Tag Archives: Salman Rushdie

Multicultural Kidlit: A Case for Not Explaining Yourself

From Stories are Good Medicine:


To ‘splain yourself, or not to ‘splain yourself.

Ah, that is the question.

For authors of children’s literature commonly called "multicultural", the issue is often one that’s front and center.

From agents who say "Oh, I’d like to learn more about that custom/ritual/holiday."

From editors who urge, "Draw out the protagonist’s cultural conflict."

From fellow writers who say, "But this passage is so esoteric, isn’t it?."

And of course, the job of a writer is to draw a reader into a world – whatever that world’s culture, history, time and space – certainly not shut readers out or make readers so preoccupied with what they do not know that they cannot go along for the plot’s ride along with the protagonist.

Yet, some of the best ‘multicultural’ books I’ve ever read don’t always explain. In fact, the authors sometimes don’t explain on purpose.

Take Salman Rushdie, whose novels first taught me that Indian expressions, inside jokes and cultural nuances could be sprinkled liberally through a novel without remorse. Rushdie even plays fast and loose with cross-cultural grammar. Indian suffixes like an honorific -ji are added wily-nily:  "Auntie-ji" "Uncle-ji"; alternately, Indian words are given Anglicized endings like "chutney-fication." Indian patterns of speech, like repeating and rhyming a word pop up all over the place: "writing-shiting." Film references and ‘insider’ jokes abound – some of which I, as an Indian American, catch and some of which I don’t. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. His worlds are so rich and nuanced that I happily enter them, giving in to the atmosphere, the world-building, the linguistic high-jinks, and of course, the plot’s ride.

But what about children’s novels? Aren’t they held to a different standard? Are the same practices that seem erudite and the signifiers of a global sophisticate just downright unfair in a novel for young people? Don’t we need to explain more lest middle grade and teen readers get confused, angry, turned off, or worst still, bored?

I’m not so sure. Take my son, an avid reader 8yo, who, a couple of weeks ago, said to me:

Son: "Mom, that was a huge kwi-wee at the airport yesterday, wasn’t it?"

Me: "A what?"

Son: "A long kwi-we. You know, Q-U-E-U-E."

Of course, I had to explain that the word, no matter how it looked, was actually pronounced "cue." To which, he said "well, that’s silly."

But beyond that moment of cuteness, my actual point here is that, as a huge Harry Potter fan, my son obviously read the word somewhere in one of J.K. Rowling’s books. And although he’s never heard it in his day to day life, he was able to pick up the meaning from the context. And more importantly, it didn’t bother him. Not. One. Whit.

And what I’ve learned, at least about my son, is this: If the story is good, he will go. Even if he doesn’t pick up on every sign post along the way. (I blogged a while ago about him missing, totally, the few pages about menstruation in Lisa Yee’s delightful Millicent Min Girl Genius. Did I stress about those pages, unnecessarily? Yes. Did it bother my son not to get what Yee was talking about there? Nope, not at all. It remains one of his all time favorite books.)

I just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor’s delightful, imaginative and magical Akata Witch, which is set  firmly in the soil, context and often, language of Nigeria. Yet, Okorafor skillfully makes plenty of room for the non-Nigerian reader by creating characters who are themselves "in between." – one American boy and one Nigerian girl who was raised in the U.S. before returning to Nigeria again. (she’s in between in other fascinating ways too, but I’ll let you read the book to find out) 

There were pieces of culture and context that I loved learning about – but there were plenty of things I’m sure I didn’t catch. Only, I was so occupied following the characters and exciting plot, that I honestly didn’t notice. Instead, I felt pulled in – as if I was wading through the river of Okorafor’s imagination – and it didn’t really matter if I didn’t know the river’s name, I got the other side (and felt the rush and wet and pull of the water) just the same.

Explaining too little or too much is of course a fine balancing act. I’m sure each reader’s tolerance for "not getting something" is a little different. And I’m definitely sure that our cultural tolerance for being "outsiders" to another’s cultural nuances has changed drastically over time. But ultimately, good novels aren’t anthropological treatises on far away cultures – they are doorways into characters’ lives and stories. And like Alice down her rabbit hole, readers don’t always have to understand every spectacular sight in a new place to appreciate the journey.

What are your favorite novels that introduced you to new worlds? Did they ‘splain, or just let you dive into, as Rushdie would say, their stream of stories?

Book List: Desi Kidlit Part 2!

From storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/Stories are Good Medicine:

I forgot so many wonderful books on my "South Asian Kidlit" books list on Holi, that I thought I’d do a follow-up post. So here’s Desi Kidlit Part 2 – even more wonderful MG and YA books by and about South Asian diasporic folks. Keep adding more please readers – we’re making a great list!:

1. Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories 

Many thanks to Sheela Chari for reminding me how much I love this magical, lyrical book, written by Rushdie for his son. It’s hard not to read into the novel in light of the fatwa the author long lived under; the evil chupwallahs (silence sellers) want to silence the land of gup (talk) and dry up the magical stream of stories, from which all tales originate. He wrote another kidlit book, Luka and the Fire of Life for his other son – it looks wonderful, though I’m yet to read it!

2. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Conch Bearer

Action, adventure and magic combine in this quest fantasy by the author of The Mistress of Spices, One Amazing Thing and Arranged Marriage.

3. Tanuja Desai Hidier: Born Confused

This bhangra-club scene coming of age story is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Library Association BBYA book of the year and the New York Public Library 2003 Book for the Teen Age. Sections of Desai-Hidier’s book were also, famously, plagiarized by Kaavya Viswanathan in her book Opal Mehta.

4. Narindher Dhami: Bend it Like Bekham

The book that inspired the fantastic Gurinder Chadha movie! Dhami is also the author of the Bindi Babes series and Sunita’s Secret. Her books just got put on my ever-growing to be read pile!

5. Swati Avasthi: Split

This winner of several recent awards – including the 2011 ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults List, and the Cybils 2010 Best Fiction for Young Adults (winner). On my TBR list as well!

6. Mahtab Narsimhan: The Third Eye

This Indian Canadian author’s novel is the winner of the 2009 Silver Birch Fiction award. This Indian mythology infused story about loss was followed up by The Deadly Conch.  

7. Sheela Chari: Vanished

I couldn’t resist listing my fellow Mixed Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors’ forthcoming August 2011 book. Full of Mystery! Intercontinental Intrigue! and Music! It’s sure to be as charming as it’s author.

I’m sure I’m leaving off plenty of titles still – please, add away in the comments!

Muhammad and the Litmus Test

Does the truth need to pass a litmus test? When you tell the truth about anyone’s religion, the answer isn’t so clear. Before I engaged in writing a novel on the life of Muhammad, the risks were only too apparent.  Islam was a hot-button issue. Tempers were running high. Looming large were the fatwa and Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, and the worldwide uprising among Muslims over a cartoon in a Danish newspaper that was thought to blaspheme against the Prophet.  Therefore, simply to set down the events of Muhammad’s life — events that are by turns gripping, exciting, disturbing, and inspiring — leads directly into an inflamed debate.

To me, the danger of writing about Muhammad are, frankly, a red herring.  You can’t know what is safe to say these days and what isn’t. Before he backed down at the urging of President Obama and others ,  an obscure Florida pastor with less than a hundred in his congregation,  proposed, against all sense, decency, and caution, that everyone join in Burn-a-Koran Day to commemorate 9/11.  Terry Jones feels perfectly safe to incite potential violence, because he has prayed over it, and apparently his God can’t stand Allah (I thought they were the same God) and favors ignorant intolerance.  By lineage, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share The Book, meaning the same antecedents in the Old Testament, which each faith interprets so that it comes out number one. Being "people of The Book," a term frequently used when discussing the relationship between Islam and Judaism, hasn’t stopped historical feuding and bloodbaths. 

To keep their claims of absolute divine truth, each religion has learned to moderate its criticism of other faiths.  It’s not so much live and let live as people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Your founder walked on water? Yours heard a voice in a burning bush? Yours was visited in a cave by the angel Gabriel?  From inside the faith, these are articles of belief that cannot be questioned. If you stand outside the faith, they seem unreasonable, to use the mildest term possible. As a non-Muslim, I was writing from outside the faith. Therefore, I didn’t challenge the accepted life of Muhammad as taught for over a thousand years to all devout Muslims. Yet at the same time I couldn’t give them only the aspects of their Beloved that are the most attractive.  Muhammad, viewed as a historical figure, was involved in military campaigns; he asked God to strategize the battles.  At one point he ordered the execution of Jews who had collaborated with the enemy. He was told by God to marry a girl of six who was betrothed to another man.

I didn’t judge any of this from a modern perspective. Child marriage was part of a society that existed across enormous gulfs of time and mores, just as the ancient Greeks do. Once you apply litmus tests to someone else’s faith, the result is guaranteed to be explosive. Fundamentalists in all religions don’t care. The benighted Terry Jones has counterparts in the Islamic world who are just as disturbing, and both say "God wants me to do this."  It’s not up to me or any chronicler of Islam to judge either side of religious conflict.   To me, putting on my writer’s cap, the only muse that must be honored is the truth, told with respect and without distortion.  The great enemy here is denial. None of us has the right to deny another person the dignity of faith, and by the same token, no person of faith has the right to claim sole ownership of the facts.  Outsiders are allowed to peer in the window of churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. Those inside then have a choice: slam t window shut or open it and let in some light. 

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