Sailing Oceans of Story by Padma Venkatraman
Once upon a time, there lived a little girl who loved words. She traveled through the pages of books to places she’d never seen, and although none of the heroes or heroines she met looked anything like her, and even though many of those heroes or heroines were narrow-minded enough she probably wouldn’t have wanted to meet them for real, the little girl was entranced by the magic of writing.
One day, the little girl felt sure, she’d make black and white marks on paper, marks that would transport and transform readers by making them live within the hearts of heroes and heroines that did look like her. But she lived in India, and her culture didn’t treat little girls the same way they treated little boys.
The injustices she saw fueled her to write more, to write passionately; but they also made her practical. She realized that if she wanted to break free of the limitations others might impose, she needed to become earn enough to survive on her own.
So she turned to the world of numbers, which she loved just as much as she loved words. She decided she’d find a career that enticed her to explore new worlds – astronomy, perhaps, or oceanography.
And that’s how I became an oceanographer. Although I was born in India and spent my early life there, I’ve lived in four other countries since then. I spent decades of my adult life studying the seas. Do I regret all that time I spent learning and conducting research on subjects that didn’t necessarily help me hone my writing craft?
Sometimes, I do. Unlike many authors who have degrees that gave them – if nothing else – the gift of ties with a network of established professional writers, my erstwhile colleagues can do nothing to help me along in this field.
Then again, I gained a wealth of experience and insights that I may never have accumulated if I hadn’t spent time sailing the oceans. I’ve been the only woman, the only person of color – and the chief scientist – on oceanographic vessels. That taught me a great deal about being a minority and being a leader. I’ve spent time on the Andaman Islands, where, to this day, tribes of people continue to follow an ancient lifestyle. I’ve snorkeled across coral reefs. I know how it feels to be deep underwater. I’ve hiked through dense rainforests, vibrant with color and buzzing with insects hungry for human blood. If it weren’t for all that, I might never have written my second novel ISLAND’S END (which is set on the Andaman Islands and explores issues of leadership).
If I hadn’t spent years and years mastering a mathematically rigorous field, maybe I wouldn’t respect white space as deeply as I respect words. After all, one of the greatest mathematical inventions is shunya, zero, that sublime symbol that first appeared in India, centuries ago, as a mere dot in the Gwalior numeral system, the system that the Arabs adopted and passed on to the Europeans. And no, I’m not being egocentric or ethnocentric here, there’s substantial evidence that the zero originated in India. And I’m American, anyway, despite my Indian heritage, so it isn’t as though I’m being jingoistic, either.
Zero, to me, has always represented light. If I were to express my notion of God mathematically, I’d write not infinity, but zero – because zero is that miracle that can transport every number into infinity – any number divided by zero is infinity.
Infinity – or God – isn’t something any sane author writes about. But I’ve never suffered under the delusion that I was sane. And my third novel, A TIME TO DANCE, is about discovering infinity within oneself, of progressing through the stages of love that the ancient Greeks referred to as Eros, Charis and Agape.
When I realized that the core of my third novel, A TIME TO DANCE, was the protagonist’s spiritual growth, I understood that I needed a form that allowed me to leave much unsaid. I knew I had to write a verse novel. Spirituality without religiosity exists in wordlessness, and white space is the spiritual place in a poem.
I was a little in awe of the challenge the new form presented. But my experience as an oceanographer had given me a great deal of confidence; I felt sure I could delve into the ocean of poetry deep enough to let it seep into me, deep enough to let poetry spill out of me. After all, all my life, I’d enjoyed reading poetry, in Tamil, in French, in German, and most of all, in the language I love most – English.
I wrote and loved writing A TIME TO DANCE as a verse novel. It taught me a great deal to write this way, because it opened up an entire new writing landscape. ISLAND’S END was written in rich, luxurious prose; A TIME TO DANCE is written in lean, spare verse. It also taught me about my goals as a writer.
While many writers find their comfort zone and stay within it (and there’s nothing wrong with that), I plan to push myself to explore new territories. And hopefully, with the blessing of the world, I’ll be able to rise to meet the new targets I set myself.
My debut novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, has a wonderful metaphoric title, which serves as a metaphor for how I’d like to see my writing life. As an exhilarating and eternal climb, toward unattainable perfection.
CLIMBING THE STAIRS also has another resonance that I discovered after the novel had been written. The book, loosely based on my family history (and a granduncle who volunteered to become an allied soldier in the British Indian Army during WWII) is set in India in the 1940’s. The Protest March chapter of the book describes a nonviolent march in which Indian freedom fighters are beaten by British police. When I speak as schools, I often make the connection between this era of Indian history and the American Civil Rights movement, about Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. When I was preparing for one of my very first school visits, I came across a marvelous quote: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you cannot see the staircase” (MLK).
I couldn’t see the staircase when I switched careers, from oceanographer to writer. But I had faith. And faith is what keeps me going. Faith and the practice of karma yoga – like Veda, in A TIME TO DANCE. To do my very best as I write each novel, and then do my very best not to worry about the material success it may meet with – although I’ll admit I’ve wept at every award ceremony where my work was celebrated, and I’m over the moon every time I receive a starred and glowing review. I feel grateful and blessed that my work has been welcomed and loved, and hope it keep climbing to greater heights. I haven’t been climbing the stairs a whole long time, after all, and I feel like I’m still at the beginning of my journey.
However, it’s been long enough, now, that I doubt I’ll ever return to oceanography. Sometimes, I do miss it.
But then, I suppose I’m still exploring new worlds – inner worlds – the worlds of emotion and thought, the worlds of the heart and the mind. And I’m still sailing the seas, because what are stories, after all, if they aren’t ships on which we sail the oceans of our imagination?
Padma Venkatraman spent time underwater, worked as chief scientist on oceanographic ships, taught, directed a school, and lived in 5 countries before becoming an award-winning American author. Her novels, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS, were released to multiple starred reviews (12 altogether), and won numerous awards and honors (e.g. ALA, IRA, NCSS/CBC Notable; Booklist, Kirkus, Yalsa BBYA; CCBC choice; IBBY outstanding; Julia Ward Howe Award; NYPL Top 25; Paterson Prize; South Asia Book Award; RI-ASTAL Book of the Year). She has spoken at Harvard and other universities; participated on panels at venues such as the PEN World Voices Festival; provided commencement speeches at schools and keynote addresses at numerous conferences; and has been the chief guest at international literary festivals. Visit her at www.padmasbooks.com and www.padmasbooks.blogspot.com; or email venkatraman dot padma at gmail if you’d like her to visit your bookclub, school or library.