Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why I Write About India

I recently started the Diversity Solutions series, which tackles some of the uncomfortable questions regarding the relative lack of diversity in children's lit.  I want to explore how we can achieve change, and I believe that starts with honest discussion.

Personally, it doesn't seem like writing about India has specifically set me back career-wise.  I can't be sure of course, but if anything, I think fatigue for dystopia and near-future settings have been bigger hurdles.  Most people in the industry seem enthusiastic about diverse or multicultural books, including those set in India.  The only doubts in my mind, and what motivated Diversity Solutions, are from the apparent disconnect between that enthusiasm and the actual works being published.

In terms of representing the population, the most troubling gap is actually the lack of books featuring Latino or black characters.  For my part, I have made a personal goal to seek more of them out and support them.

In any case, I don't see myself changing what I'm writing to suit the market.  I think most of us write what we want to read, and I have yearned to see more diverse YA, especially fantasy and sci-fi YA. While writing Sky Mahal, I was inspired in part by Alison Goodman's Eon, which presents a pan-Asian mythology that I thought was very cool.  On my nightstand, I have Ellen Oh's Prophecy, which I understand is based on Korean folklore, and I can't wait to read that, too.  Similarly, I wanted to create a cool and interesting world based on Indian history and culture.

I think diversity in SFF is something badly needed both to help create a feeling of universality and to offset some of the narrowness bred by our Euro- and US-centric education system and press.  That very narrowness drives xenophobia at home and ham-fisted foreign policy.  If we can instill a better understanding of the world at large, we will have better leaders tomorrow.

I strive to present a different view of India, one that conveys that developing countries aren't just places where depressing things happen, where poverty and corruption reign.  That is part of India, but it's not everything.  In my writing, even though it is science-fiction, I try to convey that India is a complex place with art and culture and religion.  It's a place with a booming and innovative tech industry.  And most importantly for YA: it also has its own urban youth culture which is not so very different from America's.

In short, I try to convey the relateable and universal experience of being a teenager while imparting something of India's culture and history, and yes -- problems.  Plenty of problems, but I don't call my writing "dystopian" because the problems are really today's problems extrapolated to the future.  To be sure, many of those problems are shared with the US: prejudice and discrimination, wealth inequality, privacy concerns, and the increasing and insidious power of corporations. 

Although not all my novels will try to cover so much ground, I don't know if that passion to share India will ever fade.  Even if I decide to write something where race isn't relevant, I will always strive to use diverse characters because there is no such thing as a default race, and I don't want to perpetuate the notion that there is.

What about you? Why do you write the characters and settings you write?