All posts by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Transparent

I wanted to take a moment to talk about my first significant act in politics, helping to pass the library’s annual budget. For the most part, our Oak Park libraries are so well run by their amazing staff, that I’ve had very little to do in the trustee board meetings since May, except listen and learn.

There’s a steep learning curve when you’ve been entrusted with shared responsibility for a cultural landmark and community resource. I read the agendas diligently, and came prepared to the monthly meetings with questions, and over time, I’m coming to understand the ins and outs of how our libraries function. (Very well; we are quite lucky that Oak Parkers are willing to support the library so strongly.)

But I did see something that concerned me in one of the earlier draft budget agendas — that a significant percentage of library staff weren’t being paid a living wage. I’ve generally been a strong proponent of the Fight for $15, have even marched and rallied with workers fighting for a living wage. And here in Oak Park, a relatively wealthy suburb with quite a glorious library system, it seemed a shame that library staff weren’t being paid at a rate that actually was appropriate, given inflation and housing costs in the area.

So I brought it up with the board, and we then had a robust discussion. More than a few board members strongly agreed with me about this being a concern — the question was, what exactly we wanted to do about it.

The library employees are divided by grade, each a certain percentage apart, based on experience, skills, etc. We couldn’t simply raise every employee’s wages commensurately and be done with it — raising grade 1 to $15 / hr, and all the higher grades the same percentage upwards. That would have added about $1.5 million to the budget, which would’ve been quite the significant increase to property taxes.

But of course, not all the employees were making under $15 / hr, only the lower grades — so what if we just raised the salaries for those workers? Make sure that the floor was a living wage; we could then leave the already higher-wage salaries alone?

Well, then you run into other difficulties, like salary compression causing potential resentment. When grade 4 salaries are almost the same as grade 5, but grade 5 employees have put extra time into education, etc., that can cause challenges. And would employees start expecting big raises every year? I didn’t think so, as long as we were clear this was a one-time adjustment, to address a historic inequity, but it was worth thinking about and discussing.

We also talked about benefits — how many of our workers didn’t have health insurance? The library staff pointed out that they weren’t even sure how many people who were working part-time would want more hours, as some of them were retirees and teens who were happy to just work for a few hours each week at the library. I suspected, though, that a smaller percentage of those workers (shelvers, etc.) were retirees and teens than in the past. Some of them were probably adults, possibly supporting families.

It was a long discussion, even a little heated at times. I admit — I’m not used to being confrontational; I’m conflict-averse by nature, so I had to steel myself a little to even bring the issue up, much less pursue it. But fair pay is a cause I really believe in, and that made it easier to raise issues of potential conflict.

I also want to emphasize here that everyone in the discussion, trustees and staff, wanted to support our lower-wage workers fairly — the question was how to best do so in a responsible manner, keeping in mind our duties to taxpayers.

At the end of our discussion, the librarians went back to try to put together another budget, one that increased pay at the lower levels slightly. They also surveyed the staff, to find out if they actually wanted more hours.

We ended up with a compromise that wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, but was, I think, an improvement. 34 part-time positions are moving from 15 – 20 hours per week, making those staff members eligible for benefits such as sick leave and vacation time, and retirement fund participation. We had already planned to raise the base salary slightly, but we decided to move it up a little further, to $12 / hr, starting July 1. I’m hoping that these changes will make a significant difference in these employees’ lives, and help make the libraries even more a place that Oak Parkers can be proud of.

We’re now in sync with the City of Chicago, rather than lagging behind, and I’m planning to keep pushing for us to do even better in future years. I’d like to see Oak Park as a leader in the fair wage struggle going forward. I’d like to see us at $15 / hr soon, and have wages indexed to inflation going forward. Wages were stagnant for a long time, and didn’t come close to keeping up with inflation. I think we can do better by our people.

And yes, Oak Parkers, that means I’m going to keep pushing to raise your property taxes, just a tiny bit. Is it worth a few dollars a year to you, to know that the staff at our beautiful library are paid a fair, living wage? I hope so. If not — well, you can vote me out in 2021, if I run for office again. If I do run again, and you vote for me, know that I’m going to keep pushing for economic equity across the Village.

There’s a little transparency in government for you.

Please follow and like us:

Cocteau

George R.R. Martin and many Wild Cards writers, at the Cocteau Cinema, going through the history of the series. It was a two-hour-plus event, and it’s mostly a bunch of writers sitting around talking about things they wrote, so I wouldn’t say it’s the most visually engaging show ever. But if you’re interested in Wild Cards, this is for you. It’s roughly chronological, so I come in at the very end, in the newest batch of writers, starting at 1 hr 45 minutes in. I hate watching myself on screen, so I have no idea if I’m any good, but I say some stuff. The Cocteau also sells signed books by George and us (Wild Cards and otherwise). I’m in Fort Freak and Lowball right now, with Low Chicago coming out July 2018.

Please follow and like us:

Funds

Between donations at the door ($505) and silent auction ($690), we raised $1195 for Puerto Rico disaster relief tonight! I’ll do a proper post tomorrow with more details, but just wanted to note that I’m going to keep the online fundraiser up and running for a few more days, if you couldn’t make it tonight and would like to chip in — that’s up to another $410 right now, so $1605 total, if I did the math right. I’d really love to make it to $2000. But now, bed! Thank you so much to everyone who came out, and especially to all the artists who donated their time and talent!

Please follow and like us:

Scheduling

I should maybe not have scheduled my cookbook cover photoshoot and my Puerto Rico fundraiser for the same day. In my defense, the photoshoot was originally a different day, but I pushed it (twice) because I was too busy.
 
Okay, maybe that’s not really a defense.
 
Off to put together a list of silent auction items to publicize AND make a sothi to go with stringhoppers tomorrow, and hopefully a lamb biryani too. Not actually at the same time. Thinking maybe I should cook some of the stringhoppers (and hoppers) tonight, even though they taste better fresh, just so I have some ready in case things go wonky tomorrow.
 
(Thursday I’m going to be grading papers all day, which actually may be sort of relaxing after all this…)
Please follow and like us:

Cancer log 194: Hair Redux

It’s not really about the hair, even if reading people’s (positive) comments on my hair did end up making me cry. The hair looks fine, but it’s just not what it was before cancer. It is short now *because* of cancer, not because I chose to have it short. It’s the visible marker of everything that was lost with diagnosis.

The chunk of breast that was scooped away, the nipple that has gone entirely numb. The pain and exhaustion of chemo, surgery, radiation. The years of time that were lost to treatment (time from family, time from writing). The peace of mind and assumption of health (now every doctor’s appointment comes with added weight of anxiety). The reconstructive surgeries that are still to come.

Most days, I can count my abundance of blessings and be happy. I forget about cancer entirely for weeks on end, and feel entirely healthy. But there’s a river of loss and anger running underneath.

Not sure if that’s ever going away entirely. We’ll see.

Please follow and like us:

Diwali

We celebrated Diwali for the first time today. It felt strange, to be honest. It’s originally a Hindu holiday, if I’m understanding right, celebrating Rama, Sita, and Lakshman returning from exile in the forest, the triumph of lightness over dark. My parents’ families converted to Catholicism many many generations back, due to Portuguese colonialism in Sri Lanka. I’m not religious at all (a cheerful agnostic), and neither is Kevin; neither are our children.

So we have no real connection to Diwali (or Deepavali, as I think it’s called in Tamil Nadu, where my many-times-removed ancestors would have come from). I felt awkward even saying the words, “Happy Diwali!” It’s not our holiday, and it feels weird to celebrate it, except as a guest at someone else’s party. I’ve joined Jewish friends for Seder, after all — it’s like that.

But not exactly. Because here I am, raising biracial children in America, and I know that unless I make some serious effort, Sri Lanka is going to drop away from them very quickly. I don’t speak Tamil anymore myself (though I understand quite a lot of it — I can follow much of the conversations when visiting older family). The children know a few words, which we have to remind them of. They eat almost none of the food. They’ve never been back home — of course, it’s not ‘home’ or ‘back’ to them.

It would be easier to let it all drop away, to let them shape their own American lives entirely. There’s an appeal to that — letting them find their own ways.

But I keep thinking — I’m brown. My children are somewhat brown too. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, they can pass for white, but at the end of summer, when they’ve been running around in the sun for months, their skin is almost as dark as my own. They’re going to encounter racism, in one form or another. They’re going to experience at least some of the negatives of being brown in America. I want them to have some of the positives of being brown too. I’d like knowledge of their mother’s heritage, our long, rich cultural history, to bring them joy. I want them to have good memories to stand as a bulwark against pain to come.

Diwali isn’t our celebration. But it was, once, long and long ago. Hundreds of years ago. Maybe it could be again.

We went to two parties today. My daughter and I dressed up in our fancy desi clothes and went to a potluck organized by South Asian families in our suburb. There are more and more of them every year — some of them ethnically blended families like our own. Please picture a Chicagoland suburban backyard filled with men and women in bright and colorful embroidered clothes. We were lucky enough to get tremendously mild weather for mid-October, so we filled the backyard, eating vegetarian curries, rice and roti, and plenty of sweets, traditional for Diwali. Dupattas fluttering in a gentle breeze. If you blinked your eyes a little, you could be in India. Or Sri Lanka. It was so beautiful.

In the evening, we had another party to go to, but my husband, Kevin, wasn’t feeling well. He’d been somewhat sick all day. My son didn’t want to go to a party — he wanted to stay in bed and play video games. And my daughter was tired from an afternoon running around in the park with her school friend. I could have cancelled and let them all stay home. But instead I insisted on them getting dressed up in our desi party clothes, Kavya and I loaded up with bangles, bindi, and plenty of sparkles, and we headed out together. We wouldn’t stay long, I promised them. Kevin looked kind of awful, and I felt very guilty.

But then we got to my friend’s house. She had done it up so beautifully. Masses of string lights in the windows, so that it shone from half a block away. The path to the door lined with diyas, little clay lamps she’d hand-painted, holding tea lights flickering against the night. A peacock rangoli she’d drawn on the ground — another traditional element. And inside, friends, delicious food, and more light. Lights everywhere, sparkling. Eventually, there might even be fireworks.

It was a gorgeous Diwali. It’s not my tradition…but maybe it could be, a little. Maybe I’ll bring the kids and join her to paint some diyas next year. I can tell them the story of the Ramayana — I told them a little bit in the car this time, just the good part, where the princes and princess return from their long exile, and there is great rejoicing.

For those in the diaspora, far from the homeland, Diwali may be the perfect holiday to celebrate, even hundreds of years later. A homecoming.

Happy Diwali.

 

Please follow and like us:

Feast

The cookbook, A Feast of Serendib, is off to the layout person. It was very hard letting it go. Writing the acknowledgements helped, though per usual, I am terrified that I have forgotten someone critical.

*****

Acknowledgements

This book is deeply indebted to all my readers, on Facebook and elsewhere, who offered advice, encouragement, test cooking, and demands for more recipes. It wouldn’t exist without you – thank you more than I can say.

Appreciation as well to friends and family who have been eating my food for decades, not hesitating to offer constructive criticism along with the compliments. ‘This is good, but maybe a little more lime juice next time?’ You made these dishes better. Special thanks to Aaron Lav, who answered many food science questions, and to Kat Tanaka Okopnik and my sweetie, Jed Hartman, who have given exceptional feedback over the years. The best feedback, of course, is watching them clean their plates and come back for seconds.

Special thanks to my Sri Lankan friends and relatives who answered questions from their own memories and experience cooking – my sisters, Mirna and Sharmila Mohanraj, Roshani Anandappa, Samanthi Hewakapuge, Suchetha Wijenayake, Sugi Ganeshananthan, Mythri Jegathesan, Rozanne Arulanandam, Elaine and Angeline Martyn, and all the rest. (Any Sri Lankan culture errors are my own.)

Thanks as well to my aunties, exceptional cooks, all. For all the times you insisted on my taking away another stuffed full bag of rolls or patties as I headed to the airport, I’m grateful. You’ll never know how much pleasure they brought.

Deep gratitude to my parents – to my mother, for her incredible cooking, of course, but also to my father, who was always ready to provide a mini-lecture on Sri Lankan Tamil culture and the beauty of our language. It can be challenging for any immigrant, maintaining a connection to homeland culture in the diaspora, but my parents always did their best to help us stay connected. I’m planning to take another stab at Tamil classes someday soon.

I also have to thank Kevin, for all the reasons, but mostly for the many days and nights when he cooked separate meals for the children, because they were suspicious of Mommy’s spicy food, especially once she’d started experimenting… Often they’d taste it, but teaching them to love the vast range of Sri Lankan dishes is an ongoing process. It’s getting better as they get older, but in the meantime, it’s a good thing Daddy can cook. Best of men, best of husbands. I’m lucky to have found you.

மீண்டும் சந்திப்போம்
meendum santhipom
we’ll meet again

Please follow and like us:

Redwood

Finished reading Celeste’s Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which everyone was talking about, it seemed. It was fine, but honestly, I was a little underwhelmed. The crisscrossing events seemed a little too neat for my taste, and the themes a bit heavy-handed. I had put down her earlier book to read this one for book club, but I think I liked the first one better. Everything I Never Told You was also quite a bit darker, at least as far as I’ve read.

But before I go back to that, re-reading Redwood and Wildfire, preparatory to teaching it. Trying to decide how much background material on minstrelsy / vaudeville / early cinema, etc. to give them at the start of the text. Maybe better to wait ’til the second class for that, let them experience the opening fresh. Oh, if only I could have them read each work twice — that would be ideal…

One of the things I’m hoping we can have is robust discussion of is how we create social change. We’re coming out of the early 70s feminist SF texts, which often had a brutal, despairing tone to them. Here is a dystopian vision of the future, which is mostly just what women are already dealing with, brought out into the open. Or here is an alternative future, where women are living together in relative harmony, but men are about to come along and destroy it, etc. Often those texts didn’t offer any kind of road map for actually creating a better future — they focused on throwing the problems into sharp relief, bringing them into the light. (Certainly useful, and one could see the #metoo movement as part of that thread.)

But in Hairston’s book, I think there’s an argument for collective storytelling as a means of dreaming a better America, seeing a future that takes us where we want to go, transcending the social / cultural / gendered limitations of the present day. Can I connect that to the way Will & Grace set the stage for the Defense of Marriage Act passing? Maybe…

Please follow and like us:

Book Sale!

Book Sale: I’m clearing out my basement; everything must go! Happy to sign any books ordered. Many of these have just one or two copies available, so please e-mail Chris (christophermpencehybrid22@gmail.com) with your order, and he’ll let you know if the books are available.

Shipping note: Please add on $5 shipping + handling per order domestic U.S., $10 international. So for example, if you want a signed hardcover copy of Bodies in Motion sent to Seattle, that would be $13.

Books I wrote:

Bodies in Motion, dust jacketed hardcover (Sri Lankan American immigrant stories): $8

A Taste of Serendib (first edition of cookbook): $5

The Poet’s Journey (children’s picture book): $5

Torn Shapes of Desire (my first book of erotic fiction and poetry): $3

Colombo Chicago (hardcover, French edition of Bodies in Motion): $5

Tela U Pokretu (Serbian edition of Bodies in Motion): $3

*****

Books I’m in:

Lowball (large format paperback) (Wild Cards anthology): $5

Chicks Dig Gaming (essays): $5

Out!: Stories from the New Queer India (fiction): $5

Catamaran #9 (South Asian literary magazine): $2

Please follow and like us:

Wine Bar

Yes, I’m now the mom trying to figure out when the new Target down the street is opening because my son almost couldn’t find pants this morning even though we did laundry all weekend (he ripped through at least three pairs last week). We found clean pants eventually, but I am seriously looking forward to being able to walk over to Target and I just want to know why Targets don’t have wine bars like Mariano’s because I am telling you, it would make it the hot new mom meet-up spot in downtown Oak Park. If they had a little drop-off play place for the littles like IKEA, they would make BANK.
 
On the one hand, I am amused that this is my life now. On the other hand, I was watching Kavi load the dishwasher after eating breakfast this morning, before heading out to the bus, and I thought, this is the happiest I have ever been, happier than book deals, happier than Disneyland. This is my best life.
Please follow and like us: