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Face to Face with Gita Wolf, head of Tara Publishing
by Swapna Dutta*

Gita Wolf, one of the most original and creative voices in contemporary Indian publishing, started Tara Publishing in 1994. Trained as an academic in English and Comparative Literature, she opted to write and publish books for children because of her special interest in communication, both visual and literary. Over the years, she was joined by other writers and publishing professionals who could visualize Tara's unconventional objectives. Wolf herself has written over a dozen books for children and adults, many of which have won prestigious awards such as The Very Hungry Lion, which won the Alcuin Citation in Canada in 1997, and Hensparrow Turns Purple which won the 1999 Biennale of Illustrations Bratislava plaque.

How would you describe the current set up of Tara?
Tara consists of a core group of writers, artists and designers who function as a creative collective. We are a small and independent publishing house based in Chennai, India. We work with a range of adventurous writers and artists. We also create books in house.

Can you tell us a little about the others?
There is V.Geetha—a historian and writer, and Sirish Rao, a novelist. Rathna Ramanathan is a graphic designer with her own studio. She designs the majority of Tara's books while C. Arumugam, a screen printer, is in charge of production.

How do all of you visualize Tara?
We see Tara as a space where exceptional writers, artists and designers can explore their concerns. We collaborate with a range of talented people from all over the world, with whom we build long-standing working relationships.

Why did you decide to publish books for children?
It's a long story. As a parent, I had a hard time finding good books, especially Tamil books for my child. In fact, we all felt the need for good children's writing.

What is your concept of a good children's book?
A good book is something to which a child should turn with pleasure. It is something which will stay with the child long after s/he has grown into adulthood. Reading widens a child's experience in a way that passive entertainment—like watching television—can never do. That's because it requires a child to use his or her faculties of imagination and identification. At one level, this takes place, with language, in listening and finding pleasure with sound.

What makes a good children's story?
A good story needs to be told from an appropriate, child-centered point of view. It is not a watered-down version of adult fiction. As for other elements, a good children's story needs a strong plot and humour. Detail is very important in children's writing. Everything must be accurately described. I also feel that a resolution or happy ending is important. Without it the child carries an unexplained sense of loss.

Do you feel that children's books in India don't quite fit the bill?
Traditionally, children's books in India are very didactic and moral. We at Tara wanted to break away from this, to focus on the pleasures of books. In a nutshell, we favour work that is radical, witty and politically rigourous.

How do you go about it?
Since our publishing agenda is daring, we work on creating a constituency for it, through readings, performances, workshops, and exhibitions. Ideally, we'd like a place in the mainstream, rather than in an 'alternative' niche.

Any problems that you face?
It is hard to build a market in a country like India. Among our woes are a very poor infrastructure, high production costs, and no government support. Add to this highly price conscious book buyers, and our commitment to quality becomes a heroic struggle. But although quality production is an enormous problem I strongly feel that it is not an area to compromise on.

Anything else you would like to add as a publisher?
As a publisher, I feel that parents should support and encourage the production of good material. We need to break out of the vicious cycle of publishers hesitant to experiment with innovative writing for children and parents who complain that there are no good Indian books for children.

Let's get back to the subject of books. Your first book, Mala, A Woman's Folktale explores the gender issue. Can you tell us something about it?
Mala, I hope, will be part of a series of book which will explore gender issues. It is meant for readers of twelve years and above. It has a fairly demanding text and illustrations.

What is the basic theme of the story?
It is the story of a little girl who wishes she were a boy, so that she might fight a demon which terrorizes her land.

What is the message or idea that you have tried to portray in the book?
The idea is not that women should be like men, but they should value their own skills and use it as source of strength. It is necessary to attach the traditional devaluing of women's qualities—qualities like gentleness, sensitivity, and the ability to communicate. Today's society tends to reflect the over-emphasis on so called male qualities—violence, aggression and competitiveness. I feel that a complete human being is necessarily a mixture of both these traits. Just as girls have to learn to depend on themselves and take on the outside world boys too need to be gentle and communicative.  

What do you think of folktales? Do you feel they provide a satisfactory source for children's literature? Or do you feel something is lacking there?
Folktales are good but with reservations. They do lack one important element, i.e. modernity. There are no bicycles, cars, buses or televisions in them, none of the familiar objects which make up an urban child's world. There is also another difficulty with folktales. As a genre they tend to be conservative. And they don't always question the existing norms.

Are your books primarily meant for Indian readers?
Yes, our books are generally created with the Indian reader in mind. But the India we come from is neither a timeless fount of wisdom, nor just another struggling, developing country. It is dynamic, frustratingly contradictory, often bleak and always interesting. This is our location.

Finally, what would you say is the goal of Tara Publishing?
We'd like to take our place in the publishing world not as representatives of an exotic niche, but with self assurance, as a part of world literature.

*Swapna Dutta is a well-known author and critic in India and is a regular contributor to PaperTigers.

Posted: December 2004

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Gita Wolf
More about
Tara Publishing
on PaperTigers:

Read reviews of
The Legend of the Fish
and Tiger on a Tree, our December Book of the Month.

More on the Web:

Visit the site of Tara Publishing



Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Then take a look at the latest PaperTigers: Books+Water project, the online literary journal
WaterBridge Review.



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