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Celebrating Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month: The Indian-American Experience in YA Lit

2014 May 7
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Nataraja

Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja), Chicago Institute of Art. Photograph taken by L. Nataraj

A few weeks ago, I was lamenting the closing down of one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how choked up it made me feel, but hear me out: This particularly eatery was so important to me because 1) It was the only place nearby that served the authentic South Indian cuisine I grew up eating and, 2) It’s where my husband and I grabbed lunch after our courthouse wedding nine years ago.

For years, my husband and I made the 30-minute drive to Madras Cafe – it would usually be packed with Indian families (many of whom were South Indian like mine). While perusing the menu, I would take comfort in being surrounded by the familiar strains of Tamil or Telugu – the languages spoken by my father and mother, respectively. The walls were also plastered with faded photographs of temples in the southern part of India, and food was served on traditional stainless steel dinnerware.

Because my parents live in Northern California, this place was the closest I could come to my mother’s home cooked meals. More than all of this, this restaurant represented a space where I belonged, and where I was not an outsider. This sense of belonging also applies to my feelings about diversity in literature – I continue to search for books in which I find my personal cultural experiences accurately mirrored. Discovering a story where the characters eat the same food as I do, pepper their English-dialogue with Indian language, and express the frustration of straddling two cultures elicits an internal sigh, like, “Finally! Someone else gets it!”

The month of May marks Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and I’m excited to share a few YA literature titles that focus on the Indian-American experience and/or Indian culture. 

Time_DanceA Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman: I picked up this book from Penguin’s booth in January during ALA Midwinter because I was pleasantly surprised to see a mainstream publisher releasing a novel about bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance). Growing up, my family and I watched a lot of Bollywood cinema which fuses Western and classical dance techniques; I also attended a few arangetrams (debut performances) with my parents. Even though Venkatraman’s book is set in India, it’s sure to resonate with the Indian diaspora.

Veda lives to be a bharatanatyam dancer, but when she tragically loses her right leg in an accident, she must overcome formidable challenges to keep her dream of dancing alive. Once she is fitted with a prosthetic leg, Veda proceeds, with the support of her family and a patient teacher, to dance again. Told in luminous, spare verse, Veda’s story packs an emotional punch.

6116947Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal (2010 Lambda Literary Award Winner): Adult fiction with definite YA appeal, Satyal’s hilarious and heartwrenching story gave me all the feels. Set in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the early 1990s, Blue Boy is the story of tweenaged Kiran Sharma, who loves music, ballet dancing, and playing with Barbies and Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Unfortunately, all of these things mark him as an outsider among his closed-minded peers at school. The Indian children of his parents’ friends hardly accept him, either. When his mother catches him wearing her make-up one day, the inventive tween pretends that he’s divinely inspired by the Hindu blue deity, Krishna. Initially an excuse to throw his mom off, Kiran’s imitation of Krishna becomes an all-consuming pursuit of personal truths and individuality.

Monsoon_SummerMonsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins (2008 Popular Paperbacks) “Jasmine “Jazz” Gardner heads off to India during the monsoon season. The family trip is her mother’s doing: Mrs. Gardner wants to volunteer at the orphanage that cared for her when she was young. But going to India isn’t Jazz’s idea of a great summer vacation. She wants no part of her mother’s do-gooder endeavors.

What’s more, Jazz is heartsick. She’s leaving the business she and her best friend, Steve Morales, started—as well as Steve himself. Jazz is crazy in love with the guy. If only he knew! Only when Jazz reluctantly befriends Danita, a girl who cooks for her family, and who faces a tough dilemma, does Jazz begin to see how she can make a difference—to her own family, to Danita, to the children at the orphanage, even to Steve.” (Description from Goodreads.com)

 

For additional suggestions on fantastic South Asian lit, check out these other posts on The Hub:

India Independence Day

Happy Independence Day (In India)

- Lalitha Nataraj, currently reading The Pomegranate King by Nishta Mehra

 

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Marney Welmers permalink
    May 7, 2014

    What about Tanuja Desai Hidler’s “Born Confused”? (The sequel is out now, or almost so.) Have you read it? From your rather authoritative background, can you comment on it? I adore the language, but am always hesitant about authenticity.

    Thanks.
    Marney

  2. Lalitha Nataraj permalink
    May 7, 2014

    Hi, Marney

    Born Confused is a fantastic book – one of my favorites! It’s not listed here because another Hub blogger, Diane Colson, mentioned the book in a post last August (see links below my post).

    Regarding authenticity – Desai Hidier has said that several of the cultural details in Born Confused are autobiographical. The things she wrote about (clothing, food, traditions) definitely resonated with my own coming-of-age experience. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have an “authoritative” background – it’s more of a feeling like, “Hey, I see myself in these stories – that happened to me, too!” :)

    I appreciate you mentioning the sequel –Bombay Blues is coming out from Scholastic in September, and I can’t wait!

  3. May 7, 2014

    Great article! I am so glad you added stories about Indian-American characters and culture to this celebration of Pacific-Asian literature.

    • Lalitha Nataraj permalink
      May 8, 2014

      Thank you for reading, Christine :)

  4. May 8, 2014

    I picked a Time to Dance at TLA last month and was touched by the story and the beautiful language. I hope you find a restaurant to satisfy your sense of “home.”
    Varsha

    • Lalitha Nataraj permalink
      May 8, 2014

      Varsha, I agree – I feel the verse form added a lovely element to the story. As for the restaurant thing – it just means trekking up to Los Angeles (where I grew up) and sampling the treats in Little India.

  5. Leah Labrecque permalink
    May 9, 2014

    I’d like to add a graphic novel to the list – “Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary,” by Keshni Kashyap, which features a smart, self-aware Indian-American teen heroine. Great characterization, pacing, and art. Check it out!

    • Lalitha Nataraj permalink
      May 9, 2014

      Yes – Tina’s Mouth was so good – everyone should read this one. Loved it!

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