Eyes on the Horizon
No frontiers limit Shannon Hale, Wu Han, or Magda Giannikou.
Magda Giannikou is an internationally renowned musician and songwriter. An accomplished pianist and accordionist, she sings in six languages and draws from a wide range of musical influences, including samba, cumbia, Greek folk, and French chansons.
Born in Athens, Greece, in 1981, Giannikou graduated from the National Conservatory of Greece and attended the Philippos Nakas Conservatory in Athens. She studied classical piano, production, and film composition at Berklee College of Music. In 2010, she formed Banda Magda, a group of musicians from eight different nations. The band has toured to over twenty countries and released three albums. Their 2013 record Amour, t’es la? reached the top 10 on Billboard’s world music chart.
Giannikou has also written music for film and TV, including the acclaimed FX comedy series Louie. She is director of the master of music in contemporary performance at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain.
Shannon Hale is a bestselling author who has written in a variety of genres: fantasy, science fiction, and romantic comedy, among others. She won a Newbery Honor in 2006 for her young adult fantasy novel Princess Academy.
Hale was born in 1974 in Salt Lake City, and began writing as a child. She spent 18 months in Paraguay as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before earning degrees in English and creative writing at the University of Utah and the University of Montana.
In 2003, she published her first novel, The Goose Girl, a young adult book based on a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers. She has since written over two dozen young adult and graphic novels, many of them collaborations with her husband Dean Hale, whom she met in high school. Among these, they cowrote two graphic novels for Marvel comics about superhero Squirrel Girl.
Hale adapted her first adult novel, Austenland (2007) into a 2014 film starring Keri Russell.
Wu Han is a world-famous pianist and arts administrator, widely known as a performer of chamber music.
Born in 1959 in Taiwan, she began studying piano at age 9 and was playing concerts by age 12. She came to the United States in 1981 to attend The Hartt School in Connecticut, with a double major in viola and piano. She married cellist David Finkel in 1985. They have performed together and separately on many of the world’s major stages, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Since 2004, she and Finkel have served as codirectors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centerin New York. They are also cofounders of independent record label ArtistLed and the annual Music@Menlo Festival in Silicon Valley, CA.
Wu Han has recorded over twenty albums, including For David and Wu Han (2009), contemporary works composed specifically for the duo. She has performed as a soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Chamber Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among other ensembles.
Ahead on Articulate, views on gender roles are constantly evolving, yet some traditions feel hardwired. Young Adult author, Shannon Hale believes children should have access to stories of all kinds.
Shannon Hale: My point is made so much larger when it’s got a girl on the cover, and the princess in the title, and boys like it anyway. No one can talk that away now, no one can make excuses for why he liked that.
Discipline is a virtue. The fact that the Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han came to understand from a very young age.
Wu Han: With skill you could accomplish something, you can make magic, but you need to have skill.
And there are those who are stuck by wanderlust. Singer-songwriter and world traveler, Magda Giannikou has always craved and embraced the unknown.
Magda Giannikou: There are some languages that I’m fluent in, like French, for example, and Spanish I can communicate, and then there are some languages where I can hang.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Since bursting onto the children’s book scene in 2003 with her award-winning novel, The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale has given life to a total of 26 books and four children. Thirteen of these accomplishments were co-efforts with her husband, Dean.
Shannon Hale: I’ve written fantasy, realism, autobiography, science fiction, romance, comedy, superhero, murder mystery, early chapter books, middle grade, young adult, adult. I’ve written novels, I’ve written illustrated books, I’ve written graphic novels, I’ve written screenplays. For me, if a book isn’t a challenge, then I’m not interested in it. I get bored easily.
Shannon Hale spent her teenage years here in Salt Lake City, where her parents raised her and her four siblings in the Mormon faith. As the middle child, she became adept at taking on a variety of perspectives.
Hale: I think middle children have to both grow up fast and remember what it’s like to be young because you’re navigating both sides of the family.
AJC: And you’re a mentee and a mentor.
Hale: Yes. And also, my two oldest siblings were close in age, and my two younger siblings were close in age, and there was a gap between both and me. And so, in order to not be totally alone, I had to learn how to play like them, or play like them, and move back and forth. So you have to understand different kinds of people and you have to sort of be the balancer—
AJC: Yeah, and be the interpreter, sometimes, between those groups, I imagine.
Hale: Right. And I think that helped me. I mean, it certainly has helped me just generally in relationships in my life, but as a storyteller I think it—you have to understand those different points of view.
For many storytellers, one of the toughest challenges is the surrender of their work to Hollywood. Not so for Shannon Hale, who welcomed the alchemy of the adaptation of her book, Austenland.
Hale: It’s so fun. One of my favorite experiences in my life was being on set. I was on set for the seven week-shoot in England and, seeing how the production designer designed the room, I never imagined it that way. Wow, he brought something to it I never would have imagined. The way one of the actors delivered a line, I didn’t hear it that way but they brought something new to it. There’s a wonderful synergy when you’ve got group-storytelling that you don’t get alone.
AJC: Which is contrary to the received wisdom, and it’s the reason that Hollywood doesn’t allow the writers on set.
Hale: They should let me on set. I’m delightful on set. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why you’re making a movie. It’s not to force one vision. But the truth is, that’s more like what a reading experience is than I think most people might assume. I control every word in the book, but I don’t control the images that a reader sees in their head. They’re bringing their personal experiences—what they know of the world, what they understand—as well as the mood at the moment into what they read. Everybody who reads my book receives a different story. I do half the work, and then they actually are the director and the actors and set designers and they create the story themselves. So seeing that happen on a movie set was like, “Oh, this is what it’s like in someone’s head.”
(clip from Austenland):
Colonel Andrews: I say, I would die in rapture to hear you play, Miss Erstwhile.
Miss Erstwhile: No, not tonight, not tonight.
Mrs. Wattlesbrook: Miss Erstwhile, I insist.
Miss Erstwhile: Okay.
Colonel Andrews: Allow me.
Miss Erstwhile: Thank you. I only really know one song.
Colonel Andrews: Play that one, then.
Miss Erstwhile: So I’ll just play that.
It’s getting hot in here
So take off all your clothes
I am getting so hot
I’m gonna take my clothes off
Austenland isn’t Hale’s only adaptation. In 2017 she and husband Dean published the first of what would become a series about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a minor character from the Marvel Universe who Hale says shouldn’t be underestimated.
Hale: Here’s a squirrel fact for you—#squirrelfacts! Humans can bite, our jaw strength, we can bite with 250 psi. Squirrels, 7000 psi. They’re incredibly powerful so, you know, proportion that up to a superhero and actually, she’s an incredibly powerful hero.
AJC: Of course not losing a finger, but go on.
Hale: Yes! No, I mean if squirrels wanted to murder us in our sleep, they could. So we’re happy they’re fuzzy and cute.
AJC: So what do you explore in the first book and how is it progressed then into the second?
Hale: In the first book, she’s been hiding that she’s Squirrel Girl. She has a five-foot squirrel tail that she has to hide in the seat of her pants when she goes to middle school. We wanted her to be in middle school because where is there a worse place to have to hide a squirrel tail in the seat of your pants than middle school?
AJC: There’s none of them going to be good, but you’re right.
Hale: But in the first book she embraces herself, [her] persona as Squirrel Girl, and becomes a hero, and the second book it’s really realizing that being her normal 14-year-old self is actually more hard than being a superhero.
But when it came to writing a deaf character for the The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Hale understood the limitations of her own understanding and hired hearing-impaired test readers. She says they found things she could never have imagined.
Hale: There’s a moment when Squirrel Girl is talking to her friend and, Ana Sofia, the girl who is deaf, doesn’t quite catch it. And she says, “What was that?” And asks her to repeat it. And Squirrel Girl says, “Oh, never mind.” And both of my deaf beta readers went, “Whoa!” That was a huge deal. And one of them said, “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood that hearing people say ‘Never mind’ all the time. And it’s just what it means is, ‘Now that I have to repeat it, I realize what I said wasn’t that important.’ But to someone who is deaf, it’s saying, ‘You are not worth the time to repeat it. How difficult it is to try to communicate with you is no longer worth my time.'” It’s a huge, they both said, it was a huge insult. It’s a small thing for me. I never would have noticed and hearing readers wouldn’t have noticed. But I have a responsibility as a writer to think also about, “What about the deaf kid or teen who is reading a book about someone who’s deaf like them for the first time, and I have that moment in there, and I’m not aware of it—”
AJC: And they get punched in the guts.
But Shannon Hale does lay down some hard-hitting arguments, particularly when it comes to princesses. Eight of her books have the word “princess” in their title, something she says does scare off a lot of boys, but it shouldn’t.
Hale: When I go into a signing, the majority of people who are there are girls with their mothers, and quite often there will be one boy, a teenage boy, and he’ll have a stack of my books—books titled Princess Academy, books titled The Goose Girl—and he’s not ashamed. And when I talk to him to try to figure out, “What’s different about you?”, I find out that he’s homeschooled. This is something that happens in our schools, at the school age in the school system, when boys are pushed into these schools and they’re trying to figure out what it means to be a boy. And what they’re told is, “What it means to be a boy is to be not a girl.” Boys are being raised to be a negative instead of a positive. Girls are raised being girls. Boys are raised being “not girls.” They’re taught to dislike girls. They’re taught to hate everything that girls like.
AJC: Is this not some sort of a latent homophobia or something that men—
AJC: Men are so attached to the idea that you’re not macho, you can’t effeminate and be a real man.
Hale: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It is rooted in homophobia. However, homophobia is rooted is sexism. I feel for boys. I do, because they’re being told that they can’t have the full range of human emotions. They’re told that they can only be angry. That’s the only emotion they can feel, is anger. And that leads to violence and self-hatred, and it’s terrible what we do to them. The stories we consider to be feminine aren’t only stories that involve a princess or stories about a girl, but stories that have human relationships, stories that deal with emotion, and we’re protecting boys from that as though it’s bad for them, as though it’ll make them gay or turn them into a girl. And we need to be conscious of it, and just kind of tear that away and not be ashamed.
Hale: Now if I were to write books that weren’t about princesses, what’s the point? My point is made so much larger when it’s got a girl on the cover, and the “princess” in the title, and boys like it anyway. No one can talk that away now. No one can make excuses for why he liked that. That’s why stories are so important because you can’t get into every home and change every kid, but if you’ve got a school library full of all kinds of books, and they can pick out any book they want, and they read a lot, they read diversely, they read a lot of different kinds, they read books about boys like them to help them understand themselves, they read books about girls to help them understand girls, they read books about people who are from different ethnic groups, or different religions, or from different parts of the world, and they read all different kinds, and then they’ve got all of those choices. They’ve got all of those possibilities and stories, and that’s going to help them tremendously if their home environment, or just generally the cultural environment, is trying to limit them.
The influence of children’s and young adult writers like Shannon Hale shouldn’t be underestimated. Kids do still read, and what they read can have important, long-term consequences.
In November 2017, celebrated Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han came to Philadelphia for a special performance.
Wu Han and her husband, the American cellist David Finckel, are among the most highly-regarded partnerships in classical music today. But they don’t just perform. Since 1997, they’ve run ArtistLed, one of the first musician-owned, internet-based record companies. They’re also co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and co-founders of the annual Music@Menlo Festival in Silicon Valley. But all the success was hardly preordained for a young Wu Han. Growing up poor in Taiwan, music was a luxury the family could scarcely afford, until one day when Wu Han’s father used the money that was supposed to buy a suit on a record collection and turntable. The household was transformed.
Wu Han: My father [played] that machine day in and day out. As soon as he comes home, the LP will be on. Sometimes he plays through the evening, and then he [declared] all of his kids had to learn how to make that noise. And my mother was desperate because we’re very poor, there’s no way we can afford piano lessons. So she is a very resourceful and practical Chinese woman, and so my mother bartered. We trade piano lessons for this guy can come to—my first piano teacher—can come to our house to have dinner every night. For three months, my teacher taught me two little pieces. Everybody knows. And I learned that two little pieces and it’s unsustainable, so my mother sent me for a full scholarship—a special music training program—and I fooled them all at the audition.
AJC: With two pieces?
Wu Han: With these two pieces. And they took me in and in [a] very short time, they [realized] I do not even read music and it was terrible. And the special music program started from kindergarten and I was nine years old already, and so it was [an] emergency that I had to be put on notice to really catch up.
And she would catch up. At conservatory in Taipei, she got up early and stayed up late, practicing piano, viola, percussion, and traditional Chinese instruments. At age 20, she came to the U.S. to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut but at home, there was a slight misunderstanding.
Wu Han: My parents thought I’m going to Harvard. Until the package [arrived] and it was not in Massachusetts, it was in Connecticut. But what’s the difference, you know? My teacher [asked] me, “Have you done any chamber music?” I said, “No.” Chamber music is not popular in the far East. We were trained to be famous and play as loud and fast as you can, and it’s fun. But chamber music is a different art form. My teacher explained to me, “Chamber music takes sensitivity. It takes ears. You’ll be a much better musician if you know how to play chamber music.” And I thought, “Whoa, another challenge. That sounds great. How do I do that?” And he said, “There’s a young string quartet, just signed up with Hartt School of Music, and that was the Emerson Quartet. They have a competition and maybe you can compete on that.” So I learned the Schumann Quintet and I did win the competition, and later I did marry to the cellist in the Emerson Quartet.
AJC: You kinda jumped past that one, so let’s talk about that. Is it true that he fell in love with you because of your playing? You fell in love with him because of his playing? It’s a very romantic story.
Wu Han: You’re actually right. There are times you find a partner in life that there’s chemistry and you don’t even know why. It was just always so beautiful. I can hear what he’s thinking before he even [starts] to play, and I love that feeling. It’s just a partnership that I’m very blessed with in my life.
Wu Han has dedicated her life to her unwavering belief in the transformative power of music.
Wu Han: I just really want everybody to love music like the way I’m loving music. And it’s so fantastic. It really—it’s kind of health food, that the more you eat it, it’s better for you, and you feel better and better. And in hard time, in difficult time, those were the [times] that I feel this music serves. It gives us comfort. It gives us an excuse to escape from the real world. And these days, I hear people say, “Oh, this is elite music and all that.” I just laugh at it. I came from the most, you know, modest family, and I love this music so, so much, and I know it gave people so much comfort and so much inspiration. So that’s why I do what I do. I will work myself to death in the name of music, and I will die very, very happy.
Magda Giannikou spends her life wandering the world but sees it differently from you or me, thanks to a condition called grapheme-color synesthesia which makes her associate words with colors and sounds.
Magda Giannikou: I see a song before I write it.
This acute sensitivity is why Banda Magda’s 2017 album, Tigre, took three years to complete.
Giannikou: Whenever the instrumentation or the arrangement wandered off the color, the color would become gray. So in the mixing session, if you lowered an instrument, the color changes for me. Crazy, but true. So every note has a color, and every chord has a color. C major chord is red, and D is pink.
AJC: And is middle C also red?
Giannikou: It’s also red, but the viola C is a little darker and the cello C is a little darker, so it has fluctuations.
AJC: Do you feel like vomiting when you hear an orchestra tuning?
Magda makes multilingual music that reflects her wide-ranging interests, borrowing elements from, among others, South American cumbia, Greek folk, and French chansons. It all began when her parents kicked her out and sent her to Berklee.
Giannikou: They kind of, like, “Go away. You go do this now.” They knew that this, that there was a certain kind of calling, and I had a little crisis at that age—21, 22, 23—and I was seriously thinking about doing something more, either teaching or, like, getting a musical job that didn’t have as much kind of, like, ambition. I wasn’t very motivated. I wasn’t very inspired. And then at that point my parents, they forced me to go to Berklee. They’re awesome. They knew, they knew.
AJC: They knew. And what do they think now?
Giannikou: I mean, after a week of being there, I just discovered myself. I completely found the place where I belong.
At Berklee, she would study classical piano and film composition, and she was good, becoming a Sundance Fellow in 2009. But the urge to lead a band would soon become irresistible.
Giannikou: We would go and see gigs of, like, friends and at school, like playing in restaurants and bars, and I was like, “Oh, I dunno, this is fun. This should be so much fun.” And so, I needed to find a way to do it. So, I mean, I was a classical pianist at Berklee, so it was hard to really play because I didn’t have those jazz chops as much, even though I tried. So at some point, I went back home and I found the accordion of my grandmother who was a teacher. I was like, “Ah, I’m just gonna bring it back to school and see what happens.” And I was the only one. So musicians saw this and it was a new sound. Nobody was using it. So I started learning and suddenly everybody wanted me to be in their project or play in their band. I kind of sneaked in the live music scene through the accordion. And then at some point I was like, “Maybe I wanna write some songs,” and I had never written a song ever. So I took a lyric-writing class. And because I was so shy about my lyrics, I was afraid of the embarrassment, or, you know, ’cause it’s different. In music, you can interpret it. A lyric is just… It has to be really good, you know?
Greek by birth and a polyglot by choice, today, Magda sings in six languages. But don’t ask her to write a dissertation in all of them.
Giannikou: There are some languages that I’m fluent, like French, for example, and Spanish, I can communicate. And then there are some languages where I can hang, and that’s Japanese and Portuguese. Portuguese, I can talk with songs.
Her first song in Portuguese was a co-effort with a native speaker.
Giannikou: The song is called “Coração” which means “heart,” and it talks about the fluctuations of the heart, and particularly mine because it does that a lot. I’m a very emotional person. My mood can change quite fast and I can be sunny, and then I will be, not dark, but it just changes all the time. Whatever the environment feeds me, I just take it in and it changes me. And for some people, some people that are part of my life, this appears to be a problem. It doesn’t affect them as much, but they just worry about it and they think that it’s something that should be fixed. And that’s a song that says that I don’t agree with you. I don’t think I should fix it. I think that’s what makes me me.
Magda’s world is a vibrant swirl of color, music, and motion, but though wanderlust has served her creatively, she says she’s now looking forward to settling down.
Giannikou: I would like to have a companion at some point. I mean, the alone life of traveling and being on the road all the time, and having this dedication and passion for my work, it’s all good but I want a home too.
In the meantime, Magda will continue creating home wherever she goes.