Posts Tagged middle-grade books featuring south asian characters

South Asian Storytelling: Author Interview with Sayantani DasGupta, and Giveaway

                                                                 

 

Today, I am delighted to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing her third book in the middle-grade adventure fantasy Kiranmala series, THE CHAOS CURSE. Sayantani’s novels feature a powerful girl character who carries a quest on her shoulders and must overcome the conflict between good and evil.

 

  1. Tell us about “The Chaos Curse,” and how your journey has been writing three novels in the Kiranmala series?

The Chaos Curse is the third in the Bengali folktale and string theory inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Kiranmala, the 12-year-old protagonist of the series, thinks she’s just an ordinary immigrant daughter growing up in New Jersey, until she realizes all her parents’ seemingly outlandish stories are true, and she really is an Indian princess from another dimension. This third and final installment of the series finds Kiranmala having to once again battle the evil Serpent King, who wants to collapse all the stories of the universe together, destroying the multiplicity of the multiverse. It is varied and heterogeneous stories, after all, which make the universe keep expanding. The Chaos Curse finds Kiranmala once again teaming up with some old friends, as well as some new ones, to try and stop the Serpent King and his nefarious Anti-Chaos Committee. Will they save the stories in time to save the multiverse?

 

 

  1. Your work is about a powerful twelve-year old girl Kiranmala who is proud of her ancestral heritage, connected to her family, and has a strong desire to fight for good over evil. Can you discuss how you broke stereotypes with this series?

It took me many years to find an editor for The Serpent’s Secret, as ten years ago, there didn’t seem to be any room in the publishing industry for a funny, fast paced fantasy starring a strong brown immigrant daughter heroine. The answers were often similar: “We love your voice, but how about writing a realistic fiction story about your protagonist’s cultural conflict with her immigrant parents?” In other words, the story that was expected and wanted was one that reinforced stereotypes about South Asian immigrant parents (as oppressive, or regressive, or rigid) and allowed a certain type of expectation about South Asian parents and children to be fulfilled. Many marginalized communities face this narrative demand – to tell stories of conflict, stories of suffering, stories of pain – for others’ voyeuristic pleasure. But for that very reason, in our stories, joy is an important form of resistance. To portray a strong, funny Desi heroine with doting, loving parents is to break a stereotype that mainstream America has about our communities. Other ways this series breaks stereotypes is to challenge the notion of fixed good and evil altogether. For instance, the rakkhosh monsters who are pretty uniformly baddies in the first book get more nuanced in the second and third. Like any beings, there are good rakkhosh and bad rakkhosh, and Kiranmala must get over her prejudice against them, realizing that heroes and monsters are not based on family, or appearance or community, but rather, what someone chooses to do each and every day with their lives.

 

 

  1. In a previous interview, you shared with me that as a child, Bengali folktales were an important part of you finding your own identity. How did you personally approach storytelling in this series and make Bengali folklore accessible to young readers?

I grew up in the U.S. with very few positive ‘mirrors’ in the culture around me – not in the books I read, not in the TV shows and movies I watched. (Here, I refer of course to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops’ important framing of books as ‘mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.’) It was only when I would go on my long summer vacations to India that I could see heroes and heroines who looked like me – brown kids being strong and heroic, saving the day. When I thought about adapting these stories to an American audience, I was at first nervous – would I be doing these cultural stories an injustice? But then I remembered that folktales are oral stories, and as such often change in the telling. Even my grandmother would often sprinkle in her stories with little morals she wanted us grandchildren to hear on that particular day because of some naughty thing some cousin had done. So in changing and adapting the stories, I still felt like I was being true to their nature as oral folktales. Just like so many aunties and uncles and parents and grannies before me, I was simply adapting my storytelling to my audience.

 

  1. Although the story is predominantly in English, you sprinkle Bengali in the books too. Tell us about the power of weaving Bengali words into Kiranmala’s world.

I think many of us immigrant kids or Third Culture kids aren’t just multilingual, but we speak a mash-up of multiple languages at once. We speak Spanglish and Hindlish and in my case, Benglish. Sprinkling in Bengali words without apology and without italics was a way of not only honoring the language of my family and community, but reflecting the real way that so many of us communicate. I knew that non-Bengali speakers would pick up words and meaning from context, and that young Bengali readers might be seeing familiar words in an English book for the first time. That felt like a really important responsibility – and so I tried very hard to use Bengali pronunciation to guide the way I spelled these words (rakkhosh for instance instead of the more Hindi-fied “rakshas” or “rakshasa”). I also narrated the audio books myself, and tried very hard to keep to Bengali pronunciations of all these words – I wanted young listeners to hear their language pronounced correctly!

 

  1. You discussed in my previous interview that you hoped to inspire children to have radical imaginations through your stories. How has that manifested in your school visits and public readings/signings?

When I talk about radical imagination, I am usually talking about kids from marginalized communities being able to see themselves as protagonists in stories, see their own strength and heroism reflected back to them in them in books. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, right? And every kid deserves to see someone like them as a hero. But what I have found in my school visits is something else very interesting. I do meet many immigrant kids or Desi students who come up to me, hugging my books, so excited that Kiranmala is a brown kid, like them! But I also meet many non-Desi kids who are equally excited about Kiranmala’s adventures, and this feels very radical. When a gaggle of young blonde boys runs up to me telling me how much they love the series, I see something radical here too – their unquestioned ability to not just accept but cherish a strong girl as a hero, a protagonist of color. When radically representational of our todays, I truly believe that stories can help make better futures for us all by making space in all our imagings for liberatory possibilities of leadership, family and community. In other words, if you grew up reading strong brown female protagonists as a kid, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to rally behind a strong woman of color president, right?

 

 

 

  1. What has writing this series taught you about yourself? And what advice do you have for children, young adults, and adults who want to pursue writing?

When I was in practice as a pediatrician, I used to write prescriptions for reading. This is because stories are good medicine, in all the senses of that word. This same notion brought me to Narrative Medicine, the field in which I teach. And it’s this same impulse that has pushed me to write for young people. I guess what I’ve realized is that storytelling is a critical act of healing – particularly the sort of storytelling that is filling in the narrative erasures of the past – the gaps in positive representation that so many of us suffered through. I’ve also come to realize that fantasy is an amazing way to talk about oppression, prejudice, racism, justice. But at the same time, particularly when you’re writing for young people it’s also got to be a cracking good story. Young readers are unfailingly honest. They’re not going to let you get away with lecturing them or talking down to them. They know when they’re being respected and a story is speaking with and for them.

 

My advice to people of any age who are writing is this – follow the joy, follow the passion. Tell the story YOU want to hear first and foremost. Don’t follow trends, or worry about publication at first. Tell the best story that only you can tell. As Toni Morrison says (and I always tell students), “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And I truly believe each of us has the privilege and responsibility of telling our stories.

 

Enter the giveaway for a copy of THE CHAOS CURSE 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 Monday, March 9th, 2020, 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

South Asian Awards for Children and Young Adult Literature : Author Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

APALA is a professional library organization dedicated to cultivating Asian Pacific American leadership through mentorship and professional engagement, advancing social justice, and providing opportunities for dialogue and networking to promote the needs of Asian/Pacific American professionals and those who serve Asian/Pacific American communities.

Every year, the association (APALA) honors and recognizes individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literature and artistic merit. This year, author Uma Krishnaswami won the award in the children’s literature category for her book, “Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh”.

 

Today at MUF, Uma talks about her award, her writing life over the years,  and some of the key diversity issues in children’s and young adult literature.

 

Congratulations on the APALA award, Uma! What was it like winning the award for Step Up To the Plate, Maria Singh?

Uma: It’s a tremendous honor. Writing is such a solitary occupation. Even after all the work that goes into writing a book and nurturing it through successive revisions, through the editorial process and all the way to publication, you never know whether anyone’s going to pay attention to it. A book isn’t complete until readers have read it, and children can’t choose a book until some adult has first placed that book on a personal or library shelf. So the APALA award was a tremendous vote of confidence for my book. I’m deeply grateful.

 

In your interview at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations Blog, you mention that there is a groundswell movement with organizations like We Need Diverse Books and independent publishers like Lee & Low Books, Cinco Puntos Press, and Enchanted Lion to draw attention to diverse books as well as international and translated books. What are some initiatives that make these organizations and publishing houses effective?

Uma: Lee & Low was founded with a mission of diversifying children’s books, long before diversity became trendy. Their blog called early attention to the diversity gap in children’s publishing. Cinco Puntos is more specialized with its roots on the border of the US and Mexico, and they too have beautiful books like All Around Us by Xelena González and Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez.

To me, WNDB represents the next generation of writers and activists pushing for change. They are doing terrific work. They offer grants and awards for writers, retreats, internships in publishing, mentorships, book giveaways and they have been a powerful force in the movement to diversify not only books for young readers but the range of voices engaged in the creation and publication of those books. They are fierce and committed and they remind us that we can’t get complacent.

 

To what extent does incorrect representation of culture in diverse children’s books harbor the danger of inauthenticity and marginalize people of color?

Uma: I think it’s about complexity—being aware of how easy it is to resort to a stereotypical depiction of characters or a simplistic view of history. We have to be willing to do the work as writers to go beyond that, whoever we are. And we have to be respectful of the people we’re writing about, and aware of what our relationship is to those people. We have to know where our own boundaries and limitations lie. That is the best way to get around issues of inauthentic work. I’ll give you an example. There was a time when it was considered fine for a white writer to write an array of books, each set in a different country, each using a particular “foreign” culture as the driving plot element. So you’d have books getting rave reviews (we’re talking back in the 1990s) with, say, spunky girl characters, and all the settings would feel like tourist videos. The reviewers never got that, so who would even know, right? Well, young readers from those places, or from immigrant communities with roots in those places, would know. Of course they’d know. And they’d want to duck their heads under their desks when those books were being praised in classrooms. This certainly happened with books set in South Asian countries, written by well-meaning writers who’d never set foot in the region.

It’s changing. Publishers are more aware of the pitfalls of writing culturally specific books. But we can’t take our eyes off that target of diversity because it will keep moving and there will always be pushback.

 

From your experience of writing and teaching at Vermont College Of Fine Arts for many years, do you think the lack of adequate diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature is part of a broader set of issues relating to inclusivity?

Uma: Absolutely. Until diverse voices get included at every level—in student bodies and faculty at writing programs and retreats and conferences, and at every level of publishing—publishing and marketing and distribution choices will continue to be made with a narrow view.

 

What are some common misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about South Asian characters in North America? How do you see South Asian literature developing in the US in the foreseeable future?

Uma: I wrote about that years ago, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t studied a bunch of books lately to see if those trends persist. Do Americans still think Indian kids go to school on elephants? I have no idea.

But as to your second question, relative to literature for young readers, I see some very exciting new work coming out from talented writers. I’ll mention just a few: Sayantani DasGupta’s middle grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret. Book 2 in that series is out next year. It’s a wonderful mashup of mythic fantasy drawn from Bengali traditions, rollicking adventure, and utterly contemporary kid sensibility. Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar is historical fiction set against the backdrop of India’s independence movement. Nidhi Chanani’s graphic novel, Pashmina, takes on immigrant identity and the silence between a mother and a daughter with a fresh and genuine energy. I think what makes these books ring so true is that they come from deep, personal roots. In each, the author cares deeply about context and worldview, culture and connections. And so each is complicated, as all cultures are, but they’re not explained by the text. In each, the story comes first.

Not so much what I see but what I’d like to see: more YA, more humor—oh please, more humor! More stories for younger readers. Chapter books. Fantasy. Fewer oppression tales about girls fighting unjust societies.

 

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out as a writer?

Uma: What a good question. I had to think about this.

At first, I often felt misunderstood. Early on, someone once asked me why I didn’t just write about “regular” kids instead of always focusing on kids with Indian connections—as if that was somehow “irregular!” And the opposite as well—a few in the Indian community were affronted that I’d put a divorce into my first novel, Naming Maya, as if that reflected badly on us as an immigrant group or something. So I sometimes wonder if it would have easier if those criticisms hadn’t cropped up. But I don’t think so. They gave me something to push against, and in all they strengthened my resolve to keep going.

If anything, I wish no one had given me any advice at all. Much of the advice I did get about conflict, character development, story structure, and so on never fit any of the stories I was writing, which led to a lot of wasted time while I tried unsuccessfully to make my stories fit into boxes that weren’t built for them. In the end I did best when I dumped a lot of it and paid more attention to my own instincts.

To learn more about Uma and her books, visit her website at https://umakrishnaswami.org/.