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South Asian Americans: We don't all sound alike

Padma Venkatraman

In recent years, I've been mistaken for quite a few other South Asians Americans in the writing industry. Every time this happens, a part of me feels happy.

When my first novel was published, over a decade ago, there were only a few South Asian Americans who wrote exclusively for young readers - Mitali Perkins, Uma Krishnaswami, Kashmira Sheth, Ruksana Khan, Rachna Gilmore, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen among them. Now there are several authors such as Tanuja Desai Hidier, Pooja Makhijani, Vivek Shraya, Divya Srinivasan, Varsha Bajaj and Hena Khan to name a few whose books share shelf space with mine. I'm also thrilled that there are more South Asians in other spheres of the publishing industry such as Sona Charaipotra who not only writes but also is one of the founders of Cake Literary and Namrata Tripathi, editor at the Kokila imprint at Penguin Random House.

The fact that I can be mistaken for so many South Asian Americans in this field shows that our ranks have swelled, which is a cause for celebration. But although there are certainly similarities amongst us, as an author, and as a person, I'd like to be recognized for who I am and for what I write. Each of us has a unique and distinct voice.  I'm happy to be identified as part of the larger collective term "South Asian American Author" but I also want to be acknowledged as an individual. So, when I feel like I'm seen as just another indistinguishable, nameless, faceless part of a crowd, I admit a part of me does feel a little hurt.

Of course, this phenomenon is something that people of several other ethnicities also experience in the United States. Grace Lin mentioned that she's often mistaken for Lisa Yee - despite considerable differences in appearance, dress, hairstyle and, of course, literary style. And my editor, Nancy Paulsen said she'd listened to a panel during which Jacqueline Woodson and other African American authors spoke about how people would confuse them and their work.

How can readers/teachers/educators help to better distinguish differences within a diverse but connected group? Here are some suggestions on how to more carefully examine our books. I've focused on South Asian authors and books as examples, but these exercises can be extended and expanded to include any other labels or categories that may be used to identify or group authors.

Tips for digging into the diversity within a category:

1. Use globes to explore global literature (or maps, actually).

South Asia is a subcontinent, so you might look up an atlas to locate the places where different South Asian protagonists come from. Sure, there are internet photos galore, but nothing like a map to visually show and see distances.

2. Explicitly acknowledge differences among books that share similarities and are written by authors who come from similar backgrounds.  

Within every culture, there are a wide variety of beliefs and ideologies and opinions, so engage in activities that help instill this truth in your students. Don't promote stereotypes by assuming that one author represents the point of view of an entire swath of humanity.

For example, if there are books that take place during the same historical period and in the same general location, but written by authors from a particular diverse category, you might try comparing and contrasting them in terms of focus, approach or specific content and other details. For instance The Night Diary and Ticket to India, both address the Partition; Ahimsa and Climbing the Stairs, both play out against the backdrop of India's Freedom Struggle; Amal Unbound and The Bridge Home, are both contemporary novels that feature protagonists who experience socio-economic discrimination. KitaabWorld has several themed lists that can be referenced for this activity, too. 

3.  Include as many diverse voices within a group as possible.

If you're planning a thematic display - such as showcasing Asian authors during  "Asian Week" - do your best to include as many different authors as possible (for example, if you have space for seven books, try displaying seven different authors, rather than showcasing five books by one author and two books by another). If you're doing a unit on Pakistan, don't be content if you've found just one Pakistani American author. It's the easy way out to stock several books by just that person; instead, challenge yourself to introduce as many such authors as possible to your students.

4. Connect stories across cultures.

Make literary connections between authors who stem from different backgrounds. For instance you might group authors based literary style (e.g. A Time to Dance and Jazz Owls are both verse novels for young adults) and pay attention to how a specific literary form is employed by different authors.

Also, as #WNDB has so often suggested, include diverse books and authors whenever you're thinking of a particular genre for instance Vanished is a middle grade mystery, The Serpent's Secret is a middle grade fantasy. You might also want students to compare similarities and differences in terms of plot and story that exist between thematically connected books by authors from different backgrounds. I was deeply honored that at one school, a class read Island's End and Lord of the Flies and discussed the contrasts in terms of portrayals of leadership.

5. Practice saying and writing our names.

Although authors from the majority community often have long names, too, I suspect there's a greater level of trepidation when educators and librarians come across a name they've never heard before.  There are resources to help you pronounce authors' names.

If you're too scared to try saying our names aloud, you run the risk that your students may just remember us part of a larger unit and internalize the idea that the author is just "an Asian author with a long name." Mispronouncing our names is better than relegating us to relative obscurity. And as for spelling them correctly, it's just a matter of paying attention and, of course, of practice.

Padma Venkatraman is the talented author of three young adult novels Climbing the StairsA Time to Dance and Island's End. The Bridge Home is her first middle grade novel and released last week to starred reviews. 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. 

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