Tag Archives: diversity

Folk Storytelling in South Asia, Author interview with Sayantani DasGupta, and Giveaway

Like many countries, South Asia is a source and inspiration for folk storytelling.  You can see folk storytellers like our mothers and grandmothers at homes as well as performers on the streets and marketplaces in rural villages, small towns, and even in some of the bigger cities. Men and women perform in elaborate style, using colorful costumes, large picture cloths, and scrolls. They perform in groups, accompanied by the narrator, actors, and musicians. They tell stories in stage performances, in areas where there is public attraction, courtyards of homes, wedding ceremonies, or special gatherings.  Their repertoire is usually wide and consists of historical tales, myth, episodes from the two Great Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, Christian scriptures, Sufi stories, as well as local folklore.

Today, I am delighted to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing Bengali folk tales in middle-grade fiction. Sayantani’s middle-grade novel, THE SERPENT’S SECRET is available to pre-order and will be released on February 27, 2018.

Sayantani, thank you for stopping by at Mixed-Up Files. The protagonist of THE SERPENT’S SECRET, Kiranmala is an interdimensional demon slayer. Could you tell us more?

Thank you so much for having me! It’s a joy to be back on The Mixed Up Files!

So Kiranmala thinks she’s just an ordinary sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey, until the morning of her 12th birthday. That day, her parents go missing – transported to an alternate dimension because of an expired spell – and two mysterious princes show up at her doorstep, promising to help her find her family. She’s a little skeptical (she’s a Jersey girl, and as she’ll tell you herself, Jersey girls are no dummies), until a drooling rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, totaling her suburban split level. Kiranmala’s forced to fly off with the princes Lal and Neel on their flying pakkhiraj horses, through a transit corridor that’s a lot like the customs and immigration lines at an airport, and to a magical dimension called The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers. There, she has to solve riddles, battle the evil Serpent King and vicious Rakkhoshi Queen, who may or may not also be a black hole, and find her parents before the spell protecting them entirely expires and they get eaten by a newborn rakkhosh baby! All that and make it home in time to finish the sixth grade…

Tell us why the subject of Bengali folktales is important to you. What inspired you to write this story?

Toni Morrison has that great quote – “If there’s a book you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The Serpent’s Secret is the funny and fast-paced fantasy adventure with a kick butt brown skinned heroine that I always needed, but never found, as a young reader. So that’s the short answer to what inspired me to write this novel.

The longer answer is that my parents immigrated to this country in the late 1960’s and so I was born and grew up in the Midwest at a time when there weren’t a lot of people of color, nonetheless South Asians, in the community where I lived. Back then, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in media or advertisements. I was a big reader, but there was still a big disconnect between me and Laura Ingalls, Meg Murry or the other heroines I loved. But when I went back on my long summer vacations to my grandparents’ homes in Kolkata, India, that’s when I saw others who looked like me, that’s when I found a sense of belonging and history, that’s when I felt seen and heard in a deep and real way that I didn’t find in my life in America.

Of course, stories are such an important way that anyone finds ‘home’ in any community. So when we’d gather on those sweltering summer nights, under the whirring fan and the gently swaying mosquito net, and my grandmother would tell us cousins these fantastic folk stories about flesh eating rakkhosh and flying pakkhiraj horses, evil serpent kings and brave princes and princess, my imagination would be completely captured. I loved those stories so much that I translated/adapted several in a 1995 folktale collection for grownups I wrote with my mother called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (Interlink, 1995).

Fast forward many years, to when my now teenage son and daughter were becoming big middle grade readers. I was impressed with the increased range of diverse titles they had access to. The problem was, most of those books (at least then) were realistic fiction, and my son in particular was a big Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl fan. I was so frustrated to realize that he and his sister were experiencing that same lack of literary mirrors I had suffered as a kid. There were more diverse titles, sure, but mostly in contemporary or historic realistic fiction. Intentional or not, this still sent out the message that kids of color and kids of other marginalized identities weren’t allowed to be heroic, or funny, or central to the saving of the universe. So I went back to those Bengali folktales I had loved so much, those stories which were such an important part of my finding my own identity. In the same way I had found myself in West Bengal, India – the land of my ancestors – the heroine of my novel would have to travel to the magical Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers to find her own strength and power. Eventually, the book I began as a family project for myself and my children took wings and became The Serpent’s Secret, first in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series!

Let me ask you about Bengali folklore, since that’s the heart of Serpent’s Secret. What types of Bengali folklore do you write about in THE SERPENT’S SECRET? Could you explain how the local folklore is different from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, or stories from other religions?

Thanks so much for asking! First, these are stories from Bengal – a region which used to be one united area but is now comprised of the state of West Bengal in India, and the country of Bangladesh. In 1947, when the British rulers of India were leaving, they split up the subcontinent into the independent countries of India and Pakistan (In 1971, East Pakistan would win its independence from Pakistan to become Bangladesh). This was a time fraught with a lot of violence between religious communities – people who had previously been neighbors and friends were suddenly pitted against one another – and these bloody tensions have in many ways been South Asia’s postcolonial legacy, influencing politics and religious strife in the region today.

All this to say that the folklore that I’m drawing from is actually pre-partition – these are stories shared by Bengalis of India, of Bangladesh and of course of the diaspora. They are also stories loved by Bengalis of multiple faiths, including Hindus and Muslims. These hilarious stories of rakkhoshi demons disguising themselves as beautiful maidens and marrying human kings, these adventures of princes and princesses riding on pakkhiraj horses, wise cracking tia birds playing tricks on silly humans – these are all our collective stories. Although it’s inevitable The Serpent’s Secret novel is colored by my own particular background and my own particular experience, I wanted to honor and celebrate the fact that the folktales and other children’s stories that inspired the novel aren’t bound by any one country or religion. I wanted to celebrate our commonly loved stories.

As oral tradition, these folktales are also different than myths, which tend to have more spiritual significance. Epics like The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, which are wonderful, and were a big part of my growing up as well, are linked to a religious tradition – to Hinduism – and are beloved across multiple regions of the subcontinent. In contrast, the folktales collected in 1907 by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar in a collection called Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Satchel) and the other Bengali children’s stories which influenced The Serpent’s Secret are regional, not necessarily religiously bound. That’s a really important distinction for me as I want to resist artificial separations based on nation or religion.

Do you see Kiranmala’s story as a fracturing of Indian folktales like the fractured fairytales of Snow White or Cinderella or Goldilocks? If you could use fairytales to pitch your book, which two stories or characters would you choose and why?

I definitely fractured the Bengali folktales and children’s stories I was inspired by – playing very fast and loose with multiple stories. For instance, my protagonist is inspired by a character who appears in a folkstory called “Arun, Barun and Kiranmala” in which the youngest sister, Kiranmala, has to go save her two older brothers. I was inspired by this story because it’s about female strength and smarts saving the day. But I didn’t stay true to the tale at all beyond that core message about an empowered and heroic girl. My Kiranmala lives in New Jersey and is the only daughter (or so she thinks) of loving convenience store owners. The heroic princes she meets early on in her adventure, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, come from a totally different folktale. People who know these stories will hopefully recognize references I make, but I really don’t stay true to any one story or tale. Rather, the entire novel is kind of a love story to the Bengali children’s stories which helped link me to my own heritage and identity as a child.

The one big difference between The Serpent’s Secret and traditional Western fairytales is that, although Kiranmala does turn out to be a princess, she’s a pretty reluctant one. In fact, she hates all things princess-y, so she’s certainly not waiting around for anyone to rescue or marry her (I mean, she’s only 12!). So rather than liken my novel to traditional Western fairy tales (I’m not sure there’s a good comparison), I might say that like Harry Potter, Kiranmala has to discover her hidden powers and potential. Like Percy Jackson, her story is inspired by traditional tales. Like Katniss Everdeen, she’s a bow and arrow wielding warrior, and like Meg Murry, she has to travel across time and space to rescue her parents. Finally, like Mia Thermopolous, Kiranmala is a wise cracker, making references to Bengali and American pop culture all the time. But of course, although she shares commonalities with Harry, Percy, Katniss, Meg or Mia, she’s her own intergalactic, demon-fighting joke-making heroine!

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Being from an immigrant family is to be a superhero. Being able to straddle multiple worlds, code-switch between multiple languages and cultures – that’s a kind of a superpower! I hope that, particularly in this time that is so fraught with anti-immigrant sentiment, readers of The Serpent’s Secret are able to recognize and celebrate the strength of kids from immigrant families.

I also love fantasy as a genre, because while all books can strengthen readers’ imaginations, fantasy in particular is in the business of radical imagination. And I truly believe that to save our own universe, to imagine and then bring about a better and healthier world for all of us, we’re going to need a lot of brave young people armed with radical imagination. So my hope is that, on reading The Serpent’s Secret, readers’ imaginations are caught on fire!

Ultimately, I hope that, like Kiranmala, readers of The Serpent’s Secret can embrace their own inner heroism and slay whatever demons come their way!

Enter the giveaway for an advanced reader copy of THE SERPENT’S SECRET by leaving a comment below.  You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be determined on January 21, 2018 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.

If you’d like to know more about Sayantani and her novel, visit her website: http://www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer/  Or follow her on twitter : https://twitter.com/Sayantani16

 

 

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books– Craft and Resources

There are two things you need to do to ensure proper use of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in fiction.

  1. Obtain an advanced degree in nuclear computational physics C++ programming or an equivalent field.
  2. Obtain a federal or privately funded grant to research the molecular neurological factors and biochemical pathways necessary for the incorporation of STEM into story.

Wait! Don’t leave!

I’m only joking. I’m a microbiologist, not a comedian (if you hadn’t noticed). I’m also a writer so the representation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is important to me. Nothing rings my own readerly bell more than a seamless use of STEM in fiction and I believe it is vital to show STEM topics outside of a nonfiction or textbook scenario.

Remember back in the day when you were in that algebra or physical science class? Do you recall the question that ran through your young, the-world-is-my-oyster brain?

WHEN AM I EVER GOING TO USE THIS STUFF IN REAL LIFE?

The answer is one we didn’t like back then and we probably still don’t like today…

You are going to encounter this STEM stuff all your life.

It’s everywhere. Even in our entertainment.

STEM in fiction further defines the subject through the power of story. That magic of story we Homo sapiens have shared from our first breath. Shared experience. Shared truths. Shared hopes. Shared knowledge.

STEM fiction is a gateway into the world of STEM for young readers. STEM-based fiction and science fiction show possibility. The melding of facts and story through our STEM lens peers forward to what can be. To explore possibilities. To dream. To take what we know and throw it into the pot to create a future built on past discovery.

BUT STEM IN MY FICTION? SERIOUSLY?

Okay, okay! I know! The STEM fields are based on fact. It’s using data and observation to draw conclusions about the world we live in. It’s formulas, white coats, statistical analysis, publications, lines of code, blueprints, lectures, etc. STEM has always been labeled as serious, strict, narrow, and just a tad bit snooty and full of itself. But is that all science and technology and engineering and mathematics are?

No way!

These STEM fields are living and breathing and growing and discovering. STEM is disciplined creativity at its finest. STEM skills enable one to ask, “Why?”, then go figure out “How”, and eventually figure out a better way to move forward.

This sounds very similar to classic fictional story structure.

Problem/Solution/Improve = Setup/Confrontation/Resolution.

How can we include STEM topics into fiction without it sounding like a 1950’s textbook pontificating that, maybe someday, we will explore our moon?

  1. Mix the STEM with the narrative.
    We don’t need to know all the details. It’s not a standard operating procedure manual. It’s a story. We don’t really need to know exactly how Ellie’s grandfather, Melvin, was transformed in Jennifer Holm’s THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH. We only need to know it had something to do with his work as a research scientist, a new species of jellyfish, and an unfortunate (or fortunate depending on which side of the fence you sit) experiment.
  2. Story Logic
    The science, technology, engineering solutions, and the mathematics using in the story world must be logical. It must make sense. This doesn’t mean it has to be true to what we know to be true. It means it has to be logical within its context and can’t just be thrown in to solve the story problem deux ex machina-style.
    Think about how well the magic system in the Harry Potter series work. Why? Because J. K. Rowling did such solid work behind the scenes to build the magical world, we don’t even question the validity of the system by the time we get through SORCERER’S STONE.
    Whatever the genre, STEM works! It can even be completely made up stuff. STEM principles work as long as they fit logically and are ground in the foundation of the story world.
  3. Setting
    A solid fictional setting is as much of a story’s character as an actual character. A good story environment is created by the author from information gleaned by observation of actual environments. STEM basics!
    Think about the setting Kate Milford constructs in GREENGLASS HOUSE. The architectural design of the house, the engineering principles of the lift, the meteorology, and the cartography. All crafted at such a stellar level, you can feel the impact of the setting as you read.
  4. Character
    Similar to the setting. Same rules apply. A fictional character is created from observations an author makes over time.The data is analyzed and manipulated to build the precise character needed.
  5. Plot
    The three-act storytelling structure is ingrained into our western culture psyche. It is almost as old as stories themselves. Our minds expect a story to follow a certain path and adhere to defined beats. Now, that sounds eerily similar to the way we do STEM, doesn’t it? Two of my favorite craft writing books are STORY ENGINEERING & STORY PHYSICS Physics by Larry Brooks. In both books, Mr. Brooks breaks down the nuts and bolts of how to build a story and how to make the story sing to the reader.
    The Hero’s Journey narrative pattern, made famous by Joseph Campbell, is built upon psychology. Carl Jung Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology first defined the archetype in literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the observed data weigh heavily on the STEM inclusion side of the fiction argument. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fit into the world of fiction just as snugly as they fit into the nonfiction world. STEM not only adds depth to fiction, it also acts as a gateway to introduce readers to STEM topics. And that itself is as important as the entertainment value of a story.

STEM in fiction just makes good stories even better.

EXTRA! EXTRA! Breaking News from the STEM Tuesday news desk!

The National Science Teachers Association just released their Best STEM Titles list for 2018. Definitely worth the click to check out these great STEM books!

I hope you are enjoying the STEM Tuesday series on the Mixed-Up Files blog. I am! And as we highlight science in art, don’t forget to also put some art into your science. Science needs creativity as much as creativity needs science.

Until next time…STEM On!

Mike Hays


The O.O.L.F. Files

This month’s STEM Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files looks at some cool ways science and technology work their way into our everyday lives. Everything from a blog series where experts weigh in on how to best use science to write sci-fi and fantasy to classic lectures from three heavyweights in their fields to a new annotated version of the classic book that birthed a genre.

Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. I don’t know where to even start with ASU’s CSI. So much crazy-awesome information, so little time! Check out CSI’s new version of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking Frankenstein to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication. Particularly interesting are the discussions about gender and the trials Mary Shelley faced as a woman author in 1818.

The Science in SciFi blog series hosted by Dan Koboldt. A great resource for writers where experts weigh in on topics relevant to science fiction and fantasy. I’ve been fortunate enough to pen three posts for the series. Keep an eye out for Fall of 2018, when Writer’s Digest Books will publish an anthology of Science in SciFi blog posts titled, Putting the Science in Fiction.  I was fortunate to have two of my posts selected for the anthology.

How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future by Eileen Gunn (May 2014) from Smithsonian Magazine.

From Science Fiction to Science Fact: How Design Can Influence the Future by Patrick Purdy (June 2013) from UXPA.

Science influenced by science fiction by Bruce Sterling (September 2010) from Wired.

And to wrap up the O.O.L.F. Files this month, a throwback to this 1985 look on science and society. THE IMPACT OF SCIENCE ON SOCIETY by James Burke, Jules Bergman, and Isaac Asimov (1985)  PDF link from NASA 

Mike Hays, O.O.L.F. Master


 

Book Fairs: Forging Connections Between Authors and Readers

As an author and as a parent, one of the school activities I love most is the book fair. This chance to watch our readers as they browse books and talk about what they’re connecting to is invaluable; it provides a unique peek into what they love about books and characters that I don’t get anywhere else. Obviously, there are other tools and even metrics to measure what’s resonating with our middle grade readers, but book fairs are just special.

Recently, in an effort to enhance the book fair at my children’s school, I piloted a new program called “Meet the Author.” I stole the idea from another book fair I had worked with in Oro Valley, AZ, where their week-long event included two full days of classroom visits from authors whose books were being sold at the fair.

It was a wonderful way to immerse the students in the whole process of publishing—from the crafting and editing of a book to the actual purchase. The visits also offered readers who were able to purchase the authors’ books a tangible reminder of the visit—personally autographed books! The difference between these and the typical author school visit was that it all happened in the classrooms, which provided a more intimate visit than is usually manageable when you pack an entire grade level into a large room.

The event took a lot of heavy-lifting: months of organization and two long days of managing a roster of authors and parent volunteers who could escort our visitors around the school. But oh, the results. Kids were excited and energized; brand new authors were born in every classroom. It was truly wonderful to watch.

When I imported the idea to our school here in northern Virginia, I started small: no budget and only one author for one grade level presentation. I had to depend on the kindness of an author who would be willing to speak for free and still be willing to sign books afterward. That author was Leah Henderson, author of ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL.

Leah was fabulous. Her presentation was interesting, engaging, and interactive. The children loved her slide show, which included photos of Senegal, where her novel is set. They really plugged into her questions, competing with each other to identify which of her geographically diverse photo slides were in Africa.

Even better? Our 6th graders gained a valuable and exciting connection between the book they saw on the shelves at the book fair and the in-person visit from the actual author—the face of the artistry behind the pages.

“Whenever someone can build a connection with a book they’re more apt to pick it up the next time they see it—often curious what other connections they may make. Having a ‘Meet the author’ event before or during a book fair is a wonderful way for students to hear the behind the scenes in an author’s book journey.”

                                                     –Leah Henderson, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL

It’s important to note here that the experience itself—an author visit—wasn’t new for us, nor would it be for most schools that want to try this. Our school in particular is very fortunate in that we have an active librarian who schedules author visits as often as her budget allows: we’ve met some pretty amazing, well-known writers. But this was unique in that the author’s work was on sale at the book fair, so everything happened in real time: students saw the book on the shelves at the fair and heard about it in person. They got to interact with the author. Many bought the book and got it signed, much like bookstore signings, which not all children get to attend.

One student said afterward, “It was very interesting to hear how she was inspired to write the book and I liked that she focused on that instead of giving spoilers about what the book was about. That was really good.”

Another said, “I was interested to find out what it takes to get a book published. It takes a lot longer than I thought, and I didn’t know that before we listened to Ms. Henderson. She was a great speaker.”

What motivated me to share this with all of you is twofold: 1) I wanted to encourage all of you who get to work with school book fairs to consider this idea (if you haven’t already); 2) I wanted to thank all the authors who are willing to cut or eliminate their speaking fees entirely when they are being courted by a local school or a speaker program with no budget. I understand that for many of us, speaking fees are a vital part of our income and we can’t make ends meet without them, certainly not when it involves travel outside our region. But the fees can also be prohibitive. I was so grateful to Leah for her generosity because I had no budget at all; any speaker fee would have come from my own pocket, which I couldn’t do. But the value of Leah’s visit was priceless for our kids, and, I can confirm, gained her some new fans. And if we’re lucky? A few new authors were born that day.

Happy Holidays to all of you, and here’s to a 2018 full of great books and good cheer.