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My Characters Don’t Wear Shoes in the House

Photo courtesy of Sayantani DasGupta.

This article is not meant as a judgment upon people who wear shoes in the house. Some of my closest friends wear shoes in the house. I fully support the rights of people to have different shoe-wearing practices in their own houses.

That said, I don’t wear shoes in my house. My spouse doesn’t, my children don’t, and most guests in my home don’t. It’s a cultural practice I gleaned from my Indian immigrant parents. I say “gleaned” rather than “learned” because I can’t remember ever being taught to take off my shoes at the door. It’s just always been a part of what I do, how I live — like paying respect to elders, like welcoming guests with food or drink, like breathing.

Yet, growing up, everything I read or watched had characters wearing shoes in their houses. Not just in their houses, but in their bedrooms, and sometimes even on their beds. (Ack! the horror!) And so, in an early draft of my debut middle-grade fantasy novel, The Serpent’s Secret, I included a scene in which my main character, Kiranmala, puts on her beloved combat boots in her bedroom. I put this scene in my own novel even though it’s a major cultural faux pas, even though I’m an Indian immigrant daughter writing a story about an Indian immigrant daughter. Why?

Because I had, over a lifetime, internalized the narrative practices of the majority culture around me and learned to give those practices more weight than my own lived experience. In “mainstream” American culture, I had rarely, if ever, read or seen something with a character who left her shoes in the garage or at the door, and so I couldn’t figure out how to write it. At the same time as I was refusing to translate or italicize Bengali words in my text — because I didn’t want to “other” myself and I knew that readers could understand unfamiliar words from context — I had allowed such a fundamental cultural no-no to slip into my story. I wasn’t consciously trying to make things easier for non–South Asian or white readers; I had honestly not even noticed. It was as if I were wearing representational blinders, even when it came to myself. As if I were wearing someone else’s wrong-size shoes and tramping uncomfortably through my own life.

It’s just a little thing. Except it’s not. Both the shoe-wearing and the inclusion of that scene. If I could get such a thing wrong while trying to represent my own experience, imagine how much harder it is for someone writing from outside that experience to get all these almost-invisible nuances right. Even for #OwnVoices writers from marginalized backgrounds, there are a million things like shoes in the house that we constantly have to unlearn and relearn, some so small they fall out of our range of narrative vision. Imagination is a political act, and being an #OwnVoices author is a dynamic process that involves learning to trust one’s own story. Shoes in the house; who I am centering in my writing; what I choose to say/not say — all this may change along the path of #OwnVoices authors’ political journeys of awakening. Decolonizing our imaginations is crucial to our craft, if not our very beings, because it’s in these details that humanity blossoms on the page.

The author’s parents and children. Photo courtesy of Sayantani DasGupta.

Consider that for a long time I had internalized the message that writing the Great Indian Immigrant Daughter Novel would require telling a tragic story of oppression, mixed with plenty of references to colorful street scenes, spicy foods, mangoes, and monsoon rains. I couldn’t even begin to imagine space for other kinds of South Asian stories. Because I didn’t have a story to tell of familial oppression, forced marriage, or cultural conflict, I figured that maybe I didn’t have a story worthy of telling at all. Of course, children of all communities have painful stories, and it is critical to have those stories reflected in books. But it becomes part and parcel of oppression against marginalized communities when stories of our suffering or identity-based conflict become the primary sorts of narratives published, rewarded, or lauded. Demanding or at least expecting that marginalized narratives contain tragic, teachable moments maintains social power relations while giving the impression of inclusivity. In my example, the expectation was that the only stories open for me to tell were ones that would reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes about South Asians as simultaneously sexist, oppressive, and conservative while being colorful, exotic, and “other.”

It took me a long time to disentangle myself from the idea that stories about my community must perform a certain kind of pain for others’ voyeuristic pleasure, or that I should center and “teach” mainstream readers about my background and experience. It took me years to give myself permission to tell a story about an immigrant daughter with loving, supportive, progressive parents (as mine are); an immigrant daughter who finds such strength in her cultural background that it becomes her superpower. It took me years to center my own community in my mind as I wrote the book — peppering in Bengali jokes and cultural references meant specifically for them. It was paradoxically in this detail, this specificity, that the broader power of the story — its appeal to readers from many backgrounds — was born. Taking off from Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s well-known metaphor, I would argue that a story-mirror is optimally effective for readers both inside and outside of a given community when that mirror is most reflective of the community being represented, thus allowing others to fully see inside a particular experience.

Yet, not unexpectedly, during the long journey of trying to publish The Serpent’s Secret, much of the pushback I got was because of its unfamiliar architecture. When I began sending out my manuscript, many people in publishing couldn’t get on board with a fast-paced and funny fantasy with a brown-skinned immigrant daughter protagonist. “We love your voice,” I was told again and again, “but maybe write a realistic fiction story about your protagonist’s cultural conflicts with her parents.” This sort of input set me back creatively, and brought up those old self-doubts about whether the story I wanted to tell was worthy of telling.

But then I discovered the work of thinkers exploring multicultural futurism, and realized their relevance to all of children’s literature. In the words of activist and writer Walidah Imarisha (in a Bitch Media interview with Kristian Williams), who coined the term visionary fiction: “Folks being empowered to write themselves into the story is what this is all about. Challenging the idea that only certain people are allowed to tell the narrative of the future is also about challenging the idea that only certain people have the ability to build the future, or to imagine how our lives should be structured.” Traditional fantasy and science fiction, for example, has given us wizards who fly on broomsticks and Wookiees who drive spacecraft, but seems to find it far more difficult to imagine future worlds without racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressions. Visionary fiction is a way to understand that #OwnVoices books don’t simply retell old kinds of stories with new kinds of protagonists, but have the potential to change the fundamental shape and trajectory of stories altogether.

Who is allowed to envision themselves into the future? Who is allowed not just to survive, but to thrive? What does a future world welcoming of diverse experiences and identities look like? Regardless of genre, these questions are ultimately at the heart of all children’s literature. For it is through our stories that the future is born in the imaginations of our young readers. Before they can make it be, they must have the room and tools to dream it. This took me years to realize, but writing about an empowered and heroic brown-skinned immigrant daughter who is unapologetically herself is an act of resistance. It is an act of imagining a more just future, both for readers who look like Kiranmala and those who don’t. Writing of my joy, and Kiranmala’s, is a political act.

Writers from historically marginalized communities writing our own experiences in our #OwnVoices must be brave enough to disregard previously drawn blueprints. We must give ourselves permission to build unfamiliar structures that welcome us and our readers inside, in all our nuanced particularities, inviting those who enter to take off their shoes and make themselves at home. We must lay the foundation of our storied skyscrapers in our own lived realities, even as we scaffold their soaring towers with dreams of liberation. For it is in these spaces that our young readers will imagine new worlds of fantastical beauty, in these stories that our young readers will begin building more just futures.

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sayantani DasGupta About Sayantani DasGupta

Sayantani DasGupta is the author of the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series (Scholastic). A pediatrician by training, she now teaches at Columbia University and is a team member of We Need Diverse Books. Visit her online at sayantanidasgupta.com and @Sayantani16.

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Comments

  1. Lynn Van Auken says:

    Thank you for sharing this powerful essay with us, Sayantani. I appreciate your candor and willingness to push the envelope even further as we all grapple with Diversity in children’s literature.

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