To 2021, With Love…

Wow! Can’t believe it’s 2 months into 2021 already.

I’m trying hard to stay positive, although it’s sometimes hard to do so in lieu of the horrific display of violence and white privilege we all witnessed in the United States in early January. Then again, it would be impossible to write a post that doesn’t even mention the depth of my grief over so many things that have happened in America and around the world. The terrible loss of life that so many have suffered and the difficulties that so many are continuing to suffer even right this very minute.

I’m not going to speak about any of this at length in this blog post; instead I’m just going to mention how grateful I am that the Asian Author Alliance is coming together to do a fundraiser because they’re concerned about the increase in hate crimes against Asians in America, as I am, and so I am contributing items to their auction, which is scheduled to go live on their blog on Friday 26 February. I will, for sure, be contributing a signed 1st edition 1st printing copy of THE BRIDGE HOME, as well as a 1st edition hardcover copy of A TIME TO DANCE. It’s the least I can do to help.

I’m doing what I can to help in other ways as well, as I am sure so many of you are – and indeed, I’m sure many of you are doing far more than I.

On a very much smaller scale, some of you may be aware that this year began with a tough incident for me. I was misquoted and that my words were twisted and taken entirely out of context by the Wall Street Journal. Difficult though it was to be personally attacked and treated as the prime target by a lot of angry and hate-filled people, it gave me an opportunity to practice returning hatred with compassion and finding ways to center myself around peace in the face of anger. It also reaffirmed my commitment to speaking and writing about issues in the world at large and in the kidlit community that I feel passionate about. Here are links to some relatively easily accessible previous articles on such topics as what it means to me to be American, the importance of global narratives, experiencing anti-Asian hate last year, some thoughts on how to scaffold classics that are taught in classrooms, including diverse books, microagressions, gender issues in kidlit, the need for religious diversity in kidlit, using compassion as a compass in the kidlit community, the need for South Asians to address prejudice, a personal take on the history of diverse books and the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. I’ll also soon have the diversity page of this website updated with these links.

This evening, I have the honor of presenting one of many keynote lectures for an ongoing course at Highlights Foundation. Since the time that I first put up this post, several thoughts have entered my mind and I decided to set them down in writing. Especially because, so often, after I give a talk, I notice someone lifts my words and uses them without attribution. And as much as I might try to focus on the positive, a part of me is absolutely attached to my words and I don’t enjoy feeling that they were stolen… So here’s the draft of my upcoming talk.

Centering the child within us and without us

By Padma Venkatraman

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I often spoke of the power that words have to break walls, and I often referred to books as bridges. I continue to think of these ideas as valid, but the past year has made me also consider the deeper validity of another metaphor that emerged in my mind. That of a book as half a bridge, and half a bridge only. 

More and more, I see the importance of this view, that always co-existed with the more widely accepted view of an author as the creator. This other view of mine is that a story-teller shapes only part of tale – the story itself is completed by the reader. At the deepest level, I’ve always thought of myself, in the role of author, as one engaged in a co-operative endeavor, that requires two for completion. I have, ever since I started writing, sensed that I am not THE creator, but only a creator; a book is co-created and reborn each time a reader (or listener) experiences. They are our co-creators. 

When I center this thought, that my book is re-created each time the story I set down is experienced, it both liberates me and brings to me the importance of my work and the necessity that I must do my best to be responsible and responsive, sensitive and sensible as I move through my writing life, to the best of my ability. Because my story will be felt by other souls and other minds in ways that my own can never fully grasp. 

Each reader who holds, let’s say, The Bridge Home, holds precisely the same published story. And yet each one will also hold a co-created version of which I have only contributed, at best, a half. 

I am a builder of half-bridges. And yet, I think of myself as the generator and possessor of my books. Indeed, I do think my name deserves to go on our books, but, I am also increasingly aware of the pain that comes with this attachment to my work. The concept of Karma Yoga, as Veda expresses in A TIME TO DANCE , is one I see myself embracing, but incompletely. 

When I see myself as the builder of half a bridge, when I see a book as one half of an Anjali mudra, a half-lotus gesture open, offered to the world, waiting for the reader to complete it, I am both humbled and acutely aware of my responsibility. For half a bridge to stand and invite others, it must be built as best it possibly can. 

To me, this means centering both the children within me and the children without me, those co-creators who may complete this bridge in their own fashion. I say children, plural, because I – and we – “contain multitudes.”

Within us is sometimes the child who wants, the child who weeps. When this child surfaces, here’s what I do. I sit with her. I wait. I watch and listen. I don’t judge. If she wants a pity party, I throw her one – but I try, when it’s ongoing, to bring her focus, gently, to the fact the party aspect of it all. And when she’s ready, I take her hand in mine and lead her back to the space where she felt in touch with the intense beauty and eternal joy of words. Because that’s the space of positivity that serves as my compass of compassion as I canoe along the meandering river of the writing life, secure in the knowledge that the ocean will and even now, does, embrace me. 

Each river has a different course. A river’s course is unpredictable. And if we pine to be that rushing river that with one great leap mixes with the ocean, we might consider and realize that if this happens, we have less time for the journey. 

As much as we can, let’s enjoy the meanders. Respect ourselves and give ourselves the self-care we need. When we feel we’re veering off course, remember all that we have in life that centers us and has nothing to do with writing. And rejoice in the gift of words we are giving ourselves and the children we once were.  

So much for the children in ourselves. What of the children outside us? 

To me, that’s where my understanding and dedication to diversity comes in. And here, then are some suggestions that I share with myself and the larger community – because I think they help us move together to provide a space for children to co-create with us. 

  •  Engage, don’t avoid. Apologize from the heart if an action causes hurt, and do your best to change.
  • Awareness that deep questions may have more than one good answer. Find what works for you now.
  • Listen, LISTEN. LISTEN! Yoga, for example, is something that carries deep meaning to me, as a direct disciple and student of  yogacharya, Shri T. Krishnamacharya. Yet I have yet to have a conversation about this with someone in which the other person listens instead of immediately trying to equate or impress me with their own experiences / knowledge. When do I do this to others – speak without listening fully and attentively?
  • Learn and unlearn. We all should be constantly doing both. 
  • Can we please use A instead of THE? As in Copernicus was one person who espoused heliocentricism, not “THE Copernican revolution”, THE ENLIGHTENMENT, WESTERN VALUES – west of what? Who drew that line?
  • Ask ourselves, in terms of diversity: What can I GIVE UP? (Not just what can I give).
  • Pledge NEVER to plagarize / steal words / ideas. Respect verbal copyright. That means, if you hear something you like today and want to use that piece of wisdom in your writing or talk, provide proper credit. Name the source. Cite the book/talk/person.
  • In science we always refer to those who came before us. In the field of kid lit we don’t do it enough. We must be better at acknowledging prior contributions. Instead of indulging in age-ism, let’s respect older wisdom and the contributions of those who came before us.
  • Can you raise up a diverse author or book that has existed for a while, a person who has excelled for a while but not gained the recognition YOU think they deserve? Can you CONTINUE to help these books?
  • May we try to understand why cis-gendered males are so often promoted? Who do we allowed to have ambition? Whom do we permit ourselves to cruelly criticize / dislike?  
  • Why do we “love” certain authors / books? How do we promote hierarchies? Should we try to dismantle them? 
  • What ways of telling story do we put on a pedestal? Might we epitomizing certain craft skills and giving them the status of rules?
  •  Consider giving diverse books respect. Rather than buying / teaching/citing an old “classic”, why not a current book that you love? 
  • Seek truth.

Let’s engage in self-reflection about our attitudes to issues in the world today as we move through our lives as part of the kidlit community. And let’s try to build half-bridges that are as strong as we can make them, by coming together in compassion for ourselves, for one another and most of all, for ther readers who are our co-creators.

That’s as far as I got with the draft of my talk. Now – and this makes, I realize, for a totally disconnected type of blog post, but hey it’s my blog and aren’t we all sort of in a disjointed space these days – now to finish with some very personal happy news.

To end on a joyful note, my next novel, BORN BEHIND BARS, is off to copyediting! I don’t have the precise publication date, but it is scheduled for 2021 October release!

And today I received an amazing honor. A copy of Poetry Magazine, featuring 2 of my poems, alongside the work of such brilliant poets as Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nikki Grimes, Elizabeth Acevedo, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Nelson, Renee Watson, Kara Jackson and Linda Sue Park. I began writing poems when I was about …

… okay, not quite as little as the baby you see in that photograph above, although I am indeed that baby. That’s me and a very dear cousin. I started writing when I was about as old as he probably is in that photograph… around five years old, according to my mother. So poetry has always been a part of my life. If you imagine that I wept with joy to see my work showcased in a magazine that is considered by many to be one of the most important poetry magazines in the English Language today, you would be quite right. The issue is filled with beautiful poems that moved me greatly and I hope many readers, including teachers, librarians and parents, will read it, as it was especially curated with young people in mind.

Stay well, stay healthy, stay safe. And thank you all for all the good you do in the world.

2 thoughts on “To 2021, With Love…

  1. Padma, your heroic voice speaks for so many. Thank you for your courage and perseverance. Please know that so many of us who were born into white privilege are standing alongside you to raise awareness, to stop the hatred, and to spread love.

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