The Writer's Page: Compassion, as Well as Correctness

As a writer who is identifiable as “diverse” (I’m a South Asian Indian woman) and who has fought for diversity in our industry for over a decade, I’m often asked to offer an opinion about whether a specific book got a diversity-related issue “right.” While it’s easy for me to explain what I think about an issue, questions relating to diversity in books for young people are often too nuanced and complex to warrant simple or single answers. Because we have so few objective standards, the potential to make mistakes is vast. Whenever I write a novel, or even express an opinion, part of me is terrified that I’ll subsequently be buried by a Twitter avalanche. While fear may drive us to spend time and energy informing ourselves of others’ opinions, it can also keep us from voicing our own. If we’re always trying to be careful, we won’t dare write or recommend a potentially controversial book; instead, we’ll always uphold the status quo. We’ll lose sight of what’s most important: our readers.

If, on the other hand, we keep in mind compassion as we work, we are likely to prioritize the young people we want to reach. I define compassion broadly; to me, it works on three levels: at an individual level (in terms of engaging in honest introspection, limiting self-interest, and working as hard as we can); at the level of young readers (thinking, writing, speaking, and acting in ways that encourage empathy in them); and at the level of community (what we hope to achieve together and how best to move forward through our interactions with one another — and considering not only what we can give but also what we can give up).

As I write, I do all I can to put myself in my characters’ shoes — to understand them from within and write a story that is as true as possible to them, and thus, to the readers I hope to inspire. But somewhere between writing and rewriting, fear usually sets in. When that happens, I need to consciously refocus my efforts using the lens of compassion and remember that if a reader enters one of my books and, for a short while, understands the world from my protagonist’s perspective, the reader is engaging in empathy — and thus has the potential to increase compassion in the world.

My most recent novel, The Bridge Home, is about four homeless children struggling to survive in an Indian city. One of the characters, Viji, is atheistic; another, Arul, is deeply Christian. As I revised the novel, self-interest reared its head. I remembered teachers telling me they wouldn’t use my earlier novel, A Time to Dance, in their classrooms because the protagonist is Hindu. I feared that The Bridge Home — with its Hindu-raised atheist — would have an even harder time gaining acceptance, and consequently sales. But I also remembered how many young readers and their parents had told me how much it meant for them to see the Hindu religion portrayed with depth and respect. And after some serious self-reflection, I kept that detail about Viji’s beliefs in: explicitly atheistic protagonists are, perhaps, even rarer than Hindu characters in today’s middle-grade stories, and there are young readers who may benefit from seeing them. Upon publication, it was deeply gratifying to hear from a child whose parents are atheists and who said she loved reading about an atheistic protagonist. Even more rewardingly, another reader said that although his favorite character was Arul, because they share an abiding faith in Christianity, “I realized that atheists could also be good people, too, like Viji is.”

That reader’s response was immensely meaningful to me, given that my driving force as a writer is to try to inspire empathy in my young readers. In part, this desire motivates me to set my novels in India, although the cultural setting frightens off some educators; I’ve had people tell me they didn’t teach The Bridge Home because it was set “so far away” or because it didn’t feature “more relatable” themes like immigration or identity crises. A few even said they were all for diversity, just not international diversity! Such reactions sadden me but also spur my desire to write more stories featuring characters whom young readers don’t often meet within the pages of books.

Given the many problems facing us today, I feel compelled to do my small part to increase compassion by not only writing global narratives but also speaking openly about the diverse aspects of my own background. For a long time, I didn’t share the fact that I have invisible and chronic medical conditions. But after the release of The Bridge Home, I began to do so, especially when I addressed young readers; I also shared that I experienced poverty for part of my childhood, and mentioned the abuse I’d experienced that found its way into the novel.

The characters in the book don’t want pity, and they consider themselves survivors, not victims, just as I do. But after hearing from an overwhelming number of readers that their favorite character is Rukku, who has a disability, I realized that I had previously been holding back about my own struggles out of self-interest. I understood that it would be more helpful to young readers if I could find the courage, and compassion for readers, to speak about these aspects of myself. Sharing the fact that I have anxiety and depression has empowered at least a few readers with disabilities and inspired acceptance among other readers. Similarly, it was immensely hard for me to write about abuse; and the last thing I wanted to do was spend school visits reliving my childhood trauma. But being honest about my background has led to immensely humbling incidents, including hearing from children and women who were in abusive situations and who sought help after hearing me speak about The Bridge Home. That is a gift beyond anything that I could ever have dared to hope for, and the greatest blessing I could receive as a writer.

Compassion also has the potential to help us clarify our goals, as a community, and prioritize young readers. If we allow compassion to inform how we interact with one another and how we speak to the larger conversation about children’s books and diversity on the social media stage, I believe it will enable us to move forward more productively. In this context, I define acting with compassion as merely taking a moment to listen and ponder cultural differences in communication — how we broadcast, receive, and process information — and consider the most effective way to accomplish what’s best for young readers. If you wish to call out, or call in, take a moment to consider words and phrasing and the potential reaction a message may elicit, and whether this will lead to the desired result. (And consider sending a private message, as author Nikki Grimes did about an error I’d made in haste in a review of One Last Word. I can’t even begin to imagine what might have happened if she’d denounced me publicly and social media users had assumed maliciousness or ignorance.) If you’re “called in” or “called out” by someone else, ­compassion means doing all you can to understand where the other person is coming from, that tough love is sometimes required, and that the person at the other end is trying to communicate to create change, not to cause hurt. If we’re at the receiving end, compassion is about listening and trying to learn, not jumping to react.

Compassion means being sensitive to the privileges we have in all aspects of our interactions in the industry. Most of us enjoy (or have enjoyed) privilege somewhere, sometime. I’m part of the cisgender majority. I have a doctorate, which confers status in certain circles. I’m a published author, so I need to be aware of the inherent power dynamic when I’m with unpublished authors. When I have the upper hand in terms of privilege, I can pave the way for other diverse authors, but that’s just the first step. Facing our privileges forces us to ask how often we’ve had the compassion and generosity to step back, unselfishly, and give way for the sake of diversity. Would we, for example, consider giving up the opportunity to speak at a conference to provide room for someone else? Or consider not writing about a subject, even if it interests us, because it’s someone else’s story to tell?

Writers who identify with a dominant culture ask me with some frequency about cultural appropriation. I worry that these questioners might be missing the point with their sincere expression of interest in getting something “right.” This wish is seemingly prompted, at least in part, by a self-interested desire to receive my permission to write a story outside their realm of experiences. Self-interest isn’t evil, and all of us want to avoid backlash; but if we’re guided by compassion, we might examine the potential harm or benefit for readers seeing someone with our background (and associated set of privileges) telling this story, and weight it more heavily than the potential harm or benefit to ourselves.

When we’re guided by compassion, we seek information and ask questions not merely to listen to someone else’s opinions but to discover our own answers. Answers that may grow and change. Answers that may not be an easy yes or a categorical no. Answers informed by others, but ultimately and uniquely our own. After all, diversity is about discovering and respecting every individual, passionately and compassionately.

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Padma Venkatraman

Padma Venkatraman's The Bridge Home won a Golden Kite Award and a Walter Dean Myers Award. She is also the author of A Time to Dance (both Paulsen/Penguin), Climbing the Stairs, and Island's End (both Putnam). Visit padmavenkatraman.com, @padmatv on Twitter, and @venkatraman.padma on Instagram.

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