Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monika Schröder on Saraswati's Way

A little background. Back in the last century,  when I first contemplated writing for young readers, I began to look for middle grade novels with Indian settings, published in the US. I found--well, three, and I had to look a bit to find two of them. There was Shirley Arora's What Then, Raman?  The 1928 Newbery winner, Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, obscure and all but forgotten except by children's literature scholars. And of course The Jungle Book. A classic, an insider narrative by an expat Indian writer, and an outsider narrative. I use the words "insider" and "outsider" loosely to indicate the writer's background and worldview within or outside the setting of the book, not suggesting that one is necessarily any better than the other.

As Chimamanda Adichie says in the TED talk that has become part of my thinking on this subject, we need many stories of a place and people if we are to look at that place and people in any but the most reductive way. In 2010, we're just starting to see those multiple views, from writers like Kashmira Sheth, Mitali Perkins, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anjali Banerjee, Padma Venkatraman, and others. My own Naming Maya, set in Chennai, was published in 2003. Next year will see the publication of my middle-grade romp through a fictitious town in south India, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. And those are all just books set in India, not those concerned with the diaspora.

I don't think we need worry any more that the outsider narrative is defining India for young American readers.

But what of that old chestnut in children's literature, the tale of a place thought of as exotic, told from the outside looking in? Does it still have a place? And if it does, how has it grown and changed? If Monika Schröder's carefully researched and heartfelt novel, Saraswati's Way, is anything to judge by, the outsider narrative too has come of age. It assumes a context more complex than that of ruler and ruled. It attends to detail and nuance in setting. It steps more warily, considers the question of "getting it right" from the viewpoint of people who live in the place.

I've been corresponding with Monika, and here are her responses to a few of my questions:

[UK] Monika, congratulations on the publication of Saraswati's Way. What were the questions in your own mind that drove you to write this story?

[MS] I started the book right after I had finished my first novel, The Dog in the Wood, whose main character, Fritz, is for most of the story a pawn in the turmoil of historical events, almost paralyzed by fear and the terrible things that happen to him. Only at the end of the story does Fritz learn to become self-reliant. By creating Akash I wanted to write about a boy who was very determined right from the start. I also had learned a lot about shaping a book from the long and arduous process of writing my first novel and was hoping that a character with a very strong desire that has to overcome many obstacles would provide a good trajectory along which I could develop the arc.

By the time I started SARASWATI I had already lived in New Delhi for six years and knew that my next book would take place in India. Most contemporary fiction for children set in India has female protagonists, but I wanted to write about a boy. To learn more about the boys who end up in the New Delhi train station I went to the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO that works with these kids. Here I listened to some of the children’s stories and tried to imagine the circumstances that forced them to leave their families and to embark on an often dangerous journey to New Delhi. I wanted to explore how a young Indian boy could find the strength to overcome his fear in pursuit of something he wants desperately. 

[UK] What were the challenges you faced in writing of a character whose circumstances are so vastly different from your own? How did you bridge the cultural divide?

[MS] I grew up in Germany, a predominantly protestant country, where in school I learned bible stories and went to protestant confirmation at the age of 15. Writing about a Hindu boy was the biggest challenge while working on Saraswati's Way. By the time I started the book I had traveled to Rajasthan several times so I knew the setting. Though I never became fluent I had also taken Hindi classes for four years and my Hindi teacher, whom the book is dedicated to, taught me a lot about religious customs and festivals. While writing the book, I frequently asked her and other Indian friends if my depictions of a particular event were correct. One of the most challenging scenes to write was the funeral for Akash’s father. I have never attended a Hindu funeral and relied completely on the description given by Indian friends and colleagues. Trying to bridge this cultural divide was a challenge, but I also learned a lot about my host country while researching and fact checking the details for the story.

[UK] Talk about your writing process with this novel. How long did the successive drafts take you? Any thoughts on the way the story grew and changed over the time it took to write and revise? What were the pitfalls, the triumphs? Any moments of clarity or epiphany?

[MS] I began writing the book in May of 2008 and submitted it in January 2009. From the start I had a good sense of who Akash was and what he wanted. I could relate to his math talent because I have a slight math obsession myself; whenever I see numbers I form equations and play with them in my head just like Akash does. 

My process is more intuitive than planned. When I write a book I do not outline or plan a story draft on paper but start after I have an idea for the arc and “can hear the character talk to me.” I begin every writing day on page one, re-read and revise what I have completed before I continue the next chapter. Then, about 2/3 into the draft, just as I have to decide how to get to the end, I experience a crisis of sorts. This sequence of events seems to repeat itself with each book I write.

Initially, I had planned for Akash to embark on a kind of pilgrimage to clear his karma. In previous drafts he went to the holy city of Pushkar and met the sadhu there. I struggled with the ending and for about a month I felt like I wouldn’t be able to finish the book. But then, and this is a mysterious process that I cannot rationally explain, I suddenly knew how it had to end and the chapters fell into place.

[UK] We writers often need readers along the way who help us with questions and comments. Did you have readers who helped this book along on its journey? 

[MS] My first reader is always my husband. I am very fortunate that he has the patience to read and edit my drafts. He is a high school English teacher and I can trust his judgment. After all, he teaches reading and writing for a living. His comments were especially helpful in the description of settings. It seems to be harder for me to paint a picture of a place with words than to describe people. For example, I have probably re-written the beginning of chapter 11 when Akash arrives at the stone quarry more times than any other part because my husband kept saying, “I can’t see it yet.” I also process a lot by talking to him about a story. For the nine months that I was writing the book he listened to me ruminate about Akash and live with this imaginary character. 

The other very important person in shaping the story was my wonderful editor, Frances Foster, who asked just the right questions to help me improve the manuscript. She put her finger at exactly the sections that needed more work. Frances has a brilliant sense for shaping endings and I re-wrote the last chapter several times with her guidance.

[UK] What do you want young readers to take away from Akash’s story?

[MS] The book shows young American readers what life is like for poor children in India. It also gives them a glimpse into another culture's religion, customs, and beliefs. Even though they might be unfamiliar with India, I hope readers can identify with Akash and his tenacity in the pursuit of his dream. But the novel also reaches out to the growing number of American readers of Indian descent for whom neither the place nor the religion are entirely unfamiliar and who will, hopefully, embrace Akash's story as a genuine depiction of one aspect of Indian reality.

[UK] Thank you Monika! Congratulations again.

[MS] Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my book.


  1. Dear Uma, Monika, Thank you so much for sharing your conversation with us. I will admit, I was a little turned off by some of the advance "praise" (i.e. "Its depictions of a dusty Indian village, an exotic Indian festival, fantastical stories of Hindu deities, and a boy’s fascination with the mysticism of numbers are truths unto themselves" and "Saraswati’s Way is fascinating and exotic") but now I've put on my to-read list.

  2. Well, yes. My CLCD review on the other hand, focused on the generosity and affection among the band of children. Viewpoint is everything.

  3. In our increasingly multicultural world, this is an important conversation for writers to have--thanks so much for sharing it.

  4. Debby and Pooja I'm planning to do an ongoing series on outsider and insider narratives. Just talked to Trent Reedy about Words in the Dust and an interview with Sheela Chari is scheduled about her new novel, Vanished. Send titles my way as you come across (or write/publish) them!