By Anushi Mehta
Today we’re pleased to welcome Meera Sriram to the WNDB blog to discuss her two upcoming picture books: Dumpling Day (out October 15, 2021 from Barefoot Books) and Between Two Worlds (out September 21, 2021 from Penny Candy Books). See our previous cover reveal for Dumpling Day here.
I connected with Meera first when I won a critique from her from the PBChat Mentorship. I was thrilled because I comped her first book, The Yellow Suitcase, in my pitch!
I remember your beautiful story! And I remember the surreal feeling when I saw THE YELLOW SUITCASE used as a comp.
Meera, since we were last in touch, you’ve announced three new books. That’s incredible!
Thank you, I’m very excited about them!
I’d love to start off by talking about your journey as an author and then we’ll do a deep-dive into your upcoming books. Sounds good?
Sure, sounds great.
I read that you were an electrical engineer before chasing your dreams of being an author, how did that transition happen? Tell us about your road to publication. What were some of the key challenges and learnings?
When I stayed home to raise my daughter, we read a lot of board books and picture books. I’d never read picture books growing up (in India). So, I was blown away by how powerful and beautiful they were. However, I noticed that children that looked like my own, as well as our immigrant and cross-cultural experiences, were missing in the stories we read. This bothered me even when I went back to work. I longed to tell our stories, to see brown kids on book covers and as protagonists. I quit my job and started blogging about “multicultural” books and writing for publishers in India.
In 2015, I decided to write for an audience in the U.S. A couple of years into my journey, I was thrilled and incredibly grateful to have two offers – one from a publisher and another from an agent. My debut THE YELLOW SUITCASE came out in 2019. My biggest challenge was to continue to believe in the less common themes and settings I chose to write about. Since I didn’t have the relevant academic background, my learning curve was steep in every area, from craft to collaboration to marketing.
Wow, suffers from an agent and a publisher, that’s the dream isn’t it? I know the struggle of having faith in stories that seem less common. In fact, I have been reading about India’s first female photojournalist who captured the partition and I so desperately want to tell her story, but there’s this pesky voice that keeps questioning me.
Meera, Dumpling Day and Between Two Worlds: The Art and Life of Amrita Sher-Gil are such beautiful and delightful stories; I devoured them, both! If you had to give me ten words to describe Dumpling Day what would they be?
Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed them. And go for it, Anushi, we need those stories!
Ten words? That’s a fun exercise! Let’s see…warm, delicious, inclusive, rhyming, sensory, counting, celebration, multicultural, flavorful, universal.
And, Between Two Worlds?
Well, the list would include gorgeous, biographical, lyrical, informative, cross-cultural, bold, important, colorful, artistic, empowering.
I fully agree with both your lists. I might just slip in adorable for Dumpling Day. Speaking of which, the book has several words in other languages. With contextual clues and the repetitive nature of the text it’s easy to figure out what they mean. Having said that, even if a child cannot figure them out, the story is not compromised in any way. In fact, words like ‘didi’ and ‘gor gor’ transported me straight into the diverse kitchens. There is a lot of debate on whether words in foreign languages should be defined italicised or left as they are. What is your opinion?
My thoughts on this have evolved over the years. I believe that linguistic italicizing emphasizes marginalization. Take Hindi words like chai and chutney, for example, who gets to decide where they belong? There is a power structure in play here. The choice to not italicize non-English words is an act of resistance in some way. When we italicize, we’re also making assumptions about our audiences. That our readers only speak the dominant language. This calls for decolonizing our own thinking. From a craft perspective, if the words are in the language intrinsic to the story, I believe that they don’t qualify as foreign, even if they sound foreign to the reader. And by intrinsic to the story, I mean the language the characters speak or the language embedded in the setting or cultural backdrop. When we’re in the kitchen making shish-barak (in DUMPLING DAY), we’re expecting to hear Arabic. Writers have the responsibility to write well – clearly and engagingly – offering context at the same time. That said, I think readers have work to do as well. We share the onus when it comes to interpretation. Sometimes backmatter or a glossary can be helpful without disrupting the storytelling. My books include many non-English words and none of them are italicized.
My Middle Grade Novel is based in Dharavi, Mumbai. I cannot imagine being able to represent the vibrant, communal slum without the use of colloquial Hindi words. I hope you realise that you are paving the path for so many of us to take bold and brave decisions like yours.
I love the title of Between Two Worlds, it is layered and complex, just like Amrita’s life. Just like so many of our lives; where it is not only about the physical act of moving to a different place, but also finding yourself. How long have you been working on this story for? What was the research process like?
Thank you. And I’m standing on the shoulders of many wonderful writers from whom I learn every day.
I can’t wait to read your MG set in Dharavi!
Regarding BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, you’re right. It’s so much more than just the physical presence.
I usually focus on one story at a time when I write. I obsess over it until it’s ready for submission. With BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, I worked on it for about five months straight. I was fortunate to get my hands on a crucial primary source – two volumes of “Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-portrait in Letters & Writings” compiled by Amrita’s nephew and artist, Vivan Sundaram. I pored over them while looking up articles, news bits, and essays on the internet. I took notes and processed them later to extract the storyline and facts I needed for my story.
Incredible, Meera! Although Dumpling Day and Between Two Worlds are significantly different stories in every way, the common thread is the diverse family structures. While Sher-Gil’s story solely follows her story, dumpling day highlights so many different family set ups. How important is it for you to share stories of the diverse world we live in?
It’s very important to me to read, write, and celebrate stories that reflect a whole range of life experiences, allow for ALL children to see themselves, and take us into spaces beyond our own. It’s intentional and integral to my storytelling because of why I became a writer in the first place.
On the outset Dumpling Day looks like such a simple story, but there are so many writing techniques that have gone into it. Between Two Worlds is beautifully lyrical and layered. Can you talk us through some of the ways you have developed your craft over the years?
Thank you for those observations.
I’ve always paid attention to words – their purpose, aesthetics, play, and power. I think this quality combined with reading a variety of picture books set me on the path to learning to write for young children. When I started out, I attended many workshops and conferences to understand the fundamentals of picture book writing. I also believe that critiquing (other’s writing) can help our own understanding and writing. It’s almost like doing math worksheets on a concept you want to master. I’ve also learned that it’s important to never shy away from revising.
Haha, ‘math worksheets you want to master’ sounds like something I would likely run away from. Jokes apart, were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of both the stories?
I can’t think of specific titles, but for BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, I was definitely reading a lot more picture book biographies around the time I was researching and writing.
I usually read aloud concept books in my weekly preschool story time gig at the local library. I’m sure that must have had a positive effect while I was creating DUMPLING DAY.
Do you have a different process for fiction and non-fiction? Were you working on both stories at the same time?
Yes. I do a lot of ground work and preparation for non-fiction before I start writing. I wrote DUMPLING DAY in the spring of 2018 and BETWEEN TWO WORLDS in fall the same year. However, their editing timelines somewhat overlapped.
What is it like having two such beautiful books come out so close to each other? I’d love to hear how are you managing promotion and marketing for both simultaneously?
It feels great, but it’s a LOT of work! You want to do right by both your babies. So, I’m constantly switching between them. I can’t wait to read both books aloud to kids. Since they’re meant for very different ages within the picture book spectrum, it’s nice that I’ll be able to alternate.
I can imagine! I hope you do a read aloud for us too! I’d like to move on to a rapid fire round, now.
First recipe you’ll try from Dumpling Day?
Favourite Amrita Sher-Gil painting?
South Indian Trilogy (Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market)
Wait for the day words pour out and keep writing the entire day!
Lyrical or concept picture books?
Lyrical concept books!
Top 5 picture books of the last 5 years?
Okay, okay…here I go…
THE DAY YOU BEGIN
A DIFFERENT POND
BABY GOES TO MARKET
WHEN SADNESS IS AT YOUR DOOR
Phew. That was hard. Too many favorites!
When Sadness Is At Your Door is one of my favourites, too. What next for you?
A GARDEN IN MY HANDS, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, Spring 2022, Knopf/PRH
Dream project to work on?
Again, too many… I’m a big daydreamer 🙂
Meera, this was such a pleasure! Lots of hugs and warm wishes to you for your upcoming releases. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Thank you for having me and for the great questions, Anushi. I look forward to reading your stories. Hugs and good luck!