Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Our Own True Selves

In a novel for middle-grade readers, Silas House and Neela Vaswani invent a pair of pen pals whose letters bridge their cultural divide

“I cannot tell from your name if you are a boy or a girl so I will just write to you like you are a human being.” With this clear-eyed, matter-of-fact statement, readers meet Meena Joshi, half of the pen-pal duo whose letters tell the story of Same Sun Here, a charming book for middle-grade readers by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. Meena is an irrepressible twelve-year-old girl from Mussoorie, India, who lives with her family in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. Her correspondent is River Dean Justice, an all-American boy from the coal-mining community of Black Banks, Kentucky. Meena and River would seem to inhabit two completely different worlds, but it doesn’t take long for them to work their way past this minor inconvenience and get on with the serious work of building a friendship.

Photo of author, Silas House | photo credit: Curt RichterThe first step is trust: “Let’s say right now that we can tell each other our secrets and we won’t make fun of each other. . . . I can be my own true self with you,” River writes in his initial letter. Over the course of the year that follows, Meena and River take this philosophy to heart and tell each other everything about their lives. He likes playing basketball and hanging out with his best friend, Mark, and his dog Rufus. She loves to read and draw and spends time with her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lau, and her dog Cuba. Eventually they discover some surprising similarities: Meena’s father works for a restaurant in New Jersey and can afford to come home only one weekend a month; River’s father lost his job as a coal miner and works in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Meena and River also share a love of language, a strong connection to the natural world, especially their beloved mountains (his in Kentucky, hers in India), and a deep love for their grandmothers: Meena’s wise and gentle Dadi back in India and River’s strong and strident Mamaw, with whom he and his mother live.

Filled with many small, lovely moments as well as lots of humor, Same Sun Here presents an honest portrait of two thoughtful, intelligent kids during a pivotal year in their young lives. As they begin to cross from childhood into young adulthood, complete with the usual confusion, fear, and doubt that accompany the journey, they also experience the sudden, intense joys of youth and a passionate, idealistic belief in possibilities. Coloring their experiences is the knowledge that they each have a loyal friend in their corner—someone who will listen and not judge, someone to whom they can confide their ups and downs, someone who cares about them and encourages them. During the course of their correspondence, Meena and River share their thoughts on favorite music, books, and poetry; racism and sexism; unscrupulous landlords and the devastation of strip mining; the death of a loved one and what it means to be brave; terrorism and nonviolent protest; the significance of President Obama’s inauguration, and much more. They describe to each other their triumphs and their tragedies: Meena’s parents study hard to pass their citizenship exams as River’s mother struggles with a debilitating illness; Meena’s family faces homelessness as River learns firsthand about speaking truth to power.

Vaswani and House (formerly the writer in residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee) remind us that it takes more than a glance to appreciate another person, especially one who seems so outwardly different. For Meena and River, it takes time and honesty and humility and empathy. It takes a willingness to listen and learn and allow themselves to be changed. Same Sun Here examines what happens when people find a way to overcome social barriers and make a real connection to another person—no matter how “other” the other may seem. In the process, the authors suggest, they might find that the things which unite them—love for family, dreams for the future, and a belief in the necessity of justice and compassion for all—are greater than the circumstances which separate them. And what is gained in the process is that sense of connection we all long for, or as Meena so beautifully puts it, “Today the sun was out, and as I walked to school I wondered if it was sunny in Kentucky, too. And then I thought to myself that it’s the same sun here as it is there, and that made me feel like you’re not so far away after all.”