Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Insights from Uma Krishnaswami

We are ardent admirers of Uma Krishnaswami here on Saffrontree. Her books, The Closet Ghost, Out of the way , Out of the way and  others have been featured here at ST. Her latest offering -  The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic also ties in with our theme for CROCUS 2013 - Migration. Here are some thoughts from Uma herself on writing for a multi cultural audience, using cultural references on.

ST: Tell us a little about your picture book The Closet Ghost. How did that story come about?

I had written a couple of realistic picture books at the time that the idea for The Closet Ghosts surfaced. I wanted to play with something more fantastic, with a Hindu mythological figure making his way into a contemporary setting. I wrote the story a number of different ways before the Hanuman statue showed up in the child character's room. Once he arrived, however, the ghosts in turn appeared quite naturally. The moving and the loss of connection with a friend is a theme that comes up quite often in my stories. When I was a child we moved a lot, which may have something to do with it. Much later, after the book was published, I remembered scary stories my aunts used to tell me as a child--a soak-pit in the garden where they told me the goblins and ghouls lived, and a gardener named Hanuman. Were these things all linked up--who knows? The subconscious mind makes its own odd connections.

ST: It was interesting to see Hanuman woven into your narrative. How did children respond to that? Did it differ by the culture the kids came from?

Not really. I've read the book to groups of children from many backgrounds, most of whom are not familiar with the cultural context. They understand his role in this story--as a powerful ally who uses wit to teach. Kids who know Hanuman from the traditional stories of course find an added delight in his appearance here

ST: Chachaji's Cup - we would love to hear the story behind that one.

I belong to the post-partition generation, but I have heard many stories of that time from my mother who lived in Delhi in 1947. We tend to speak to children about the glory of Independence but not the sadness that came with it. I wanted to show that a story of sadness and survival could be told to children, that there are ways that young people can understand how complex life can be and how history can affect real people. The cup is a real cup, about the right vintage, that I used to play with as a child. The story behind it is fictional but the composite of many such stories that I heard from my mother.

ST: How do multi-cultural books fare in terms of sales compared to mainstream themes? Who is the main TG?

You know, those are two good questions. For me the target audience is all children. I don't think we ought to assume that only children of South Asian origin would be interested in stories from or about the region or its people. If the story is a good story, it ought to speak beyond those boundaries. That said, the reality is that the number of books with characters of color, by writers of color, in the United States, has stayed alarmingly static over the years.The CBC Diversity Blog is just one of the efforts being made to keep this conversation alive and bring a more nuanced view to it. So we can't say we're there, not by a long shot.

ST: How did the series with Dini come about? Bollywood of course has a lot of visibility in the US. What next from you in this series?

Dini and her family came first. The abbreviation of her name was a gift from a student of mine who was taking a class with me at the time when I was working on an early draft. She was a Nandini whose name had been shortened to Nandu by her family and as a child and teenager she hated that, so she called herself Dini. Dolly and the whole Bollywood trope came later but it was only when I suddenly began to hear the narrative voice in my mind that the story really took off. The Nilgiris setting of the first book drove a lot of the story, and then it seemed only natural that they should all come to the DC area so the friends could be reunited and Dolly could have a brand new setting for her adventures. What next? I have no idea. I'm taking a break from them now to work on something else for a while.

ST: Any anecdotes, thoughts on identity/immigrant issues you would like to share with our readers?

When I first came to the United State the biggest thing I had to worry about was figuring out the direction from which the traffic was going to be bearing down on me when I crossed the road. I also found that in a hallway or on a sidewalk, people would step to the right to avoid bumping into me, and I'd step instinctively to the left, so I was always doing these little dances with total strangers in public places. I decided that was a lesson in dealing with the unexpected--be quick on your feet, and most of all, be prepared to dance!

ST: Who are some of the newer voices in Children's literature today for preschoolers of South Asian origin, Living in the US?

Preschoolers? That's a narrow audience, so let me think. Pixar animator Sanjay Patel has done a couple of wonderful, whimsical picture book confections. Divya Srinivasan's work is lovely too, and not culturally defined. Neither are Varsha Bajaj's first two books. That's interesting in itself. In some ways it's encouraging, because I'd hate to think that South Asian American writers should be limited to South Asian content. Still, I'd love to see more from emerging writers of South Asian origin. I know there are new stories waiting to be told.


Choxbox said...

Lovely and totally relate to the being quick on the feet and being ready to dance parts, even though here in Blighty our left and right are the same as theirs!

ranjani.sathish said...

Thanks Art and Uma for a very interesting interview- especially the story behind Chachaji's cup.I can totally relate to the road crossing in US..I used to feel so anxious about crossing the road and the confusion regarding the traffic direction !

Sheela said...

Thank you Uma, and Art! Chachaji's Cup really resonated with us. When the cup accidentally breaks and coincidentally Chachaji takes ill, it was pretty tense reading...

Sadly, dwindling school and library market, reliance of publishing industry on book store sales, choosing homogeneity over diversity... many factors can be attributed to the lack of increase in multicultural books, and yet there is no viable solution in sight -

sandhya said...

An illuminating set of Qs and As. Thanks, Uma and Art for getting them for CROCUS.

The Dini books are howlarious, and the kid has thoroughly enjoyed reading them, as have I. A curious observation - when I was scouting around for books to review on the theme, I realised, that most are on a serious, if not downright grim lines. I am speaking of fiction. It was refreshing to come across a couple that are not. If it wasn't for the fact that I knew these might be spoken about in this interview, I would have chosen to review them.

Praba Ram said...

Thank you Uma, it's an honor to host your interview on Saffron Tree! A pleasure to get the inside scoop behind your favorite writer's work.

I have always loved offering South-Asian voices to my kids. But sadly, I guess, we haven't seen too many new authors writing for little ones in the last six years, on Indian-American experiences.

Yes, agree wholeheartedly on the dancing part - while in the US, did the dance for many years, and now back in India and sort of there with some new jigs. Thankfully the word, move, seems a bit settled in our new home. :)

Artnavy said...

Agree with Sandhya

It is really uplifting to read happy accounts of migrations despite its share of conflict

Anonymous said...

Thank you Art for your enthusiasm about my books. Sandhya, yes, that's exactly why I wrote the Dini books, because everything else on migration was kind of grim and earnest and I felt the conversation could use another perspective. Also, do review them if you wish--the more they get talked about the more they're likely to get into kids' hands.

Related Posts with Thumbnails