I hope to share with you how I came to be a
Multicultural fiction book writer, talk about some issues connected with being
one, and the social role one finds
oneself playing. I hope to conclude with
an illustration of how multicultural literature serves the multiculturalism
charter by opening minds and hearts, by
restoring goodwill and by renewing solidarity among members of the society. I am grateful for the
opportunity to share some perspectives and to do some reflection about my
writer’s journey. How did I get to where
I am? Now that I am here, how do I
maintain a foothold? And how do I stay
true to my work? I ask myself these
questions and often struggle to find the answers. It’s the struggle that keeps me walking this road. I was apt to think what really got
me started as a children’s book writer was the impulse to test certain
odds. I had no formal writing
experience. What were the chances I’d
write something that would get published?
I mulled this as I walked in my neighborhood some years ago. Was I qualified, I wondered, or even lucky
enough to penetrate a tough world of book publishing? I knew enough to know
writing to a niche market would probably afford me the best competitive
edge. And the more I thought about this,
the more it became clear that the story I wrote ought to be distinct and to be
that, it ought to be a distillation of what I knew best. And when, by the end of the walk, the story
idea for HHRFDJ, just sort of fell neatly into place, I took that small miracle
to be a good omen. I got serious about writing.
If you asked today what got me
started and what continues to drive me, I’d dig a little deeper. I wrote first, as I write now, to validate
myself. I wrote first, as I do now to acknowledge who I am and to celebrate
where I’ve come from and where I am headed. That is the simple truth. Subconsciously, I write to keep a link alive. Consciously, I write to create a minor legacy
for my children’s children.
When I stray from my core, it
impacts the writing. I’ve seen it happen again and again. The sweetest water
rises from the deepest well. For me, writing
hold meaning. It must feel right; it must ring
true. Sometimes I ask myself who I
really write for. I am a children’s writer so it makes sense to say I write to
please children. But the reality is I
write first and foremost to please myself. But even as I say that I
am aware that I write for the 21st
century child and so I consider the
needs of this special public and attempt
to go about giving to the modern child, what he or she wants.
was born in Hyderabad, India and immigrated to the U.S in 1967. As most first generation immigrants, and
especially during the early years, I straddled two worlds— one foot in the adopted world, one foot in the
one left behind; recently of a new world, not
entirely disconnected from the old. Like most other first generation
immigrants, I too, succumbed to a gnawing nostalgia and I responding to it by
writing. It was, I think, purely a self
serving exercise. It was as satisfying
as scratching a subconscious itch. It
was the immigrant syndrome at play- that sub surface longing that begs
gratification in one way or the other.
This was how COS was first conceived.
It most strongly recalls for me the touch, taste, sound and feel of past
places and experiences. It, more than my
other books, has an umbilical connection to an immigrant’s emotional womb. When immigrant writers write about
their experience, they generally write to expunge the bad or to celebrate the
good. My writing is about preservation,
not erasure. My story is not a story of
trauma, displacement or flight. I write
to honor and celebrate a good past. And
like most first generation immigrant writers, I too write with one eye fixed on
the rear view mirror and the other on the road.
On not being a Mainstream Writer: I
am a person from one place, living in another, and writing about the
experiences of both. HHRFDJ is my first book. I thought Hot,
Hot Roti for Dada-ji, would have an instant universal appeal but when I
track sales on Amazon I find that people who purchase it also buy books of
similar cultural content. The picture
book received a coveted Kirkus starred review and a couple of awards, including the Asian/Pacific American Librarians’
Association award, but its most enthusiastic readers continue to
be people with primary connections
to the culture it represents. Figuring
out why this is so took a little bit of analyzing.
The truth is that we read to either
consciously respond an intellectual need, or to subconsciously fill an
emotional void. For instance, before I came to the west, the allure of the west
was so strong that I devoured books about the western experience, written by
western writers. Once on the western
shores though, I sought out books by the likes of Bannerji, Mistry, Devakaruni,
all immigrant authors from India, whose narratives gave solace to someone looking over her
shoulder. I still am drawn to authors
like Aslam, Majmudar, Lahiri, Mallady, Ghosh to narratives that talk about familiar things and strike a
deep emotional chord.
Most first generation immigrants from third and developing worlds, surrounded
by a new host culture, they to be
tenacious about holding on to aspects of their own to perhaps assert their
identity. For them
finding sympathetic validation in a book is as meaningful as finding it at a
place of worship or at a community event. Books with characters, settings and
situations that illustrate one’s roots and one’s heritage are significant for
reinforcing important cultural links. There are benefits to reading
literature that reflects ones ethnic and cultural background. For children,
such literature can be particularly instrumental in cultivating a healthy
self-concept - one that is based on a knowledge of and a sense of pride in
one’s family background.
When I do a
reading of HHRFDJ, there is a marked difference in how a western child receives
the book versus a child of Indian sub continent heritage. The latter enters the
book more easily, more deeply and without explanations of background and terminology.
The names are familiar; situations and settings are familiar. Not so for the child outside of the
culture who must navigate the unfamiliar to get to the universal message of the
story. To him I have to explain Dada-ji is a paternal grandfather; roti is like
a tortilla. When HHRFDJ was published, my niece, a first generation American
was delighted that there was a book her son could claim as his own.
Books that endorse who we are, wield power. Through simple storytelling, they achieve
My books do better in the organizational
market (schools, libraries). As a
writer of MC fiction I don’t have the home field advantage of the mainstream
writer whose life’s basic details overlap those of the mainstream reader’s. To the mainstream reader, books with foreign
names, characters and cultural anomalies stand out as different. Depths of
specifics must be plumbed to get to the universal. And
because the reader does not come from the same cultural background as the
author, those moments of self recognition that bind someone to a book are less
likely to occur. Moments of self
recognition are what draw a reader to a book and hold his/her attention.
compete for the attention of the mainstream reader, I must make experiences and
observations resonate across any divide, cultural, racial, or geographical,
between writer and reader. To quote Amit
Majumdar (Abundance, Partitions) “For a minority writer, the strangeness that
attracted a reader’s curiosity in the first place is also a strangeness that
must be overcome”.
It is my challenge to create for two
distinct audiences: to be specific
enough to please one and universal
enough to please the other and enticing enough that everyone wants a bite.
As a land of immigrants, America has
always been diverse. But it is the relatively recent influx of non European
people mostly from Latin America, Asia and Africa that has started the multiculturalism
debate. While ‘diversity’ has physical a
dimension ‘multiculturalism’ is a state
of mind, and an attitude that stays abstract until lived.
Multiculturalism defined: By making the broadest range of human differences
acceptable to the largest number of people, multiculturalism seeks to overcome
racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
This is why multiculturalism must work in a diverse society.
says, no culture is superior to another, and no culture should compete with any
other. And if we understand that, we can all get along just fine. But in truth our goodwill towards the ‘other’ is governed
by the vagaries of the socio/political/economic climate of the time.
there is the argument that multiculturalism cannot succeed because a society needs cultural cohesion to
survive—shared language, shared moral standards, a shared work ethic—and that
multiculturalism provides no cohesion at all because it denies the value or
need for the “one” as it appears in our national motto: “ e pluribus unum” or
“out of many, one.”
the debate, or perhaps because of it, it is the role of the writer to minimize
the hurdles to multiculturalism; I view
it a responsibility to honor the aspirations of both sides of the argument and
to champion societal cohesion as much as societal diversity. And as
a writer even as I am at liberty to create, I feel constrained also, by questions such as:
too much emphasis on so called exotic differences accentuate a “we” versus a
“they” sentiment in the young readers?
my work be perceived as pushing a singular cultural view point or agenda?
will, that which binds the reader to the book, also call attention to his or her
“difference”? And I worry, particularly
for the young reader who wants to belong
to the larger group and who does not
want to be perceived as the ‘other’.
And so when I describe the foreign
and the 'strange' I strive to bear in mind, "the essential humanity"
in my characters. By keeping my reader - regardless of his/her ethnicity - in
mind, I try to keep my narrative in focus and tailored to the universal.
Since it came into existence,
multicultural literature has been closely bound with multiculturalism. Starting in the 60’s and the 70’s and taking
inspiration from the civil rights and the feminist movement, this movement
sought to claim space in literature and in education for minority/parallel
culture groups. It’s origins lay in the demand by teachers and librarians for
books that reflected the growing diversity in the classrooms. And though there
may not yet be a proportionate representation of all minority cultures, as a
literary genre, children’s multicultural fiction has come on its own and not
only that, fiction about third world cultures, is
even gaining an “exotic” advantage, particularly in the adult market, as people
are opening themselves up
to learning about the ways others live their lives.
literature has a three pronged configuration: an aesthetic form of literary
creation, a political weapon in the cultural war and an educational tool. As an
educational tool, multicultural literature can help bring about a best case
scenario to the multiculturalism argument by rallying all people, regardless of
race, creed, ethnicity and heritage
around a united banner; it can, in other words, help make an aspiration a
Educators have long recognized
multicultural books as powerful tools for building awareness, for opening minds
and for informing about the histories, customs and motivations of the
‘others’. Multicultural books for children, at their best, invite young readers to use their
imaginations and gain a better understanding and respect of themselves and
others. A well written multicultural
book is a mirror for the child of
that culture and a window for the child outside of it . It is good education in awareness for
young citizens of a multicultural society to know about diverse people working,
playing, worshipping, solving problems and overcoming obstacles; to learn about
and have empathy for other lifestyles, languages, cultures, and points of
Books have been
wisest of counselors and the most patient of teachers”. Imagine the healing and restorative power of a book in getting people out of their heads and
thinking about the big picture; in opening them to new perspectives and world
At its best,
multicultural children's literature helps children understand that despite our
many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. At its
best, it helps them see that diversity is
indeed the one true thing we have in common.
And so, much more so than the
mainstream writer who hardly worries about such matters, it is on the writer of
multicultural books to keep the bond between literature and multiculturalism
intact; to validate and to educate; to temper and to balance; to work for unity
not division so that the ideals of “e
pluribus unum” “out of many, one,” may indeed prevail.
I, the author deliver on my responsibility? I do it by bearing in mind the
greater and lesser answers to the question: who do I write for and why. HHRFDJ is about roti cooking on the tavva
pan and incense burning and prayer bell ringing and dadi-ma chanting hari om, hari om and about the tongue
burning mango pickle. But it is just as much about food and fun and play and
family, larger themes that invite everybody in and make differences secondary
to the bigger picture.
played a similar balancing game in TGOMI, a
coming of age story of Aliya, a Muslim American pre teen. On the one hand it is a typical story about
a typical teenager, tackling typical teenage issues. On the other hand, it is
about an American/Muslim pre teen of Indian ethnicity. On yet another level, the awareness building
level, it is about giving the
“outsider” an “ insider’s” view and
about answering some important questions.
The genesis of the book is that was intended
to be a picture book about a Muslim American family
celebrating Eid (an important religious celebration). Along with a few rejections I received a
letter suggesting I expand the story into a larger Muslim experience. The 9/11 tragedy had recently occurred and
there was a lot of social tension and turmoil.
People were afraid ; they were angry. Almost overnight, the American
Muslims had become suspect. A powerful and persistent media blitz
portrayed Muslims as violent and their religion as promoting violence and
hate. The words Muslim/Islam/ Terrorist
were made synonymous. Misconceptions and misrepresentations about Muslims and
about Islam were rampant. Imagine the
impact of the climate on the psyche of ordinary American Muslim youth. Imagine
how a relentless focus on their religion might have affected how they perceived
themselves and how others perceived them.
For a writer of multicultural
fiction, it was a call to test the role of literature in upholding the
multiculturalism manifesto. So I started
over. I re wrote, but this time to put out an alternative
Muslim narrative, a narrative that was
based on reality. I wrote purposefully to
counter the narrative that was out there, being fueled every day by hysteria; a
narrative that was divisive; a narrative that was successful in pitting
neighbor against neighbor. I rewrote to
restore goodwill, to build bridges and wrote to create better
understandings. And in that moment TGOMI
truly became a multicultural book.
Authenticity.: Eugie Foster, (1971-2014), American short story writer, columnist, and editor
observed that during the 60’s and 70’s when the
demand for multicultural books was growing, “aspiring
writers lacking sufficient background….were glutting the market with poorly
researched stories, riddled with inaccurate portrayals of world cultures and
The nature of multicultural fiction
requires more than good storytelling. It demands attention to high standards of
accuracy and factual precision. As the
writer I bear the additional burden for being sensitive, accurate, balanced,
unbiased in my portrayal of the history, customs, values, perspectives, and
language of the particular group I write about so that by reading the narrative,
one gets a true picture not a distortion.
Is it even scientifically accurate that a second
day moon, can appear in the early morning sky the day after the end of the
month of Ramadan? Do farmers’ fields in
northern India sway heavily under the weight of rice or wheat?
Is Aiyyo the appropriate
utterance for Dadima, a person of the north or should she exclaim, Aai hai?
What is first, second, fourth action in the ablution sequence?
It is on me, to worry about factual and
literary authenticity of my work, regardless of the significance of the data
and irrespective of the fact that the work, a work of fiction, is not
necessarily held to the same stringent standards of factual accuracy as a work
Screening for authenticity is much more
rigorous today. But if my inaccuracies
escape an editor’s unwary or ill informed eye, they are out there for the reader
to accept as true. There can be no room
for taking liberties, or for carelessness or for looking the other way. There can be no room for, Oops!
fiction writer needs more than factual accuracy. One of the worst things you want to hear as
an author is that your story or your characters do not feel real. Authenticity connects the reader to all parts
of the story and this connection is important to the author because it entirely
forms the way that a reader views the book.
Anything less than will be perceived by the reader as contrived.
comes from speaking to the truth of the experience. It comes from being honest
about the people and the events and the places. I told you at the beginning
that my writing comes from deep within, from a core that I know rather
well. But authenticity also comes from
having a stake in telling the story. The
higher the stakes, the more invested the reader will be in the story outcome.
The stakes that I hold stem from the charter to which I am bound.
is especially important if one wants to convey the unfamiliar. If you are writing about a foreign or
unfamiliar setting, you must be specific about the details so as to provide a
good visual image; you need to ground your story in your setting by providing
details about the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and feel of the location. If you are conveying a foreign custom or
tradition, you need to provide it through, visual detail, through character participation and
interaction and dialogue.
authenticity can be researched but what about emotional authenticity? Can it be feigned it? In the hand of a skilled writer, perhaps yes. My emotional authenticity is inspired by an insider’s view; it comes from knowing my
characters from all angles so that nothing about them is surprising. To know them up close is to know what they
hold dear; what makes them happy, sad;
their idiosyncratic ways, habits, manner
of speech. Authenticity of characters comes also from
the images stored inside your head which show up in the pearly whiteness of
Basanta’s teeth, or in Amma’s graceful barefooted walk, or in
Choti Dahdi’s irritating and ear
Is it possible to write authentically about
another culture without being from that culture? Who has a better claim, a person
from inside or a person on the outside the culture? Is an ethnic book by a writer of that ethnicity
necessarily better than if written by a writer of lesser cultural competence
but stronger research skills? How much cultural competency is enough? These are questions for academics. Well intentioned writers do what they must do.
Eugie Foster says
stories don't belong to a culture; they belong to the authors who pen them, the
readers who enjoy them, the storytellers who orate them, and the listeners who
But the skilled writer who is of the culture and
possesses and insider’s view of the experience has a home advantage. Not being from the culture is not a
disqualification but to be outside the culture and yet write about it, a writer
has to, as author Suzanne F Staples, author of Shabanu
puts it, “ not only be a better observer
and listener, but also be more empathetic with a desire to be under someone
And if we want to
still talk about who has the better claim on an multicultural artistic work,
Slide 6: Ken
someone who worked from outside in, and
has gone the extra mile to be that better observer and listener and to get
under the skin. This is Ken Men a
Korean American, illustrator of HHRFDJ, a book about the Asian/Indian/American
experience. The writer achieves
authenticity with the right word and the illustrator does with the right stroke.
Ken’s brush strokes were right, as right as someone who’s had an insider’s
Linguistic diversity is a tangible form of
realizing cultural differences and realism in one stroke. Books set in a cultural backdrop often
scatter words in the affiliated language.
This is both fun and fascinating for the young reader. I have enjoyed playing language games. Idiosyncratic exclamatory utterances,
distinctive pattern of speech coming from
bastardized/Indianized English , native phrases, terminology and direct translations of vernacular Hindi or
Urdu into English, add a unique flavor,
express authentic cultural membership, convey feeling as well as lend an additional layer of truthfulness to the narrative.
else to convey the idiosyncratic foreignness of
Badi Amma and Choti Dahdi but through manipulating language; through
juxtaposing the diction and syntax of elderly immigrants against the
English of native speakers; and through language loaded with cultural nuances, utterances, phrases and expressions
interspersed just so for this particular emotion or that: Arre Wah! A victor’s exultant cry; Ai hai, despair “Aii” sarcasm “Aiyyo!” regret Go, Go, dismissal,
virtually a literal translation of Jao,
Jao. Indeed this ploy works best for
the reader familiar with the language.
But it is a powerful technique for making the narrative more interesting
for all readers.
Writer’s identity: In a world of border
crossing and cultural confluence it’s harder and harder to explain oneself to
someone else’s satisfaction. On an
official document, if you are not this, you are the other. But which other? And
why that other? Not content with the scientific
definition of who we are (and admittedly, even here we can’t escape the
question of what makes a person truly human) we categorize and sub categorize
to the nth degree. The
search for clarity often leads to greater and greater confusion.
up Jhumpa Lahiri on the internet, I was amused to find her described as an
Indian Bengali American writer. Lahiri was born in London. She immigrated with her parents to America
when she was four.
categories are being added in the literary world too to accommodate the new
types of literary artistic works being produced. Immigrant fiction is an example of this. Lahiri says she does not know what to make
of the term. She goes on to say: Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they
come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different
parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by
necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences.
True. But the question to be asked is: Which
world do writers like her talk about? How
familiar or unfamiliar a world is it to the mainstream reader?
world of the immigrant is a world of composites, not clearly one or the other. In
his book, Immigrant Fiction: Exploring
an American Identity, Phillip Lopate talks of immigrant fiction as “the encounter of the foreign-born with a
presumably dominant Anglo-American culture. Thematically, this fiction is the
site where self-invention encounters its limits, where compromise and
accommodation wrestle with the unappeasable.”
A first generation immigrant writer, subject
to the full intensity of the immigrant experience can produce a narrative that
resonates strongly of this experience and is starkly reflective of the history, culture, religion, language of
the writer. The physical act of immigration is a second hand affair for the
second generation writer of the immigration experience. But still, retellings, anecdotal
remembrances and psychological/emotional spillovers continue to imbue their
narrative enough to give their work its own unique flavor, not the least of
which comes from the philological aspect of the work; the language the writer
brings to the mix.
Speaking about Immigrant fiction, the same
Phillip Lopate, says, “Linguistically,
it is a fertile estuary infusing the Puritans’ English with the dialect
seasonings, syntactical corkscrews, and passionate utterances of the Other.”
When a narrative stems from a
treading of two places, when a “writing perspective is refracted from at least
two cultures, national identities or languages,” the result, at the hand of a
good writer, is a narrative that is rich and distinct enough, emotionally and
linguistically to demand its own identity.
There is no question the
immigrant experience has inspired one of the richest strands in American
literature. This is something to celebrate.
who am I? A multicultural fiction writer
for children and a first generation American/Indian/Muslim immigrant writer of
the multicultural experience for children, whose work, if for the adult market
would be labeled immigrant fiction. They
tell me my books are for the organizational market even though the fundamental
charter of the multicultural book is to reach the eyes, ears and minds of the
mainstream. They tell me I not a
mainstream writer. And I chuckle. Because in a growing multicultural landscape,
what is any longer mainstream?
the end this is who I am, as I sit before you.
A writer who wants to make a wee
bit of a difference. In the end it is so much about what someone calls me as it
is about what I answer to.