QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS by Supriya Kelkar
I grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s as one of the handful of Indian-Americans in a small town in the Midwest. Each year when I was in elementary school, my aunt and uncle gave me the gift of a book of the month club membership to celebrate my birthday and several holidays like Raksha Bandhan, and Diwali. Every month a package would arrive and I would eagerly rush my mother to open it so I could see the three new books it contained.
They were incredible books I loved dearly, and I still have every single one of them. There were classics and soon-to-be classics. There were books that are now no longer in print and books that are in their umpteenth printing today. There were books about imaginary creatures, animals, insects, and people. But in all the books that filled my library, there was not one book featuring anyone who looked even remotely like me. I had dozens of books starring a diverse range of bears, from teddy bears to Little Bear to several types of brown bears, but not one book featuring a child with brown skin and black hair.
No offense to bears, of course, but there is something very wrong with that.
The only time I saw someone who looked like me in a story was when I traveled thousands of miles to India, and purchased comic books filled with tales of India’s history and mythology.
Without seeing myself in a book at home, my only representation here was Apu from the Simpsons, an “Indian” man whose worth is so little, he has a carelessly made-up caricature of a last name, (because lots of syllables in a name is apparently hilarious), and is voiced by someone who is not even of Indian descent. Thanks to this combination of erasure and racist misrepresentation, I began to think that maybe my culture really was a joke, worthy of everyone’s laughter. Maybe I wasn’t equal to my peers. Maybe my story didn’t matter.
Even worse, the lack of a window book to my world helped numerous people around me confirm all those hypotheticals.
The confirmation came in the form of questions, but to me, they felt like statements of my otherness.
“Do you shower? My parents told me Indians don’t shower.”
“Where are you from? No. Where are you really from?”
“Where’s your dot?”
“Does your dad own a Slurpee shop?”
Sometimes the questions were wordless, like when someone threw a brick through our window, asking whether we had the right to feel at home here, to feel safe here.
I even had teachers make me feel less-than with their questions. When I asked a science teacher who was about to pour the sea monkeys we had studied into the sink, “Won’t that kill them?” He paused, exasperated, and asked, “Are you a Hin-doo?” I shrank in my spot and nodded. He rolled his eyes, said, “I thought so,” and tossed the sea monkeys down the drain.
Asking questions is not a bad thing. It’s how we learn about the world. It’s how we find out more about each other. It’s how we figure out how different our experiences might be, and work to rectify injustices. It’s how we learn how much we have in common.
And kids get some of these answers from the books they read growing up, as they form their world view.
I know my childhood would have been different with proper representation. I know I would have not felt mortified when a history teacher asked me a well-intentioned question, trying to learn the Hindi words for mother and father when we were watching the movie, Gandhi. I know I would have been a little less quick to put my culture down in an attempt to fit in. And I know there would have been a chance that one of the kids who bullied me for the color of my skin would have instead been genuinely interested in my background.
That’s why, although there’s still a long way to go, each diverse book that is published gives me hope, because it gives a child somewhere some answers. And if more and more diverse books get published, featuring a range of stories, about adversity and strife, wonder and mythology, laughter and hijinks, heroism and triumph, more and more children will be able to see that someone from a different background is not the other. And more and more children who are struggling will be given the loudest answers of them all:
You are not less than anyone else.
Your story is important.
Supriya Kelkar was born and raised in the Midwest. She learned Hindi as a child by watching three Bollywood films a week. After college, she realized her lifelong dream of working in the film industry when she got a job as a Bollywood screenwriter. She has credits on one Hollywood film and several Hindi films. AHIMSA, inspired by her great-grandmother’s role in the Indian freedom movement, is her debut middle-grade novel. It will be released on October 2, 2017 from Lee & Low Books and has received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist. Supriya still lives in the Midwest with her husband, their three children, and a very hyper dog. You can follow her on Instagram @Supriya.Kelkar and Twitter @soups25. Learn more at www.supriyakelkar.com