In her debut novel, Karma Khullar’s Mustache, Singapore-based writer Kristi Wientge tackles the sensitive issue of adolescence. Kristi explained to Melissa Nesbit why she felt compelled to write about an intimate moment in a young girl’s life.
KW: My book is about a girl who starts middle school and everything’s changing in her life. One day, she’s having an ice cream with her dad when he mistakes the hair on her lip for hot fudge and he tries to rub it off with his finger, “Oh you got something there.” And they both sort of realize at the same time that it’s not hot fudge – it’s her moustache. And that’s devastating for her. So that night, when everyone’s asleep, she shaves. She shaves her face, she shaves her arms, her legs, and she’s just making a big mess.
I did it in third grade because I was very hairy like Karma. And I remember I did the fronts of my legs and not the backs. I don’t know why. And I cut myself and I tried to clean it all up, but it was a mess. There was hair all over the tub and I remember the next night I was watching TV with my dad and he was sitting closer and closer and then he touched my knee and was like “Oh wow! Your leg’s so soft!” And he was just teasing me, but I remember how humiliating that was. That my dad knew.
I’ve never read about a ‘first shaving’ experience before. Judy Blume covered a lot of ‘first experiences’ when I was growing up, but she never did that first shave. So with Karma it was quite natural for me, the whole shaving scene.
MN: How much did being a mother of three girls affect your writing choices?
KW: Growing up, when I would read, I would look out for things that I could identify with — things that would make feel like I wasn’t alone… that I wasn’t the only person who felt a certain way.
I vividly remember, as young as second grade, telling myself I would only marry a blonde because I didn’t want my children to have hairy bodies. And then I married an Indian and my girls have inherited double the renegade hair gene. One of my daughters has been teased since kindergarten, so it was something I wanted to address. It’s NOT a big deal, and you are NOT the only person.
So on one hand, yes, I am writing for my girls, but at the same time, I wrote this because the whole facial hair thing has not been done. No one’s ever talked about it. And I wanted to fill that gap. When I was in university, I’d be talking to people and I’d think, “Oh! You wax, too?” And it was really not until then that I realised that this is a common and normal thing — it’s just that no one likes to talk about it. So I don’t want my girls to have to wait until they’re adults and they’ve been through all those painful years and they finally realise they weren’t the only ones.
Also, Karma has a brother which was very important to me because I felt like for her to be strong, she has to have a brother. I have an older brother and a younger brother — and five boy cousins. They all teased me relentlessly, which I think made me stronger because when you go to school and someone says something you’ve already heard, it doesn’t hurt as much. My brothers would always say, “Man, you’ve got more facial hair than I do!” Now at the same time, if someone else was teasing me, they’d be the first to come to my defence. They were OK making fun of me but it was not OK for someone else to make fun of me. So I knew Karma had to have this older brother to make her more resilient.
MN: Do you see these issues as being relevant both in the US and in Singapore?
KW: I used to think it was an issue that only affected people with dark hair. I grew up in the Midwest with a lot of blondes. So I just felt it was really, really only me. But then I travelled a lot during university and when I was in Europe, I realised Spanish women have got this going on… and Italian women. Then I travelled further and learned that even Chinese women have to deal with this. Now that I’m living in Singapore, and my girls are in local school, I find it quite funny, because girls here don’t always shave their legs. And I was sitting with my dermatologist a while ago and even she was sporting a moustache, and I thought, Oh OK. And you work with skin and that doesn’t bother you. So OK. More power to you! So I think body hair is definitely a global thing.
MN: In what ways does your book showcase ‘Sensitive Souls’?
KW: Well, I think even though Karma is getting teased, at the same time, she is very aware. She wants to be mean sometimes, and even hurt other people the way they’ve hurt her, but at the same time, she just really can’t go that far. I think that’s really true for many people. You might really want to hurt someone but you just can’t.
MN: I think if you’ve been hurt you can go one of two ways. You can either become very hardened, or you can develop a deeper sense of empathy towards others.
KW: Yes, and I think Karma starts seeing this with her former best friend. Her new best friend has the nickname, ‘Guinea Pig’, because her name is Ginny. Anyway, this ‘Guinea Pig’ girl becomes her new best friend because she’s kind of the only one who will talk to Karma. And even though Karma has never called her ‘Guinea Pig’ aloud, she has referenced her by that teasing name in her head. And then all of a sudden, she realizes that she is on this side now. “Now I’m friends with the people who have to sit at the rubbish-bin-end of the lunch table.” So she’s developing that sensitivity, that empathy.
MN: What are you working on now that you’ve sold KARMA?
KW: I’m working on my next book, called Fat Chance. Like Karme Khullar’s Mustache, it is set in the United States. It’s about an overweight girl, Isa, who lives above a bakery. Her family is impoverished and they live in a run-down town that’s dealing with tax levies, run-down schools, low morale, closing businesses… And this girl, Isa, is just trying to help her family in any way she can.
My agent, Patricia Nelson, likes to say I address body issues. I think that is probably quite true. Especially having daughters. I want my girls to know they can have these issues — and that’s OK.
MN: What were your biggest surprises or learning experiences as you explored these characters, Karma and Isa?
KW: Karma came to me pretty easily because she was me, and she was my girls, mixed all together. Isa is very different from me; she’s impoverished, she’s overweight. I do want to be sensitive when I’m writing these characters with body issues, of course, but I was surprised how much friends of mine, who are more heavy-set, have said to me, “That’s exactly the feeling.”
For example, in one scene, Isa is sitting on a bench with a boy, who works at the bakery, and they’re just sitting together and chatting. Isa is trying to sit taller and she’s staring at her thighs, willing them to be smaller, and my friend felt that this was so true and accurate. It’s like she has an overwhelming awareness of her body — and I feel that too, but in different ways.
Kristi lives and writes in Singapore with her family. She is represented by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. You can find her on twitter at: @kwientge or on her blog: moments-n-between.blogspot.sg. If you can’t find her at either of those places, she’s probably buried in revisions or yarn from her latest crochet endeavor.
Melissa Nesbit writes adult historical fiction set in Asia. She is represented by US literary agent Carrie Pestritto. Melissa’s debut novel, CALL OF THE KOEL, was short-listed for the Historical Novel Society Award. She also writes contemporary YA (especially on Monday mornings when the historical research feels a bit too cerebral). Melissa lives in Singapore with her family, and she can be found on twitter at: @mn_nesbitt