Growing up in India, I never thought of stories from other cultures as not my own. After all, India is a multicultural, multilingual, and multiethnic country. I come from the state of Gujarat and my mother tongue is Gujarati. When I read a story set in Bengal where they spoke Bengali (and I didn’t know a word of it) and had customs and a culture very different from ours, I immediately connected to the protagonist and was interested in her journey. The same thing happened when I read a poem in Hindi set in northern India or read a translation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. When my uncle told the story of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, my brother and I sat hypnotized to hear the fate of Edmond Dantes. Who wouldn’t?
To me a story is a story because it’s about who we are as people, about our joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs, and not about where we live, how we look, or what our customs are. Sure, these things help shape us – when an author brings a setting alive with the sounds, smells, textures, and colors of the protagonist’s world, the setting feels real and character becomes multidimensional. But those details do not change the human emotions and experiences of the character. It is that common bond that makes anyone relate to any story anywhere and makes the emotional connection to the character deeper and lasting.
Today we need to have a body of literature that reflects our global society and its make-up. It is important for children with various ethnic backgrounds to see their culture, geography, and their immediate world reflected in stories, like an echo. It is equally important for children who are outside of that specific culture to read about something new and different, like gazing at the stars: they may be distant but they are awe-inspiring and we feel part of something bigger. In the same way, children should feel part of something bigger than just their family and immediate community. Books make them look at the world with fresh eyes and open their hearts. Ultimately, stories transcend all the specific details and link us all to the human journey; it is wonderful for children to empathize with a protagonist’s excitement, fears, dreams, struggles, and triumph, regardless of his cultural background, race, religion, ethnicity, time period, or history.
In the United States, multicultural literature for children is a broad concept. It is a term that is used for all the literature in which the protagonist is non-white. It encompasses African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native-Americans – basically all hyphenated ethnic and racial groups. As I write stories that are set in India and about Indian-American children growing up in this country, I fall into that category of a “multicultural” writer.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin keeps a sharp eye on the number of multicultural books published every year. Sadly, they report that in the past several years the number of multicultural books has not gone up. This is surprising, as we know that the minority population in this country has increased steadily over the same time. In the not-too-distant future, we will have more than half the population belonging to “minority groups.” Why haven’t book publishers kept up with the changing demographic? And why do we need more multicultural books?
The BBC did a short video on this issue, exploring the state of multicultural literature in the USA. Megan Schliesman of CCBC, Jason Low of Lee and Low Publishing, several patrons at Middleton Library in Middleton, WI, and I were interviewed for the piece by Franz Strasser of the BBC for its Altered State Series. Here is the link: http://bbc.in/1fmetAA
Interview with Uma Krishnaswami:
Uma Krishnaswami interviewed me on her blog, Writing With A Broken Tusk, regarding my chapter book The No-Dogs-Allowed-Rule. Krishnaswami is the author of many children’s books including her picture book, Chachaji’s Cup and her middle grade novel, Grand Plan to Fix Everything.
To read the interview, please go to: http://umakrishnaswami.blogspot.com/2013/09/interview-with-kashmira-sheth.html