Sunday, September 20, 2009

Story, Language, and Identity

Mitali Perkins has a beautiful post on story and language and growing up, on mitali's fire escape. It made me think of the mix of stories I heard when I was a child growing up in India. Today I look back affectionately on the Tamil stories my parents told: jester tales, stories of gods and demons, animal stories, stories of magic and long-ago people. They were so vibrant and alive that when I was very young I couldn't differentiate between myth and legend and the equally lively stories I eavesdropped furiously on, about relatives and neighbors and what they were up to.

Then I began to read. Literacy was magical and exciting. But it had an unexpected effect. It thrust a wedge between that realm of interwoven tales and new others. The new others that came to me in print began to be the ones that I privileged. They came in shiny paperback mostly from England. They hardly even acknowledged that India existed, and when they did they often showed it in a light that was less than flattering. So I didn't even have to live in a foreign land that didn't value my culture, to have this experience of what happens when you don't see yourself in a book. Rather as an adult I now have to look back to see that my own culture back in the 1960's had not yet learned to value itself. We had no shiny new books that showed our world. Not yet.

In a very real way, this is why I write. I think I understood the text and subtext of those books I read--perhaps understood them all too well. Marion Dane Bauer always says we write to fill the holes in our childhoods. Don't get me wrong, books and reading were incredibly important to my younger self. But they also created a hole in my life because they implied that the stories I'd loved until then were not important, not cool, not worthy. It's a hole I've spent the last decade trying to fill.


  1. and you have filled it in a beautiful way, Uma. Not only through your own stories and tales of India, but through the stories of others whom you have guided along the way. I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to read some of those!

  2. Yes! Exactly! The holes in our childhood ... that was definitely mirrors for those of us who grew up reading English books in a non-English culture. Here, I think windows are more needed. And I find it so strange when people say that kids won't read/relate to books that are based in a different culture. Ha! Didn't we, Uma? Because the stories were good, and age focused in a way they hadn't yet evolved to be at home. Not because we saw our life in them.

    And talking of traditional stories I started telling the kiddos my version of the Ramayana this weekend. Their idea not mine. We plan a dramatic incineration of Ravana (currently under construction using old pizza boxes, 10 heads and all) in the fireplace on Dusshehra.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  3. It's strange, but I didn't feel these literary holes growing up in the 1970s. My mother and grandmother told stories, and we had a Hindi magazine subscription (Chandamama) with contemporary stories, comics and such. I devoured all the folktakes. Plus I read British lit. At times, I wish a girl like me would show up in those books, but most of the time, I was completely absorbed in the great stories I read, my nails bitten to the quick.

    I agree with Marion Dane Bauer that we write to fill the holes in our lives, but in my case, they weren't literary holes.

  4. Vijaya, I was absorbed in the books I read too, and I don't think I felt the lack of my own reflection in these books until much later--well, there was this Enid Blyton villain named Uma Raya or was it Raya Uma...? One could argue that the mirror function of literature is overrated and windows are more important but I think in fact we need both. Or maybe we need a new glassy metaphor. How about a prism?

  5. I agree with you, Uma : we need both the mirror and the window functions.

  6. Vijaya,
    It just goes to show that every child is different! Because I felt those holes. Not upon reflection as an adult (well that too, in a different way), but even as a child I felt there was something wrong with there not being one single book about a child like me in my beloved library. The library at the DSOI (the army mess in New Delhi) where I practically lived in middle school. Walls and walls of books that I knew like the back of my hand and not one book a kid like me or a world like my world, unless you count Kipling or Tintin in Tibet, and they had their own issues. And no, Chandamama could not compensate. Vikram and Vaital was fine but it wasn't Narnia ... the kids didn't get to solve the problems. Probably had an overinflated sense of worth or somesuch ... but I clearly remember feeling invisible, overlooked, amd umimportant in that place that I loved. Because of Uma's books and the books of so many other SA authors (yours, and I hope one day, my books) there is a kid somewhere that will not have to feel invisible.

    OK, getting off the soapbox now ... ;-)

  7. Here's how I see it. All our experiences are only one slice of the big picture and in the end it doesn't matter if I felt overlooked, or drifted away from my native language, or in any other way was hurt by the reading of a book. I'm OK, I survived it, and in the realm of things that kids endure, it wasn't so bad. But if we step back and look at the big picture, because I survived, should I then assume that the balance of worldviews in the books I read as a child was either just or worse, correct? It just was. It was a fact of its time. But guess what? In the late 80's when my son was born and I went looking for the books I was sure existed by then--the culturally grounded, postcolonial, child-centered books that hadn't existed when I was a child--well, they still weren't there. A decade later, in the late 90's if it hadn't been for Mitali's Sunita and my Broken Tusk, what we had was along the lines of The Poombah of Badoombah! That's the point, isn't it? If you see that you have a story to tell that isn't being told in the wider conversation of books, you tell it.

  8. Er ... Uma, the previous poster was me, Nandini, not Chandra. Didn't realize I was somehow signed in as hubby. Sorry about that ... I was on a roll.

  9. I agree, Uma. We need both windows and mirrors. And prisms are just too cool :) I find that I write to understand things.

  10. >> and in the realm of things kids endure,it wasn't so bad.

    Agree. Having access to a great education and great books in India was hardly tragic given the range of problems so many kids endured. What did Arundhati Roy say about the Big Things and the Small Things? This was a very tiny thing, but it was still something.

    >>In the late 80's ... A decade later in the late 90's ... That's the point, isn't it? If you see that you have a story to tell that isn't being told in the wider conversation of books, you tell it.

    Absolutely agree :-) Thanks so much for this conversation, Uma, Vijaya, and Katia.