Bengali Folktales and String Theory

Our job, as writers, publishers, editors, librarians, and teachers, is to share with young people stories that heal, uplift, celebrate, and empower. The power of story is the power of finding one’s own voice.

As an Indian American immigrant daughter growing up in Ohio, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me in the TV shows and movies I watched, or the novels that I adored. At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate my discomfort, even to myself. But the lack of representation, combined with every day macro- and micro-aggressions (from tar in the mailbox to schoolyard hands rubbing my skin to see if the brown would come off) left me with a deep and gnawing sense of shame at my own body, my family, my Otherness. I figured since there were no heroes or heroines who looked like me, maybe I didn’t deserve to be a hero – even of my own story.

It took me years to realize it, but narrative erasure is a kind of psychic violence.

But then, at some point in elementary school, I heard one of my favorite adventure franchise movies was going to set its next installment in India! I was thrilled beyond measure. That is, up to the point I actually saw the movie, which was full of over-the-top, grotesque stereotypes. I can still remember my horror at the scene where the beautiful blonde heroine, dressed in a gaudy attempt at Indian finery, faints upon being served monkey brains to eat straight out of a monkey skull.

The power of story is too often the power of stereotypes.

Like comedian Hari Kondabulu, who made an entire documentary to discuss his frustration and pain at the stereotype that was the character of Apu on The Simpsons, I too felt that monkey brains eating scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a defining aspect of my childhood torments. I cannot even recall the amount of times, after that movie came out, that people made monkey noises at me, or I was asked if I ate monkey brains.
 

This is also the power of story. The power to hurt. The power to shame.

The key, then, is to be deeply aware of this negative power that story has, and actively work against it. Stories are not inherently just. They can be deeply unjust too, and cause terrible harm. Our job, as writers, publishers, editors, librarians, and teachers, is to share with young people stories that heal, uplift, celebrate, and empower. It is our responsibility to make room for stories can reflect new heroes and new ways of thinking about difference altogether. Very often, this means supporting books written about a particular marginalized community by members of that community, what writer Corrine Duyivs has called #ownvoices books. Or, in the words of the disability activist community, to adopt a slogan of “nothing about us without us.”


The power of story is the power of finding one’s own voice.

The first time I read books by authors of color with protagonists of color was in high school, and then college. Reading Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Julia Álvarez and Isabel Allende was an absolute revelation. The message of these novels to me was clear: I could take up space in the world! I could star in my own story!

But when I was initially looking for a publisher for The Serpent’s Secret, my fast-paced, funny middle grade fantasy debut based on Bengali folktales and string theory, it was next to impossible. The message I got from many in publishing, now going on eight years ago, was that the market was not ready for an action-packed book with a demon-fighting and joke-cracking 12-year old immigrant daughter from New Jersey. Couldn’t I write a realistic fiction book with Kiranmala’s voice, but focusing on her cultural conflicts with her parents? Never mind that this wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t writing a South Asian American book about cultural conflict, but rather, adventure, where the heroine has to save her parents and embrace her cultural heritage in order to find her superpowers. Yet, the message I got from this long process was that there was a problem with a book that centered readers like me, a book that did not teach the mainstream about the Other, a book that did not make a story about a community of color into a lesson plan or a painful, teachable moment.

It took many years to find a publisher for this story, and I almost gave up more than once. Thank goodness, however, for the whole hearted support of my current agent, editor and publishing house who allow – no, encourage – me to make Kiranmala as joyous, funny and brave as I can. Thank goodness also for the fact that there are so many more in the industry now who want to make room for stories about communities of color that incorporate joy, adventure, mystery and humor alongside (still very important) stories of pain, struggle and history. Thank goodness for the readers, parents, librarians, booksellers and educators who have embraced and been so instrumental to the success of the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series (The Serpent’s Secret came out in 2018, Game of Stars just came out in early 2019, and The Chaos Curse is slated to come out in 2020).


There is power in not just one, but many types of stories.

The delight of publishing this series has been seeing how well what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop called the mirror function of stories works: the thrill and electric joy of a child of color, or a child from an immigrant family, seeing themselves reflected in my protagonist Kiranmala. But what has been equally wonderful has been seeing how well what Dr. Bishop would call the window function of stories also works. On my school visits across this country, I meet children who share no obvious commonalities with Kiranmala who tell me how much they adore the series. For these readers, it’s the cheesy jokes, or the ridiculous riddles, or the action, or maybe the ubiquitous demon snot (I’ll apologize now, there’s a lot of snot in these books) that in fact make it easy for them to embrace Kiranmala. These are children who are probably used to seeing characters like themselves reflected in books and movies – and yet, the decentering experience doesn’t seem to be a problem for them at all. If a little blonde boy can love the adventures of a brown skinned immigrant heroine like Kiranmala – I can only hope it will make it easier for him and others like him to envision a future world where leaders and role models come in all genders, colors, and backgrounds.


The power of story is the power to see the world differently.

Children’s literature, regardless of genre, is future-looking. Because it is in our stories that the world to come is designed in the minds of our young readers. Who is allowed to inhabit the future? Who is allowed not just to survive, but thrive? Children’s literature helps all our young people imagine different tomorrows, tomorrows where we all can see ourselves represented and celebrated.

The power of children’s stories is the power to build a more just future. And it’s my honor to contribute my voice to that rising swell of stories reaching joyously toward a better tomorrow.

Sayantani DasGupta is a New York Times bestselling author. She writes the middle grade fantasy series, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, which includes The Serpent’s Secret and of Game of Stars. Sayantani grew up hearing stories about brave princesses, bloodthirsty rakkhosh, and flying pakkhiraj horses. She is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches at Columbia University. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at sayantanidasgupta.com and on Twitter at @sayantani16.


This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and download the catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Visit School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Lamar Giles, Andrea Davis Pinkney, book giveaways and more.

 

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