“Authors need to push boundaries & challenge pre-existing stereotypes”

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Paro Anand has been a front-runner in beautifully expressing and tackling complex issues related to children and young adults through her books. Here, she talks about the importance of diversity and inclusion in books, in conversation with Varsha Verma.

paro Anand has been a front-runner in beautifully expressing and tackling complex issues related to children and young adults through her books. Here, she talks about the importance of diversity and inclusion in books, in conversation with Varsha Verma.

AABP: Why does diversity in publishing matter, especially children’s books?
Paro: Children are born without prejudice. Unthinkingly we feed them hate and divisiveness. Sensitive books can go a long way in countering this. We must break out of stereotypes and educate ourselves on diversity.

AABP: When did you start noticing the lack of diversity in books?
Paro: In textbooks, a study observed a lack of positive representation of girls. In an entire book, there were 2 references. One with a girl tying a rakhi on her brother, the other, a woman serving tea. In omission itself there was prejudice.In another Sanskrit text, a conversation between a swan and a cuckoo read:
Cuckoo: you are so fair, therefore you are so beautiful, therefore people love you.
Swan: ALTHOUGH you are dark, you have a beautiful voice, therefore people love you too.

The prejudice was horrific. But these were not stray incidents but rather an acceptable norm. I knew then that diversity and inclusiveness were going to be an ongoing theme in my writing.

AABP: Since you interact with children all the time, share any examples of how problematic this lack of diversity could be for children?

Paro Anand is one of the leading authors for children and young adults. She also works with children in schools and NGOs, through her programme Literature in Action and holds a world record for helping over three thousand children make the world’s longest newspaper. She has been awarded for her contribution to children’s literature by The Russian Centre for Science and Culture.

Paro: Again, it’s not children per se, but rather the lack of positive representation we make available. If we laugh at eununchs at traffic lights or avoid them, children will do the same. If we repeatedly say things like, “these people are dirty” or “those are always violent” then that’s what we will force children to perpetuate. If, instead we say, “I will never paint a people with one brush stroke but will treat each one as an individual,” then that’s the example they will have to follow.

We had brought a group together that comprised Muslim and Hindu Kashmiri children together. This was post the Pandit exodus and was the first time that they were meeting their counterparts from the ‘other’ side. We started with a simple game of getting to know each other’s name. One girl (Hindu) shrilly objected, “We can’t remember their names (Muslim), they’re too different.” To which a boy retorted, “Well we can’t remember theirs’ either.” The battle lines had been drawn and were rapidly hardening. Remember, this is after the Pandits had been forced to flee and they had been brought up with animosity towards Muslims. But as we progressed through the interaction, both sides realised that there had been loss and suffering on both sides. It wasn’t Hindus against Muslims, but rather, violence against peace. I wrote a few stories around this theme – My Name is Shabir Karam and Those Yellow Flowers of August, both in my Sahitya Award winning book Like Smoke. The children also wrote stories themselves. At the start, there were stories that didn’t include the other side. But as we progressed, there was a change. For example, there was one duo who did a play they had written. The story had a Muslim wife and Hindu husband and how they made a lot of adjustments towards each other both on the basis of eununchs other’s religious beliefs as well as their social roles. It was so interesting because in their depiction, the Muslim boy played the part of the Hindu husband and the Hindu girl played the Muslim wife. For the play, they had to learn the other’s way of prayer and did it so unself-consciously. It was the creative process, the literary bringing together that had enabled this so beautifully.

In another case, we had brought these Kashmiri children to Delhi and had them interact with children here. At the session, there were suddenly sounds of crackers. All the children ran to the window to see, it was a wedding procession with fireworks. All the children? No, we realised that the Kashmiri children were not with us. They were hiding behind furniture and under tables. What were sounds of festivities for the Delhi-ites, were sounds of gun fire and death to the Kashmiris. It was then that it dawned on the Delhi children what growing up in conflict truly meant.
These are the kinds of instances that must be found in literature for the young. It is the only way to promote empathy.

AABP: What do you feel are the most significant barriers that need to be overcome to make the publishing industry more inclusive? Where have you seen success?

Paro: The barriers are mostly with the gatekeepers of children’s literature – the parents and schools. My experience is that we as adults fear the questions that may follow. For example, questions that challenge our beliefs and prejudices around religion, sexual orientation etc. It’s never ever been children who have had objections to some of my books but rather the schools that have withdrawn prescribed books because parents objected. In one instance, it was a story about a girl who has been brought up to dislike muslims until she has a crush on a boy who turns out to be one. But the point of the story is true understanding of the other. But parents violently objected and the school was forced to withdraw a book that the teachers had selected as a supplementary reader.

AABP: Writers and editors often struggle when attempting to balance cultural sensitivity with craft. How do you manage it?
Paro: We simply have to push boundaries and challenge pre-existing stereotypes. Constantly. More than that, I think we need to have greater trust in the wisdom and maturity of young people. They really have more sense than we often credit them with.

As a writer, I started out writing about the fantastically lies I told (Pepper the Capuchin Monkey and Other Stories) but I ended up daring to write the truth. And my readers had greatly appreciated this.

AABP: What do you think needs to be done for diversity to become the norm in literature?
Paro: Keep doing it, writing it, publishing it, prescribing it. I find in my interactions, that children are very open of heart and mind and stories go a long way in nurturing this. I strongly believe that it makes for better human beings.

AABP: Do you think there is anything readers can do to help improve the racial inequality in publishing?
Paro: Readers should drive the demand. I think the way to do this is through strong marketing and availability and access to all kinds of books. If there are reviews, publicity, it would certainly help. I know that budgets are challenging but with social media, there is a way to circumvent this. I feel that most publishers are not using this as well as they could be.
Similarly, if readers were to use their social media handles to talk about books they recommend or don’t.

AABP: What are some of your favorite diverse books?
Paro: Here are my favourites: Slightly Burnt – Payal Dhar; Talking about Muskan – Himanjali Sankar; Unbroken – Nandhika Nambi; Wonder – RJ Palacio; The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne; Postbox Kashmir – Divya Arya and Mirror Mirror – Andaleeb Wajid.

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