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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

American Born Cultured Desi-kids

Saris, trips to India, learning yoga, visiting grandparents, Indian festivals, the monsoon season, the antics of Krishna and Ganesha, these are just some themes of the many books for South Asian children (ages 4 through 11) that are being published by large and boutique publishing houses alike. A visit to the children’s section of your local library, and a search for South Asian kids books at any store results in a huge selection of books by south Asian and non south Asian writers alike. With colorful illustrations and excellent presentation, these books have evolved. They are well written and enjoyed by children and parents alike.
Indian American parents have always struggled to balance their children’s education and experience between a western lifestyle and a traditional Indian upbringing. While they want the children to get along with their American peers and do well socially, there is also that need to ensure that these kids understand their heritage and culture. This not only enriches their experience but it also gives them a much-needed feeling of security and identity. What better way to do this than with books and stories that have protagonists that share a similar culture, skin color, language and tradition.
Even five years ago, a search for these kinds of books would have only returned a handful of titles. Why this sudden surge in books for South Asian children?
Lois McAuliffe, the Director of Children’s Services at the Ashland Public Library, in Ashland, MA, says that anytime an immigrant population grows there is a corresponding growth in the need for books for that population. She believes that, “People who come to the States from India and China in particular tend to be very well educated and have high expectations for their children. The parents read a lot themselves and stress reading in their homes.”
Uma Krishnaswami, a New Mexico based former child writer, who has been writing children’s books since 1992 believes that it is a matter of demographics, “We've simply reached a significant number, and now second-generation South Asians are having children and looking for books that reflect who they are.”
“I speculate that the South Asian children's market has always been there but has been off the radar for publishers in this country until recently. The realization that this market exists is probably responsible for the current interest in it. I would like to think that part of the reason is also a growing realization that there is much about South Asian culture, history and current affairs that is interesting and important in today's increasingly small world,” says Vandana Singh, Massachusetts based author of “Younguncle Comes to Town” and a professor of Physics.
Interestingly, like Singh, some of these books by Indian American authors and parents, were products of their search for books for their own children. Books that they felt that their children could relate to. Enakshi Choudhri is author of “Naina’s Adventures”. She says that her idea for writing a children’s book really came from her experiences in raising her daughter.
“When my daughter was about two and a half, I started scouring libraries for books with protagonists who resembled her. After some effort, I managed to procure a children’s book with a Chinese-American protagonist at our local library. Ishani, my daughter, was delighted to see that the child in the book had black hair just like her and called her father Baba just like she did. It became her favorite book for a while,” says Choudhuri.
Choudhuri like many Indian American parents, contemplated upon the process of identity development in immigrant children. “I know it’s hard to believe, but children start noticing differences in color of skin, hair and other constructs very early on in life.”
She relates the incident that spurred these reflections, “My daughter was barely two and a half years old when another child in her Montessori school asked her why her skin was brown and not white. At that age, the child was not making any negative or positive associations with skin color but was observing the difference and was curious about it.”
Choudhuri, a Ph. D in Counselor Education, believes that these are the beginnings of identity development in children, “Such observations then encourage a child to develop associations around certain constructs and the nature of these associations, whether they are positive or negative, is highly dependent upon the input he or she receives from the people in his or her environment or the media.”
“Today, more than ever before, the media has a strong impact on a child’s sense of self. Reading books or watching TV programs or playing with toys utilizing strong immigrant protagonists helps the immigrant child develop a positive self-identity. Most children like to see themselves in the books they read. In a way, it affirms their identities,” says Choudhuri.
These books handle diverse subjects, subtly yet precisely. Uma Krishnaswami has written about the Monsoon season in India, a clumsy Indian child who learns yoga to bring balance to her life, a little Indian boy who is waiting at home while his adopted sister arrives from India, a little girl who finds comfort in a new home with the help of the Hindu god Hanuman, a chachaji who is the personification of the troubled partition between India and Pakistan and many others.
Besides these contemporary themes there are the mythological stories that have come down generations, like the stories of Krishna, stories of Ganesha, tales from the Panchatantra, stories about festivals like Diwali, Stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharath. Many of these stories, like The Butter Thief and The Gopal stories are written in a simple style with minimal violence and gore for not just the south Asian American children but for anyone who might be interested in knowing more about world religion and culture.
Fantasy themes like the story of “In Search of The Thunder Dragon,” written by Sophie and Romio Shrestha besides being a visual treat, beautifully weaves a mystical story in with elements of Tibetan Buddhism and Bhutanese culture and legends. “Naina’s Adventures” by Enakshi Choudhuri, is the story of a little girl who travels to India while it is nighttime in the US to visit her grandparents, aboard a mysterious flying train. She must return before it is morning in America and before her parents wake up and find her missing. Here she learns why it is night in one part of the world while the other part is just waking up.
A writer writing about a familiar subject is one thing. However an intriguing fact is that many authors of these South Asian themed books are written and illustrated by non-Indians. However, all these books, the stories and illustrations are simple, educational, entertaining, colorful and artistic. Barefoot Press has published several books about India, by authors who are both of South Asian origin and otherwise. Mandala Publishing, is another such organization which publishes several mythological stories about Krishna and other Hindu gods.
Amy Novesky is one such author, of “The Elephant Prince”, a story about Ganesha who traveled to India shortly before she started writing, “It was a life-changing experience in many ways. I was awe-inspired by how far away and ancient it felt there -- like going back in time. And, despite all the incredible physical poverty I saw, the people were so colorful and regal, curious and friendly,” she says. After returning, I was drawn to Indian mythology and was intrigued by the gods and goddesses, particularly by the elephant-headed god Ganesh. I wanted to know why he had the head of an elephant. And from there I fell in love with his mother, Parvati, and in her quest to have a child. That was something deeply personal and universal that I could relate to,” says Novesky.
For her the most challenging thing was getting “The Elephant Prince” right, for sure. She says, “It was not easy to retell an ancient Indian story -- and to write about gods and goddesses, no less. I questioned many times (and still do) my right to retell such a story. I've never thought of it as my story or my book. It has been very humbling, in the best way.”
To Novesky the most rewarding thing has been how welcoming the Indian American community has been to the book and to her. She says, “Writing this book has been my way of giving back to the people who inspired me on my visit to India, and particularly to the children I met, whom I will never forget. I hope to return to India one day and put books directly into their hands.”
Why then are publishers getting into this market? Is it lucrative for them?
Dana Goldberg, an editor at the Childrens Book Press, which has published some of Uma Krishnaswami’s works, believes that the mainstream publishing industry has been very slow to realize that people of color make up a huge portion of our population and they want books for their children that reflect their contemporary experience, as well as their heritage and history.
“I think it was only a matter of time before publishers started to do some research and realized that, strictly in marketing terms, the South Asian population in the US is well educated and buys books, and was being completely underserved by the industry (that is to say, there were very few books out there aimed at the SA community, if any!),” says Goldberg. “For us, the decision was based more on our mission of creating social change and promoting equity and cross-cultural understanding between all children, and on the fact that we had been hearing from parents and teachers and librarians that there really was a lack of culturally authentic books for South Asian children,” she adds.
“We're always looking to see which communities are being underserved by the publishing industry, and then we try to fill that void. We had identified a lack of picture books available for the South Asian community that featured South Asian children as protagonists and which were also written and illustrated by South Asians.... But as a really small nonprofit press, it takes a lot of research and somewhat of a leap of faith when we start publishing for a new market segment. South Asian books were on our short list of new markets to move into for the reason described above, and then, serendipitously, Uma Krishnaswami's manuscript came in (for Chachaji's Cup). We knew right away that this story was very special, and that she was incredibly talented, and that we had to publish it. We've received wonderful community feedback about Krishnaswami's two books,” says Goldberg.
Barefoot Books is another publishing house that endeavors to educate the world about different cultures and traditions. Among others, their two books “The Elephant Dance” and “Indian Tales’ open a window into life in India.
Novesky believes that the children's market has always looked to different cultures for inspiration, particularly in folktales and mythologies. “As our towns and cities become more and more culturally diverse, there is a need for such books to accommodate children from all over the world. On another note, I suspect the growing yoga culture in our country has led people to seek out South Asian stories that they can share with their children,” she says.
There are music clases, dance classes, language classes, and exposure to friends from the same culture; so children do get some understanding of their cultural heritage. Then are these books reinforcing what they already know? Is there still a need to educate South Asian and non-SA kids about things "South Asian" - culture, traditions, lifestyle, using these books as tools?
“If ‘educate’ is another word for rendering South Asia and South Asians familiar and their culture, traditions and lifestyle being accepted and integrated into the mosaic that most modern nations are evolving towards, then yes, I believe that there is a need to educate all kids in countries with South Asians immigrants about things “South Asian”. Further, if such an ‘education’ allows kids of South Asian origin to develop a secure foundation upon which they can build their rightful place in a modern nation’s identity, without losing a sense of their roots and their cultural heritage then I am all for it,” says Choudhuri.
Krishnaswami who has another perspective says, “I think there is a need to tell "our" stories, to add them to the larger conversation of children's stories. I think it's less about education than joining our voices to other voices out there. Any time you write a story with a "message" in mind the story falls flat. But the characters that I write about are the ones whose stories get into my head and won't go away until I tell them. Of course when I write those stories I do try to bust the stereotypes because my characters are individuals, with all the quirks and flaws of individuals. I want them to be seen that way, not as representative of any group. Anything I could possibly say about being from India would only represent my particular experience.”
“For the same reason there's a need for all children to be educated and exposed to cultures and traditions other than their own -- it makes our world a better place,” emphasizes Goldberg. The cultures, traditions, and lifestyles of the various South Asian communities merit celebrating as much as any other cultural group that lives and thrives in the US. South Asian kids deserve to see themselves and their cultures reflected and validated in the pages of books, and non-South Asian kids also benefit from access to those same books, which act as a window into another cultural world that they can learn from.”
McAuliffe believes that it is always a good idea to educate children about people from different countries and backgrounds, and it is especially important in a community that has a number of immigrants. She believes that children are naturally curious about someone who is “different” and we should be satisfying their curiosity in a positive and supportive way.
So what makes these books successful? Novesky says, “A beautifully written story, compelling characters, a true voice. But, sadly, oftentimes that's not enough. It takes an extraordinary commitment, on the part of the author, illustrator, publisher, bookseller, librarian, to get good books into the hands of readers. Success might mean an award, or two. But an award-winning book is not necessarily a monetary success.
The secret of Singh’s success is that she has never outgrown being a child. “I still read children's fiction, and there is within me a perfectly intact eleven-year-old who reminds me to view the world we live in with wonder. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child is not only refreshing for us jaded grown-ups but also essential. That is why I take children's literature seriously, as literature, and subject it to the same high standards as any other kind of writing,” says Singh. “I'm also inspired by my daughter, who is now twelve and has honed me as a writer by ruthlessly demanding original stories from me since she was a baby,” she adds.
Krishnaswami believes that there is no recipe for any successful childrens book. “I do think the story needs to be strong, the characters engaging, the voice convincing. Children are honest readers and they have no compunctions about closing books they find tedious, she says.
McAuliffe believes that books that offer something different, whether it’s a twist on a familiar story or filling a particular niche (for example: peanut allergies or having a parent who is stationed in Iraq) can prove successful. In her opinion the most important quality of a successful children’s book is superb writing and illustrations. “If the book has a brief text then every word needs to be carefully chosen. If it is a longer book the language should be rich with descriptive imagery,” says McAuliffe.
All this makes one wonder how the Indian American immigrants of yesteryears dealt with the identity crises. Choudhuri thinks that there was a time when new South Asian immigrants had no choice but to mold themselves to fit the norms of American society. “As they struggled to make their way in a society that was largely unfamiliar with their cultures, and was often times unforgiving of the socio-cultural and religious differences that these immigrants embodied, they would adapt or change their names, attempt to lose their accents and their language and retreat largely to the background of the national discourse and identity,” says Choudhuri.
“Today, there is less of a need to do that as modern nations are realizing the positives that these immigrants bring to their societies and are more accepting of their differences. Today’s South Asian immigrant does not have to totally lose his or her heritage to integrate into another society. They can be bicultural and multilingual and can traverse their different worlds without inviting overt ridicule or condemnation,” she adds.
Goldberg concurs, “For the same reason there's a need for all children to be educated and exposed to cultures and traditions other than their own -- it makes our world a better place. The cultures, traditions, and lifestyles of the various South Asian communities merit celebrating as much as any other cultural group that lives and thrives in the US. South Asian kids deserve to see themselves and their cultures reflected and validated in the pages of books, and non-South Asian kids also benefit from access to those same book, which act as a window into another cultural world that they can learn from.”
It is obvious that for most of these writers this type of writing is very personal. Novesky finds it creative and full of possibility. “I love the physical object that is a book, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly digital and revolving in the ether. I love writing them and I love reading them, especially with my son,” she says.
When Krishnaswami first started writing over 15 years ago, retold story collections were still being published quite widely in the children's market. “That's what I wrote for the first few years. The Broken Tusk, published in 1996, is the only one of those that is still in print. There was little original fiction being written then with South Asian characters. Was it hard? Yes, but I didn't know any better.
Compared to then, Krishnaswami deems that the landscape is now easier in some ways it's much more competitive. “Editors will read work with odd or quirky or unusual contexts now, where they may have balked earlier, but they're also very picky about what they'll publish. Bottom line, it has to sell. And many more houses now simply won't accept unsolicited work, or work that isn't sent in by a literary agent,” she says.
Like Krishnaswami and the others say, the market does keep changing. She feels that some of this is grounded in demographics--who's buying books and for what age range? Some of it is in response to ups and down in institutional purchasing by libraries and schools. And some of it is because new ways of writing, new ways of seeing the world, are being reflected in books for children. She articulates that, “The immigrant adjustment story seems old now, for example, but perhaps it will return in some new form. Writers have to be willing to challenge themselves, to grow their craft and keep their work fresh.”

This article by Visi Tilak was published in the magazine, "The Indian American."