Did I Get it Right?

asianFrom time to time, I get asked to read work in progress set in India or within an Indian expat community, to see if the writer “got it right.” I used to consult on quite a few of these at one time. I’d get requests from writers and from publishers. There haven’t been as many lately. That could be because they were taking over my desk, and I began pleading lack of time.

I’ve begun to realize lately that there’s a whole new bunch of writers and illustrators of South Asian origin. Well, new for an old bird like me! At one time you could count us on your fingers, all five of us in the US and Canada. Maybe 7 if you counted the UK!

So I’m betting I’m not the only one fielding these requests now. Which is great, because honestly, it was never my favorite kind of teaching activity!

But here are some questions I’ve found helpful when reading what I will call an outsider manuscript:

  • What cultural borders does the work cross? Are those natural to the story or do they feel forced or imposed?
  • Does the source culture feel real? Not in an abstract way, not like a tourist video, but real from the viewpoint of the story? This means the details and their physicality–what things are called, how they are used. Clothes, shoes, utensils, the materials of which each of these is made. That’s the heart of getting it right and it’s tricky because you can’t get all of it from Google. You need to dig deeper, if it’s not something you know.
  • Is the author’s awareness of the target audience too overwhelming? What’s the writer’s stance? Does the story keep stopping with a lurch so the writer can step out of it to explain some cultural quirk or idiom or gesture or situation? What is that saying about the writer’s comfort? What is it saying about assumptions of readership? How would a kid from the culture concerned feel?
  • Do the large story decisions carry resonance for me? Or do they feel as if they too are imposed by an overly mainstream sensibility, or by false assumptions about the people the writer is trying to create?
  • How is language used in narrative? What are the rhetorical choices? Is the idiomatic mix enough to convey flavor, but not so much as to caricature? (E.g., Is the river called by its local name, Ganga, or has the author turned it into “Mother Ganges”in a clumsy attempt at translation?)
  • Are the cultural depictions specific to the particular region of the subcontinent? Would someone with ties to the region recognize them? Does the writer avoid using pan-Indian conflations? Or does s/he treat all of the region as much the same, and all its people? Are the religions conflated? Do the names reflect intentional cultural fusion or is that juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim first and last names purely a mistake?
  • Is there a story beyond the greatness or the despair or the problems of the culture and place and people in question? Or is the story just a vehicle for what I call the 3 Fs (Food, Flowers, Festivals)?

Keep in mind that “getting it right” is a subjective judgment. But if you’ve been asked to deliver your assessment, take a stand that is fair and thoughtful. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. When I read someone else’s work in progress it behooves me to remember that every book may contain flaws, and that includes my own.

Process Talk: Padma Venkatraman on A Time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman is the aa time to dance cover - large fileuthor of YA novels Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End. Of her latest novel, released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, the Kirkus reviewer writes:

Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one.

I traded e-mails with Padma about her writing and in particular this book.  

[Uma] Talk about what made you a writer, and how you ended up writing for young readers.

[Padma] I got a doctorate in oceanography (nothing to do with reading or writing) because I like numbers, and I wanted to choose a profession that would give me financial independence. But I’ve always loved writing, and as life progressed, that love only deepened. So finally, I became brave enough to give up oceanography and try my hand at writing a novel.

 Thus far, my three novels are for the young adult audience – partly because I feel that books are more likely deepen a young person’s empathy and compassion; older readers are more set in their ways – they’re less likely to change (as people) because of something they’ve read.  It’s also in part because the movies in my mind have thus far featured teen protagonists as stars. Then again, right now, I’m working on a novel for adults, so I do sometimes hear older voices in my head.

 [Uma] Your books all draw upon the Indian subcontinent—its history, its lesser known stories, its social dynamics, and iconic character types that reflect everyday life in the region. Will you tell me what the importance is of setting to you? How much of it is craft and how much a personal exploration through fiction?

PadmaVenkatraman3 [Padma] I’m American and I love my American home and my family. But India is where my journey as a human being (and thus as a writer) began, because it’s where I lived when I was young. My childhood was rather horrid in many ways – but then again, there were moments of beauty and love even during tough times, and the Indian culture left an indelible impact on my mind.

I also read many Indian writers (poets and novelists) as a young person and I’m still fascinated with my origins, I suppose, which is probably rather self-centered! So yes, it is a personal exploration. But I’m also starting – after decades of living in America – to “own” the American culture – and am, in my current work in progress, exploring it.

[Uma] What are the origins of Veda’s story for you? 

[Padma] When I was 19 years old, I was bitten by a Russell’s Viper – one of the four most poisonous Indian snakes – on a trip back to India. I almost died, and it’s a miracle that I survived without having to have my leg amputated (it had turned all the colors of the rainbow and looked rather like something Renoir might have painted for a while). That experience – of nearly losing my leg, not to mention my life, and of being so close to death – solidified within me a sense of spirituality (without necessarily any religiosity per say). I didn’t realize this until recently, but Veda’s story was born of that experience.

[Uma] Why is this a verse novel? How does form affect content in this story?

[Padma] The easy answer: because when Veda’s character possessed me, I heard verse. Of course, nothing’s as simple as that, is it?

Scan 1

Young Bharatanatyam dancer. Photo source: Padma Venkatraman’s personal collection. All rights reserved.

I fought against writing A Time to Dance in verse  because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Other wonderful poets: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me, as did my marvelous agent, Rob Weisbach and my star editor, Nancy Paulsen. Along the way, another editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, provided insights that were vital. His confidence in me felt like permission to try lean, spare prose.

Finally, on my 101st draft or so, I had an epiphany. Stories that feature a character’s spiritual growth are rare. It was the core of Veda’s story. As was her love of dance. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A Time to Dance – go beautifully with verse.

In this story, rather than form affecting content, it was the other way around: Veda’s voice (content) dictated form. And I’m glad she spoke in verse, and I’m grateful to all those who trusted that I could listen to her properly, including my wonderful husband, Rainer Lohmann. It was really a tremendous relief that it’s been so well reviewed. I’m glad not just for my own sake but for the sake of the many differently abled (disabled) people I interviewed during the process of writing the novel. It’s their story, not mine.

[Uma] Thank you, Padma! Much luck with this and future projects. 

Common Errors in American children’s books with South Asian content

This isn’t about the right to write. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying a writer of one race or culture should never write of people from another.  That would mean I couldn’t, for example, write about protagonists who might be of European or alien or bunny ancestry. Me, I’m not about to give up those possibilities!  But the truth is that we’re inheritors of our common history, and we’d be fooling ourselves if we pretended that the past didn’t involve the stealing and appropriation of story, as well as land. Further, in the children’s market, we’re writing for “readers-in-progress,” so to speak, since young readers are still developing their knowledge and sense of the world.  Don’t we need to make sure we give them material that is accurate?  Here are some common errors that can be found in books with South Asian characters, background, or setting.  All examples cited below are from actual books, published by major American publishers within the last 15 years.

  • Factual errors: errors in historical dates, or omission of significant material.  A nonfiction book about Pakistan refers to the pre-1947 region as Pakistan.  Excuse me.  Did we imagine the entire saga of Partition?
  • Errors of cultural representation: names specific to one religion or geographical area are given to characters from another, such as a Hindu kid called Karim; the misnaming of things, e.g., a rural Indian character uses the anglicized term “Ganges” to refer to the river instead of the more natural Sanskrit and vernacular “Ganga.”  Or people from one area behave in ways consistent with the cultural practices of another.  E.g., a well-known YA novel has southern upper-caste Hindu women covering their heads when men enter the room.  That might happen in some circles in northern India, but in southern Hindu traditions it’s mostly considered inauspicious for a girl or married woman to cover her head. Minor quibbles? For those who know their geography, these things could make the difference between a convincing story and a disappointing one. Ignoring them definitely conveys the message that people from the region concerned don’t count.
  • Errors of spelling in transliteration of names (e.g., Daskin for Daksin, Kirshna for Krishna).
  • Layout and captioning errors: e.g., a stunningly beautiful nonfiction book about one part of Bengal includes a page about the Bengali language. The author has obviously done her homework.  But the image of a bit of wall graffiti in Bengali is–upside down!  A book about Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala has a picture of a page with Hindi lettering, but the caption tells us this is the Tibetan language.

Turning a cultural tradition or social problem into the raison d’etre of a plot in a work of fiction is another problematic common practice.  I read books like that and think, Hmm, where’s the story?

  • Finally, that elusive thing, voice.  It just doesn’t work to set a story in Afghanistan or Tibet, and then make the protagonist think and react the way an American child would.  Surely such “geographical fiction” ought to be approached with the same meticulous research and steeping in attitudes and norms that we are told we must bring to the creation of historical fiction.

If you’re a reviewer, please don’t get swept away by a lush locale or a sorry social context. Give the story the same critical look you would give to one set in a more familiar place and time. Don’t accept the need for narrative to step back and deliver social commentary, any more than you would accept that from a book set in New York City. And ask yourself if the story is doing justice to the place it purports to represent. If you’re not sure, it’s not too hard to find an informed reader to offer additional opinions for you to consider. I was recently sent a review copy of a nonfiction book on Sikhism. I’m not Sikh, so I got a friend who is to read the book and give me his comments. He found a few errors I might have missed, yet confirmed that the author had, all in all, approached the subject with care and respect.

If you’re an author or an editor working on a book set in South Asia, and you are personally unfamiliar with imagery, cultural and social nuance, or other contextual material, please consider using a consultant familiar with the region.  Keep in mind that all parts of South Asia are not alike, so if your story is set in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for example, it will not do to get readers whose knowledge is of Tamilnadu or Bangladesh!  In this age of instant comunication, in which every overseas consulate in the continental United States has fax, e-mail, and a Cultural Attache, viewpoints and opinions can be traded and shared with greater ease than ever before.