Friday, January 31, 2014

Tulika at The Times of India Literary Carnival 2014

Tulika Editor, Priya Krishnan, shares her experience at the Times of India Literary Carnival 

The themes of the two sessions on children’s literature at The Times of India Literary Carnival in Bengaluru (24, 25, 26 January 2014) wittingly or unwittingly came around to focus on two of its most challenging areas — the writing of stories and the business of writing stories. Radhika Menon of Tulika Publishers moderated the sessions. With her vast experience in creating books for children and getting them out to be read, she framed the context for the discussion, fittingly and asked pertinent questions to engage the panelists in two very absorbing sessions.

Has children’s writing in English gone beyond the phenomenon of J.K. Rowling? Add to that, writing with a western literary inheritance. Is this burdensome or inspiring?

From right to left: Poile Sengupta, Asha Nehemiah, Radhika Chadha, Radhika Menon

Poile Sengupta, Radhika Chadha and Asha Nehemiah were in discussion . . . Radhika started things off with an interesting observation — a survey in the UK — that says that Enid Blyton is Britain’s best-loved author. And in this list of 50 best loved authors, 12 were children’s authors! So why do children’s books occupy a special place in our heads and hearts? Nostalgia, a sense of wonder associated with the time you first start reading, and that stays with you, said the panelists, all of whom had grown up reading books in English.

So, would we in India, respond to a survey like this one, with a children’s author in our list of best-loved authors was the follow up question. Wouldn’t those of us in our 40s, 50s and older be more likely to come up with the names of authors writing for adults? And does reading in a language that is not our mother tongue (English) make our reading as children less embedded in our consciousness? While well known writers in Indian languages place books they read as children high on their list of their most favourite, this is not the case with Indian writers writing in English. In other words, does reading in the mother tongue touch you in ways that reading in a second language – even if we choose to call it our first language – does not? These were some of the questions explored.

When asked whether the heritage of children’s literature in English comes in the way of writing or does it inspire, the answers seemed to convey that while influences seep in, they all choose to locate the stories in a familiar environment. The breaking away, then, from the western model, setting and language is conscious. And what’s wonderful is the reaction this elicits from children. When chameleon, Colour-Colour Kamini gets nervous, she gets her colours mixed up. A child with performance anxiety was able to relate to her predicament, says Radhika Chadha. And there were a few more instances to establish that children respond to something that’s familiar, immediate, yet universal.

And is JK Rowling a benchmark? Yes, she made reading ‘cool’ and Poile confessed to being envious of her, given the numbers she sold; which then validates the point that Rowling is a benchmark, but not so much for her writing as much as for the business of publishing. So it can be said that writing for children in India is finding its voice in the hands of many talented writers.

Where do stories come from? Writing for children

From left to right: Manjula Padmanabhan, Vishakha Chanchani, Ameen Haque, Nina Sabnani, Radhika Menon
Manjula Padmanabhan (author, artist), Vishakha Chanchani (artist and art educator), Nina Sabnani (illustrator, animator, filmmaker) and Ameen Haq (storyteller) revealed the wellspring of their stories.

Most creative writers — poets, novelists — talk of their own experience being the bedrock of all their writing. Manjula tunes into the pleasure she used to get as a child from reading stories and replicates that pleasure in her writing, not the stories or incidents themselves. Vishakha draws from the simple pleasures of her childhood days, and Nina, by observing people and surroundings.

But clearly just experience and skill is not enough. They went on to discuss the instincts that turn a good idea into a great children’s story. Each one has a different instinct; the instinct that aims for a symbolic truth, urges flavour-seeking, excites young readers into the world of art and storytelling, a visual impulse that prompts a story idea. The conversation then moved onto why they chose children’s books or storytelling as their medium of expression and the challenges they face in writing/ illustrating/ telling stories for children and what in their minds is an “Indian” story.

Introducing some of their books to the audience, allowed for a peek into the story of how a story comes into being, what it says, how it works and how it is received by children.

Many, many little chits of paper with questions found their way onto the stage. The audience was clearly engaged!

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