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May 10, 2021
By PW Staff

Four books were selected by a panel of guest judges as the finalists for the 2020 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest. One title was chosen from each of the following genres: Self-Help/Relationships, Memoir/Autobiography, Inspirational/Spiritual,  and Business/Personal Finance. Here we meet the finalists who are each now in-the-running for the grand prize, which will be announced on May 24.

Self-Help/Relationships

I Hear Some People Just Have Sex (An Infertility Memoir with an Ambiguous Ending) by Sandra Vasher

What the judge said: “What an engaging read. I have never struggled with infertility but found myself unable to put down this honest and compassionate memoir about pregnancy and love and learning to survive the unimaginable. Sandra Vashar's voice is so human, I felt that I knew her by the last page of the book. It's filled with important information and valuable guidance, but also with humor and support and kindness.” - Celeste Headlee

How did you find a balance between telling your own story and providing guidance for others who might be facing infertility?

It was important to me for my story to serve as more than just venting, and I wanted to be helpful to other people. Infertility guidance is tricky, though, because no one's experience is the same as any other's. So I tried to focus each chapter on a few broad lessons I had learned and that I thought might apply to other people, and I used my own story to illustrate how those lessons played out in my life.

As you were experiencing all that you write about in your book, where did you yourself look to for support, guidance, and wisdom?

Therapy! (Partly kidding.) Really, though, infertility can be so lonely, and initially I isolated myself from my friends, family, and even my husband as I dealt with everything. Then later I realized what a mistake that was, and I became a lot better at letting in friends who were willing to listen and those who could help me get out of my head. My husband and I grew a lot together, too, and I think we have become each other's best support system. We are far better now at failing, succeeding, and learning together.

Your storytelling is so warm, candid, and funny. How do you think you managed to write so openly about such a painful topic?

Actually, this book was easier for me to write than almost anything else I've written because all I had to do was organize my thoughts and be honest about my story. Then it was cathartic to let everything pour out onto the page. I wish my fiction would spill out that way! I had a lot of material, though, so I think that helped. I also believe in the power of vulnerability and letting go of shame, especially when it comes to infertility. Because yes, infertility is a painful topic, but it's not as painful when talking about it can make life better for someone else.

When did you first decide to write the book and why?

It didn't seem like the right time for me to write this book for a long time, and I wasn't sure I was the right person. Then, exactly when I thought my infertility journey was about to end childless, I got pregnant, and it turned out to be a very high-risk pregnancy. So at that point I realized I needed to write the book before the baby was born, while infertility was still very much a part of my life, and while I was still in touch with how it felt not to know if I would ever have children. I'm glad I took the chance to write and publish it when I did! It would have been challenging to do with a newborn.

Any plans to publish the memoir traditionally?

I'd love to see this book traditionally published, but I don't have any plans at the moment.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on an audiobook version of I Hear Some People Just Have Sex, and I'm plugging away at my teen sci-fi/fantasy series, the Mortal Heritance, which I also indie publish. I'm hoping to get the third book in that series published in the fall.

Memoir

Generation Zero by Sabreet Kang Rajeev

What the judge said: “In Generation Zero, Sabreet Kang Rajeev explores not just the South Asian immigrant experience, but the weight of having disappointed her father by being born a girl and the toxicity of so-called “positive stereotypes” that kept her working class family in a kind of hiding and shame. The particular beauty of this book lies in its contradictions and intersections, as Kang Rajeev empathically depicts the heroism and nobility of her immigrant parents, despite having carried the burden of feeling unwanted due to her gender. Both timely and timeless, the once 'voiceless' Kang Rajeev’s incredibly intimate voice is a gift.” - Gina Frangello

When did you start writing Generation Zero? Did you always plan for it to be a published memoir, or did you initially write it as a more personal project?

Generation Zero started off as a personal project to understand my immigrant roots. There was a two year stretch in my life where I read almost every immigrant nonfiction book or memoir I could find. Every single book I read, instead of feeling connected, I felt isolated. I was trying to understand how to feel both American and Indian, but the lack of representation made me feel invisible. I could not shake off this feeling that I needed to do something about it. I realized that I needed to write a book. 

Despite the hardships that you recount in your book, there’s more a tone of gratitude pervading the sections than there is bitterness. How did you achieve this?

As a Sikh woman, appreciation runs deeply throughout my soul.  Regardless of the experiences my parents and I have faced in America, we knew that the grass really isn’t greener on the other side. To understand that failure is part of the process of being an immigrant and is something my father has taught me. There was never a problem that wasn’t too big or too small that we couldn’t solve if we had each other. Every sorrow helped us appreciate our joyous moments more. 

You write a lot about parental pressures and the push for perfection, which I think many readers will relate to. How have you ultimately reconciled others’ ideas of what your life should become with your own needs and expectations?

In short because I did not fit into my Indian and American identities and always wondered why. Having a hyphenated identity made me realize early on that I was different. My Indian identity isolated me because I did fit into the “Smart Indian” model minority myth. What I discovered as I tried to figure out my identity was that the larger battle was between my self image and others’ perception of me, including my parents. No community or person could truly understand what it felt to be me. Since I couldn’t perfectly be enough of these identities, the parental pressures I felt for perfection seemed foolish. 

Can you talk specifically about the stresses that accompany adapting to new cultural expectations while also holding on to those of the old?

My parents, like many immigrants, felt a duty to provide financial security for their family—both their current family and their future children who had not yet been born, my brother and me. Fulfilling that duty required a great sacrifice: leaving India and immigrating to a new country. As the child of immigrant parents, sacrifice and commitment to one’s duty is typically the primary—and often only—way you see love expressed. This results in a mindset that love is something you earn (by fulfilling your duty and making sacrifices) not something you’re given just for being born. 

One of the qualities of Generation Zero that’s striking is your ability to both critique and empathize with your family members. Was this a challenge to write honestly about their circumstances and feelings?

The chapter "Hidden Pain" had a million and one revisions. I went back and forth with my editors about removing or keep that part in. Ultimately I realized that as I critique members of my family, I paint one narrative. By not providing details on how they have felt would be a story about my truth alone. There are multiple ways to view any one event. Trying to understand the full picture is more time consuming but gives us the beauty of understanding the full picture and how there are multiple sides to any one event or lived experiences in a family.

What was the experience like piecing together your family history? What were some of the greatest surprises you encountered in the process?

Piecing together my family’s history was like playing Jumanji. There were so many intricacies that I could honestly write a trilogy for each member of my family. Learning about my family’s history was the biggest emotional adventure I have ever experienced. What surprised me during my journey was how much I empathized and understood every decision my parents have ever made. It was through this journey that I realized that my parents are humans first and my parents after.

What do you hope readers—particularly those who might feel ‘voiceless’ themselves—ultimately take away from reading Generation Zero?

I hope my readers feel empowered to look within themselves to understand the experiences that make them unique. Never feel embarrassed or ashamed of the traumas you have experienced.  You are beautiful and brave. Learn to invest in your relationship with yourself as much as you invest in the relationships you have other others. Love your flaws and strengths and realize the only way to end your suffering is to let your inner voice shine through by becoming self-aware of everything that makes you, well, you.

Inspirational/Spiritual

How Are You Feeling, Momma? (You Don’t Have to Say "I'm Fine") by Shelby Spear and Lisa Leshaw

What the judge said: "I appreciated Spear’s and Leshaw’s commitment to offering this work as a joint gift to moms. Their different faith backgrounds enriched the reflections and was an example of real-life unity in relationship. In a time where many Americans are divided along the religious and political spectrums, it was refreshing to receive their words. As a momma myself, I found the short chapters honest, approachable, and catalysts of meaningful personal reflection. Thank you, Shelby and Lisa, for creating a work that stitches us closer together in a time of such unraveling.” - Ashlee Eiland

I'd love to know more about the origins of your book. How did you come to write it together?

Spear: After forming a beautiful online friendship, I asked Lisa to join me on a 31-day online writing challenge in 2018 called Psalms for Moms. (She'll try to convince you that I coerced her.) The idea was something God whispered to me during meditation. Since Lisa is Jewish and I am Christian, the Psalms were a perfect reference as we lamented over the many emotions of motherhood in our written reflections. The challenge was so well-received by mommas on Facebook that we decided to compile all the reflections into a book. Lisa and I have yet to meet in person, so we crafted the entire book project remotely.

Leshaw: Truth be told, Shelby coerced me after reading one of my stories in Guideposts magazine and a number in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her coercion was so gracious that I couldn't say no.

How did you select the psalms you included? Do you each have a favorite that particularly guides or resonates with you?

Spear: As God would have it, my Bible has a chart in the Psalms that lists 31 emotions tied to a specific psalm scripture. Many of our psalms came from that reference, and the rest are hand-picked verses we felt captured the essence of the emotion discussed.

Leshaw: Shelby is the psalm whisperer and the chooser of the psalms. If I pick my favorite, she'll likely engage me in a thought-provoking dialogue to try and ascertain the reasons behind my choice. I'll stay within my safe zone by saying that every one of the 31 psalms in our book reached me in my core.

If you had to distill the book down to one message for moms, what do you think it would be?

Spear: There isn't a mother on earth who doesn't struggle or feel overwhelmed with emotions, so we gain nothing by pretending to be fine when we're not. It's okay not to be okay. It's okay to be honest about how we feel because that's when healing begins. God always knows what's in our hearts anyway and is ready to help.

Leshaw: No one is doing it any better than you despite your perceptions otherwise. Motherhood often requires superhuman strength. Together, as a sisterhood, we generate the stamina needed to sustain ourselves.

The past year has been so challenging for so many moms. Do you see any silver linings for families who have made it through the worst of the lockdowns?

Spear: I am hopeful moms realize their worth and genuinely believe they are more than enough for their kids. Under normal circumstances, we spend far too much time beating ourselves up and holding onto toxic guilt instead of recognizing all the positive things we do for our children. Hopefully, managing a family during a pandemic proves we are stronger and more capable than we give ourselves credit for while also shining a light on how our kids are stronger and more resilient than we may have imagined.

Leshaw: To me, seeing ourselves and our children adapt to such challenging, surreal times and being here to talk about it is a testament to our resilience. We'll carry this life lesson into our futures and be stronger for it.

Mothers often feel as though they need to 'power through' challenges without expressing their feelings of frustration, fear, or anxiety. Is there power to be found in not having all the answers and not always being "fine?"

Spear: I believe there is tremendous power in being vulnerable and transparent about how we feel because choosing to embrace our authentic self is cleansing and life-giving. Pretending and 'powering through' at the expense of our real emotions only depletes us and can lead to more hopelessness. Validating our emotions creates space for other moms to feel seen and heard, which ultimately empowers all of us because we realize we aren't alone in our struggles.

Leshaw: We owe ourselves authenticity. That comes in being honest about where we're at emotionally and spiritually. And admitting when we're lost. Not having every answer can lead to a truth-seeking journey. Mothers don't need to have all the answers. Sometimes our children have them; sometimes our friends; always God

Do you plan to write more together?

Spear: Absolutely! We have also discussed starting a podcast for moms called TALEgate, which would be a place to gather and share real and raw stories about motherhood.

Leshaw: I have never been so confident in anything. There will be a second book. Perhaps with quotes from the Torah.

 

Business/Personal Finance

Rough Diamonds by Wilfried Vanhonacker

What the judge said: “My favorite book among the semifinalists is Rough Diamonds. I’ve been watching the open education movement grow, and I sit on an advisory committee for a post-graduate communications program, so I care about the topic of education. I also think it’s a particularly timely topic, as we are all taking a closer look at our education systems and how students learn. Dr. Vanhonacker emphasizes that the goal of post-secondary institutions should be to create lifelong learners who can think critically and adapt to new situations. Even in the span of my career, I’ve seen many “hard skills” replaced by AI, and that rate of replacement is getting faster and faster. 

 I also appreciate that Dr. Vanhonacker isn’t afraid to poke at the core pillars of post-secondary education, from the way campuses are designed to the pedagogies professors adopt. There isn’t a better time to turn education on its head, and this book spotlights the areas we need to overturn first." - Kiirsten May 

Can you share a bit about your background as a student, academic, and business professional?

 I grew up in Belgium in a large family. My siblings and I were the first generation in my entire family to get an education beyond high school. But my parents gave us all the educational opportunities they could afford, and then some they barely could. I was very fortunate in the opportunities I had during my academic career, and I made them count in every way I could for myself, my colleagues, and my students. I lived an academic career that most could only dream about. I had my hands in building two new business schools and was dean of both of them: CEIBS in Shanghai (Chia) and MSM SKOLKOVO in Moscow (Russia). Today, CEIBS is the leading business school in China and MSM SKOLKOVO is the leading private business school in Russia. 

You write in the book that the ideas you present about our current system of education were formed long before Covid. Nevertheless, what are some lessons that we might take away from the last year?

Crises typically do two things: they accelerate history, and they expose cracks that were already there but that are now visible for all to see. Both are huge challenges for education. On one hand, the future is a lot closer now, and we have no time to waste getting ready for it. On the other we need to fix many things but do it with a mindset that is inspired by the future and not one that is frozen in the past. 

What are some of the lessons we can draw so far?

  • We should not let our past take us hostage. Most educational institutions see the pandemic as just a logistical challenge to their delivery model. They fail to see it as an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
  • We should refocus on our core responsibility: equipping the students in our classes today for the future.
  • We should not just focus on straightening the dominos where they got knocked over. We need to pick them up and see what new pattern we need to put them in.
  • We are ill prepared for fragility events such as a pandemic. We need to future-proof it as well as make it intelligent and agile. What is coming is not a new normal but a new abnormal.

For those who haven’t yet read the book, can you explain what you see as some of the primary flaws in our current model of education? What are some fundamental changes that need to happen going forward?

I see seven changes that need to be made in our current model and approach to formal education. We need to move:

  • from efficient delivery to effective learning
  • from a teacher-centric model to a student-centric model
  • from standardized delivery to adapted delivery
  • from vertical, one-way delivery to horizontal, co-learning
  • from passive to active student engagement
  • from discrete, disjointed assessment to continuous, unobtrusive assessment, and
  • from mechanical matching to intelligent matching

But we cannot approach any of these with our current, ingrained mindset. We need to fundamentally shift to a lifelong learning mindset, and from there re-engineer formal education. We have a long  way to go because, as I write in my book, education has outsourced the learning part to the students. We need to come back from that.

What does ‘critical thinking’ mean to you in our current era of excess information?

'Critical thinking' refers to an ability to think in an independent and inquisitive manner. As I write in my book, one also needs to know the tools and techniques of scientific rigor to become fully information literate. One needs to understand and be able to assess source credibility, convergent validity, false equivalence, etc. Hence, we need a mindset that is critical and inquisitive, and we need a toolbox to help us separate fact from fiction in the misinformation cyclones that are circling around us.

Who would you envision as your ideal reader? (Or who do you believe can most benefit from reading your book?)

We all (parent, student, educator, policy maker, etc.) have a  responsibility when it comes to the education of future generations. If we do not live up to that, not just the future generations lose out but we all do. In that sense everyone will find things in the book that will resonate well and lead to much needed reflection. 

 

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