yalit Posts

Interview with Priya Kuriyan

Mental health and related topics are at the best of times taboo subjects in India. To discuss openly about depression amongst teenagers/adolescents is unthinkable. In a country where being in therapy is still a hush-hush topic, to commission and publish a book on the topic is bold and that too in an experimental form — an illustrated memoir in rhyme. C is for Cat, D is for Depression ( Scholastic India, 2020) is a much needed book for young adults in helping to break barriers about mental health and make it a socially acceptable topic to discuss openly and without any stigma.

Kairavi Bharat Ram is a young published author who is known for her previous books in rhyme — Ramayana and Krishna. Those were retellings of Hindu epics. But this is the first time she has told a story about her personal experience of battling depression as an adolescent. It is a powerful testimony to the challenges she faced. It is a vivid description of all that a patient afflicted by depression experiences and is unable to always share clearly. At the same time, it is a gentle request to caregivers of such individuals to be patient and offer a caring hand whenever required. She also equally gently plots out methods in which the person themselves or those around them can help an individual come to terms with depression and related mental health issues.

This is a precious book. A conversation starter and a handy tool for anyone interested in mental health. It should become an essential requirement in every classroom and school library.

Hopefully this will lay the foundation for a strong and well-defined yalit list on mental health in India/South Asia. Kudos to Scholastic India for publishing this book!

Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations for the text are out of this world. They complement the text well but also provide a narrative of their own to pull the reader in. While the drawings illustrate the text as beautifully and precisely as would be seen in a children’s picture book, the sophistication of the artwork is in keeping with some of the best international artists. Her eye for detail is astonishing. Her work as an illustrator begins from the cover, includes the endpapers and then the main text. To open the book and see the black endpaper that transforms brilliantly into a bright yellow at the end of the book is just one tiny detail that makes this book an extraordinary triumph. I had questions buzzing in my head for Priya while reading the book, so here is a lightly edited version of the interview conducted over email.

Priya Kuriyan is a children’s book writer-illustrator, comics maker and chronic doodler. She has directed educational films for the Sesame street show (India) and the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) and has illustrated numerous children’s books for various Indian publishers. She lives and works in the city of Bangalore and in her spare time makes funny caricatures of its residents.

  1. How did you approach this project? What was your initial reaction upon reading the text? 

I first received the manuscript from the editor and went over it a couple of times trying to really get a sense of the genre. From the start, I was sure that though there are aspects of depression and mental health that are universal, (having had experiences with it myself and read up a fair bit) this was a very personal account of Kairavi’s experience with it. Therefore, I knew I would have to consult her at every stage of creating the book and that I wanted her voice to take centre stage. She had used metaphors in her poetry that I realised could translate very well into strong and evocative visuals that lead you into the mind of someone who is suffering so I knew that these strong full page illustration spreads would do justice to the text.

I had sent a few images from the early pages as samples to Kairavi and though she liked them a lot, she did rightfully ask me also to keep in mind that ultimately the book was also about hope. 

2. How long did this project take to complete? 

The manuscript was sent to me sometime in July last year and I had my first conversation with Kairavi in February this year over Skype. I worked on the project in bits and parts since then, but the serious work really started in April and was done by the end of June. 

3. What was the initial concept note for the illustrations? Or did Kairavi and you have separate notes/ ideas that you then merged? 

There was no initial concept note for the illustrations, but what I requested Kairavi after I had that first conversation with her was to pen down some words next to her lines as to what she saw when she wrote those words; not for every line, but at least for a few. Those did give me some cues that I could expand on. I would then send Kairavi rough drawings of my interpretations of those lines and she would then write back to tell me if it complemented the feelings that she intended to convey through her poetry

4. Your artwork is synonymous with light, freshness, primary colours etc. So how challenging was it to work with such dark colours, panel after panel? 

Well, I think in my personal time where I don’t have to work on a client project, I do experiment with other kinds of media and genres. So, I didn’t really find the colour palette a challenge. I think most people have seen the work that I have done in the children’s book space (which I really enjoy being in), and then, one continues to get assigned work of the same kind based on what you’ve done before. I like and enjoy breaking away from my typical style from time to time.

5. Do you illustrate on the computer or do you use other mediums and then transfer the scans to the computer? 

Most of the time I work analog first – scan my artworks, do some touch ups on an appropriate software and send digital files to the publisher. In this case I used dry pastels and charcoal for my original artworks.

6. If you had to write a note about creating the artwork for this story, what would you write? 

That the illustrations should immerse you into a journey of a person trapped within their own mind, who is reintroduced to the idea of hope and ultimately releases himself/herself.

7. With this particular book, I feel that you have broken many of your creative boundaries and pushed yourself in a space that is new. I do not mean in that you are an over-reacher but as someone who has leapt into a new phase of creativity. Do you think this project changed you in any way? If so, what? 

Hmm..It’s definitely a genre that I had not worked on before in the children’s book category. A lot of the work I do for adults (comics/ book covers etc) has tended to fall into a more serious (in the literal sense of the word) way. So, I’m not certain at the moment whether this has changed my work in a dramatic way. I think what I do with the next couple of projects that come my way will be what answers that question.

8. Which of these illustrations is your “favourite” of the book? Which of these illustrations has developed the furthest from the initial sketch? And why? 

I think the one where the girl is tied to this black figure. I like the metaphor or the paradox of trying to release yourself from the person that you don’t know or recognise and yet knowing that person is you. I think that line really spoke to me. The illustrations that changed the most from the initial drawings were perhaps some of the earlier spreads. I think they were much darker and I later realised that the darkness must creep in gradually just as the light creeps in gradually into the latter part of the book.

9. What do you think is the relationship between illustrations and text? How does it vary depending upon the type of book it is — picture book, illustrated storybook, illustrations accompanying a story, chapter book, comics/graphic novels, novels etc. 

The word and the text are entwined twins. I think in the case of picture books an illustrator anchors oneself on the text and is an equal partner when it comes to telling the story along with the writer. How long the rope needs to be, is the critical decision that the illustrator takes. It does vary vastly depending on each type of book. As far as possible, the illustrations that accompany any kind of format, should ideally not be a direct representation of what is in the text. It can bring further context to the story by adding more details that are not necessarily present in the text. In the case of comics, one has to also keep in mind that the page is being viewed panel by panel and also as a whole. So, text and image is intertwined differently out there.

10. What do you think are the fundamental guidelines an author should keep in mind while creating a concept note for an illustrator? 

A clear idea of the context within which the book is set. Who the book is aimed at. Any image references that are essential to the research or details of the book. Having said that, it is always best if the author is generous enough or trusting enough to let the illustrator bring in his or her own voice to the book.

11. When did you discover your love for illustrations? What is your favourite medium for creating art? What is the medium you prefer to use while illustrating texts? 

I love exploring different mediums and changing them depending on the book I’m working on. Needless to say stationary stores are the only stores I enjoy being in apart from bookstores.

I used to love drawing as a kid and also story books. I ultimately ended up studying animation in design school and as part of the course, we had illustration as a module. I really enjoyed it and perhaps that was when I considered that this could perhaps be something I could take up later. It was however a something I imagined I’d be doing on the side. I think I started taking children’s books seriously only after my 3rd or 4th book was published. There are no colleges that teach Illustration specifically in India and I think there’s a bit of a lacunae there since a lot of illustrators just by instinctively finding their way into a career in Illustration.

I don’t think I have a favourite medium as such. Though I work with watercolours quite a bit. I choose mediums depending on the nature/genre of the book. And I like exploring different techniques. At the moment, I’m inclined to say that graphite pencils are my favourite, but that might change in a few months from now.

12. Who are your favourite illustrators and who has influenced you the most

My favourite illustrators are Shaun Tan, David Weisner, Emily Gravett, Atanu Roy, Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Mickey Patel. All the illustrators of Target magazine that had a huge influence in my childhood namely Atanu Roy, Jayanto Banerji, Sudhaswatta Basu, and Ajit Ninan.

7 Oct 2020

Alice Oseman’s “Heartstopper”, Vols 1- 3

Writer, comic artist and illustrator Alice Oseman won her first publishing contract at the age of 17. Since then she has written three young adult novels and converted her popular web comic series, Heartstopper, into a four-book deal with Hachette Children’s Group. The first three volumes of the graphic novels have been published — Volume One, Volume Two, and Volume Three.

Heartstopper is a lovey-dovey story about two high school teenagers who discover that they are in love. Charlie and Nick are eighteen months apart in age. Charlie came out to his family and friends in Grade 9 and faced the horrific consequences of being bullied in school. Nick is the tough, popular, typical footballer-kind of schoolboy, who is in Grade 11. The three volumes are about Nick coming to terms with his love for Charlie. Nick is extremely hesitant and confused as he cannot undertand his attraction for the same sex particularly when he is also attracted to girls. Slowly Nick realises he is bisexual but his love for Charlie is for now firm.

The series move gently. At times it seems far too much time is spent in understanding and coming-to-terms with first love. But the awkwardness and anxiety riddled questions about whether the boys are making the right choices are very well presented. They are from a youngster’s perspective. It is difficult to describe but when adolescents are in love or think they are in love, it is a time-consuming preoccupation for them, usually at the cost of everything else — as Nick discovers when he fails to complete his maths homework,. His excuse? He had been up till late at night texting Charlie!

Heartstopper will fit very well in a YA LGBTQ+ list or section of a library except it is hard to imagine that many school librarians will permit these graphic novels to sit in the general section of their library. While YA LGBTQ+ lists are more and more well-defined with every passing year, their acceptance amongst the reading public will take time. The readers exist in the target audience of adolescents but the gatekeepers are still the adults. While novels of these lists are proliferating, particularly with Scholastic, graphic novels may be more challenging to accept for their explicit illustrations. Heartstopper is filled with innumerable scenes of kissing, hugging, cuddles and stolen moments between Nick and Charlie that may not go down too well with many adults who firmly believe that texts exploring sexuality are not necessarily to be introduced to imressionable minds. Having said that there are many, many reasons as to why these books must be shared, talked about and kept in classroom and institutional libraries. These are conversation starters. More importantly, while LGBTQ+ movements around the world continue gain in strength, younger generations continue to experience the confusion and anxiety that their sexual orientation may cause to them at first. It creates mental anguish that is not easy to share and discuss even with one’s closest family members as unfortunately acceptance of gay love continues to be taboo in many families. This is where books like Heartstopper prove to be useful. It is easy to read in solitude and come across questions that are constantly playing out in one’s mind. There are advantages of reading books as it helps in recognising and relating to scenarios outlines in the stories. LGBTQ+ activists may dismiss these books as being far too simplistic in their approach but the fact is that there are many youngsters who are worried and need to know. They may not be absolutely familiar with sophisticated arguments of the LGBTQ+ movement. It is important to start with the basics and slowly guide adolescents to a level of understanding and comfort that their anxiety about their sexual orientation is misplaced. As regards social acceptance, there are challenges but these too can be addressed slowly and steadily.

Heartstopper may not be to everyone’s liking but it is worth reading and discussing.

4 October 2020

Deepa Anappara’s “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line”

These two are always quarrelling like a husband and wife who have been married for too long. But they cann’t even get married when we grow up because Faiz is a Muslim. It’s too dangerous to marry a Muslim if you’re a Hindu. On the TV news, I have seen blood-red photos of people who were murdered because they married someone from a different religion or caste. Also, Faiz is shorter than Pari, so they wouldn’t make a good match anyway.

Debut author and former journalist, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is set in an urban slum in a nameless Indian city. The story is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Jai. His closest friends in the basti are also his classmates — Pari and Faiz. They are little children who are mostly left to fend for themselves while their parents work for those living in the neighbourhood’s hi-fi apartments. There is a constant undercurrent of violence that is prevalent in this community. These can range from the the sexual assault upon children in the dark alleys to hurling abuses at each other with one of the more favourite curses being called “rat eater” — a reference in all likelihood to the poorest of the poor, lowest in the social pecking order. It is a slum cluster that has people of different communities living together though as the book extract quoted above illustrates that everyone is very aware of the communal differences as well. Slowly over a period of time some of the children begin to disappear. At first given that they are all Hindus, suspicions are cast upon the Muslims living in the basti. But when the young Muslim siblings also disappear, the case begins to puzzle everyone. Unfortunately the communal tensions are exacerbated by now.

Jai and his friends decide to embark upon some of their own detective work to locate the kidnapper. Jai in his innocence coupled with a wild imagination is convinced that this is the handiwork of bad djinns. Nevertheless he is prepared to investigate realising that despite being bribed the policemen are really not interested in helping the affected families. It is not an easy task as the children are strapped for resources, especially finances, making their movement limited. Also they are viewed as poor kids who are not easily trusted by others, so information is not easily forthcoming. It is a challenging situation but the children do their best to find the truth. The novel develops at a steady pace with the focus maintained steadily upon the children while the sinister undertones in the background continue to develop. Whether it is petty politicians, opportunistic self-styled godmen, corrupt police officials, no one really cares for the well-being of the slum dwellers or the abandoned and orphaned kids eking out an existence as ragpickers on the garbage dump, being looked after a benevolent Bottle-Badshah. Yet the unexpected finale of the story comes together brilliantly where it seems fiction merges with reality by bringing up the ghosts of the infamous Nithari crime that was perpetrated upon the children living in the neighbourhood.

It is also extraordinary that Deepa Anappara has chosen to tell the story in a manner that she is probably most familiar with. She unapologetically blends desi words in her English storytelling framework. But the beauty of it all is that the non-English words are never italicised nor is the word or phrase explained immediately after its first appearance. It is a joy to behold this absolute acceptance of “foreign” words. A far cry from when Indian writers writing in English first began to publish novels — inevitably a glossary would be produced. No more.

One of the most obvious critiques of this book in coming days will be of it being a classic example of poverty porn and pandering to a preconceived notion of India. Having said that Deepa Anappara is to be commended for her masterful control of a complex subject. More importantly now that she is based abroad she is able to leverage her position as a woman of colour to write about the poverty back home while at the same time cleverly showcasing the distinct identities of the people and the very real preoccupations that govern daily existence. It could be from social ills such as alcoholism, unemployment, runaway or abandoned children, rampant problem of street children addicted to sniffing glue, lack of basic amenities such as sanitation and water, the poor quality of midday meals served in government run schools which the children yearn for as that is probably the only “proper” meal they will get in the day, high rate of school dropouts inevitably amongst the girls as they are required to be at home looking after their younger siblings, the growing menace of bullies, the manner in which women negotiate these spaces to run their households etc. The lives of the families and friends affected by the disappearance of the children is as traumatic a scenario as it is for you and I. These are people. Not necessarily people who can help prop up an exotic story. This socio-economic analysis that is presented in the garb of fiction without it seeming dreary like a pontificating thesis is not an easy task to achieve. Deepa Anappara manages to negotiate this space well.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is the Vintage lead for 2020. It was won in nine-strong bidding auction at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018. In a joint acquisition with Penguin Random House India, Chatto & Windus won the UK and Commonwealth rights after a hard-fought auction with eight other publishers. A portion of this novel won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award and the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel. This is a greatly anticipated debut that has been endorsed by a galaxy of literary stars such as Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, Chigozie Obioma, Nikesh Shukla, Nathan Filer, Mahesh Rao and Mridula Koshy. Deepa Anappara used to be a journalist in India before moving base to UK. Much of her research for this novel was based on her experience and reading seminal books on urban studies. This book stands apart from many other examples of equally promising debuts in the magnificence of Deepa Anappara’s craftsmanship in creating fine evenly toned fiction — not a mean feat for a debut author. The style of this book is very much akin to contemporary young adult literature. The dark gem of a novel that is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line fits snugly with much of yalit even with its fairly realistic conclusion. The manuscript may or may not have begun life as yalit which the reading public may never know but it has been positioned as literary fiction. Somewhere the costs incurred in bidding for this book have to be recovered. Despite the yalit genre exploding with an amazing variety of writers, the segment lacks globally recognised literary prizes that will help increase book sales exponentially. But by positioning it as litfic for the trade market, the publishers are ensuring that this novel is eligible for many of the prominent literary prizes in the Anglo-American book market such as the Dylan Thomas Prize for debut writers, the Women Writers Prize for Fiction, the Booker Prize, the Costa First Book Award, National Book Awards etc. By launching it simultaneously across territories too makes this novel eligible for many local prizes. For instance in India there are the Crossword Book Award, JCB Prize, DSC Prize etc to be considered. And as is a truth universally acknowledged that being longlisted or shortlisted for a prize let alone winning it, boosts book sales tremendously. Thereby helping the publisher recover some of their investment costs in winning the auction and spending on the publicity campaign. A win-win situation for the author which in this case is very well deserved.

Do read Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line !

8 Feb 2020

“The Line Tender” by Kate Allen

This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully told by debut writer Kate Allen. It is about a young girl Lucy whose mother was a marine scientist specialising in the study of the Great White Shark. They live in Cape Cod where sightings of the sharks have been spotted and Helen had anticipated their arrival in a few years time as the local seal population grew. Unfortunately Lucy’s mum, Helen, passed away unexpectedly when Lucy was a seven years old. Her father, a rescue diver for the police, brought up Lucy with the support of his kind and warmhearted neighbours. Lucy is particularly close to her neighbour Maggie’s son, Fred. The youngsters did everything together including spending every moment of their waking hour in each other’s company. They also worked on a school projects together like the field guide on sharks that involved Lucy drawing and Fred providing the scientific explanations. Sadly, tragedy strikes. It devastates Lucy for whom it is a double blow. “The Line Tender” is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of adolescents as well as how adults around them help form a community and provide support whether in times of sadness, learning or navigating their way through the beauty this world can provide. It is not an us vs them kind of yalit but calm look at how everyone is managing their griefs too and they can reach out to each other for support. It is a way of looking outwards and the manner in which it helps heal Lucy. Read it.

29 October 2019

“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves”

“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves” edited by Sarah Moon and contributing editor, James Lecesne, is an anthology of letters by award-winning authors and illustrators such as Armistead Maupin, David Levithan, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Brian Selznick, Bill Clegg, David Ebershoff, Eileen Myles, Michael Cunningham, and Arthur Levine to name a few. It is an interesting anthology where the letters have a markedly controlled tenor that is probably nowhere close to the confusion and mixed feelings they experienced as youngsters. As adults the contributors are expected to exhibit some maturity and share experiences in a measured tone. Having said that it is hard to believe that while recalling their past and writing to a younger self, raw wounds were not opened once more with accompanying emotional upheavals. But the editors seem to have managed to cap it all and produce an anthology that is readable and is able to communicate calmly with its intended audience. In all likelihood it will work for teenagers as well as counsellors, educators and care givers too. This book has been edited by Sarah Moon in collaboration with James Lecesne, founder of The Trevor Project, an organization’s dedicated to preventing LGBTQ teen suicide. This is a book meant to be read. Share it. Discuss it. Use it as a conversation starter.

29 October 2019

Book Post 47: 14 – 21 Oct 2019

Book Post 47 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

22 Oct 2019

Interview with Debasmita Dasgupta on her debut graphic novel, “Nadya”

Nadya is a stunningly powerful graphic novel about thirteen-year-old Nadya who witnesses her parent’s marriage deteriorate. The story and the art work are devastating. The artist-cum-author Debasmita Dasgupta has created a very moving portrait of a family falling apart at the seams but also how the little girl, at the cusp of adulthood, is witness to a catastrophic set of circumstances. Her secure world crumbles and she feels helpless. Yet the staid portrait of the professional at her desk on the dust jacket belies the confused and anxious teenager portrayed on the hard cover — a fact that is revealed once the dust jacked is slipped off. It is an incredible play of images, a sleight of the hand creates a “flashback”, a movement, as well as a progress, that seemingly comes together in the calm and composed portrait of Nadya at her desk, tapping away at the computer, with her back to a wall on which are hung framed pictures. Many of these images are images of her past — pictures of her with her parents in happier times as well as when the family broke apart. A sobering reminder and yet a reason to move on as exemplified in the narrative itself too with the peace that Nadya discovers, a renewal, a faith within herself to soar. Scroll sums it up well “Teenagers may read this story of a nuclear family living in the hills for relatability, but for everyone there is the poetry of the form that this graphic novel poignantly evokes.” Nadya is an impressive debut by Debasmita Dasgupta as a graphic novelist. Nadya, is releasing on 30 September 2019 by Scholastic India. 

Debasmita Dasgupta is a Singapore-based, internationally published Kirkus-Prize-nominated picture book illustrator and graphic novel artist. She enjoys drawing both fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Working closely with publishers across the world, she has illustrated over 10 picture books, comics and poems. Widely known as an art-for-change advocate, Debasmita tells stories of changemakers from around the world partnering with global non-profits. Her art is exhibited in Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Denmark and more than 40 international media outlets have featured it.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

  1. How did the story of Nadya and its publication come about? Was it the story that came first or the illustrations? What is the backstory?

I am a visual thinker. Words don’t come to me naturally. The story of Nadya was with me in bits and pieces for a very long time. I needed some time and space to weave it all together. It happened exactly a year ago when I went for an illustrators residency near Burgos (in Spain). That’s when I completed the story and illustrated a few key frames, which finally expanded to become this 64-page graphic novel.

When I was in primary school, I had a very close friend (can’t disclose her name). I have faint memories of us spending time together and quite a vivid memory of her fading away from my life after her parents went through a divorce. I was too young to understand the significance of the word “divorce”. All I could understand, deeply, was that it changed the course of my friend’s life. She became more and more quiet and then one day never came back to school. There were rumours that perhaps she went to a different school or a different city. Years later, another very close friend of mine went through a divorce. She has a daughter and at that time she was eight. This time I realised the thing that bothered me the most in my childhood was that I couldn’t make an attempt to complement the loss in my friend’s life with my friendship. Simply because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Finally, I found an answer in my art and the story of Nadya began. 

2. While the story is about Nadya witnessing her parents marriage fall apart, it is interesting how you also focus on the relationships of the individuals with each other. Is that intentional? 

Absolutely! I don’t see Nadya as a story of separation. On the surface it is a story of a fractured family but underneath it is about our fractured emotions. In fact to me it is the story of finding your inner strength at the time of crisis. You just have to face your fear. Nothing and no one except you can do that for you. 

3. Nadya seems to collapse the boundaries between traditional artwork for comic frames and literary devices. For instance, while every picture frame is complete in itself as it should be in a comic book, there is also a reliance on imagery and metaphors such as Nadya being lost in the forest and finding the fawn at the bottom of a pit is akin to her being lost in reality too. Surprisingly these ellisions create a magical dimension to the story. Was the plot planned or did it happen spontaneously? [ There is just something else in this Debasmita that I find hard to believe is a pure methodical creation. It seems to well up from you from elsewhere.] 

Thank you Jaya!

You are right that it is not a pure methodical creation. In fact, what fascinates me is that you could feel that the borders are blurred. When I was creating the story of Nadya, I felt that there were many crossovers between borders. Like emotional borders (grief and renewal) and timeline borders (past and present, with a hint of future). And I think these crossovers resulted in the form of an amalgamation of narrative forms, textures and colour palettes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I felt the story is set in the mountains where you cannot define the lines between two mountains or the distinctions between the trees in the forest when there is a mist. They all overlap each other like human emotions. It’s never all black and white. 

4. How important do you think is the role of a father in a daughter’s life?

Let me tell you the story behind “My Father illustrations” – It was on a Sunday afternoon when the idea came to me after I heard a TED talk by Shabana Basij from Afghanistan. It was a moving experience. I felt something had permanently changed inside me. Over the next few days, I watched that talk over and over. Her honesty, her simplicity and power of narration moved me. Shabana grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Despite all odds, her father never lost the courage to fight for her education. He used to say, “People can take away everything from you except your knowledge”. Shabana’s story gave me a strong impulse to do something but I didn’t know ‘what’ and ‘how’. That’s when my red sketchbook and pencil caught my eye. Before I’d even realized it, I had taken my first step. I illustrated Shabana’s story and posted it on Facebook. It was an impulsive reaction. I found Shabana’s contact and shared the illustration with her. Shabana was so touched that she forwarded it to her students, and then I started getting emails from a lot of other Afghan men! The emails were a note of thanks as they felt someone was trying to showcase Afghan men in a positive light. I realized that if there are so many positive father–daughter stories in Afghanistan, just imagine the positive stories across the world! My journey had started. I started looking for moving father-daughter stories from across the globe. Some I found, some found me. With every discovery, my desire to create art for people kept growing.

5. With Nadya you challenge many gender stereotypes such as the daughter’s relationship with her parents. It is not the standard portrayal seen in “traditional” literature. Here Nadya seems happier with her father rather than mother. The breaking down of Nadya’s relationship with her mother has been illustrated beautifully with the picture frames “echoing” Nadya’s loneliness and sadness. Even the colours used are mostly brown tints. This is an uneasy balance to achieve between text and illustration to create an evocative scene. How many iterations did it take before you hit a satisfactory note in your artwork? And were all these iterations in terms of art work or did it involve a lot of research to understand the nuances of a crumbling relationship?

I often say “Preparation is Power”. And I have always learnt from great creators in the world that there are no shortcuts to create any good art. However, the process of preparation varies from artist to artist. To me, this is not a process, it’s a journey. It starts with a seed of an idea and then it stays with me for a long, long time before I could finally express it my way. There is a lot of seeing, listening and spending time with my thoughts. Breaking of the stereotypes, whether they are gender stereotypes or stereotypical formats, were not intentional but I guess embedded in my thinking. It’s not that someone from outside is telling me to break those norms but it’s a voice, deep inside, constantly questioning. Not to find the right answers but to ask the right questions.

There were many versions of character sketches and colour palettes before the finals were decided for Nadya. Even though the initial characters and colours were similar to the finals, the textures and tones are distinctively different. Since the story runs in different timelines with varied emotional arcs, I wanted to integrate separate tonalities in the frames. In the end, a graphic novel is not just about telling a story with words. If my images can’t speak, if their colours don’t evoke any emotion then my storytelling is incomplete. 

6. Did you find it challenging to convey divorce, loneliness, relationships etc through a graphic novel? Why not create a heavily illustrated picture book, albeit for older readers?   

I am a bit of an unconventional thinker in this regard. I can’t follow the rules of length and structure when it comes to visual storytelling. That’s why many of my illustrated books are crossovers between picture books and graphic novels. To me, when I know the story I want to tell, it finds its form, naturally. 

7. As an established artist, what is your opinion of the popular phrase “art for art’s sake”? 

I am an advocate of “art for change”, more precisely a positive change. I strongly believe (which is also the genesis of ArtsPositive) that art (of any form) has the ability to create a climate in which change is possible to happen. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually it will.

8. Graphic novels have become popular worldwide. Mostly the trend seems to be tell personal stories or memoirs or a lot of fantasy. To create a novel for social activism is still unusual though it is happening more and more. What do you hope to achieve with Nadya

I admire those books (graphic novels) that I can read several times, because it’s not about the length of the book, instead it is the depth that intrigues me to re-visit it more and more. Books that help start a conversation. A conversation with yourself or with someone else. I want Nadya to be that conversation starter.

9. Although it is early days as yet, what has been the reception to Nadya, especially from adolescent readers?  

The book is releasing in India on 30th September and I can’t wait to see what young adults have to say. Before that we had a soft launch in Singapore during the 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content, where Nadya received a very warm welcome. All festival copies were sold out but my biggest reward was when I met this young artist from Indonesia, who told me that he could see himself in little Nadya. His parents separated when he was very young. I also met a teacher, who said that he is going through a divorce and would appreciate if I could speak to his children with this book. His eyes moistened when he was speaking to me.

10. Who are the artists and graphic novelists you admire? 

That’s a long list! But surely the work of Marjane Satrapi, Paco Roca, Riad Sattouf, and Shaun Tan inspire me a lot. The way they present complex subjects with simplicity, is genius!

11. What motivated you to establish your NGO, ArtsPositive? What are the kind of projects you undertake and the impact you wish to make?

About a decade ago, when I started my journey as an artist / art-for-change advocate, there was not much awareness about this concept. It was a very lonely journey for me, helping people understand what I do and what I aspire to do. So when I had the opportunity to start an initiative, I decided to develop ArtsPositive to contribute to the art-for-change ecosystem by supporting artists who create art-for-change stories. 

At ArtsPositive, we create in-house art-for-change campaigns such as #MoreThanSkinDeep* (the most recent campaign). We have also launched a quarterly ArtsPositive digital magazine to showcase art-for-change projects and enablers from around the world, collaborate with artists, and share artistic opportunities.

* More Than Skin Deep is an illustrated poetry campaign by poet, Claire Rosslyn Wilson and artist, Debasmita Dasgupta, through which we are amplifying the voice of fifteen fearless acid attack survivors (from 13 countries), who are much more than their scars.

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 8), 13 August 2019

Dear Reader,

It has to be the oddest concatenation of events that when the abrogation of Article 370 was announced by the Indian Government on 5 August, I was immersed in reading Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything. Two mind-blowing powerful novels that are only possible to read when the mental bandwith permits it. Colson Whitehead’s novel is as darkly horrific as it imagines the time in a reform school when racial segregation was openly practised. It is extremely disturbing to read it Mirza Waheed’s novel is an attempt by the narrator to communicate to his daughter about his past as a doctor and why he chose to look the other way while executing orders of the powers that be. Orders that were horrific for it required the narrator surgical expertise to amputate the limbs of people who had been deemed criminals by the state. Tell Her Everything is a seemingly earnest attempt by the narrator to convince his estranged daughter that what he did was in their best interests, for a better life, a better pay, anything as long as his beloved daughter did not have to face the same straitened circumstances that he was all too familiar with while growing up. It is the horror of the justification of an inhuman and cruel act by the surgeon that lingers well after the book is closed. Such savage atrocities are not unheard of and sadly continue to be in vogue. And then I picked up Serena Katt’s debut graphic novel Sunday’s Child which tries to imagines her grandfather’s life as a part of Hitler’s Youth. She also questions his perspective and the narrative is offered in the form of a dialogue. She refers to the “chain hounds” who hunted, and executed, deserters. Something not dissimilar to the incidents documented in The Nickel Boys too.

Then this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine arrived. It’s cover story is on migration and migration called “World on the Move”. In it the writer Mohsin Hamid has an essay, “In the 21st century, we are all migrants“. We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past, when our country, our race, our religion was truly great. All we must accept is division. The division of humanity into natives and migrants. … It is the central challenge and opportunity every migrant offers us: to see in him, in her, the reality of ourselves.

To top it I read Michael Morpurgo’s Shadow. It is about the friendship of two fourteen-year-olds, Matt and an Afghan refugee, Aman. Shadow is the bomb sniffer dog who adopted Aman as he and his mum fled Bamiyan in Afghanistan from the clutches of the Taliban. The mother-son pair moved to UK but six years after being based there were being forcibly deported back to Afghanistan despite saying how dangerous their homeland continued to be. Shadow, a young adult novel, is set in a detention camp called Yarl’s Wood, Bedfordshire, UK. While terrifying to read, Morpurgo does end as happens with his novels, with a ray of hope for the young reader. Unfortunately reality is very different. So while helping tiddlers connecting the dots with reality is a sobering exercise for them, it can be quite an emotional roller coaster for the adults.

In an attempt to look the other way, I read a delightful chapter book called Tiny Geniuses : Set the Stage! by Megan E. Bryant. It is about these historical figures who are resurrected into present day as mini figures by a couple of school boys. In this particular book, the two figures wished for are Benjamin Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. It can make for some amusing moments as the school boys try and complete their school projects. A delightful concept that is being created as an open-ended series arc. It did help alleviate one’s gloomy mood a trifle but only just.

Read this literature with a strong will, patient determination and a strong stomach. Otherwise read the daily papers. For once you will find that the worlds of reality and fiction collide.

15 August 2019

“Nadya” by Debasmita Dasgupta

http://bit.ly/30ijzI1 Scholastic India’s forthcoming release in September 2019 includes Nadya by Debasmita Dasgupta. It is an absolute must read. It is stupendously breathtaking.

As Orijit Sen affirms ‘Nadya takes us deep into the heart and mind of an adolescent girl as she negotiates her way through love, heartbreak and pain before finding renewal. The stunning artwork—with its rich landscapes, quiet but glowing colours and sensitively portrayed characters—makes the turning of each page an act of revelation. The beauty and power of graphic storytelling at its best!’

26 August 2019

Interview with Ashok Kumar Banker

Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.

  1. The Invisible Spy is a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology? 

It’s actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was several times the length of The Invisible Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at the time and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance of five decades I would describe it as Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.

I never finished Childworld but I continued writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time, Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page, completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades later, I’m still writing.

I wrote at least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting someone to read my work.

I was a published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)

Anyway, coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing. You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he gave me some insights into Indian publishing.

Anyway, I persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what was my first fiction book, Amazing Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which was more than I ever expected.

I also adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV shows such as Saanp Seedi and docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.

(One of my quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)

By that time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was titled The Missing Parents Mystery and while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author, and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really stopped writing children’s books.

Then I met my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.

Now, for some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.

I have picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book series called Superzeroes illustrated by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September 2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika, a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade fantasy adventure series starting with Pax Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And those are only my children’s books, of course.

And I’m only getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for! Besides, I LOVE writing and few books give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more. 🙂

2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day? 

Oh, I don’t write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing. I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.

3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader? 

It’s kind of you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!) But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email, cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day, I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with Leia.

Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.

Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!

Leia, Ashok Banker’s granddaughter.
(Picture used with permission of her parents and grandparents.)

4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations? 

Oh yes, it changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.

For instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now, with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.

Yet, they’re all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and publisher.

5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand? 

I simply daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure, all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”, and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with grace and piety.

6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes? 

I read. At some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write. Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.

7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing? 

Living in America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again. On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing about the US.

8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?

Oh, I could never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home, otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!  

9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead?  (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.) 

Good question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing. All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped stories, characters and all.

10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?  

It’s my first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well? 

They change every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books. Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later. I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.

12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time? 

Too many to count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books are life to me.

Thank you for these wonderful questions!

Happy Reading!

Ashok Kumar Banker

Los Angeles, July 2019

21 August 2019

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