Zorba Books digs out the secret behind Sayantani’s success as a writer of children’s books. Why Scholastic loves publishing her books and children of all hues, reading them.
Zorba Books recently had the honour of speaking with the author on a range of topics, including the influence her Bengali roots had on her writing,how she over came her publishing fears and her book found acceptance in a diverse readers market and the best advice for aspiring writers.
1. Apart from being a children’s author, you’re a doctor who has written for and about the medical field. How did writing become such a major part of your life?
Being a children’s author is at least my third career. My original training is in pediatrics and public health, but for the last fifteen or so years I have taught at the graduate and undergraduate level— primarily in a field called narrative medicine (also known as health humanities) but also in race and ethnicity studies and comparative literature. Seemingly, these three careers are really different —medicine, teaching, and writing for children. But in the end, they’re all about stories—giving and receiving accounts of ourselves and others. They’re also all about power—thinking about whose stories get centered and whose marginalized, whose voices heard and whose silenced.
My parents, although they had other careers, are also both writers. So, you might say writing was a part of my family upbringing and in my blood!
2. The Serpent’s Secret published this year and your very first book was an anthology of Bengali folk tales, published in 1995. Was the writing and promotional process for the two different? If so, then how?
That 1995 book, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, is related to this children’s series because of course both are based on my love of Bengali folktales—ghost, animal, and rakkhosh stories. These were the stories my grandmothers would tell me, as an immigrant daughter growing up in America, on my long summer vacations back to India. They lit my imagination on fire as back then the movies and stories I was exposed to in the U.S. very rarely showed anyone non-white in a central or leading role.
The Demon Slayers was a relatively small publication, and my mother—who co-wrote it with me—and I, did a few readings but that was it.
With The Serpent’s Secret, I’ve have been travelling all around the U.S. speaking to librarians, teachers, parents and young readers about the book. It has gotten starred reviews and been covered by leading journals and book reviewers and even featured on a national morning show. It’s also being published in German, Spanish, Catalán, Turkish, Norwegian and now, Bengali! That last one is quite a thrill, I must say, to think that I took these beloved Bengali folk and children’s stories—created a whole new story out of them starring a diasporic heroine, and now that novel will return to its homeland!
3. You are also a member of We Need Diverse Books, which helps writers of colour with financial support, organizing writing retreats, etc. How did you get involved with this project?
I cannot speak more highly of this group, or the other children’s writers of colour I have met over the years as I have entered the world of children’s literature in the U.S. Like me, many of these other authors experienced either a lack of portrayals or negative portrayals of their own communities in children’s media, and are dedicated to making sure that today’s young readers have many more stories at their disposal—stories that can function as windows into the lives of others unlike themselves, but also stories that can function like mirrors, reflecting their own faces back to them. I am involved in the social media team of We Need Diverse Books and am so grateful to the organization. I also just want to note that there are many others committed to diverse representation in children’s literature also—one such example is Laura Pegram and the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature conference, which brings together creators of colour every year for an inspiriting and uplifting conference in New York. It’s all about supporting other writers of colour, and of course, young readers.
4. Were there any specific obstacles you faced while writing The Serpent’s Secret? How did you deal with them?
The path to publishing this book was very long. I first tried to go out with a different version of this book as far back as 2011. When it didn’t sell despite going out rather widely, I had to accept that the U.S. children’s book market wasn’t perhaps ready for a funny, intergalactic, fantasy adventure starring a brown skinned Bengali immigrant daughter living in New Jersey! I also had to accept that I had no control over that—all I could do was try to continue working on the book, and my own writing, improving it to the best of my ability by attending writing conferences, taking classes, reading widely in children’s literature, joining a critique group of fellow writers, etc.
So maybe all that waiting was so that I could make it perfect.
While I do think the market is very different now, I also think those years in the middle—as frustrating as they were—also gave me time to improve my craft, and to become very clear in my convictions. I don’t, for instance, translate or italicize any Bengali words in this book – I know they are either understandable in context or people can look them up. I am dedicated to being as true as possible to my own experience of growing up in a diasporic Bengali community.
5. The book cover for The Serpent’s Secret is so refreshing! How did you decide upon it?
Authors in the U.S. rarely have much input on their book covers, but I was so very lucky that the genius art director at Scholastic, Elizabeth Parisi, and the wonderful artist, Vivienne To, were very collaborative. They would send me sketches and discuss their ideas with me—using me as a cultural barometer. For instance, it was very important to all of us that Kiranmala be active, have agency and shows her brave, funny personality and that we not fall into any stereotypes about South Asian girls being passive or meditative or something. I also wanted to be clear that she was an immigrant daughter—and so the combination of kurta and combat boots was perfect. Those purple combat boots are designed after my own now 13-year-old daughter’s favorite shoes—that she would also often wear with salwar kameez!
6. Young Adult Fiction is very popular now. Have you ever thought of introducing Kiranmala, or maybe another character, to an older audience?
Kiranmala is twelve so The Serpent’s Secret is what is called a middle-grade (MG) novel, in other words, the age range down from young adult (YA). That said, I think that teenagers (and adults!) often read upper middle-grade fantasy—from Harry Potter to Percy Jackson to the Wrinkle in Time or Golden Compass series—I think that this has been shown time and again. I am very happy writing at this age range because it is my natural writerly voice and humor level. I enjoy being able to fold serious issues—like immigration, or discrimination, or how to reconcile multiple identities —into a humorous, joyous tale. I think we need more books about twelve-year-old brown girls cracking jokes, having adventures, and saving the world!
As to the question of writing for young people, it was children’s writer Madeline L’Engle who said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
7. We aim for our blog posts to be encouraging to aspiring writers. Do you have any word of advice for them, perhaps an anecdote from your personal experience as a writer?
My main advice is to keep going! Keep writing, keep reading, keep improving your craft. Learn as much as you can. Don’t write for the market, or for what you think others’ want. Write for yourself. Write your truth, even if your truth doesn’t look like others’ tell you it should.
I for one was convinced for years that to write an Indian immigrant daughter novel, it would have to be literary, sweeping, sad, and have lots of references to monsoons and mangoes. (Not that I have anything against monsoons or mangoes!) But this idea, that my writing had to be a certain way, almost stopped me from writing at all. I became convinced that because I didn’t have a sad story about oppressive parents or cultural conflict to tell, that maybe I didn’t deserve to tell my story at all! I think that’s a demand that a lot of writers of colour—at least in the U.S.—face, a kind of voyeuristic demand that we perform our pain for others. It wasn’t until I could name this demand, understand where it was coming from, and reject it, that I could permit myself to find my fictional voice.
So I would say to other writers, don’t listen to others who say you should write in x or y way. Write your truth. Even when it’s scary. For me, writing for young people, celebrating joy in my writing, writing with humor – this was at first scary. I thought as a serious physician or academic, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, daren’t write like this. But it wasn’t until I permitted myself not to care about such external expectations that I found my voice. What I hope for other writers is that they can do the same. There’s no better joy than discovering your own true writer’s voice—it’s like looking all over the world for yourself, and then realizing that you were right there, in the center of your heart, all the while.
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