because we want to see ourselves in all things around us
Last week I opened my email and was speechless. Amid the usual clutter was an email from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) informing me that I had won the 2016 On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Grant for my Young Adult novel INSTANT KARMA. It’s the story of two girls from different centuries whose lives are inexorably linked through karma and reincarnation.
What does this award mean to me? In a word; EVERYTHING. Beyond the all-expense paid trip to the SCBWI Summer conference in Los Angeles, having my manuscript available to a select group of publishing professionals, the opportunity to meet other writers, and to continue to be inspired and humbled by the generosity of the writing community, I feel whole.
I can only compare this to when I held my babies for the first time. It’s the best feeling in the world.
This award was created by SCBWI to discover under-represented voices in kid lit and is sponsored by Sue and Martin Schmitt, of 455 Foundation fame, a couple whose generosity and goodwill appear to have no bounds.
Historically, writers of color haven’t had much of a platform in children’s literature. Growing up in India every book I read had white characters, even if they were set in exotic environs like Cairo, India, or Savannah. GONE WITH THE WIND was my absolute favorite. The reason I picked up that book was because it had a character called India Wilkes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that India Wilkes was white . Stupid me. Nevertheless, I read that book a half dozen times because it was brilliant and I forgave Margaret Mitchell for her subtle deception. Heroes were often described as Tall, dark and handsome. Of course dark was a reference to hair color not skin tone. The only real people of color in my fav book and most other books were the help.
Oddly enough, I never questioned it. Perhaps it was a tragic side effect of being a citizen of a former colony, but I’d like to believe it was because I loved to read. Without the benefit of a public library, I sought membership in at least half a dozen lending libraries, privately owned enterprises, often run out of tiny stores, tucked away on a side street, sandwiched between a chai stall and a vegetable stand. These libraries were literally stacked top to bottom with books—new, old, dog eared, musty, moth bitten—and I really didn’t mind.
Some smelled of stale curry as if they were used as fans by housewives slaving over a hot kerosene stove in sweltering heat. Flipping through the pages of those books, you could smell family meals prepared with love and I often imagined conversations taking place while fragrant curries, rice, and rotis were being cooked. Somehow these books found their way to these libraries and not the paper wallah who bought old books, magazines and newspapers and sold them to street food vendors who formed paper cones to serve fresh roasted peanuts and mango, and coconut infused chick peas.
At every one of these lending libraries, I had accounts because I paid a fee to rent books for a week at a time. Penalties for late returns were often more than the actual rental fee. It was meant to teach kids to be responsible and considerate because there were so many other children whose names were on wait lists that filled sheets of ruled paper in ledgers. We didn’t mind that either. Books were expensive and there was just one bookstore in downtown Madras (now known as Chennai).
In my family, a new book belonged on a birthday wish list.
At school during recess, discussions almost always centered on which library carried the latest Enid Blyton adventure, Hardy Boys Mystery, Barbara Carter or Mills and Boone romance books. Depending on where we stood on waitlists, we bartered favors and brokered deals. Among friends, we had a tacit understanding that if you got your hands on a trending book, you’d read in the shortest time possible and pass it on to your buddies before the book was due back at the library. There was an urgency in how we went about it. Nothing rivaled the thrill of getting your hands on a trending book, and it didn’t matter an ounce that not one of these books we salivated over had a single character of color.
Or did it?
Unconsciously, it did matter.
We learned about India’s history, her struggle for freedom from a point of view that, to me, sounded like a big fabricated lie. History, like the works of fiction we so voraciously devoured, was told from a white person’s point of view. Why? Because they were being written by people from far off places, who didn’t share our world view, much less our skin tones. At school, our teachers were powerless to correct these errors because the curriculum didn’t lend itself to modifications. If we wanted to pass our board exams, we had better conform to this alien point of view. So we crammed and regurgitated lies, and passed our exams, since that was the whole point of the exercise.
In 2015 I attended a SCBWI conference in Golden, CO. Its focus was the lack of diversity in children’s books. The conference attendees reflected the distribution of children’s book writers in a pie chart one presenter had shown at an earlier session; nearly eighty percent white, mostly female. Underrepresented groups not surprisingly were Latino, Black and to a much greater extent, Asian. I might have been one of maybe three Asian writers and illustrators in attendance.
According to the 2010 United States Census Bureau data, Asian Americans make up 4.8 percent or 18.2 million in the US population. Include those who identify as part Asian, and the number goes up to 5.6 percent of the total population. The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, there will be more than 40.6 million Asians living here.
At that conference the consensus was unanimous; we need diverse books, and preferably written by diverse writers. It was a nod to potential readers who will want books with characters that look just like them. And this makes SCBWI’s On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award and Sue and Martin Schmitt’s patronage that much more meaningful.
People are listening and, as importantly, acting to remedy this deficit.