“I write otherwise I get cranky, of course I also write to fix a broken world”: In conversation with writer Uma Krishnaswami

By Deepti Paikray

One day Uma Krishnaswami spotted an impoverished girl reading a book at a busy intersection in Chennai. The girl was oblivious to the rushing humanity hurtling towards nowhere, heedless of the road blares. Uma wondered about her circumstances. Quietly she blessed the child, and over a few years wrote a book titled Book Uncle and Me about a feisty girl in a world of indifferent adults. The book garnered several awards in USA and India and figured as a must read in the genre of middle grade readers. For over twenty-five years, Uma has written picture books for children and novels for young readers.  She teaches writing in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in India, she lives in Canada. In her words “my stories cross from one place into the other and back again, just like me.”

On a leisurely spring morning we chat about books, children, gush over Ruskin Bond and mull over a viewpoint whether writers are a sad lot, followed by muffles of laughter. Uma’s books are in libraries all over the world. Her stories reverberate with the importance of several, small, consistent actions that snowball into an effective big move. This stems from Uma’s life where encouraging adults at school and home spotted her as the odd girl with her head in the clouds and guided her to a world of books and writing. Laughingly she tells me that as all the writers she was reading were in English and dead she grew up believing that one has to be English and dead to be a writer.

Uma’s books are typically Indian in settings and characters, replete with words like istri lady, samosa, gulabjamun, rakhi , chachaiji etc. She admits growing up for first 23 years in India its but natural and though India is no longer the country that gave her daily context, it’s still the place under her skin. A place she travelled all over, as her father ‘s government job necessitated changing homes every four years. She ruminates, “when people ask me which place in India, I am from I don’t know how to answer, nor am I sure how the things I have seen come together in my writing, but they do.” The second element that shaped her as a writer was the complete, adoring absorption of an adult, her maternal grandfather. His death when she was eleven years old was her first brush with mortality.  Meanwhile she continued to write little stories in little notebooks about big issues.

However not until her thirties did writing come to her. Living in Maryland, mother to a little infant boy she scouted the libraries for books but was disheartened not finding any snippets of the country she had left behind. So, she thought of having a crack at writing. Laughingly she comments she didn’t know how difficult the journey would be, where some of her best works was retrieved from the editor’s slush pile. In 1996 her story collection The Broken Tusk (stories about Lord Ganesha) was published by Linnet Press. This was the book that shaped her as a writer. She terms it as an anomaly and a book from the heart. Uma credits the editor Diana Thorpe for giving her the sense of an audience (in this case Indian mythology to American children), but above all she taught Uma to write boldly, not to pull back when the going got tough.  

Signing books at ALA (American Library Association), 2018

Editors continued to reject Uma’s work citing that stories are not being understood in a cultural context, they are too Indian in essence. Then in early 1990’s the market became accepting of multicultural stories. Uma decided she did not only want to write for American children, she wanted to write for children everywhere. She loves writing for children and believes them to be the most honorable audience. In her words “children possess no pretensions, no compulsions, if they like the story they lap it up otherwise they have no qualms about closing the book.” Reading her books, I realize life is the biggest story for Uma and the thoughts that drive her prose are derived from situations she has experienced in life. So, when 9-year-old Yasmin in Book Uncle and Me questions her mother about what message the book she is reading conveys, her mother replies: “I can’t tell you that”. “I can only tell you what it means for me. How can I tell you what it means for you? Only you can know that.”

Speaking at FOCAL award ceremony, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, 2018

And know Uma did. She writes with an inner conviction to fix our broken world through her writings. In the last decade her writing from gods and myths has shifted to the earthly plane of fiery female protagonists who believe the only thing they own are their actions and that’s what no one can take it away from them. A case in point, her latest book Step Up to the Plate Maria Singh. A book about a fifth grader, daughter to an Indian immigrant and a Mexican mother who through playing baseball speaks up for her rights as her parents fight for their rights in a world gone unfair. The book is inspired from the little-known Mexican-Hindu community in Northern California during World War 11.  On a note of discovering a wonderful world at our doorstep Uma implores children and young adults to read a lot. To quote Uma “read to make sense of the world because writers write to make sense of the world. And follow the questions the book is raising. “

Like when Maria Singh questions her doubts, So, girls on the ball field was not such a crazy idea. Was it?

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I believe good writing is about telling the truth. I pen issues on culture, human relationships, spirituality and travel, besides evolving life issues.