Interview with author Kashmira Sheth
Born in Bhavnagar, India Kashmira Sheth moved to the United States at the age of 17. She's the award-winning author of picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction, including Monsoon Afternoon, Blue Jasmine, and Boys Without Names.
She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Right away I was interested in the idea because growing up in India I had seen children working in roadside cafes, selling things in railway stations and working on farms. I knew they were not privileged like me to attend school, play, and enjoy their childhood. Before I wrote the book I did some initial research on the subject and continued my research during a trip to India.
Boys Without Names is also a testament to the power of storytelling to connect people and give hope. The scenes where Gopal, defying the imposed silence, tells the other child laborers his stories and listen to theirs are unforgettable. What can you tell us about incorporating storytelling into the narrative framework of this novel?
When I started thinking about child labor and all the cruelty my protagonist must endure, I wanted to give him some special gifts. Gopal has a loving family and a strong bond with nature. But I knew that in the course of the story family and nature must be taken away, and yet he must have something that can keep his spirit alive and hopeful. Since Gopal lives in a country that has a rich tradition of oral storytelling, it was natural that he would have heard many stories. I knew those stories would sustain him and keep him dreaming of his freedom.
When I was growing up, stories were a big part of my life. Each festival, each celebration had some tale behind it.
Too often we see news about poverty and suffering. It is easy to forget those reports because we are not invested in the people who are suffering. They are far away from our own safe and secure world. However, when we read books, these people and their suffering stay with us.
In Boys Without Names Gopal and the other boys’ lives are so different from most children’s lives in the U.S, but I hope readers connect with the boys through their stories. I was thrilled to hear some young readers say that they felt like they were one of the boys. Reading Boys Without Names transported them to the hot attic in Mumbai and they were able to empathize with the boys.
I believe the readers who are invested in Gopal, Dimpled Chin, Thick Fingers and the others boys will be enraged, saddened, and touched by their stories, and will feel connected to them. I hope young readers will learn something about the beauty and strength of the human spirit, and about our connectedness, from their story. And maybe reach out and help others who are less fortunate.
That is what happened when I wrote my blog post. One of the Indian newspapers had a story about child labor. In India alone sixty million children are working instead of going to school. Worldwide there are 218 million children involved in child labor, each one not unlike the boys I wrote about. I also stay involved by following stories about child labor and those who fight against it, and supporting charities in India that educate disadvantaged youth.
What first drew you to write stories connected to your Indian roots?
I feel that it was my immigrant experience that drew me back to my roots. When my children were growing up I read with them. Growing up in India I had not read English language classics like Charlotte’s Web, Sarah Plain and Tall, or The Secret Garden. While reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books I started thinking more and more about my own childhood. It was natural that when I began writing I went to my own childhood for inspiration and emotions.
Like most immigrants, when I first came here I tried to survive, to fit into this society, to become part of American culture. Now writing these stories has made me come full circle, so to speak.
Several of your books take place in Mumbai and deal with contemporary issues faced by Indians in India and elsewhere. Which of your books would you say most reflect your own cultural background?
When I began writing I asked my dad many questions about my great-aunt’s life as well as about life in small villages in India. He was a passionate storyteller and I gathered a lot of material from him.
While I was working on the story my dad passed away and I couldn’t go back to the notes and tape recording of his voice. I abandoned the project. Luckily, that’s when my first novel, Blue Jasmine, was accepted for publication and I became busy revising it. After that my second novel, Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet, came out. So by the time I went back to Keeping Corner I was ready and determined to write the story.
What about your two intergenerational picture books, My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon? What inspired them?
My Dadima Wears a Sari was inspired by my mom and my daughters, Rupa and Neha. My mom lives with me and she always dresses in a sari. Growing up, my two daughters were fascinated by this. In fact, I used my daughters’ names in the book. I sent Yoshiko Jaeggi, the illustrator, some pictures of my mother in her sari and of my daughters while she was working on the illustrations.
Monsoon Afternoon was inspired by my own childhood. It was a collage of memories of monsoon afternoons with my family that I was able to capture into a story.
There are so many!… Christopher Paul Curtis, Narinder Dhami, Kevin Henkes, Uma Krishnaswami, Lois Lowry, Linda Sue Park, Sara Pennypacker, Mitali Perkins, Sandhya Rao, Vandana Singh, Maggie Stiefvater, Mildrid D. Taylor, Jacqueline Woodson…
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on multiple projects. The first one is a middle grade novel about an immigrant child who is torn between his own desire to stay in the U.S. and his mother’s wish to return to India. It is set in my own neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin.
The second one is a chapter book/young middle grade novel. It’s about an Indian-American child, Ishan Mehra. He’s a lovable, artistic, and mischievous eight-year-old boy. His out-of-the-box thinking gets him in scrapes and trouble but somehow it also gets him out of them. I hope to develop Ishan’s character into a series.
The third project is a picture book called Tiger in My Soup. It will be published in the Spring of 2013 from Peachtree Publishers.
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers' Managing Editor and Producer
Posted October 2010
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