Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Uma at a Commonwealth Education Trust curriculum planning workshop for a children's writing course. In those few days, Uma taught me a lot about what it takes to write for children. I've grown to respect her not just as an author of beautiful picturebooks and compelling novels for young readers, but also for her contributions and visibility in conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in children's publishing. I asked Uma to share some of her wisdom culled over two decades of writing books for young readers and helping her students do the same ―yes she's been at it that long! Here's what she had to say.
I’ve never used it for a picture book—it’s so much easier for me to visualize an entire picture book than an entire novel. In fact I need to hold a whole picture book in my mind for some time before I write a word. I don’t seem to need too many tools to accomplish that.
For novels, I find Scrivener invaluable. I don’t use all its features—e.g., I never use the little feature that helps you name characters. I turn the spellcheck off. I rarely use the screenshot. I like being able to color-code chapters and see patterns of plot and character involvement. I like being able to move passages, scenes, and even entire chapters around as I need to. I like being able to keep just the right music file handy to pull up if I need to evoke a certain mood as I write. For both novels and nonfiction projects, I can keep all my reading, research, and lists of print and online sources together in a single compiler, so everything’s accessible to me while I’m writing.
You’ve been on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2006. What is it like balancing teaching and writing? Any advice for people trying to strike this particular balance?
I think it’s a different kind of balancing act for everyone, just the way we all come at writing in hundreds of different ways. For me, teaching and writing are very much alike. They are both more about process than product, the work is never finished, and you meet an amazing number of generous, wonderful, talented people along the way. Advice? I’d say stay open to possibility on both fronts and think about what both teaching and writing mean to you, not just as a balance to strike but as part of your life.
You’re represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about the working relationship between a writer and a literary agent?
I don’t know if I really feel competent to answer this question, but I will say that in my experience (and I’ve been both agented and unagented over the years) “relationship” is the key word. I am very grateful for my agent’s support. I don’t often have burning questions I need answered but can’t imagine not being able to call on Ginger, and Curtis Brown, when I do. And I am more than grateful for the help I get with navigating the business end of my work.
You recently wrote a blog post about common errors in American children’s books with South Asian content. It’s true that children’s books outside the mainstream, white norm published here in the States have often been subject to inaccurate and sometimes insensitive interpretations on the part of both publishers and reviewers. As someone writing children’s books set in India and rooted in the South Asian diasporic experience, have you had to work to ensure that reviewers, publishers and ultimately young readers in the US “get” your books?
Factual inaccuracies, outmoded depictions, and great big gaps in material related to India and the region—these were in part the things that drove me to write in the first place. That said, I think my job as a writer is to write the story I need to tell. When I write and revise, I find the more I focus on the story, let the characters grow as they need to, let the big picture of the story reveal itself, the more likely it is that an editor will relate to it. At another level, I simply can’t control who will “get” my books and who will not. I’m an idiosyncratic reader—I read what pleases me and I have opinions about the books I read. I need to write my books and then when they’re published I need to let go of them, to hope that readers will have opinions about them. Beyond that, I have to move on to the next book and the next.
I recently wrote a post here on the blog about the question of audience in Caribbean children’s writing. Audience has such a big effect on the way a writer writes and also on the types of stories that get told. As a South Asian writer living and writing in America and writing books that in your own words, “cross from one place into the other and back again”, how do you see the issue of audience?
It’s complicated. I tend to push audience to the back of my mind when I’m writing drafts, and then slowly, over the course of many revisions, I bring them back into my consciousness. By the time we’re done with the last rounds of edits, I’m fully aware that I need to make my thoughts accessible on the page to someone who’s 6 or 8 or 11, depending on the book. That does not always make me simplify, mind you—sometimes the thought of the audience has quite the opposite effect because I know how very perceptive young readers can be.
At some level I don’t think it matters where that reader lives. When I was writing Book Uncle and Me, I didn’t think I was writing it for readers in India, or in Australia where it has since been picked up. My picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! was originally published in India, and I didn’t think I was writing it for kids in the US, but now they’re reading it anyway, thanks to the wonderful people at Groundwood Books who published a North American edition.
|Illustration by Uma Krishnaswamy from Out of the Way! Out of the Way!|
You regularly travel to India, where you were born, for book festivals like Bookaroo and to speak with young readers at schools and so forth. Do you find that your books are well received in India and as an expat writer, what have you found to be key for connecting with your readers in India?
I have felt very welcomed in the land of my birth. It’s been a joy for me to encounter the energy and enthusiasm of young audiences I’ve spoken to in India. I don’t know that I’ve had to make any special attempts or look for ways to make that connection—it’s all felt very natural.
In your children’s books, you’ve managed to tell nuanced, non-stereotypical stories about Indian and Hindu traditions ―like yoga, Bollywood and Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity― that have been largely festishized in the West. Your books have also addressed topics as far-ranging as immigration (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything), divorce (Naming Maya), interfaith dialogue (Many Windows), death of a loved one (Remembering Grandpa), the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan (Chachaji's Cup), and adoption and biracial families (Bringing Asha Home). Both from the perspective of navigating the publishing world and honing our voices as storytellers, I’m interested in the question of how we convey culture and traditions in our stories without stereotyping or pigeonholing ourselves. Any insights?
I think we reach for honesty at many levels—in thinking about why I want to tell a particular story, in getting as close as I can to a credible, plausible character, at staying true to the kind of story I am trying to reach. I try to get at the bigger questions through small, specific details of setting and context. Naming Maya needed a different kind of truth-telling (facing the realities of a contemporary child’s life) from Chachaji’s Cup (the truth about a period of history my mother lived through).
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything—well, it has an immigrant family at its center, but I see it and the sequel, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic, as being about friendship and family in a world of blended cultural identities. Writing those books called for me to turn some conventional wisdoms on their heads—hence the kid of color rather than the white kid is the one who defines what is “cool” in the books. They are not about becoming American—Dini’s blended version of Americanness is never in question and that in some ways is the point.
It’s the only way I know how to write. Eudora Welty said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else...” And I think children are loaded with the ability to soak up place even when they may have no idea that’s what they’re doing. All my childhood memories are deeply sensory, and bound up with very specific places—the way the bark felt in trees I climbed, or the smell of jasmines, the clanging of train wheels and so on. For me, reaching for place is always a part of reaching for story.
I've been hearing a lot about renewed interest in the poetry of children’s stories. In fact, the Children's Book Academy is currently offering an online course titled "From Storyteller to Exquisite Writer: The Pleasures and Craft of Poetic Techniques " and they just hosted a free webinar on the same topic. Some of your picturebooks, like Monsoon and The Girl of the Wish Garden: A Thumbelina Story have been praised for their poetic quality and even in some of your novels, there is this use of poetic imagery. How did this awareness of poetic language develop for you as a writer? Was lyricism something you naturally leaned towards or something you’ve had to consciously develop?
I was a reader before I was a writer. Back in the last century, I was one of those lucky kids who can’t remember learning how to read. I have memories of sitting by myself and reading…reading…reading silently and then suddenly finding myself reading out loud, as if the words were just bursting off the page and I had to make them my own. We memorized a lot of poetry in those days, and perhaps that has something to do with it as well. My grandfather used to recite Longfellow and Tennyson while shaving. There’s a sensory memory—fluffy white shaving cream and “This is the forest primeval…”
|Illustration by Jamel Akib from Monsoon|
What’s next on your itinerary and are you currently working on a book?
Summer residency’s coming up at VCFA, so I’m getting ready for the next teaching semester to begin. And I’m working on a book project that I cannot talk about because it might evaporate if I did! All I can say is that I’m in that happy place of waking up each morning eager to get to work on it.