Spotlight

[Meet the Author] Shining a Light on the Human Condition in Books for Children- Interview with Vashanti Rahaman

While children's author Vashanti Rahaman has mostly stayed out of the limelight, her picturebooks shine a light on the human condition. Indeed, they might be best described as illuminating stories that engage and challenge children without speaking down to them. She recently spoke to Summer Edward about the power of literature to help children understand the human condition, bridging cultural gaps, and navigating the world of publishing.



Vashanti Rahaman is the author of the picturebooks O Christmas Tree, Read for Me, Mama, and A Little Salmon for Witness: A Story from Trinidad. Her latest picturebook Divali Rose, was described as "[An] appealing, multilayered story" by School Library Journal. Born in Trinidad, she received her B.S. at Mt. Allison University in Canada. Her articles and short stories for children have been published in Highlights, Pockets, and Cricket magazines. She lives in Missouri, USA.


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S.E.: How did you come to write for children? 

V. R.: I was new to America (the USA) and had young children. This exposed me to the richness of children's literature here, of which I had, previously, been only vaguely aware. Like many parents I often thought, as I read to my children: 'I could write something like that'. My first attempts were more in the nature of a mental exercise than anything else.

S.E.: Three of your picture books-- O Christmas Tree, Read for Me, Mama and Divali Rose-- were published by Boyds Mills Press. I did a tour of their offices in Honesdale earlier this year and I find them to be an interesting publisher. What would you say has been the best thing about your working relationship with Boyds Mills? 

V. R.: The very first story I actually sold was to Highlights for Children, and Boyds Mills Press published my first picture book. All along, Kent Brown and his editors worked hard to help me become a better writer, and to keep me writing. I might even venture to say that they saw more potential in my writing than I did.

S.E.: I read Divali Rose earlier this year and was struck by the maturity of the story. A young boy struggles to understand the resentments between different generations of Indo-Trinidadian immigrants. Do you see children's literature as having a role to play in addressing social issues like prejudice? 

V. R.: I teach high school Chemistry and Biology. In the sciences, a model is a partial representation of some aspect of the natural world which is used to study, understand and explain that selected part of the world. Using the word "model" in that same sense, I consider works of literature, including children's literature, to be models of the human condition, and the human condition includes negative responses to the existence of those deemed to be "other".

If, as adults, we honestly look back to the thought processes we had as children we will find that our younger selves were, indeed, quite mature in their attempts to understand the human condition, given the paucity of our experiences at that time. Children's literature adds to, or confirms, or questions, a child's experience of the world.

S.E.: O Christmas Tree is another rather mature picturebook. Anslem, the little boy in the story, comes to understand that Caribbean ways of observing and celebrating Christmas are just as valid and meaningful as imported European and American traditions. O Christmas Tree was first published in 1996; do you think the story is still relevant for young readers today? 

V. R.: The problem of valuing their own cultures in the face of pressure from dominant cultures is an ever present reality for many young readers. It takes many faces but is recognizable, if you are aware of the potential for its existence. I have found that children have a remarkable ability to find parallels to their own lives in what are, to them, alien stories.

S.E.: In your picturebooks, elders are typically figured as cultural stewards who reminisce or impart lessons about the past to a child. For example, the Aaji in A Little Salmon for Witness: A Story from Trinidad remembers a time when everyone in her village ate smoked salmon as a way of observing Good Friday, inspiring her grandson to work hard to buy a piece of salmon for her. Can you speak about the role of remembering and cultural transmission in your stories?

V. R.: Actually, the setting I originally had in mind when I wrote the story was the city of San Fernando in Trinidad. It is interesting that it ended up looking like a village to almost everyone else. But, to address your question," elders are cultural stewards who reminisce or impart lessons about the past to a child". When they are unable to carry out or even abdicate that role, a void is created in a child's experience of the world. I think, in retrospect, that my stories were indeed often an exercise in cultural transmission to my children. My husband and I are  immigrants from what used to be the British Caribbean, and we were bringing up our children in a small American mid-western university town, far away from relatives and from other British Caribbean immigrants.

S.E.: You were born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Dominica for many years before moving to the United States. You now live in Missouri. As an author, do you find it difficult bridging the gaps between your Caribbean background, your semi-rural mid-western American life, and the demands and expectations of metropolitan American publishers/editors? 

V. R.: I was born in Trinidad, moved as a very young child to England and India with my parents, and eventually settled with them in Dominica where we lived all through my elementary and high school years.  We visited our relatives in Trinidad yearly, and my parents and brothers returned to Trinidad while I was in college in Canada. After graduation, I joined them in Trinidad for about 8 years before moving to the USA with my husband and our first son who was still a baby.  I've been bridging cultural gaps all my life. That has made me quite comfortable with having to look at the world through another's eyes and trying to help others see the world through mine.

As for metropolitan American publishers/editors, I have had very good mentoring editors whose high expectations were welcome. Publishers, however, may have wished that I had been more involved in the marketing of my work, but I cannot blame that on either my Caribbean background or my semi-rural mid-western life. I can only blame it on the place I allowed writing to have in my life.

S.E.: I enjoyed your short story "Round and Round Music" in Kahani children's magazine. You've also published short children's stories in Highlights for Children, Pockets, and Cricket. How would you describe your short stories for children? 

V. R.: Most of my writing has been short stories and articles for children. I write for the children I have known, to share with them things I've learned that might interest them, as well as my thoughts and experiences and glimpses of my personal models of the human condition. I have enormous respect for the ability of children to build their own models of the human condition from the experiences to which they have access.

S.E.: Indo-Caribbean children's authors are a minority in the field and Caribbean children's stories disproportionately feature Afro-Caribbean characters over characters of other ethnicities. Do you think of yourself as an anomaly and do bring an awareness of cultural representation to your work? 

Writers write who they are. In that regard, we are all anomalies. Indo-Caribbean people are a minority in the world. Most of the Indian diaspora is outside of the Caribbean. Most of the people of the Caribbean are of African descent. By some estimates there are more than ten times more people of African descent than there are people of  Indian descent in the Caribbean. So I am not sure that the presence of Afro-Caribbean characters in Caribbean children' stories is really disproportionate.

My awareness of being from the Caribbean does include my memories of my visits to relatives in Trinidad as a child, but it also includes experiences during my formative years in Dominica where my being of Indian descent had nothing of the socio-political baggage that it had in Trinidad because, in Dominica, people of Indian descent were recent and few. I grew up aware of myself, and being treated by others, more as a unique individual than as a member of a demographically significant ethnic group.

S.E.: You haven't done a lot of interviews in the past, in fact, it seems like you've kept a rather low profile as an author. Have you deliberately avoided the public side of being a children's author? 

V. R.: I simply haven't made room for it in my life. It was a tradeoff. Other things were more important.

S.E.: As a Caribbean children's writer living abroad, what has been the most interesting or challenging thing about navigating the publishing world in the States? 

V. R.: To tell the truth, navigating the publishing world was like backpacking through a foreign country without a map and with only a tenuous grasp of the local language, depending on the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. It was enormous fun. And I was lucky.

I am of a generation that grew up communicating with the outside world through the postal services. To begin with, that is how I communicated with the publishing world. As electronic communication became more common I used that happily. I found that writers and editors do very well writing to each other.

What amused me most was the way my stories looked and sounded to others. I am keenly aware that the story each reader reads is different from the story I wrote, and different from the story that other readers read, and I am content and delighted that it should be so.

S.E.: Your last children's book was published in 2008; a lot has changed in the world of children's publishing since then. Are you still writing and how do you see your future as a children's author in the current landscape? 

V. R.: I had taught high school biological sciences and maths in Trinidad, so after my sons left for College, I decided to go back to teaching full time. That meant first going back to school to get a teaching certificate for my state, and later getting a Masters degree in science education. I teach in a very small rural high school in a town not far from the one where I live, and I enjoy it thoroughly. Now I tell my stories of cultural transmission to my students, but this time the culture I am transmitting to them is the culture of science. The result of all of this is that the empty space in my mind, which I need to be able to write, is filled most of the time now with lesson plans.  I do write for publication occasionally, still. My writing for Kahani for example, was done after I started teaching and the final re-writes of Divali Rose were also done during that time. I have not given up on writing, though. Perhaps after I retire in four or five years, or so, I will re-enter the brave new world of children's writing more fully.

S.E.: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your experience as a children's author?

V. R.: I enjoy the process of writing: the research, the playing with words, and the re-writing. Then, when I offer my writing to publishers and editors and readers, I enjoy watching the transformation that happens as my work takes on a life of its own, independent of me.

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About the Interviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia ReviewThe Caribbean Writersx salon and more. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She blogs at www.summeredward.com.


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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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1 comments:

  1. This was an interesting story. I'm from Finland and I have never been to the Carribean, but still I recognised many similiarities in the Life of Vashanti Rahaman and my life. I grew up in Sri Lanka, (or Ceylon as it was still called until about 1972.) I studied nursing in England, was a volunteer in India ... I write for Children.

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