Like many countries, South Asia is a source and inspiration for folk storytelling. You can see folk storytellers like our mothers and grandmothers at homes as well as performers on the streets and marketplaces in rural villages, small towns, and even in some of the bigger cities. Men and women perform in elaborate style, using colorful costumes, large picture cloths, and scrolls. They perform in groups, accompanied by the narrator, actors, and musicians. They tell stories in stage performances, in areas where there is public attraction, courtyards of homes, wedding ceremonies, or special gatherings. Their repertoire is usually wide and consists of historical tales, myth, episodes from the two Great Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, Christian scriptures, Sufi stories, as well as local folklore.
Today, I am delighted to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing Bengali folk tales in middle-grade fiction. Sayantani’s middle-grade novel, THE SERPENT’S SECRET is available to pre-order and will be released on February 27, 2018.
Sayantani, thank you for stopping by at Mixed-Up Files. The protagonist of THE SERPENT’S SECRET, Kiranmala is an interdimensional demon slayer. Could you tell us more?
Thank you so much for having me! It’s a joy to be back on The Mixed Up Files!
So Kiranmala thinks she’s just an ordinary sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey, until the morning of her 12th birthday. That day, her parents go missing – transported to an alternate dimension because of an expired spell – and two mysterious princes show up at her doorstep, promising to help her find her family. She’s a little skeptical (she’s a Jersey girl, and as she’ll tell you herself, Jersey girls are no dummies), until a drooling rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, totaling her suburban split level. Kiranmala’s forced to fly off with the princes Lal and Neel on their flying pakkhiraj horses, through a transit corridor that’s a lot like the customs and immigration lines at an airport, and to a magical dimension called The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers. There, she has to solve riddles, battle the evil Serpent King and vicious Rakkhoshi Queen, who may or may not also be a black hole, and find her parents before the spell protecting them entirely expires and they get eaten by a newborn rakkhosh baby! All that and make it home in time to finish the sixth grade…
Tell us why the subject of Bengali folktales is important to you. What inspired you to write this story?
Toni Morrison has that great quote – “If there’s a book you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The Serpent’s Secret is the funny and fast-paced fantasy adventure with a kick butt brown skinned heroine that I always needed, but never found, as a young reader. So that’s the short answer to what inspired me to write this novel.
The longer answer is that my parents immigrated to this country in the late 1960’s and so I was born and grew up in the Midwest at a time when there weren’t a lot of people of color, nonetheless South Asians, in the community where I lived. Back then, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in media or advertisements. I was a big reader, but there was still a big disconnect between me and Laura Ingalls, Meg Murry or the other heroines I loved. But when I went back on my long summer vacations to my grandparents’ homes in Kolkata, India, that’s when I saw others who looked like me, that’s when I found a sense of belonging and history, that’s when I felt seen and heard in a deep and real way that I didn’t find in my life in America.
Of course, stories are such an important way that anyone finds ‘home’ in any community. So when we’d gather on those sweltering summer nights, under the whirring fan and the gently swaying mosquito net, and my grandmother would tell us cousins these fantastic folk stories about flesh eating rakkhosh and flying pakkhiraj horses, evil serpent kings and brave princes and princess, my imagination would be completely captured. I loved those stories so much that I translated/adapted several in a 1995 folktale collection for grownups I wrote with my mother called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (Interlink, 1995).
Fast forward many years, to when my now teenage son and daughter were becoming big middle grade readers. I was impressed with the increased range of diverse titles they had access to. The problem was, most of those books (at least then) were realistic fiction, and my son in particular was a big Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl fan. I was so frustrated to realize that he and his sister were experiencing that same lack of literary mirrors I had suffered as a kid. There were more diverse titles, sure, but mostly in contemporary or historic realistic fiction. Intentional or not, this still sent out the message that kids of color and kids of other marginalized identities weren’t allowed to be heroic, or funny, or central to the saving of the universe. So I went back to those Bengali folktales I had loved so much, those stories which were such an important part of my finding my own identity. In the same way I had found myself in West Bengal, India – the land of my ancestors – the heroine of my novel would have to travel to the magical Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers to find her own strength and power. Eventually, the book I began as a family project for myself and my children took wings and became The Serpent’s Secret, first in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series!
Let me ask you about Bengali folklore, since that’s the heart of Serpent’s Secret. What types of Bengali folklore do you write about in THE SERPENT’S SECRET? Could you explain how the local folklore is different from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, or stories from other religions?
Thanks so much for asking! First, these are stories from Bengal – a region which used to be one united area but is now comprised of the state of West Bengal in India, and the country of Bangladesh. In 1947, when the British rulers of India were leaving, they split up the subcontinent into the independent countries of India and Pakistan (In 1971, East Pakistan would win its independence from Pakistan to become Bangladesh). This was a time fraught with a lot of violence between religious communities – people who had previously been neighbors and friends were suddenly pitted against one another – and these bloody tensions have in many ways been South Asia’s postcolonial legacy, influencing politics and religious strife in the region today.
All this to say that the folklore that I’m drawing from is actually pre-partition – these are stories shared by Bengalis of India, of Bangladesh and of course of the diaspora. They are also stories loved by Bengalis of multiple faiths, including Hindus and Muslims. These hilarious stories of rakkhoshi demons disguising themselves as beautiful maidens and marrying human kings, these adventures of princes and princesses riding on pakkhiraj horses, wise cracking tia birds playing tricks on silly humans – these are all our collective stories. Although it’s inevitable The Serpent’s Secret novel is colored by my own particular background and my own particular experience, I wanted to honor and celebrate the fact that the folktales and other children’s stories that inspired the novel aren’t bound by any one country or religion. I wanted to celebrate our commonly loved stories.
As oral tradition, these folktales are also different than myths, which tend to have more spiritual significance. Epics like The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, which are wonderful, and were a big part of my growing up as well, are linked to a religious tradition – to Hinduism – and are beloved across multiple regions of the subcontinent. In contrast, the folktales collected in 1907 by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar in a collection called Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Satchel) and the other Bengali children’s stories which influenced The Serpent’s Secret are regional, not necessarily religiously bound. That’s a really important distinction for me as I want to resist artificial separations based on nation or religion.
Do you see Kiranmala’s story as a fracturing of Indian folktales like the fractured fairytales of Snow White or Cinderella or Goldilocks? If you could use fairytales to pitch your book, which two stories or characters would you choose and why?
I definitely fractured the Bengali folktales and children’s stories I was inspired by – playing very fast and loose with multiple stories. For instance, my protagonist is inspired by a character who appears in a folkstory called “Arun, Barun and Kiranmala” in which the youngest sister, Kiranmala, has to go save her two older brothers. I was inspired by this story because it’s about female strength and smarts saving the day. But I didn’t stay true to the tale at all beyond that core message about an empowered and heroic girl. My Kiranmala lives in New Jersey and is the only daughter (or so she thinks) of loving convenience store owners. The heroic princes she meets early on in her adventure, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, come from a totally different folktale. People who know these stories will hopefully recognize references I make, but I really don’t stay true to any one story or tale. Rather, the entire novel is kind of a love story to the Bengali children’s stories which helped link me to my own heritage and identity as a child.
The one big difference between The Serpent’s Secret and traditional Western fairytales is that, although Kiranmala does turn out to be a princess, she’s a pretty reluctant one. In fact, she hates all things princess-y, so she’s certainly not waiting around for anyone to rescue or marry her (I mean, she’s only 12!). So rather than liken my novel to traditional Western fairy tales (I’m not sure there’s a good comparison), I might say that like Harry Potter, Kiranmala has to discover her hidden powers and potential. Like Percy Jackson, her story is inspired by traditional tales. Like Katniss Everdeen, she’s a bow and arrow wielding warrior, and like Meg Murry, she has to travel across time and space to rescue her parents. Finally, like Mia Thermopolous, Kiranmala is a wise cracker, making references to Bengali and American pop culture all the time. But of course, although she shares commonalities with Harry, Percy, Katniss, Meg or Mia, she’s her own intergalactic, demon-fighting joke-making heroine!
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
Being from an immigrant family is to be a superhero. Being able to straddle multiple worlds, code-switch between multiple languages and cultures – that’s a kind of a superpower! I hope that, particularly in this time that is so fraught with anti-immigrant sentiment, readers of The Serpent’s Secret are able to recognize and celebrate the strength of kids from immigrant families.
I also love fantasy as a genre, because while all books can strengthen readers’ imaginations, fantasy in particular is in the business of radical imagination. And I truly believe that to save our own universe, to imagine and then bring about a better and healthier world for all of us, we’re going to need a lot of brave young people armed with radical imagination. So my hope is that, on reading The Serpent’s Secret, readers’ imaginations are caught on fire!
Ultimately, I hope that, like Kiranmala, readers of The Serpent’s Secret can embrace their own inner heroism and slay whatever demons come their way!
Enter the giveaway for an advanced reader copy of THE SERPENT’S SECRET by leaving a comment below. You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be determined on January 21, 2018 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.
If you’d like to know more about Sayantani and her novel, visit her website: http://www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer/ Or follow her on twitter : https://twitter.com/Sayantani16