I was in San Francisco last week, for the book launch of The Closet Ghosts, school and community speaking engagements, and the Reading the World conference. I got to meet Shiraaz Bhabha, illustrator of The Closet Ghosts, and her husband and very cute baby.
Living as I do in small-town New Mexico, I don't get out that often to places with large South Asian communities. I got to meet many children and families of South Asian origin at a most enjoyable event sponsored by the Breeze Foundation and Santa Clara City Library. Children who attended wrote their own stories and shared them with the audience. The conversations I had raised issues of language and labels and what they mean.
Take Hanuman. In The Closet Ghosts, I describe him using the common shorthand of "the monkey god." Some Hindus might find this problematic, feeling it evokes derogratory images, opens us up to racist jokes and put-downs. But how else is it possible to decsribe wonderful, nuanced, loyal, powerful Hanuman in three quick words in a picture book? "The Hindu god with the face of a monkey and a human-like body" would be far more accurate. In the small story container of the picture book, I don't have that many words at my disposal. And I can't assume that every child who reads the book will know who Hanuman is, if I don't use some common frame of reference to describe him in the text.
For what it's worth, this is my argument--I'm taking the term "monkey god" back from the racists, and making it my own. I find nothing worth ridiculing in the acceptance of the link between humans and monkeys. I would rather be connected to Hanuman by some distant relationship of blood or spirit or both, than to some people I can think of. If I refuse to accept the burden that others have placed on language, I am free to use the words I choose and give them refreshed meaning.
As Snoopy would say, "So there too."