As I was growing up, I would search library shelves in the hopes of finding a character "like me". I never had much luck. One day, my elementary school librarian excitedly handed me a tattered copy of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. "It's set in India," she squealed. "It's the perfect book for you!"
"Um... OK," I stammered.
So, I graciously took the book home and read it. It wasn't about the India my parents knew and loved or the India that I frequently visited on long, hot summer vacations. I did not identify with Mowgli, the little Indian boy who was raised by wild animals (I doubt that anyone identified with Mowgli.)
Though I never revisited Kipling's India, I remained an insatiable reader throughout my childhood. I devoured Jane Austen's England, Harper Lee's Alabama, and Alice's Wonderland, still hoping to discover a world that mirrored my own.
In seventh grade, while sliding my favorite book - Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre - off a library shelf, I stumbled upon a book titled Dancing Princess by Jane Bothwell. I pulled the volume towards me and was floored to see an Indian princess, in a traditional North Indian dance outfit with bells encircling her ankles, on the cover.
Dancing Princess was a historical novel set in 16th century India during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Although Allaedi, the main character, wasn't exactly like me, she was close enough. We were both brown haired, brown eyed, brown skinned girls and we both loved to dance. I renewed that book again and again, carefully scrawling my name onto the index card pasted on the inside back cover each week.
Fast forward to 2002.
While browsing the young adult section in my local bookstore on my lunch break, a shocking pink cover caught my attention. It was Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. I flipped open the book to read the first chapter and couldn't stop reading the story of Dimple Lala, an Indian-American teenager growing up in New Jersey who comes of age in New York City. I was entranced. Desai Hidier had captured my hyphenated life - my very specific immigrant experience - quite accurately. I grew up in New Jersey and came to identify both as South Asian and as a writer in New York City.
I thought my two-decade-long search was over. I had found "me" in a book. Little did I know, my luck was just beginning...
* * *
Since Born Confused hit bookshelves just four years ago, there has been a burst of literature for and about South Asian children and teens. Kids scouring libraries and bookstores today will find a good handful of realistic contemporary stories, set in specific South Asian or South Asian diasporic cultures, as well as a South Asian literary magazine for children, Kahani. Now in its second year, Kahani was recently honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers.
This past May, five artists, writers, and editors, gathered at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City for a lively discussion about this recent boom: Marina Budhos (Ask Me No Questions, 2006), Ruth Jeyaveeran (The Road to Mumbai, 2004), Mitali Perkins (The Not-So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, 2005), Monika Jain (editor of Kahani), and I came together on a panel as part of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective's (SAWCC) Annual Literary Festival, Mixed Messages. SAWCC (pronounced "saucy") is a NewYork City-based grassroots arts organization dedicated to the advancement, visibility, and development of South Asian women artists. Mixed Messages was Sawcc's largest literary festival and overall featured more than 35 artists, including many writers.
The youth literature panel began with a short reading by all the participants. Budhos read an excerpt from her powerful novel, Ask Me No Questions, which details the experiences of two Bangladeshi teenagers, Nadira and Aisha, whose father is arrested and detained at the Canadian border. The sisters are subsequently sent back to New York City with their mother, and told to carry on as if nothing has changed. Perkins read from her forthcoming novel, First Daughter: My Extreme American Makeover. First Daughter is the first of two books featuring feisty blogger Sameera Righton, the nation's first Muslim-American First Daughter! Jeyaveeran read from a picture book-in-progress, Jain spoke about Kahani Magazine, and I capped off the reading with an excerpt from my essay "The First Time".
We discussed a myriad of topics, including why we write for young people ("Because writing for children is pure storytelling," Perkins told the audience. "You can't 'wow' young readers with intellectual flourishes; you just have to tell them 'what comes next.'") to whether the proliferation of South Asian children's literature was just a passing trend ("Not at all," we all agreed.).
That day in May, we also made a claim that while South Asian children's and young adult literature is on the rise, such books with boy protagonists are still quite rare. However, even this seems to be changing. I recently read Anjali Banerjee's forthcoming novel, Looking for Bapu (October 2006), the story of eight-year old Anu and how he comes to terms with the loss of his beloved grandfather. Like Budhos' Ask me No Questions, Looking for Bapu takes place in a post 9/11 United Sates and bravely recounts the experiences of South Asian young people in a very politically-charged America. I am also looking forward to Uma Krishnaswami's picture book, Bringing Asha Home (September 2006), which is about a biracial Indian-American boy who finds his own way to bond with his sister while his family awaits her adoption from India.
At the end of the panel, Budhos said: "This is an exciting time for those of us writing for and about South Asian children and teens. We have lots of stories to tell. And this is just the beginning."
* * *
Do I wish I had had books like Born Confused or The Not-So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen when I was a young reader? Do I wish I had received a copy of a delightful magazine like Kahani in my mailbox four times a year to bring in for show-and- tell? Definitely. Stories about experiences similar to mine would have been helpful in fostering a sense of cultural pride and validation when I was only one of few South Asian Americans in my sleepy suburban town. Interestingly, The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen was first published in 1993 wouldn't I have loved to have discovered this book then, when I was a freshman in high school? under the title, The Sunita Sen Experiment. The Book was re-edited, re-titled, and re-released in 2005 because the publisher felt that "the time was perfect to re-introduce this Indian-themed novel about a young girl's heartfelt attempt to straddle her two worlds."
As Marina Budhos said, we've just begun. I, for one, am writing stories that I would have liked to read as a young person. My colleagues' books are face front in the bookstore and being reviewed by major media. Soon, parents, teachers, and librarians will have stacks of books to recommend to voracious young readers - just as I once was - looking for their experiences reflected in the pages of a book.
posted: July 2006