Thursday, January 24, 2008

Saffron Tree meets publisher - Sonali Herrera of MeeraMasi talks on multiculturalism, children's books and parenting.




Sonali Herrera (with sister Sheetal Singhal) founded a publishing house, MeeraMasi, in the San Francisco Bay Area, two years ago. Today, MeeraMasi realizes Sonali’s dreams – it publishes books for children in English alongside translation, transliteration and audio aids in Indian languages that positively promote the traditions, culture and heritage of India. In a nutshell, MeeraMasi proves to be a wonderful resource to help children and parents living in a land not native to them, to connect in some way, to their roots, culture and heritage.

Once an immigrant child herself, now a parent raising kids in a multicultural family, and an entrepreneur with cross-cultural aspirations, Sonali brings to Saffron Tree valuable perspectives from her rich cultural experiences. Although the dialogue below revolves around Indian languages and immigrants of Indian origin, simply based on Sonali’s background, the essence of the conversation can be extrapolated to any other culture or language across the globe.

Meera Sriram met with Sonali during a Bay Area Diwali Mela in November 2007 for an informal chat on MeeraMasi, its challenges, multiculturalism and resources for children being raised in a foreign land.

We hope that readers of Saffron Tree, parents and children, will benefit from the sentiments on parenting and multiculturalism for children discussed in this conversation, in addition to gaining awareness about worthy resources available in plenty for children. This, we believe, will promote quality reading, value-added growth and a better living among families, which is the purpose of this interview.

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Meera: What was the motivation to create MeeraMasi?

Sonali: The motivation to create MeeraMasi was pretty simple. I had kids and I was looking for something to help me pass my culture; pass my language (Hindi) to my kids. The problem is, I don’t read or write Hindi. I went to India, I tried finding books. First of all, in India, the books that they have are in English, like nursery rhymes. They are all English books! And the others (Hindi rhymes) are just passed on from generation to generation.

My husband is Guatemalan, I am Indian. He speaks Spanish, I speak Hindi..somewhat..(chuckles) and we both speak English. So, we are a multicultural family. And I saw him speak Spanish so perfectly and I thought oh..gosh, what am I going to do? How am I going to do this? I have to do it. .It is important to do it. But I realize that after you have the kids and at that point there is not a lot of time to go back to Hindi class! I want my kids to hear the sounds properly, especially 0-6 years is such an important time in life to absorb languages.

So, it just got me thinking. What you need to do is create something. I went to my sister and I said lets just go with nursery rhymes because at that time my daughter was one year old and I was pretty desperate for some nursery rhymes to read to her. So, we started with western nursery rhymes and we translated them. We adapted them into Hindi. So choti moti makkadi was itsy bitsy spider and bunty babli is jack and jill and soye ho kya is are you sleeping? And then we realized we needed to add an audio component as well. That’s how MeeraMasi came about. We came about with one set of nursery rhymes that I wanted for my children but then what ended up happening was it went into this whole publishing venture and now we are in our sixth title and its great.

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Meera: What are your thoughts on present day multicultural resources that are actually available and accessible to kids growing up here? What do you think is lacking and what do you think are the better things that they have access to?

Sonali: Well, today I think kids ( of especially Indian immigrants) are much more fortunate than kids who, may be, came here 30 years ago which is the case with me. Back then we did not have a lot of Hindi classes, nothing formalized. But what we have today is nice. There is an abundance of services in relation to culture and language - we have dance classes and other language classes. We have religious classes, Sikh camps, Hindu camps, Gandhi camps...we have a camp for everything! So at the service end of things, I think we are doing great. But products, not so abundant (chuckles). What’s in a home to support some of these classes and this exposure that children are getting? There is not much for children to identify with. They have this Hanuman CD now, it is great but it is super violent! My 4 year old is not enjoying the Hanuman CD, she is freaked out! Yes, it is part of our mythology and that is the actuality of it. However again, it brings me back to the lack of fun products that’s out there. There is nothing fun. So, whether it is toys or CD-ROMs or books, there are some publishers out there who are trying to do what we are doing and I think that is awesome. I hope we can all plan together and make a much better market for this because I think it is a needed market and I think the sooner we realize the better. Because otherwise you will end up like me…30 years later (laughs out loud) struggling…

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Meera: When you are trying to present something as complex as multiculturalism or global diversity to kids, it needs to be appropriate. So, what do you think will be an appropriate presentation of such a heavy subject to kids, especially really young.

Sonali: I think that’s a good question. The best way to do this is fun…something fun. A child is much more willing to accept it than if you were to say lets sit down and learn the history of India today. Once children are excited about something, it is natural to become more curious about that thing. So, when they become more curious and as they grow, they will be more open to learning more about those...it is a slow growth. Age appropriateness and in small bits.

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Meera: It is funny you mentioned the Hanuman CD. One thing that I have always wondered is this – I grew up in India and I had all these religious and cultural influences around me and I never questioned mythology. But with kids here, when you are making a conscious effort to present mythology to them they are definitely going to have difficulty handling it. Is it fiction or non-fiction? So how do you think kids growing up here will handle mythology? How are we going to present it or should we even present it?

Sonali: Oh, I think you should definitely present them. Yes! For sure. You have to present them. If that is something important to you as a parent, then you should be presenting it...if that is not important to you then that’s your own prerogative. As you said, in India, it is very environmental. You absorb it because it is intermingled in everything that is happening there and here it is an extreme conscious effort. But I do think that you have to soften the kids up to first being Indian and identifying with that and understanding that they are OK with that. And I think you can do all of those things by maybe age 6 and then present more complex mythology to them after that, between ages 6 and 12.

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Meera: This is another thing you mentioned, that MeeraMasi is focused on creating products for the 0-6 age group, preschoolers and early elementary kids. Do you plan for MeeraMasi to have products that handle more complex cross cultural issues for older children?

Sonali: We have been in this business for almost two years now and it is important for us to stay focused on the 0-6 years market for another couple of years. We feel it is important to create a solid portfolio before we can move on to other age categories. For now, publications like Kahani are great resources for older kids. They deal with a lot of complex issues and at this time I am going to let them deal with that (smiling)! So, for the next year or so we are going to focus and do great with what we are doing now and then we will naturally progress to reach an older audience.

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Meera: You mentioned that you currently have 6 titles and that you plan to do some more. What do you think are the challenges of running a publishing house that publishes mostly in a language that is not local?

Sonali: The main challenge is to get the mass market media. When you say bilingual, to stop automatically assuming it is Spanish and English. First, we actually have to go out there and let people know that Indian language products exist because they don’t know these options are around. Then we have to show them that there is a market for them. Somebody in Ohio might not know about MeeraMasi and what we do. Awareness is a big thing and without it we are not going to survive. So, we are constantly talking about it. We also need the support from Indian people. That’s key. A lot of times, Indians have this mentality of “I’ll just go back to India and get those books”, but why wait to go to India and search for those books. About 30-40 years ago, they (immigrants) wanted to assimilate and make it all more American and they did not teach their native languages to children. But now that’s not the case. It’s the case to turn things around - to accept and honor your heritage. I think that it is important because it shapes who you are.

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Meera: I would like to mention something here – I have heard many times that people want to go back to India and pick up the books but when it comes to children growing up here I think they cannot fully relate to the books that are brought from India. I think it has to be written and created by people like you and others who have the experience of being raised here, built in within them. Moving on Sonali, what kind of books did you grow up reading, especially as an immigrant child?

Sonali: I read all kinds of books. Amar Chitra Katha, heavy bound and plastic! We read a lot of them. But we also read mainstream books. Definitely classic authors. But somehow I was not a Dr.Seuss kid because my parents did not know that stuff! But then I started reading older books like Shel Silverstein and other good stuff like that. I now continue to read those books to my kids. Good literature doesn’t go bad.

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Meera: What can your readers look forward to from MeeraMasi?

Sonali: I am very excited to say that we just got the next installment of Jay and Juhi. So, they are going on another adventure and it is going to be out in Summer (2008) and we are hoping that it will continue. The goal with Jay and Juhi is to keep them going on adventures throughout the country (India) and beyond. Why stop in India, let’s go everywhere. And then possibly another beginner book, since we have expanded into Punjabi and Gujarati in the beginner book series. We are also venturing into the DVD world with two different character series slated to also come out in Summer. So, as much as we want only to be a book publisher, we have, in the past 18 months realized very quickly that people want a supplement DVD that is age appropriate.

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Meera: Down to our last question…do you visit Saffron Tree? Do you have any suggestions for our improvement?

Sonali: I have been to Saffron Tree a couple of times. I think the first time I stopped by was while I was doing a search and I am not sure how I ended up there, but I did, and I think the site is fine in terms of organization but I do think that awareness of Saffron Tree is not enough. I think people like me who are more interested in giving their children quality reading will be more appreciative of that site. But I didn’t know about it and I just stumbled upon it. And I think that’s the problem with a lot of good things.

2 comments:

Praba said...

Sonali - Good luck to you on Meera Masi. Enjoyed reading your motivation for MM and your perspectives on parenting in a cross-cultural environment. Thank you so much for taking the time for the interview.

Meera

Enjoyed your thought provoking questions. Great interview!
A neat treat for readers at Saffron Tree!

On a side note - would be nice if folks delurk and we get to hear their thoughts on what they think about the various issues discussed here... :-)

utbtkids said...

Meera, good interview. Sonali has a valid point about spreading awareness about Saffron Tree.

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