Padma Venkatraman is the talented author of three young adult novels Climbing the Stairs, A Time to Dance and Island's End. Her work set in the India spans many eras, genres and themes to explore the meaning of art, dance and living life in sync with one's principles. We spoke to her about her creative process and fished for details on an upcoming novel.
How did you change course from studying oceanography to becoming a writer?
I always was a writer, I think. I sort of wrote before I could write, if that makes sense! At age five, I used to dictate poems to my mother, and she wrote them down for me. Apparently, I’d say, “the line ends there, start a new line.” When I re-read those poems, I’m always pretty amazed, because since the time I dictated them, I’ve worked with kids and had my own, and it’s pretty incredible to me that I used to do that. One of those poems which was recorded in my mom’s handwriting, in her diary,, was, “My dress is black / the black of the gleaming sky / behind the stars.”
I’m no longer that little kid. Now I’m no more than an adult who writes ugly sentences sometimes (more often than I care to admit) but luckily, am able to revise them. I also say this because I think the people of Kitaabworld (and okay, I’m making assumptions, so forgive me) may be more open to the idea of a child possibly “remembering” from a past life. I never have spoken about this before, but when I read that stuff a shiver goes down my spine. Especially because at that point I didn’t yet read. It’s not like I was regurgitating stuff I'd read, but rather that I was already creating poetry.
I didn’t even have a whole lot of exposure to the English language – my parents spoke to me primarily in Tamil. Growing up in Chennai, I knew kids who had an uncanny knowledge of Carnatic classical music; and although my childhood work wasn’t that advanced, I was clearly far ahead in terms of painting with words than most kids are at that age – especially kids for whom English is a second language. So it gives me a sort of cool creepy feeling…
As to how I changed from oceanography to becoming a writer, I studied it despite my love of language – in part because I could see myself making a career out of science. There’s a side of me that’s very analytical. I love mathematics and science and I still enjoy being in the company of scientists.I also wanted to be financially independent and with writing, the cliché is that one shouldn’t “give up one’s day job”.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer? Is there anything you dislike?
I love the process of writing. I love spending time with my characters, hearing their voices, seeing their worlds, being possessed by them. I love language. Language can bring out the best in us – and incite us to the worst kinds of violence. In ancient India, we spoke about mantra, the magic of the word – and words have always been magical to me. The fact that humans may speak to one another, across cultures, that they may cross distances of space and time to communicate – directly - through little marks on paper … to me that’s magic.
I dislike how much publicity matters in this day and age - that authors are expected to do it, no matter how well their books may or may not be written. I greatly enjoy speaking to people directly (whether it’s an audience of one or a giant sized auditorium where I give a keynote address or it's a class with little kids). They love me and I love them right back, every time I speak.
I am always deeply honored to be interviewed. I enjoy listening and having conversations. I love writing deeply thought and felt articles on guest blogs. I even have come to the point where I like writing reviews for work I’ve enjoyed.
I love writing books but dislike writing social media posts . I love talking to people directly, not communicating with the faceless millions through the internet. This dislike unfortunately leaves me at a considerable disadvantage.
Most of the books you’ve written are set in India. Are any of them a reflection of your own experiences?
Climbing the Stairs, my debut novel, reflects my experience most closely. It is based on the history of my extended family and draws heavily on accounts from family members and the characters are drawn from people I knew.
That said, the struggles Vidya undergoes were mine, more than my mother’s, although my mother was the inspiration for her character. For instance, members of my family – and I hate to say even people I’ve met here in this country – continue to perpetrate ignorant and demeaning traditions that dishonor women (such as the ridiculous custom that a woman shouldn’t show up in the pooja room or temple if she has her period).
When I came across this sort of nonsense in my family when I was an adolescent, I spoke up. Vehemently. And it wasn’t well received. But I didn’t care. I do remember thinking how much this experience of being “shunned” and “untouchable” for a few days gave me insight and greater empathy than any Hindu man could ever have into those whom the social system in India has deemed “untouchable” for such long periods of Indian history. They have, for generations, had to deal with people who think they’re superior and think the untouchables are unclean and unfit to be in the presence of God. It is such a terrible injustice.
I witnessed all kinds of prejudice – religious, gender-based, . attitudes toward disability that were shocking. We weren’t economically privileged either. All in all, I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of horrendous prejudice both in the culture I grew up in, and then later, when I immigrated to Virginia.
I dealt with situations – very differently – than the way my mother tackled them. I have a reputation in my family for being “angry” and “stubborn”. I was “not a nice girl” one of my aunts once said – and she was merely reflecting the prevailing attitude. Stubborn – yes. Angry about injustice – yes, but in a productive way - it makes me write, right?
So, probably, more than any other book I’ve written so far, Climbing the Stairs, is my most biographical. Then again, it’s set in the 1940’s, during the time of WWII and the time of Mahatma Gandhi – and it explores the question of violence/nonviolence and I didn’t live through that question in quite that same way that my mom’s generation did. So Vidya is a lot like me, but her life wasn’t entirely mine.
My third novel, A Time To Dance, also has a lot of me in it, in that it captures my love for Indian music and classical dance. In some ways, A Time To Dance most deeply reflects who I’d like be, as an artist. Veda’s spiritual awakening, her maturing attitude toward her art, and the growth of her understanding and compassion for others, especially the ability to give – those are things I aspire to.
All three of your young adult novels feature strong girl protagonists, was this a conscious choice on your part?
Not conscious. I am writing a book – very different from my previous work – a fantasy, not realistic fiction; and that has a male protagonist, which was a conscious choice. My nephew, Arul, asked why I’d never had a male protagonist, so I promised I’d write a book with one.
I think it’s just part of who I am. Growing up in India in the 70’s and 80’s, I saw a lot of injustice and gender inequality and prejudice. I also always felt that we were equal. So naturally, social justice issues end up finding their way into my character’s lives.
Finally, I take ages to write each novel – spending time with my people (in my head and heart) for years. So I write about people I’d like to be with and I find strong human beings interesting! I write stories I can re-read and re-write start to finish several times; stories about people who fascinate me, whom I’d enjoy being near.
Who were your own inspirations or female role models that you read growing up?
I’m sorry to say I had hardly any books to read that reflected who I was. Growing up in India, I had access to my older brothers’ books, in which scientists were always men; my text book showed mom in the kitchen, or serving food; I am not conscious of having any female role model in my childhood or youth that I looked up to.
Women growing up in the United States at the same time can’t quite conceive of what I had to deal with – let alone the younger women I meet; women who grew up here a generation or two before my time in India had childhood reading experiences closer to mine.
We are amazed by the range in your writing - you’ve written a compilation of folktales on math from around the world, a novel entirely in poetry, and historical fiction. What is your favorite genre to read and/or to write?
When I think of my career as a writer, I feel it began with Climbing the Stairs. Even if it hadn’t been published to such acclaim, I believe I’d still mark that novel as my transition point. It was when I took my writing more seriously than ever before. When I began to define writing as my life’s purpose, the reason for my existence, in a way.
I need a book, always – can’t sleep without one – and on weekends can’t wake up without one by my side. I read almost everything – from esoteric poetry to nonfiction to humorous fiction. I avoid romance, pulp fiction and crime – hardly ever read those, but that doesn’t mean I think less of those who write those genres.
I don’t believe in writer hierarchies – you aren’t necessarily a better writer if you write a particular type of book or for a certain age group or have won whatever prizes other people decide are most important. To me, writing is like an ocean. Katha Saagar, if you will. Some authors find a genre they love and stick with it, which is fine. I prefer to journey across this ocean, discovering and exploring the island of one genre and then moving to explore another.
I’m most deeply inspired by authors whose oeuvre spans various genres and ages. I hope I’ll live long enough and do well enough, with all of your blessings, to leave behind a body of work that does the same – and does it well.
How has South Asian children’s literature changed over the years since you first became a writer?
A lot of South Asian children’s literature that does well in this country shows second generation immigrant children or teens. I define a person as second generation if they came here with and because of their parents rather than having to make that decision on their own and move here independently, as I did.
I see a lot of books, across age groups, about culture clash and second generation problems in our country today, which is great to see. I also see some authors crossing over to other genres, which I like – and I think there’s less of this and more of a need for it. Through We Need Diverse Books, I mentored Maya Prasad, who has written a sci-fi YA novel with desi protagonists. I was happy to see Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar which is a recent historical fiction, set at the same time as my own debut, Climbing the Stairs, but, of course, a very different story.
One of my favorite picture book texts also deals with history, is Uma Krishnaswami’s Chachaji’s Cup. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Sawat Chadda and Roshni Chokshi have made inroads into fantasy with South Asian Indian characters. And there’s Soman Chainani whose work is essentially mainstream.
One type of book that doesn’t do quite as well is immigrant narratives in this country, but are important and wonderful to read – are books that feature children and young adults living in the Indian subcontinent. International settings are an important aspect of diverse books, and at times we become a little too centered on diversity within our nation and forget to look and include global narratives.
Finally, some recent interactions have shown me that we need first generation stories to be understood and valued much more. As a first generation immigrant, I experience and understand what second generation immigrants undergo. But there is a lot that is fundamentally unique to those of us who actually take the responsibility for the choice to move – especially the few of us, I think, in the Indian community who don’t come from a particularly wealthy background.
We see a lot of these tales written for adults, but, perhaps understandably, fewer for young readers. Yet as I get old and wrinkled, perhaps, I wish more people understood what it feels like to never “sound” American – which is to say, have everyone who grew up here decide you are an outsider. Sandhya Menon (author of When Dimple Met Rishi) pointed out in a recent interview that is was much easier it was for her once she went to college and people assumed she’d been born here. For those of us who moved later and will never meet that assumption and the associated acceptance, it’s always that much harder.
Mainstream books are for all kids, but diverse books are for diverse kids. How do we change this narrative?
I think the #diversekidlit movement is fantastic and has done a great deal to change this narrative. But way before the We Need Diverse Books movement began and achieved such well deserved success, there were many individuals who were battling for diversity and multiculturalism.
Several years ago, I was invited to moderate a keynote panel on the topic of diversity at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference. The Highlights Foundation strives to include a diverse population in their writer conferences. So it’s not a new thing and many people I haven’t mentioned here have been fighting for this over the years. I’m not sure their contribution is always recognized, but they laid the foundation for the somewhat faster pace of change now.
One way to affect change– and I’m writing on this - is understanding that diversity isn’t a matter of including one “other” author or one “other” book. We must see that there is diversity within cultures and groups, not just among them. Just because I have one well known author of color on my shelf, I’m not diverse. One voice can never represent a whole culture.
Most importantly, we have to begin thinking of ourselves as one great big entity. That’s not to say we’re all the same. I’m not spouting some kind of ridiculous Stalinist propaganda about wearing the same clothes or thinking the same thoughts. We don’t. We have differences. We need to understand and celebrate these differences without defining and separating and stereotyping people because of these differences. After all, we agree we’re different from other people, but that doesn’t make others exotic or weird or the enemy.
If we began to think of our nation, and the whole world, as a mosaic, in which each of us is a different entity, a beautiful individual piece that contributes to the whole, we’d be doing a lot better. One of our problems is the idea of our nation as a melting pot – that we need to give up our roots to acquire our wings; that we must forget where we came from and become like the whites who colonized this land.
We must also accept the violent history of this modern nation – without feeling accusatory. So much has happened here that we like to ignore. We like to think we’re the “best” – as human beings, as a country. I wish we could identify with ourselves and our country without needing to put others down or insist we’re better. If we could give up this innate desire to feel superior to others, it would surely help.
We also need to realize what reading diverse books does. Diverse books allow us to enter other souls and be possessed by them. When we live the life of someone who seems different, when their hearts and minds occupy our own for the time we are reading a marvelous diverse book, we must emerge from that experience more compassionate.
If we embrace that need to augment our empathy and tend to it and nurture it in our children, maybe we’d see that every child needs to read authentic fiction featuring as many other children as possible; which includes many “other types” of protagonists who look/think/act different.
What are you working on these days?
My next book is due out in 2019 from Nancy Paulsen Books (a wonderful imprint of Penguin Random House). It’s the first for which I haven’t found a title everyone loved, so not sure what we’ll call it yet! But it’s about street kids in Chennai.
It’s inspired in part by the true story of a girl whom I knew growing up. My mother did a lot of social work and so I knew several children who were far less privileged than even we were.
My mom was a single mom, and I went from a life of wealth privilege to a life of economic stress. Nevertheless, I never felt poor – because in India, several things that I’ve heard people who grow up here mentioning as “poverty” don’t entitle you to thinking you’re poor. At all.
Even though we had a very strained financial situation, my mom somehow made time to help kids who had even less. This work weaves in a lot of their tales. I love love love my newest characters – and I hope you will, too, when you meet them!
Wishing you all the best Padma! Can't wait to read your new book!