One of the most unforgettable evenings of my life as an author came this February, when I was privileged to address the audience at SCBWI’s New York conference, and accept the Golden Kite award for Middle Grade Fiction, for THE BRIDGE HOME. While, on the one hand, I feel like I can’t express my gratitude even if I were to say thank you in every language I know how, I did, of course, have a go at trying to show my appreciation. And, before attending the gala, my daughter did a henna tattoo of kites, on both my hands!
Here’s my acceptance speech:
My first kite wasn’t golden. I tried to fly it, only to watch it fall repeatedly. Those failed attempts were the happier moments of a traumatic childhood. We lived in a mansion until my dad forced my mum to move out, to an apartment in a concrete jungle. I was forced to meet him every weekend, though he could be abusive. Luckily, I had no self-pity because my mum, though struggling herself, volunteered at shelters for children who faced far worse, yet could share small joys and warm laughter. As I came to know them, some shared tales of horrors they’d survived.
Decades later, in my head, I heard the voice of one sister, Viji, speaking to another. I had to discover why they’d been driven apart. I saw them run away from their violent father and thier village hoping for a better life in the city, struggle to cross city streets, adopt a stray, reach an abandoned bridge. There, befriended by two boys, they eke out a living.
But Viji’s hopes of studying at school are dashed because every day, all day, from sunup to sundown, they’re forced to dig through mountains of rubbish – like this trash dump I photographed last summer – to salvage material to sell… until Viji’s sister, who has a disability, starts a bead business. The friends briefly enjoy a sense of family, home and freedom.
Then, all is threatened …
Imagine you were alone in a dark graveyard. How long would you stay? I give myself 10 minutes. Maybe. But my friend Indira was forced to stay in a graveyard night after night to escape men who wanted to enslave her. After telling me this, she asked, because she knew I wanted to be a writer – I was always scribbling – “Padma, will you write my story, one day?” “Yes,” I said. “I promise.” It’s taken me forty years, but this book, THE BRIDGE HOME is that promise I gave her, as a child.
It would take me forty hours to thank all who helped me get here.Today, I’ll thank only those most important: My legendary editor, Nancy Paulsen, for believing in me and THE BRIDGE HOME when I was filled with fear and doubt, for patience, guidance, brilliant insights; My agent, Rob Weisbach, for wisdom, care, concern; Thotakar, Visalam chithi, I hope you’re watching; My speaking agent Phil Bildner of the Author Village, amazing author of HIGH FIVE FOR GLEN BURKE among other books; The judges who thought THE BRIDGE HOME worthy of recognition: C. Alexander London, I admire your scintillating plots and characterization, as well as the courage and kindness of your character; Angela Dominguez, my global read aloud sister, stellar inventor of Stella Diaz; Susan Fletcher, fantastic creator of Dragon Kyn. My spouse whom I love with all my soul: I respect your vital scientific research, your humility, your philanthropy, your dedication to reducing our carbon footprint that sometimes drives me batty. My daughter, you are everything to me; you made me a better person; I owe you so much.
When I moved, all alone, to the States, below champagne sipping age, I wrote, even as I strove to prove myself as the only woman of color in my incoming graduate class. When my debut was released, 12 years ago, we diverse authors then had to fight far harder than now, thanks to the marvelous work done by We Need Diverse Books. There’s a long road ahead, and I’ll continue this battle I’ve been waging; so many other incredible authors before me. Some may remember the New England SCBWI conference celebrating diversity, led by Anna Jordon, where I was on a panel with Floyd Cooper and Bobbie Coombs. Before and after, I fought for diversity. Like my first kite, most attempts crashed. But I kept speaking and writing.
This January, I received a phone call from Lin Oliver, whose Little Poems for Tiny Ears was one of my daughter’s first books. That day, I was too delighted for words. But that night, in joyous delirium, I wrote, just as I’d written through terror and tragedy growing up. Because that’s what writers do. We write. As the immortal Anne Frank said, “I’m grateful to God for giving me this gift, of expressing all that is in me.” It’s this gift that makes us writers. Not wonderful phone calls, honors or awards.
Marvelous as material successes are, grateful as I am for these blessings, wondrous as it is to be with you all today, what makes us writers is what we do before and after unexpected calls. It’s time spent ignoring phones and focusing on pens, years of learning craft at conferences like this, honing skills not just by writing but by reading and re-reading books – purchased first hand, please, because buying a second hand or illegal copy is stealing a fellow-author’s money – coming in nurturing communities like ours here, pouring energy into words when alone.
We believe words have power — to fuel imagination, inspire invention, increase empathy, ignite change. And as people hoping for a better world, striving to create books for young readers, we’re equal. We write and watch our books drift away like kites whose paths we can’t control. And when – I say when because even Jane Yolen says she gets rejections – when stormy skies rip up our kites, we must hold ourselves together and keep trying to fly, because we never know when the breeze will be just right, and our books shall soar or be gilded by others’ love. Most golden and important of all, perhaps our work will help a young person cross a bridge or rejoice in their homes and selves.
Above is a photograph of the photograph I just bought (yes, paid for) from a newspaper article on my first school visit this February, thanks to @LibrarianMsG for arranging such a marvelous day and all the incredible students who gave me such wonderful gifts that I will always treasure.
Other notable moments this February – I was honored to see THE BRIDGE HOME included as an ALA Notable Book, ALSC Notable Audiobookt, and a Notable Book for a Global Society (ILA NGBS).
For those who love book giveaways, be on the lookout on twitter this week – I plan to do a giveaway of THE BRIDGE HOME and THE LOVELY WAR by Julie Berry, which won the Golden Kite for YA fiction. For those who love food, remember to use the search term foodie friday on Highlights foundation’s website to discover delectable recipes such as berry pavlova and best vanilla cupcakes (donated by Chef Amanda) paired with COOKING UP STORIES writing prompts from books I’ve enjoyed reading (donated by yours truly) – and there will be new recipe and writing prompt up next Friday, for March.
Finally, as always, leaving me comments on this website is a wee-bit complicated, but here’s how, if you wish – and of course, you can also follow me on twitter (@padmatv), ig / fb (venkatraman.padma). Thanks and have a wonderful whats-left-of-this-winter!