuckle of her forefinger where spots of blood were appearing.

Sunday Supper: Pasta with Cauliflower as White Sauce

Hubs loves roasted veggies. In our fridge, depending on the day of the week, there is at least one head of broccoli and cauliflower. The established flavor of roasted broccoli is a crowd favorite. Cauliflower is a taste I’m not as familiar with. Imagine my surprise at the creamy goodness of cauliflower sauce on pasta.

Easy to whip up and healthy – make sure you eat it straight away or the sauce will need reheating. The recipe gives you steps to make your own zucchini pasta, if you’ve got an extra bit of time and a spiralizer.

Have you been surprised by any new flavors?

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