Do you only write stories from your own cultural background?
For a long time before I was published, I wrote only western stories – stories set in western families about children with western names and their rituals of growing up. This is because subconsciously I was writing what I was reading. As a child and as an adult, I read mostly western narratives and that seeped into my writing. But my heart wasn’t in those stories. It wasn’t my truth. And when I did write stories from India, either set there or about India and Indian characters, I started getting lesser rejections (or at least more personalised ones) because my stories now had the secret ingredient that makes magic – authenticity. For me more than setting the stories in India or in its culture, it is about personal connection. Why do I want to tell this story? Why me? Am I the right person to tell this story? If so, then I would attempt to bring it to life.
Conversely, do you feel restricted in the subjects and settings you can choose?
I’m a nomad. Although I was brought up in India, I have lived in Singapore and now in the UK. I travel a lot and I gather stories where I go. But I always remember that all the stories filter through my own experiences – of what I know and what I don’t. I have fallen in love with folktales from Antwerp and Prague but I worry about retelling them because I’m not sure I would have the depth of the cultural context. Even to retell a small story, I would need tremendous amount of research and understanding. So I pick and choose projects I can actually invest time and energy into. On a side note, India is a big country with language, ethnic and other diversities and I research a lot even to tell Indian stories.
But I do think based on the publishing history of the UK and the US, it is easier for a Western author to choose any subject from any part of the world to write about than for someone from an ethnic minority background. Somehow history has taught us it is more believable when filtered through the lens of a western narrative. We have to change that, one story at a time.
Are there enough readers for books from different cultures and backgrounds?
Readers are created on the laps of their parents, grandparents and in classrooms. A child’s view of the world is limited to what it knows. Therefore anything new is worth exploring – be it an aeroplane that flies in the sky or a dinosaur that can’t lift its neck. As responsible adults, we have to seek out books that build empathy and understanding of the world. Our children will grow up to be world leaders, peacekeepers or storytellers. They need to know the world as it is – in all its splendour and that means multiple narratives.
When I go into schools, I mostly meet with children from ages four to ten. I talk to them about my books, my passion for storytelling (I won the storytelling prize when I was seven) and my upbringing in a joint family and they’re fascinated and want to learn more. Children don’t always have to know these places, settings or characters beforehand. If they like the story, their natural curiosity would take over.
Instead of asking if there are enough readers for diverse books I would ask if there are enough books for diverse readers. Take the simple ritual of going to a new school or to the dentist or celebrating Christmas – there are tons of books featuring animals and children from western backgrounds. But there aren’t that many that feature a minority narrative especially for the younger age-range. If as a child I grow up reading about other cultures, children from single-parent families or children who suffer from an illness or a disability in normal everyday contexts, I would then grow into an adult who appreciates the world I live in a rounded way. It would be more prudent to create citizens who appreciate inclusivity and diversity from a younger age than to somehow magically expect them to have empathy when they are voting adults. So yes, there are young readers out there, waiting to absorb the ways of the world. So let’s ensure that the books we write, publish and read to them are inclusive and representative of the world we live in.
Chitra Soundar is the author of over 20 books for children. Her latest book is Pattan’s Pumpkin – A flood tale from Southern India illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by Candlewick Press. Pattan’s Pumpkin is also the chosen book for October, in the 2017 Read Across America / Reading is Fundamental campaign. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com or follow her on Instagram at @chitrasoundar and on Twitter at @csoundar.