Interview with Uma Krishnaswami
Award-winning author Uma Krishnaswami was born in New Delhi, India, and has been living in the United States since 1979, with her husband and son. Having experienced the rich oral tradition of her family and culture growing up, she started writing at a very young age. Now a full-time writer, she is also co-director of the Bisti Writing Project, where she teaches writing workshops for children. Her latest picture book is Closet Ghosts (Children's Book Press, 2006).
You have many young readers' books under your belt: retellings of traditional tales, picture books, and a young readers' novel. What did it take for you to one day be able to say "I am a writer", and which South Asian Voices, if any, have influenced you?
I took a class taught by Judy Morris at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, way back in 1994. She's since written a wonderful book on the subject, Writing Fiction for Children: Stories Only You Can Tell (University of Illinois Press, 2001). At the time she introduced me to a book called Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, first published in the 30's. In it Brande wrote about cultivating the writing self. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that the habits of writing could help define me as a writer. That I didn't have to "become" one. I was one already. I am forever grateful to Judy Morris.
When I first dared to contemplate writing for children, I tried to find authors with South Asian voices, and came up empty. So instead I read Laurence Yep and Yoshiko Uchida, looking for lessons I could learn. Later, I discovered Jamila Gavin's work. In her Three Indian Goddesses she plays with geographies of the mind, as I tried to do with my book Closet Ghosts. I also find myself returning often to read Ruskin Bond's books. His is an honored voice in children's literature in India, and for very good reason.
With Closet Ghosts you introduce readers to Hanuman, "the Hindu god with the face of a monkey and a human-like body". Can you tell us where the desire to make it a character in a modern context came from?
That came from an impulse to bring two strands of my writing together. I'd written retellings of traditional tales, and contemporary stories. When I talked to children in schools in the US about the traditional stories, they often asked, "Are those characters real?" It was important to them to define the stories as fiction, or nonfiction. And I wasn't ready to do that. So I'd say, "Well, in a sense, they're not, because I'm not going to meet Ganesha in the parking lot when I'm done with this talk. But in another sense they are, because they're about cultural beliefs and feelings." Then, on a trip to India in 2004, I spoke to children about The Broken Tusk, and no one asked that question. Maybe because many were so familiar with the mythology. So for them, as for me, the opposing ways to classify narratives weren't "false" or "true". They were "story world " or "everyday world"each as real as the other, but in different ways. So it occurred to me that I should try to push the question a little more, by pulling a mythological character into an everyday story and see what happened.
Your Indian heritage is often the fabric of your work. You have said about your book The Happiest Tree: "You become your best self from the inside out. Growing in the same way that trees do." I think that would be a fitting comment for some of your other books as well, such as Chachaji's Cup and Naming Maya, as they deal with heritage and identity issues. Is there a core message your books try to convey about that?
I suppose the message about identity that seems to keep emerging is that you shouldn't let anyone else tell you what that is--it's something you craft for yourself, using the elements of culture that are meaningful to you. You shouldn't have to fit into a box of someone else's making. Having said that I should add that my stories don't usually begin with a message. Mostly I try to ignore story ideas when they surface. I only pay attention if they recur many times in my notes and journals. I won't commit myself to one unless I'm pretty sure I'm willing to live with it for the next year or two or more. If there's a message, I try to let it reveal itself through the characters and the story.
In Chachaji's Cup, young Neel learns about his family history and heritage through his great-uncle Chachaji's stories about what his family faced during the time of the India-Pakistan partition. They were forced to leave their homeland and could only bring what they were able to carry with them. The fragile porcelain teacup his mother chooses to carry with her, and the fact that it survives their long journey on foot, comes to represent her resilience in the face of extreme hardship, and Chachaji's link to his family history. Neel's work of putting the cup back together after breaking it by accident is much like the work of one exploring one's own heritage. You can put bits and pieces of history together in a way that holds an image of all the things that shouldn't be forgotten... Is this ultimately the importance of holding on to heritage? To remind ourselves about those who came before us?
Yes, but I also think history tells us who we are. In Chachaji's Cup, both the sorrow of past events and the fact of survival feature in the story, because that's something the family carries on, whether it is acknowledged or not. If there are aspects of history that are troubling, we carry those in us. Children (or adults for that matter) may or may not realize they're internalizing these narratives from previous generations, so reminding ourselves of people who came before us is also an acknowledgment of our deepest selves.
Besides "finding leads and ideas for stories in unexpected places", as you said in an interview I read some time ago, you also do research for your books. How big a role do both of these things play in your work?
They're both important. I keep an occasional journal in which I try to catch those ideas when they show up. As I said, I don't develop them unless they recur several times. As for research, I think each book has its own particular needs. The greatest gift I was given while writing Naming Maya, for example, was the ability to sit and write in the place where the story was set, right on St. Mary's Road in Chennai, breathing in the diesel fumes and the red dust, hearing the kuyils singing in the frangipani tree. When I worked on Chachaji's Cup, on the other hand, I read as much as I could about the Partition, about what families went through in 1947. So with each new book I have to figure out how to find out what I need. Sometimes that finding out takes the form of research for factual information. Sometimes it calls for a more sensory, emotional knowledge of the story.
Your books can work as 'mirrors' to children and young adults from India or of South Asian descent who can see themselves reflected in them; or 'windows', for those who can learn about things they are not familiar with: Hindu myths and traditional stories, different aspects of life in India, the experience of being Indian-American, to name a few. If readers might experience your books this way, what's your experience as the writer?
I have always felt the window image worked for me, but mainly because I often felt that I was an observer. I feel that way still sometimes. I'll be in the middle of a conversation and someone will say something that strikes me as interesting or that might be relevant to a character in a story I'm working on. Suddenly I get the feeling I'm outside the conversation and I catch myself mentally filing lines of text away, thinking, That's good. I should use it sometime. It can even get contagious. Once when my son was in middle school, he came home saying, "I have a great line for you," and quoted something someone had said in class that day.
That's how I experience writing: I observe a lot, and I tag events and experiences and return to them later to see how they can be shaped into stories.
On the bio-page of your website you say that as a child you used to write stories and hide them in drawers with signs that read: "Danger", or "Enter at Your Own Risk". Do these warnings still hold true, in a way, for the books you've published since thensince every time one opens a new book one is in "danger" of learning new things, and having to reassess one's beliefs?
Yes. When you read a book you can think about it in your own mind, in your own terms, and you don't have to tell a soul. In some ways reading to yourself is the last private forum left in which you can assess and reassess your thinking about the world without the world listening in. Every other kind of communication is so public nowadays: blogs, chatrooms, listervs... Books can and do change minds--and sometimes lives. That's why book-banners take them on. It's also why those who want to pull books off library shelves mostly don't read the books they challenge.
Please tell us a little about your experience teaching writing workshops for children. It must be very rewarding to be in such close touch with young readers...
Yes, it is very important to me to keep listening to children. The work I do with children in schools and through the Bisti Writing Project keeps me in touch with their voices. It's also wonderful to realize that their writing process is not that different than mine, or than that of any adult writer. A draft is still a draft, and the thrill of seeing their name and stories in print is the same thrill I've always experienced, and still experience.
Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is worshipped at different times of the year in different parts of India, but I recall Saraswati Puja as part of the festival of Navarathri (meaning literally 'Nine Nights'). Saraswati Puja was a feature of the last 3 days of observance of this festival, during which you're not supposed to use her tools (books, musical instruments, and so on) for a period called Vidyarambham, or "the beginning of learning." We'd mark my books, school book-bag, and writing tools (clipboards, pens, pencils... even the typewriter, which was a favorite toy to me) with sandal paste, red kumkum powder, and turmeric. And I wasn't allowed to touch them until the next dayand I loved them dearly! I recall Saraswati Puja so clearly, but mostly because I felt deprived on that day.
We do observe many of the Hindu holidays in my home--well, the ones I can figure out the dates for, anyway, which is a lot easier now with the Internet. I have a small bronze Saraswati image on the printer table in my office. She's very tiny so we hot-glued her to one of those pennies you get at railroad stations, that the train ran over. I suppose you could say it's a nod to cultural fusion.
What are some of the emerging or established voices in children's literature from and about the Pacific Rim and South Asia you would recommend readers keep an eye out for?
There are many writers now in the US and Canada, writing with varying South Asian perspectives--Rachna Gilmore, Rukhsana Khan, Anjali Banerjee, Pooja Makhijani, Kashmira Sheth, to name a few. I hope to see more from Ruth Jeyaveeran. I loved her picture book, The Road to Mumbai, and was so pleased that she was selected to illustrate The Happiest Tree. In the UK, I know of Narinder Dhami, Tanuja Desai Hidier and, of course, Jamila Gavin. And now writers who are better known for their adult novels are also writing for the children's and young adult markets as well--Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Shyam Selvadurai are good examples.
Someone once asked me, Which of your books would you fight to keep in print? Maybe that's really the question. I think the answer to that one is The Broken Tusk. But in a way, perhaps because it's a collection of retellings of traditional stories, I feel it's not really "my book". I was just privileged to be able to write it. Maybe the answer to that question then should be 'the next one'. The one not written yet. They always hold the most promise.
Posted May 2006
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