Friday, April 19, 2024

“Our parents’ stories are like roadmaps”


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Indian American author Sayantani DasGupta advocates for diverse children’s literature. Charvi Arora meets the writer for a chat on what has made the paediatrician become an author

Sayantani DasGupta is a paediatrician by training, an academic teaching narrative medicine, and a children’s author. However, she sees all these careers as stemming from the same place—care for young people and, in particular, young people’s health. “When I was in practice as a paediatrician, I cared for the health of their bodies. As an academic, I care for the intellectual health of my students. And as a children’s writer, I care for young people’s imaginative health as well,” she says. “But all those kinds of health are also interconnected. During my practice, I engaged in activities like discussing books prescribing reading. Because stories are  good medicine.”

In celebration of International Education Week sometime ago, the American Center Kolkata, in collaboration with ACLiSA (Association for Children’s Literature in South Asia), hosted a young adult (YA) writing workshop titled, “Writing is Personal: Narratives in Young Adult Literature.” The workshop brought together aspiring young writers from across West Bengal for a day of inspiration and guidance. It featured a special pre-recorded session with DasGupta, where students gained insights into her creative process and the personal connection she fosters through her writing.

Excerpts from an interview: 

What sparked your interest in writing for children?  

Growing up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants from Kolkata, I never saw anyone who looked vaguely like me in the books, movies and other media I encountered. I was a huge bookworm and loved the works of so many authors—from Madeleine L’Engle to C.S. Lewis to J.R.R. Tolkien—but the lack of representation sent me a deeply problematic message. I assumed that if there was no one who looked like me in the stories around me, maybe someone like me didn’t deserve to be a hero or a protagonist, even of my own life.  So I reached back to my grandmother’s Bengali folk tales I had heard over my long summer vacations in Kolkata, Thakurmar Jhuli, which were tales of ghosts and demons, flying horses, evil serpent kings, and created my own series inspired by these characters.

My first trilogy, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, and in particular, my first children’s book, The Serpent’s Secret, were inspired by Toni Morrison’s admonition, “If there’s a book you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” And so, I began writing for my own inner child, for my own children, and really, for all children of all sorts of backgrounds.  I have also become an advocate for diverse representation in books. I have worked with the non-profit organisation ‘We Need Diverse Books’ and, more recently, ‘Authors Against Book Bans’.

Your work often explores the theme of cultural identity. Why is this important and how do you weave it into your narratives?

My first series is about a 12-year-old Indian immigrant daughter from New Jersey who thinks that all her parents’ stories about her really being an intergalactic demon slaying princess are just stories, until they turn out to be real, and she must travel the galaxies to learn the truth about her own identity and, in doing so, find her superpowers. This premise is a thinly hidden metaphor for the immigrant child’s experience.

Our parents’ stories are like roadmaps connecting us to our strength and our distant lands of origin, but it’s only by embarking on that journey ourselves that we can come into our whole identities and find our true power.

In all my middle grade series, in fact, I weave a lot of space exploration and string theory—this notion that there are parallel universes existing right next to one another, but one world doesn’t know about the other. This, to me, seemed like a perfect way to express the immigrant experience—we immigrant families are galaxy hoppers and space explorers, often at the forefront of technology to connect us to our far-flung families, and able to exist in and across multiple identities and worlds simultaneously.

These narrative choices are ways to honour not just South Asian immigrant communities, but all immigrant communities, and in fact, anyone who has felt different or othered. But, of course, the job of a good storyteller is to weave themes into their tales, while simultaneously leaving room for any reader to enter into the story and find resonance within it.

You participated in a special session during the “Writing is Personal” workshop organised by the American Center, Kolkata. How was your experience?

It was wonderful. I do feel that one huge benefit of social media and modern technology is the ability to reduce the distance between people. Through the virtual workshop, I was able to connect with such creative and critical thinkers in Kolkata—and speak together about representation, creativity, the art and science of the written word. We discussed my two young adult novels, both of which are Jane Austen-inspired contemporary rom-coms centering desi protagonists—Debating Darcy, which is my retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a high school speech and debate setting, while Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute is my retelling of Sense and Sensibility. I’d love to collaborate more with creative communities in India—both online and hopefully in-person!

What advice would you give to aspiring children’s authors, particularly those from diverse backgrounds hoping to break into the industry?

Read as much and as widely as possible. Write however works for you—and believe in yourself, your story and your process. Find a community. Find mentors. Mentor others. Be brave and humble, be willing to learn and improve your craft. Be patient, but don’t give up.

Can you share anything about your upcoming projects or future directions for your writing journey?

I have one very secret project I’m working on, but my next middle-grade novel will be an (yet untitled) anti-colonial repatriation inspired heist story coming out in May 2025. I’m also working with some wonderful people to try and bring my Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series to the small screen.


 Trans World Features

 (Credit to author and TWF mandatory)

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