When we began to think about creating an online book group that would appeal to readers of all ages, there were classic titles that came quickly to mind. Finding books that corresponded to the PaperTigers’ goal of understanding different cultures through children’s literature was a challenge and an opportunity for exploring new reading adventures.
I was lucky. The first book I found on my initial foray into this new world of books that would appeal to both adults and children was one that immediately captured my heart and mind—Naming Maya by Uma Krishnaswami.
I’ve worked in bookstores for decades but this novel was one that I hadn’t encountered before. I was eager to hear other people’s opinions of it and to have the chance to talk about it, the way we readers always feel when we find a book that we love.
The comments for Naming Maya have been as rich and as thoughtful as I had hoped they would be. Readers have agreed that this is a book for mothers and daughters to read together, that it evokes India in a way that could describe Hyderabad as well as it does Chennai, and that the theme of dualism is expressed quite beautifully in the idea of the “Two-Gift.” As Maya herself concludes about trust, in an observation that applies to many things in this novel–and in life–”You keep some, you give some away.”
What makes this book one that I can return to with pleasure for reading over and over is, above all, the way that three very strong women of different generations are portrayed, Maya, Kamala Mami, and Maya’s mother. Together they make a household that is both temporary and enduring, and Uma Krishnaswami makes each of them enduring figures in the reader’s imagination. It is no small feat to be able to give life to characters of varying background and chronological age, but it is accomplished so well in Naming Maya.
Not only is Chennai vividly evoked in this book, but so is its culture and values. Uma Krishnaswami delicately and without editorializing shows through Maya’s eyes different ways of accepting marriage, of being a teenager, of growing old. And she so wonderfully shows how food can be a common language when living in a place where three different languages are routinely used and in all of them words sometimes fail.
“I hear you need a cook,” Kamala Mami announces to Maya and her mother, the day after their arrival in India. They do indeed, more than they know. Kamala Mami’s food brings them slowly together–right up until a dish made from her recipe crashes to the floor and releases Maya’s torrent of hitherto unspoken emotion.
The one complaint I have about this novel is that it hasn’t yet been released in a paperback edition, which would make it accessible to many more readers than it already is. When I recently told a fellow-bookseller about Naming Maya, his response was that far too few books address the subject of bi-cultural children, a point that both Aline and Katia touched upon in our discussion. Uma Krishnaswami has found a universality in belonging to two different worlds. Through her art Maya’s duality becomes a new way for readers of all ages to look at their own lives, and that is an act accomplished by literature that is truly great.
If you haven’t yet read this book, I envy you the joy of experiencing it for the first time. If you know a young girl with whom you can share it, I envy you even more. If you’ve read it already, discover the joy of reading it again–and add your opinion to mine in the comments field if you agree that it should be reissued in a paperback edition, please!