What a delight to chat with world traveler and book lover Carol Yee about her favorite book. “The World Unseen” is a slim love story that manages to touch on racial, sexual, and political tensions, while somehow manages to also be a compelling love story. We also discuss how travel and reading are similar, and the rules of Turkish coffee.
One note about our conversation: Carol and I use the word “colored” a lot in the context of the book, which is the correct terminology for the time and place this book is set. When Carol and I talk about this term, we are, in fact, discussing the ridiculousness of these complex and nonsensical forms of racist distinctions. We talk about the traditions of a culture we are unfamiliar with, and grapple with the social implications of such distinctions, and, as always, marvel at the way fiction can bring us to the truths of the lives of other people.
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Guest: Carol Yee
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Discussed in this episode
The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif
Welcome Back to Abuja Once Again: How I Became a Citizen of the World by Carol J. Yee
Georgetown University Book Creators Program
The World Unseen (Movie)
I Can’t Think Straight (Movie)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif
Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif
The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif
The Shadow Mission by Shamim Sarif
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Carol Yee, a lover of books and a lifelong world traveler. Carol’s Best Book Ever is The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif, a slim book full of political, racial, sexual, and gender tensions about Indian women who fall in love in 1950s, Apartheid era South Africa. And despite all of those themes, this book still manages to be tender and lovely and uplifting. I know you’re going to love it.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Carol. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Carol Yee: Hi Julie. Thank you for having me.
JS: I’m really excited to talk to you. In your bio, you say that you, and I’m going to quote this here, because I really like it, “I’m a lifelong traveler who will go miles out of my way to eat at a recommended restaurant or visit an obscure cultural site.” First of all, as someone who has done that, driven miles off the highway so that I can get to a little taco truck somewhere or food cart somewhere that no one else has heard of, I’m a big fan of that kind of travel. I want to ask you about your traveling life. How did you become so curious about the world?
CY: I think it was my parents. My father in particular, he had done a lot of reading as a child. He’d read, you know, about Timbuktu and central Asia and everything. And I think he just kind of infected me. My first plane ride was to Disneyland. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, went to Disneyland and fell in love with It’s a Small World. And I think that was it.
JS: Is that how you became a reader yourself? Did you inherit your Dad’s love of reading.
CY: Yeah. I think both of my parents loved to read. We were always at the library. I remember as a kid curling up and telling my mom, oh, just one more chapter, one more chapter. You know what I mean? I don’t remember the first book, but I think they were always around. I was probably read to as a child and then started reading all my own stuff. I love books, as you can see behind me. I have tons of books in my house.
JS: You travel for work and for pleasure, is this correct?
JS: Which one do you like better?
CY: Both. Because I’ve traveled to different places for work. I traveled to kind of obscure, dangerous places. I’ve been to Afghanistan and West Africa, Mozambique, Cambodia, China, Philippines, you know, those types of places for work. And then when I travel for pleasure, I tend to go to Tuscany or Iceland. So I get the best of both worlds.
JS: What type of travel that you like? I mean, I can imagine that you’re the type of person who likes an all-in-one resort where, you know, there are food buffets everyday. Or do you, is that your kind of travel that you enjoy?
CY: No, I don’t like that type of travel and I’m not your shoestring budget traveler. So, you know, I’m a upper middle class professional, so, unfortunately, that’s the type of travel I like to do. I stay in nice places, I oftentimes, especially when I’m traveling for work, I oftentimes am by myself, I’ll hire a driver to take me places because I’m not the type that I’ll just get on a bus by myself and go into the hinterlands. I am concerned about safety, but I also want to see things, so I do it the way I can. But I also love to go to a place and stay for a while, like in an apartment or agritourism, a place in, Italy, for example, and stay for a couple of weeks so that you can kind of really get to know the place. Recently I saw some book where this woman had written about her travels, and she had gone to 70 countries in like a year or something like that. And that’s not the travel I want to do. I want to really learn about the place. I want to meet the people. I want to experience the foods.
JS: What has surprised you most about being, particularly being a solo traveler, which is a whole different ball game, I think, than traveling with family or friends. What surprises you about traveling?
CY: I mean, you really have to think on your feet, because you don’t know what circumstances you’re going to run into. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine, but you never know. I was in Moscow for about six weeks for work one year and I wanted to go to St. Petersburg. I mean, that’s where you go for the Hermitage and things like that. At the time, you had to take a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It was overnight. And at that time, theives, were breaking into sleeping cars on the train, even if you tried to lock it. And that scared me. So to this day, I’ve never been to St. Petersburg because I didn’t feel comfortable enough. And some people, you know, they’re like, oh, it won’t ever happen to me. And sometimes it doesn’t, but you never know. And I’m a bit more cautious, especially when I’m traveling alone, then some people I know.
JS: How do your travels influenced your reading life?
CY: Oh, they go hand in hand. I mean, right now, during COVID, obviously I can’t travel and I miss it. So what I do is I read about other places. I watch Scandinavian murder mystery series. I watch foreign movies. I listen to foreign music. I mean, to me, they let me explore the world without leaving my living room. And so, even when I travel, I do a lot of preparation for where I’m going or just to learn about other places. Cause I just love to really learn and experience. what other cultures are like. Oftentimes I go to ethnic restaurants where I live because I can. Yes, they may not be exactly like their home country, but I mean, I can get a sense of what that food tastes like. So to me, reading is just another avenue to explore.
JS: I find that what we’re exposed to here is in America is very limited to American and often British authors. You know, the bestseller lists are always American and British authors, and it’s always so funny to me, not funny, but interesting to me to go to bookstores in other countries and go, there are writers in Scotland? I had no idea that people wrote in Scotland, I thought only Americans wrote! So then I come home with a handful of books from Canadians or from Scottish writers, or what have you. Do you find that traveling a lot also influences the voices of the authors that you read?
CY: Yeah. For example, in an American bookstore, you can’t find that many African writers there, the few that you can find that are well-known. But if you go to South Africa and you go to the mall and to the bookshop, there are tons of authors you’ve never heard of. And so, yes, I also bring home a bunch of books from those places. I mean, not all countries. Like in Afghanistan, you don’t go to a bookstore and find Afghan writing. You’ll have to look for them here in America where, if you’re interested in these types of books, you kind of learn about them along the way.
JS: Many people don’t travel for a lot of personal reasons. Very often it’s financial, but it’s also because they’re afraid of traveling alone, or afraid of bringing children to certain places, they don’t know other languages, they can’t figure out how they would get a car. So they say, no, no, I’m going to stay here in my hometown. What are your recommendations for becoming a citizen of the world when there are those kinds of resistances?
CY: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s interesting because many of the people I know we will get on a plane anywhere, any day. You want me to get on tonight, I’ll pack my bag and go to the airport, but there are a lot of people that are hesitant. And it amazes me because it’s like, why aren’t you interested as well? I mean, I don’t understand it. But then it’s like, okay, it’s true. They may be afraid. They may not be comfortable. They may not know where to go. They may not know how to do anything. And actually, I wrote a book called Welcome Back to Abuja Once Again: How I Became a Citizen of the World that was published in December of last year, that is part memoir. And it talks about the different places I’ve been to. It talks about food and different cultures and technology, how it’s changed and evolved over the years. But it’s also a book to try to make these people, the people that are less comfortable about traveling, especially overseas, but even in the U.S., make them more comfortable about how they can prepare and get to be comfortable enough to get on the plane. So a lot of it is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s reading from your living room. It’s getting not just travel guide books, but you know, books about the history of a place or the literature about from that place. It’s also looking at TV programs and movies and things like that, to just try to get more comfortable about foreign country so that you can get on a plane. And you know, if your first trip you want to go on a tour, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter how you do it. But I believe that for most people, not everybody, because I have an uncle who hated to travel would never travel even though my mother would jump on a plane at any time, but most people, once they start traveling, they’re going to get the travel bug. And yes, they may only ever go to Europe. They may never go to, you know, Southeast Asia, for example, because that’s too foreign to them. But just getting out of their home environment will expose them to different things and and change how they view both America and the world.
JS: What, what prompted you to write the book?
CY: I actually started writing the book maybe about eight years ago. I happened to be working for a company who had had projects internationally, but the genesis of the company was very domestically oriented. I wanted to provide some of my colleagues at that company with a way for them to be more comfortable working in the international world, because some of them had never gone overseas or worked overseas. So it was trying to find a way to make them more comfortable about working overseas, let alone traveling overseas. I wanted to show what it is like to go to a foreign country, someplace you may not have been to and get plopped in andwork there for two or four or six weeks, and how you have to interact with people. People who may be very different from you. When you’re in a Muslim country, then men might not shake my hand as a woman. Initially I was very offended by that. You know, I was a young woman then. How dare you not shake my hand? Until you start understanding more their culture and their religion and that they weren’t offending. I mean, they were offending me, but it was part of their culture that this is how they had to act. And I needed to accept it if I want it to be in their culture, because I was now a guest in their culture. It wasn’t like they were here, you know, in America and they were guests. So when you travel, you are a guest in their culture, whether you’re in Paris, you know, you don’t want to be the loud American demanding things because you are in another culture and they do things differently. And so I started working on the book. But I didn’t get very far, and, as you said, life intruded and things like that. But last year I got into a program through Georgetown called the Book Creators Program.
And within a year, I was able to publish this book through Book Creators. After about five months, and then they had a sister organization called New Degree press, and they’re the ones that actually published the books. So that took about another five or six months.
JS: Oh, how interesting. I’ve never heard of that before. Carol, do you remember how you found this book that we’re talking about today? The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif?
CY: I believe I found the movie first. She has done several movies now, but she has two movies, this one, The World Unseen, that takes place in South Africa in the 1950s. And she has another movie called I Can’t Think Straight. And what’s interesting is in the movie, the two actresses are the same actresses, but their roles are reversed. One is more thoughtful in one movie and one is more aggressive. And in the other movie, they reversed the roles. One is now the more outgoing one and the outgoing one is more docile. I watched the movie and then I had to read the books and I just love both of the books. But The World Unseen, to me, was so interesting. And this is what I find about books and reading is that you can dive into a culture and a time and a place and learn so much about what life was like at that particular point, because I was not in South Africa in the 1950s. I mean, the first time I went to South Africa was around 2012 or something like that. I knew about apartheid obviously, but I didn’t really know how it affected day-to-day life. I didn’t know anything about the Indian community in South Africa, even though I knew there were Indians there. I didn’t know anything about what they called the colored community, which we will find offensive, but it’s actually people of mixed races, they’re not neither Indian nor that are they white. Then how a gay person – we assume the main character is gay, even though they don’t exactly reveal that, but you can gather from her actions and what she – how she does things. How a gay person grows up as an independent woman in a traditional Indian culture, in a repressive South African culture, and how she makes her way and how she can be a role model to others around her. So all of those different aspects were just fascinating to me, because it revealed something that I had no idea about, but it revealed it in a way that I was right there with Amina and Miriam as they conducted their lives.
JS: There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where white cops are yelling at Jacob, who is in a café, and they’re yelling at him that Blacks aren’t allowed at the whites’ counter and he says, I’m not Black; I’m Colored. And then the Indian woman, Amina, who cones the cafe, she says there aren’t whites here, look around. We’re all Indians. I thought that scene was so good because it highlighted the complexity of this color system that is set up. When Jacob said I’m not black, I’m colored and the cop said okay, you’re fine then. I started thinking that if we lived in a world where apartheid had never happened and where, for example, slavery and segregation and mass incarceration hadn’t happened in our country. Like, suppose we had never dealt with those things. I’m a fiction writer. If I sat down and wrote that out, there’s a country where, if you’re black, it’s this rule, but if you’re colored, it’s this rule – all of my fiction writing friends would say, This is nonsense. This is crazy. You’ve gone too far. It’s too weird. Humans don’t act like that.
CY: Yes. And see, if we hadn’t read this, or watched the movie, we wouldn’t have any clue about it. Right? And so we could say, well, no, there’s no way there could be a place like that. But now that we’ve been exposed to it, we have a better understanding and we see how it affects people and still affects people to this day. Even though apartheid is gone. I mean, you talk about Jacob. I mean, he is a very upright, quiet man. And he likes the postmistress, who’s white. And why can’t these two older people have a relationship? And companionship? But it’s not allowed because one’s white and one’s colored. And yes, I read about this intellectually, but to see how it plays out – and I suggest you watch the movie, now that you like the book, to see how it plays out in terms of how he feels, how the postmistress feels. I mean, it’s just sad. It’s like these two people are just attracted to each other and just want to be together.
JS: And that they have to navigate such narrow passages. The fact that he has to stop and say, I’m not black, I’m colored, whatever that means.
CY: That means mixed-race. At the time in South Africa, they actually still use the term colored now. It’s not America, right? So [the cops] were all, it’s okay, because it is another shade of brown. So you have the whites still, you have the Indians still, and you have the black people, and then you have these mixed race people, which are in a different category. So they call them colored. And, and as an American, when we read about this, or we go to South Africa and see it, we’re appalled. So in my book I talk about “colored” and I knew that people would be upset by it. So I had to put a note in about why I used the word colored and what it means.
JS: It’s another one of those cultural differences that I thought she did so well, just putting us in the middle of. It just made me understand the emotional toll, I think, of having to navigate that all the time. It sounds exhausting. Even Amina, who there some hint that maybe, well, it’s not a hint, but it’s sort of a rumor in the community, but then we find out that it’s true that she does have a black person in her heritage. And I just thought that watching these characters navigate these rules, God, it was just exhausting. And I mean, terrible goes without saying yeah.
CY: I mean, okay. We’re reading fiction here, but that’s what real people have to do day in, day out. And this is the power of good fiction.
JS: I also liked – given that this is a book podcast, I have to bring this up – how the relationship between Amina and Miriam sort of hinges on the exchange of books. I was very charmed by that. I thought that was an absolute delight and, and I liked, especially, the one scene where Miriam sends a book to Amina cause she has no way to get to her. The book is Little Women, which is a beloved book, and it sort of follows the journey of the book, which kind of got held up at the post office for a while, and then the postmistress spilled ink on it. And I was just very charmed and moved by the power of the case of books in the basement and that kind of thing. It was, it was a nice little addition.
JS: So a lot of the reviews of this book that I read, they call this a lesbian romance, but I’m not really sure I would call it that. Especially given the sort of ambiguous ending. What would you call the genre of this book?
CY: I mean, I think it became a lesbian romance because we wanted it to be a lesbian romance. I mean, you know, at the time it was published there wasn’t so many lesbian books out there. So whenever you found one, even if it was a hint, you glommed onto it. And so I think that’s why it became ended up being a lesbian romance because we wanted it to be.
JS: That’s another thing she was very good at is the buildup of tension in very small, subtle events that happen in these characters’ lives. And I found myself turning the pages as fast as I could. Cause I had to see! I was so afraid of what was going to come of everything.
CY: But it’s interesting, you know, like her and other authors. She’s not writing about startling, bang, bang, crashings, but yet you want to just keep reading. I think when I got the book, I think I read it in the night, maybe two days, but I couldn’t put it down either. It’s just everyday life that they were living through, but yet she made it that you want to keep reading. And were sad when it ended.
JS: Have you read other books by Shamim Sarif?
CY: Yes, I think I’ve read all of her books. She has three adult books. I Can’t Think Straight, The World Unseen, and the other one, I always forget the name of it. It’s a little different. It’s still about a lesbian but it is about Russian spies they come to the U.S. I mean, I don’t know how she ended up doing that because with the other two, you know, she’s of Indian heritage and her partner is of Palestinian heritage. You can understand where those two stories come from. And then she actually has two young adult books, that are like spy thrillers. A group of middle-aged women who are renting these young women as spies. And they’re kind of the Robin Hood types. They’re going to, you know, help save women around the world. And those are really interesting. It was called The Athena Protocol. And I can’t remember what the other one’s called, [The Shadow Mission] but I love her writing. I just find it fascinating and I get drawn in.
JS: And you’re also working on a book for young people now, aren’t you?
CY: Yes. I’m working on a book with the working title “Andy Wong Cultural Whisperer.” And what I wanted to do, it’s a middle grade book. Young readers, 8 to 12. And what I wanted to do was take some of the themes of Welcome Back to Abuja Once Again, and turn it into a story for young people. So it’s about a little Chinese American girl who has a friend who’s a Palestinian American boy, and then a white girl from the Midwest happens to move in next door. And it’s trying to expose Corina as a white girl to new cultures and new foods. Corina is a bit hesitant because she grew up in a fairly, small town that’s mainly white, although there are Native Americans or American Indians there as well, but she doesn’t really see them until she’s studying other cultures and learning about other places. It’s the journey of what Andy, her name is Andrea but she goes by Andy, what she is passionate about, is learning about the world and wanting to share that with everybody around. She can’t understand it when Corina is not interested. And she’s taken that on as a mission to expose Corrina.
JS: So much of your exploration of the world is based around food.
CY: Yeah, anyone that knows me says that.
JS: What’s your most interesting food travel experience?
CY: I was working in the West Bank in Gaza. We went to a Palestinian farmer’s house for lunch. And so, we all had to sit on the floor and the wife brought out this big, huge silver platter that was just full of lamb and rice, and it had yogurt sauce on it and everything. And we had to sit on the floor and eat with our hands. This rice and lamb. And, it was just wonderful, obviously because it was home-cooked and everything, and they probably just slaughtered the lamb. And then afterwards, you probably know Turkish coffee, the very strong stuff. Well, most of the time when you have Turkish coffee, they put a lot of sugar in it, but after a heavy meal like that, they serve a Turkish coffee with no sugar. And it’s like, puts hair on your chest, but that’s what they do after eating such a heavy meal. So after this huge lamb meal, then they came out and served us this Turkish coffee. And that’s probably the most memorable meal I’ve ever had.
JS: And did you, did you drink at all the coffee?
CY: Well, they come in little cups. But yeah, I did because that was the thing to do.
JS: Okay. Here’s my question about Turkish coffee. I’ve only had it once at a Turkish restaurant and I was too shy to ask the rules, but the cup had a good half inch of grounds at the bottom,
CY: They call that the sludge.
JS: Do you drink that part?
JS: Okay. I did not know. So I took my little spoon, and I just ate it and I was like, this is awful. This sludgy stuff. I don’t think I slept for a week after that.
CY: If you read Welcome Back to Abuja Once Again, you’ll learn how to drink Turkish Coffee. When you start feeling the grittiness on your tongue you’re getting towards the end. If you’re in a restaurant, they’ll ask you how sweet you want it. When I drink American coffee, I drink it black. So when I drink Turkish coffee, it’s like, no way am I going to drink a black, unless I have a huge lamb meal beforehand. So I always say medium because I don’t know, I don’t want to choose sweet, but I don’t want it too sweet. So I just say medium and whatever comes out because a lot of times what I do over there is different than what I do here.
JS: Carol, will you tell my listeners, what are you reading these days? What’s on your nightstand?
CY: So actually, because I’m writing this middle grade book, I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade books. And so right now, we were talking about whether children’s books can talk about food or not. I’m reading All Four Stars, where this 11-year-old is a gourmet cook, but because she almost burns down her house when she takes a blow torch to make crème brulee, she’s banished from cooking. And so she’s going to become a food critic. Which I think is just, it’s fun. I mean, I don’t even want to be on this podcast. I want to be reading. That’s what I’m currently reading and it’s a really fun book.
JS: Have you read middle-grade or YA before, or is this a new genre for you?
CY: I read a little bit a while before, but I really haven’t read middle grade. So when I first got back into this, because I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how middle-grade kids speak or anything. So I thought I’d better read. But I started off reading things that I had read as a child. So I read Charlotte’s Web and From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. But then I realized I needed to meet more current stuff. So that’s where I’ve been reading a lot of. And I’ve been reading a lot of stories by people of color, just because I am trying to write into that genre. So like, The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang was something I read recently. And that was about a Chinese girl that’s plopped into a white town in Ohio, and how she had to cope with. being in a white world. She had grown up in Chinatown in Boston, before they moved here, and her principal name renamed her an American name. And then all the kids think she’s snotty because whenever they call her name, she doesn’t respond, because she doesn’t know that they’re calling her.
JS: Where can my listeners find you and your work?
CY: You can buy my book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo. But I have a website, CarolJYee.com where you can find out more about me and my book and my upcoming books, as well as any events that I have coming up. I mean, it’s harder now because of COVID because I can’t go to bookstores to do book signings, but I’ve had book launches of virtual ones in the past. And so they might happen again in the future.
JS: Carol, this was really a delight talking to you. And I want to thank you for introducing me to this book, which I had never heard of and hadn’t come across in my own reading life. And it was really wonderful to read. And I want to thank you. And I would love to have you back anytime you have a book you want to tell me about.
CY: thank you very much. I really enjoyed talking to you and I’m really glad you enjoyed the book.
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