South Asian Stories to Tell
A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani
Each spring, the South Asian Woman's Creative Collective (better known by the saucy acronym, SAWCC), a New York City-based grassroots arts organization of which I am active member, holds their annual literary festival. This year, with the support of Marymount Manhattan College, SAWCC staged their fourth festival, Mixed Messages, from May 19 to 21, 2006. Mixed Messages was SAWCC's largest literary festival and featured more than 35 writers and artists. As a member of the planning committee for the festival, I selfishly organized and moderated a panel on South Asian literature for children and young adults. I knew I wasn't the only one who noticed a burst of kid lit for and about contemporary South Asian children and teens. In fact, Mixed Messages was the third recent South Asian literary conference to highlight children's literature after SALTAF 2005 (Washington D.C., October 2005) and Kriti (Chicago, November 2005).
My panel at Mixed Messages featured novelist/journalist/professor Marina Budhos, writer-illustrator Ruth Jeyaveeran, blogging novelist Mitali Perkins, and editor Monika Jain.
So, before I tell you all about the discussion, I want to define an oft-confused, oft-misunderstood term. South Asia is an all-encompassing term for the seven countries of the Indian Subcontinent that share a common history and culture. The South Asian Journalists' Association—which also has a spiffy acronym, SAJA—includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka among those countries.
The panel started off with a short reading. Ms. Budhos read from her much-acclaimed novel, Ask Me No Questions. Ms. Perkins read from her forthcoming chick-lity young adult novel tentatively titled First Daughter: My Extreme American Makeover. Ms. Jeyaveeran bravely read from a work-in-progress—a picture book featuring a dancing snake named Asha. (Asha had a bit part in Ms. Jeyaveeran's hilarious debut, The Road To Mumbai.) Ms. Jain spent a few minutes talking about Kahani. (More about Kahani shortly.) And I read from my essay, "The First Time," which I consider my first contribution to the children's literature community.
After the very diverse reading, the discussion and question and answer session touched on several topics, from the books that informed the panelists' identities growing up (anything by Enid Blyton) to the craft of writing for young readers ("Ruth, which comes first: the pictures or the text?").
I also asked our panelists whether they thought the proliferation of South Asian children's literature was just a passing trend.
"Are we just "hot" right now?" I asked. "Like all other things South Asian—yoga, henna "tattoos", clothes?"
"No, not at all," they uniformly responded.
"We have lots of stories to tell," Ms. Budhos said. "This is just the beginning."
However, we also all agreed that while South Asian children's and YA literature is on the rise, such books with boy protagonists are still quite rare. When pressed by an audience member as to why "boy books" are even necessary, Ms. Perkins remarked that she finds it difficult to imagine a boy holding up her forthcoming middle-grade novel, Rickshaw Girl in his school or library for everyone to see.
There was much interest in Kahani, a two-year-old South Asian literary magazine for children based in Boston. Ms. Jain highlighted Kahani's diaspora issue which featured South Asian writers and illustrators from Trinidad, Morocco, and Singapore and said she would love to showcase more work from around the world. (Time for another definition: the South Asian diaspora refers to communities of South Asians who emigrated from the Subcontinent. According to SAJA, there are large diasporic communities in Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. And there are more than 2 million South Asians in the United States.)
While many of our attendees were familiar with current children's literature (South Asian or otherwise), many were not. They were pleasantly surprised by what is "out there." Dr. Amardeep Singh commented both at the event and on his blog that he was impressed by Ask Me No Questions. He said it was refreshing to see a work of young adult fiction that made a serious political point about the experience of South Asian immigrants in the United States.
The afternoon ended with reading recommendations by our panelists for those who were new to the world of children's literature. This long list included the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, A Step from Heaven by An Na, and anything by Chris Raschka.
Pooja Makhijani is the editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America, an anthology of essays that explores the complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families. Her first picture book, Mama's Saris, is forthcoming. She maintains a frequently-updated online bibliography of South Asian youth literature.
Editor's note: Thank you for the terrific report, Pooja! I am thrilled to include it here at Chicken Spaghetti.