South Asian Voices Roundtable: Part 2

by Hannah Gomez

Yesterday, we featured Part One of this series by Padma Venkatraman. This roundtable continues today with her remaining questions.

Padma Venkatraman
Padma Venkatraman

Padma Venkatraman: I’m American – and the American part of my identity is something I have to keep reminding people of. I’m often told I’m not “really American” and/or that my work isn’t “American enough” to appeal widely to readers in this country. This leaves me wondering if my daughter will be labeled American or South Asian, or both, or neither. It also makes me curious about what other authors think of the role of nature versus nurture in the world of writers and writing, so I asked:

The APALA award and the South Asia Book Award are two major prizes awarded to young people’s literature with Asian themes. Both are open to authors of all backgrounds. What do you see as some of the pros/cons arising from this?

Kashmira Sheth: I am happy that the APALA Award as well the newly created South Asian Book Award exist. These awards highlight books with Asian themes and shed light on that region of the world.

I do feel that opening up the awards to authors of all backgrounds can be a little tricky. If the author is outside of a culture, s/he should have background and knowledge about the culture s/he is portraying and not depend on stereotypes and popular media conceptions of the region. At times I have read books set in South Asia written by outsiders that have made me cringe or shake my head.  On the other hand, there are wonderful books written by outsiders that have been emotionally satisfying and culturally genuine.

Mitali Perkins: I prefer it. I would never ask people to show an ethnic credential before I allow them to tell a story with Asian themes. How many genes must one have to qualify if we require a racial/ethnic identity to tell stories? I’ve blogged about this before, and stick with my opinion. In an intermingling society where more and more of us are far from Malfoy-esque when it comes to “purity of blood,” which books will qualify for an Asian-American identity-based award? The bottom line for me, though, is power. Most Asian-Americans don’t face the same kind of power squeeze out of the American mainstream as blacks, Native peoples, and Hispanics.  The intersection of class/education/race might be the place to focus instead of just race on its own when it comes to championing voices from the margins.

Uma Krishnaswami
Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami: If the intent of an award is to encourage new writers, then it makes sense to restrict authorship to voices that are underrepresented. In an ideal world there should be room in the marketplace for insider narratives as well as those from the outside. But books about South Asia have for years tended to be books about social problems. These have been privileged, and they have typically been written by white writers. Not that they are not true or worthy, but do they have to be the single story of the region? So I think we have a history to get over. If the awards committees want to push the quality of the books beyond worthiness to reflecting the richness and dynamism of the region and its diasporic people, then there’s some thinking that needs to go into questions of whose stories are being told and why.

All of which is good reason for me, mostly, not to think about awards and the politics swirling around them. I have too many stories left to write still, and an increasing awareness that there is simply not enough time!

Rachna Gilmore: Well, I guess the pro is that it opens the field and promotes an egalitarian approach. The con is that it can perpetuate the misappropriation and misrepresentation of non-western cultures by white writers, which has been the case historically. However, I firmly believe that writers must write about what moves them, what they relate to and feel strongly about, even if it is about another culture. The onus is on the writers to ensure due diligence to depict that culture accurately. The onus is on readers and reviewers to speak up if there are wild inaccuracies or misrepresentation. The award committee, I am sure, will be skilled enough to distinguish which books are worthy of inclusion and which aren’t. I have read books by white writers, who have written beautifully and insightfully of characters from eastern cultures. I have also read books by such writers that were a travesty.

Rukhsana Khan
Rukhsana Khan

Rukhsana Khan: I think there’s a lot of white authors who have very good intentions but it’s really, really hard for them to make the leap and write about South Asians in a convincing manner.

I can count on one hand the number of books written by white authors, that I thought were ‘authentic’ to South Asian culture. So for the reasons I listed above, no I think it would be better to leave the APALA and SABA awards open to authors from those cultures.

Venkatraman: Often, even if we identify with a particular culture/ethnicity/group, we may vary, in so many ways (socio-economic status, for example). So, finally, I dared to ask about one of these differences–religion–because we so rarely speak about it, although it is a part of our diversity, and South Asian Americans have different faiths. This roundtable included authors informed by several spiritual/religious backgrounds, and they were brave enough to answer the question

Has your religion influenced your writing/writing life? Have editors/reviewers/readers commented on the influence of religion on your writing?

Khan: Oh definitely!

The fact that I wear hijab and am a practicing Muslim seems to require me to address Muslim issues. At this time of rampant Islamophobia and honestly just flat out HATE towards Muslims, it’s been really challenging! And yet totally necessary!

But it feels like I’m ‘pissing against the wind’. I make no secret about the fact that a lot of my writing has an agenda behind the story. It’s to humanize Muslims. But really I just want to tell some good stories! I’ve been required by the current political climate to try to do more.

I’m up against some considerable odds, and trying to tell good stories that happen to be about Muslims and that can still appeal to universal audiences, well it sure ain’t easy! What works in Muslim culture doesn’t always work in mainstream culture, and vice versa. And it doesn’t help that it has to get past all the white editors in the publishing establishment.

I think white editors are too polite to comment on the influence of religion in my writing. If the work doesn’t reinforce their ideas and perceptions of Islam and Muslims or the ideas and perceptions of what they know about western audiences or if the story doesn’t go the way they think it should they won’t usually comment, they’ll just say something like, “It’s not suitable for us. We wish you the best of luck…” blah blah blah. Honestly I can’t blame them. To say anything is a minefield. When I get those kind of comments, then I know that I haven’t been able to make the transition. I haven’t given the appropriate backstory/information/context for the story to work for mainstream audiences.

But I do think sometimes the white publishers and teachers and marketers underestimate children.

Kids have an altruistic streak. They want to know about other cultures. Often the kid readers themselves will tell me that the things they find most fascinating about my stories are the Islamic/religious aspects. It opens up a totally different world and way of thinking to them and they find it fascinating.

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t yet been able to transfer my light-hearted oral storyteller approach to my writing. I have no trouble connecting with any audience even white audiences in person. I can have them laughing and getting emotional and thinking all within the expanse of an hour! And my stories can do that too but sometimes kids or teachers are reluctant to crack my books open until they’ve seen me. Maybe after they’ve seen me, then they hear my voice when they read my words and they know better how to take them.

I don’t know for sure which is the case. It might be a combination of all the above. All I know is that I’ve got to keep trying.

Kashmira Sheth
Kashmira Sheth

Sheth: My religion has influenced my writing life. Growing up in India, not only the festivals and religious holidays but also everyday events and routines like storytelling, gathering flowers for my grandmother for her daily worship, doing yoga and pranayama, eating vegetarian diet, and feeding sadhus were based on Hindu philosophy. To me, Hinduism is a way of life. I don’t remember going to temples often but we lived and breathed the doctrine of dharma (duty), in everyday life. My grandfather taught me the Bhagwat Gita when I was seven and our correspondence over the nature of universe, reincarnation, and various paths of attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death continued even after I came to this country to attend college.

So far my protagonists have been Hindus and their religion has played a part in their lives, just as mine has in my life. However, religion has been subtly woven into each story. From time to time, people have commented about it.

Perkins: Yes, I hope that my faith defines everything I do, including my writing. Haven’t received too many comments on the influence of religion on my writing. My guiding motto comes from Katherine Paterson: “The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress.”

Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins

Krishnaswami: South Asian art, music, and story have all influenced me, and such a large part of that tradition is Hindu. Not all of it, but certainly the most ancient roots. I’m not religious at all in my daily practice, but the art, the architecture, the sacred geography of India is in my bones. My husband and I went hiking in Nepal a couple of years ago. I’d never been there before, yet I felt as if I’d gone home to those mountains. Their names, their stories, their symbolism ran so very deep; it was a startling and moving experience.

Editors and reviewers have mentioned religious influences when they’re talking about the retold traditional stories, less so in the context of my picture books or middle grade novels. Parents probably write to me most often about The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha, which turns 20 this year, and of course I had a personal and religious connection to that book. Young readers mostly write to me about Book Uncle and Me or the Dini and Dolly books. In Book Uncle, I chose to make Yasmin Muslim. That fact only gets attention when her dad quotes an 18th century Tamil Sufi saint. In The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and the sequel, I think the only mention religion gets is that the town of Swapnagiri has a church, a temple, and a mosque—one each—and they sometimes compete against each other by sending prayers ripping out through the hills over their respective loudspeakers. So I suppose it depends on the book.

Gilmore: I don’t think I know of any reviews that have commented on the influence of religion in my writing. I don’t really have a strong affiliation with any religion. I know it is coy to say so, but I do prefer the term spiritual. My exposure to religion has been wide, from Christianity in the school I attended in India, to Theosophy through my grandfather, Sikhism, as well as Vedanta and Buddhism, the last two of which I perhaps most identify with in terms of religion.

In as far as religion/spirituality shapes and develops the person you are, my own values have crept into my writing. My book, Lights for Gita, was influenced more by a desire to depict a beautiful part of Indian culture, than to reflect the Hindu religion, though.

Rachna Gilmore
Rachna Gilmore

But I think that my spiritual values or awareness have crept into my writing at times. It’s inevitable. In Mina’s Spring of Colors, for instance, the grandfather discusses philosophies from Vedanta, greatly to Mina’s irritation. I’m sure too, that the general values that come through in my books, are informed in part by my spiritual leanings, although I didn’t consciously insert them there.

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. Her blog is at