Introduction and Questions by Padma Venkatraman
Thanks, WNDB, for trusting me to host the South Asian Roundtable, and thanks, readers, for visiting again.As I pointed out recently, while judging SLJ’s Battle of the Books, this field is highly subjective. There are a lot of South Asian writers, and authors who aren’t ethnically South Asian, but write about South Asia (like Paula Yoo, whose wonderful nonfiction picture book Twenty-Two Cents won the South Asia Book award).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t include all of them here, so on my blog I’ve created a list of ethnically South Asian authors (diaspora) who’ve written kids books (such as Vivek Shraya, whose moving YA novel God Loves Hair won the Lambda Literary Award Honor). I’d be delighted if readers would email me (venkatraman dot Padma at gmail – you know the rest) and let me know who is missing, so I can update my list and make it as comprehensive as possible.
I very much appreciated all the thoughtful responses I received, that are listed below in rotating and reverse alphabetical order. Why? Because my last name starts with a V, and I end up being at the tail end of every list. And, I once read an article that claimed that people vote more often for names that are listed closer to the tops of list, because we grow up thinking what’s listed first is what ought to lead! Anyway, I decided to mix it up, in an attempt to give every author a chance to be first.
As an oceanographer, I define Eurasia as one continent (despite cultural differences, if you look at a map of the world, you’ll see it really is one contiguous landmass). Asia, to me, includes every country “East” of the Caspian Sea. However, I was once told, long ago, and I won’t say quite how long ago, at an “Asian” student gathering, that I wasn’t Asian! So, I began by asking:
The word “Asian” seems to mean different things to different people. How do you define “Asian”?
Uma Krishnaswami: I define it geographically. For me Asia begins in Afghanistan and ends at the Pacific Ocean. And within that there are words of cultures, languages, religions, belief systems, art forms, stories, ways of thinking and being. I see South Asia as very much a part of Asia. You didn’t ask that, but I’m saying it anyway. What would Asia be without Buddhism, or India without tea?
Kashmira Sheth: I define Asian as anyone who is or traces her/his ancestors to the Asian continent.
Mitali Perkins: Anybody with ancestors from Asia who dwells in Asia. I affiliate more as an Asian American than simply as an Asian.
Rukhsana Khan: The first thing I think of when I hear “Asian” is Chinese, or that area of the world.
Rachna Gilmore: I try not to define. I think it depends on the context. Broadly, though, I’d consider the word “Asian” to refer to someone living in Asia. Or someone who identifies as having come from Asia. I very much believe in the right of each person to name themselves, to state their own identity. So someone who may have been born in Asia may not consider themselves Asian and vice versa. Asia is a huge continent though – it seems absurd to lump all the diversity under that one moniker.
Venkatraman: Growing up, I read many books that portrayed South Asian culture in a less than positive light, and in my opinion, this does still happen in modern books. And, while I’ve met marvelous people and made dear friends in each of the 5 countries I’ve lived in, I’ve experienced privilege, seen prejudice directed against others, and also borne the brunt of racism, sexism and religious chauvinism. So, I asked:
Have negative stereotypes of South Asians that you’ve encountered, either in books or in life, influenced your books or your writing?
Perkins: Not at all. I feel that we have been represented with respect in both adult and children’s fiction.
Khan: Yes! Absolutely!
For the longest while and even now to a certain degree, the stories about Muslim/Pakistani South Asians that get the most attention and marketing are those written by white feminist women authors.
It really enrages me when these authors basically take a western girl and plunk her down in a Muslim culture with very little reference to the Muslim cultural foundation she would have grown up with. And in a few of these books, the solutions the authors come up with for these oppressed girls is that they dress up as boys and run away. What does that say to girls in Muslim cultures?
And in one particular book, I was furious that her solution was for white Americans to come in and save the day! Good grief!
I think the books that become the most popular tend to be Western visualizations of what life is like in more conservative societies rather than stories actually written with more nuance from authors from the culture. I think that feminists have an agenda. It’s almost like a proxy war. They’ve been fighting misogyny in their wealthy western societies all their life, and making some considerable gains, and here they see these poor powerless girls in these developing countries and they, with every good intention, want to rush in and save them. But they only show one side of the equation.
While there is a LOT of misogyny in Pakistani and Afghan cultures–there’s no doubt about that!–there is also considerable chivalry. The first time I came across this dual aspect of Afghan culture was reading Naheed Hasnat’s Shooting Kabul. That book is written by an insider to the culture. She married an Afghan and coming from a Muslim background herself, she naturally understands the culture much better, less superficially than white feminists.
Although that being said my personal reaction to these authors I mentioned above varies considerably. Some authors appear to be opportunistic, capitalizing on their travels to South Asian countries, while others do genuinely care about the subject matter. But in terms of the way these negative stereotypes have influenced my books and writing life, well, basically they make me angry enough to keep going.
I probably wouldn’t have written Wanting Mor but for these books. I needed to write the other side of the story, and I’m very proud of the book.
And the anger and outrage these books have generated within me is something I’ve channeled into my writing, giving me the energy to put up with all the rejections and difficulties to keep going in my writing career. I’ve read, listened, watched and observed, and all those observations I bring to my own writing.
Honestly, if I could read the kind of books that show my culture in a positive light, then what would I need to write for???
Sheth: Personally I have not encountered negative stereotypes attitudes directed toward me because of my South Asian heritage. Maybe that is why none of my books have that theme. I have, however, read many reports about discrimination and even violence against South Asians. One of the most tragic and disturbing ones was the attack on a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, in my home state of Wisconsin. The attack took place during worship hours, resulting in many deaths and serious injuries. It, along with other reports of violence, have made me think deeply about stereotypes and how they may affect young people of the South Asian heritage.
Krishnaswami: I think I might have fallen into writing for young readers anyway. That was probably determined in my childhood. I was a little sponge, absorbing all the stories I could find. But I do remember, as an adult, when I began to think seriously about claiming writing, first as a secret indulgence, then an avocation, and finally as the work of my life. Back in 1994, representations of South Asia in American children’s literature were not so much negative stereotypes as flat-out missing. It was as if we didn’t exist. When I looked in the library, what I found was Rudyard Kipling. Nothing against Kipling, mind you. He was brilliant, and he certainly had his own demons to battle. But you’d think we were all long-ago, faraway, dead. I found Shirley Arora’s book, What Then, Raman? Well, that was better, although still long-ago and faraway, and with the obligatory white character serving as mentor. And I thought, Oh for crying out loud! I have a baby! He’s going to grow up brown in America. How am I going to face him when he begins to read?
Over the years, I’ve done my bit to write against the stereotypes, to turn typical tropes on their heads. What continues to bother me is a kind of hyper-awareness I see in editors and reviewers about “the audience.” Will the audience get this or that about my work? I get asked that from time to time. Well, the unstated assumption there is that the audience is white kids and they won’t get all this cultural flimflam. I see this as well in books by South Asian writers whose voices convey that stance of explaining. I cringe because I know they know, and they had to do it because they were edited into that stance. And I also know no reviewer’s going to pick that up. I’ve felt most liberated from this constraint with a couple of my books that were published first in India and then picked up by the wonderful people at Groundwood for North American editions. With those books, I could occupy that place of centrality Toni Morrison talks about. I could speak to young readers without having to stop my story to explain anything. Now here’s the funny thing. I’ve done two books this way with Groundwood, worked with a total of three editors there. Not one of them ever once raised that audience question. So I know there’s hope. It can be done with integrity, by trusting young readers.
Gilmore: Yes, inasmuch as all authors’ life experiences inform who they are, and influence the values they form, which inevitably shapes their writing. More specifically though, as a brown person of Indian heritage in a white world, I have, of course, experienced racism; both the active, vicious kind, although rarely that, as well as the more patronizing and labeling kind, born of stereotyping. I know much of it is simple misunderstanding and ignorance. It has fueled my desire to write in a way that builds bridges. I strongly feel that it is through fiction that we can cut through boundaries. When we read of characters of cultures that we have perceived of as “strange” or “other”, and when we identify with them through the magic of fiction, and recognize that at the core they are not really that different from us, that is when we start to relate to others simply as people. We drop our stereotyping assumptions and see that our common experiences as human beings are far more profound and real than any superficial differences of skin colour or cultural preferences.
In fiction, too, I encountered stereotypes of Indians, from the cringingly precious – I loathed Kipling, whose depiction of India bore no resemblance to the world I lived in, in Mumbai – to the outright racist, so carelessly depicted in western fiction, which was the only kind I had access to growing up in India. Enid Blyton was an example of that. Even L.M. Montgomery, whose Anne books were a huge favourite of mine, depicted people of Indigenous culture, as well as French Canadians, with an off-handed racism that was a part of her time. There were no books reflecting my life. None.
As an adult I came to understand that we need stories in which we can see ourselves reflected. So writing some of the books I did, focusing on Indian culture, was a way to redress the imbalances I knew existed, and which still exist, although to a lesser degree, in the literature available to our children today.
The South Asian Roundtable continues tomorrow with Part 2.
About the authors:
Rachna Gilmore is a Governor General’s Literary award-winning Canadian author of over twenty best-selling children’s books. Her titles include picture books such Island Morning, My Mother is Weird, The Flute, The Gita trilogy, and others. Her children’s novels include That Boy Red, The Trouble With Dilly, Mina’s Spring of Colors, A Group of One, and others. Rachna’s books have received multiple honours and awards and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Born in India, Rachna has lived in Mumbai, London, England, Prince Edward Island, and currently lives in Ottawa, Canada, where she continues to plark – play, work and lark – at dreaming up weird and wonder-filled tales.
Rukhsana Khan is an award-winning author and storyteller. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan and immigrated to Canada at the age of three. She grew up in a small town in southern Ontario and was ruthlessly bullied. When a grade eight teacher told her she was a writer, she thought the idea was crazy. Writers were white people. They were from England and America. Now she has twelve books published (one of which was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 greatest children’s books in the last 100 years). She has appeared on television and radio lots of times, and has been featured at conferences and festivals around the world.
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of over twenty books for children, from picture books (Out of the Way! Out of the Way!, The Girl of the Wish Garden, and Monsoon) to middle grade novels (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic). Her story collection, The Broken Tusk, has been in print twenty years. Uma’s chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, won the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the Crossword award (India). Uma teaches Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Mitali Perkins has written nine novels for young readers, including Rickshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years) and Bamboo People (an American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults, starred in Publishers Weekly as “a graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship.”) Her newest novel, Tiger Boy, is a Junior Library Guild selection. She has been honored as a “Most Engaging Author” by independent booksellers across the country and selected as a “Literary Light for Children” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. Mitali was born in Kolkata, India, before immigrating to the Bay Area with her family.
Kashmira Sheth writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult fiction. Her 9 books have received many awards and honors, such as the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association Honor Award, the International Reading Association’s Notable Book for a Global Society and the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. Kashmira was born and raised in India and comes from a family of storytellers. She studied science in college but her enjoyment of reading and sharing stories nudged her into writing. Her latest picture book, Sona and the Wedding Game, has received rave reviews, including a starred review in Kirkus: “Everyone will want to attend this wedding.”
Padma Venkatraman lived in 5 countries, worked as chief scientist on oceanographic vessels, and even spent time underwater before becoming an author. Her latest novel, A Time to Dance (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin) was released to 5 starred reviews (Kirkus, Booklist, SLJ, VOYA and BCCB) and received numerous awards: ALA Notable, IRA Notable, Kirkus Best Book, NYPL Top 25, IBBY outstanding, etc. Her two earlier novels, Island’s End and Climbing the Stairs, were also released to multiple (7) starred reviews, were ALA/YALSA Best Books, Amelia Bloomer, CCBC and Booklist Editor’s Choices and won several other awards and honors. Venkatraman has spoken at Harvard and other universities; provided commencement speeches at schools; participated on panels at venues such as the PEN World Voices Festival; and been the keynote speaker at national and international conferences and literary festivals. Padma is American and lives in Rhode Island. Visit her at www.padmasbooks.com and www.padmasbooks.blogspot.com
This roundtable continues with Part 2.