Author Interview: Pooja Makhijani on Mama’s Saris

See Pooja Makhijani on Pooja Makhijani.

Congratulations on the publication of Mama’s Saris (Little Brown, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

As I write in my author’s note, the colors, patterns, and fabrics of my mother’s saris fascinated me. I wrote Mama’s Saris after realizing that my own obsession with my mother’s fancy clothes was not unique. It seemed as if each of my female friends–regardless of ethnicity or age–remembers being enthralled by her own mother’s “grown-up clothes.”

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I finished the first draft of Mama’s Saris in the summer of 2002 on a family hiking trip. I wrote the final two lines of the text in my notebook while sitting on a boulder in the middle of the Delaware River. I revisited the manuscript years later, in early 2004, and spent an entire weekend revising the text. Several weeks later, I sent the manuscript off to Little, Brown. (I had worked in publishing for several years after college and used my professional network to find the right editor.)

A few months and many revisions later, I got “the call.” Mama’s Saris had been purchased!

Elena Gomez worked on the illustrations for well over a year, and I had the opportunity to see her vision of the book from the sketch stage. Through my editor, she was open to suggestions regarding cultural appropriateness and cultural accuracy. She even asked for photographs of my wedding festivities for reference.

It has taken a while for the book to hit shelves, but I am thrilled to share it with the world.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Though the text really resonated with Elena, her initial sketches featured all the female characters in the book with their heads covered with the pallus of their saris. In many South Asian subcultures, women do cover their heads as a sign of modesty or respect. However, this wasn’t the case in the family I had imagined in Mama’s Saris. The family in my head had a mother who lived in suburbia and wore “gray sweaters and brown pants” to work everyday. As I said, Elena was receptive to my thoughts and we found a solution that worked for both of us.

What did Elena Gomez’s illustrations bring to your text?

Where do I begin? When I was shown Elena’s final art, I was struck that her visual interpretation of Nanima (the narrator’s maternal grandmother) was identical to the vision of Nanima that I had in my head while I was writing. We were really on the same proverbial wavelength.

Casting a wider net, could you tell us about your other writing?

I have edited a non-fiction anthology, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004). The collection of essays explores through a child’s lens, the sometimes savage, sometimes innocent, and always complex, ways in which race shapes American lives and families. I am deeply interested in using memoir and storytelling to discuss and deconstruct the idea of race and continue to use the book to conduct writing workshops for young adults on this topic.

Your site includes resources related to South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora in Children’s Books. How would you describe the current state of this body of literature?

Well, it’s so much better than when I was a child! Growing up, I would search library shelves in the hopes of finding a character “like me”. I never had much luck. Elementary school teachers and librarians would hand me copies of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling in the hopes I would identify with the little Indian boy raised by animals.

I didn’t.

Today, however, kids scouring libraries and bookstores today will find a good handful of realistic contemporary stories, set in specific South Asian or South Asian diasporic cultures, as well as a South Asian literary magazine for children, Kahani.

It seems to be heading in the right direction.

What improvements have we seen?

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a maturation of themes. No longer are authors writing about familiar–and often tired–immigrant tropes. Marina BudhosAsk Me No Questions (Atheneum, 2006)(author interview) details the experiences of two Bangladeshi teenagers, Nadira and Aisha, whose father is arrested and detained at the Canadian border. Mitali PerkinsFirst Daughter series (Dutton, 2006, 2007) features feisty blogger Sameera Righton, the nation’s first Muslim-American First Daughter. Uma Krishnaswami‘s picture book, Bringing Asha Home (Lee & Low, 2006)(author interview) is about a biracial Indian-American boy who finds his own way to bond with his sister while his family awaits her adoption from India.

What challenges exist, and how can we address them?

As you know, the CCBC compiles annual statistics on the number of books published annually by and about people of color. Over the years, the numbers have grown, but multicultural literature (most generally) still represents a small percentage of the overall number of books published for children and teenagers.

I wish I knew how we might address these challenges. I think once people of various races/ethnicities/cultures become a critical mass in the publishing industry (editing, publicity, sales, marketing, bookselling), more of these stories will make it to the bookshelf.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Nothing earth-shattering here. Read in your genre and find a friend to read your writing who can provide you with constructive, encouraging feedback. Don’t let rejection get your down; this business is full of it.

How about picture book writers in particular?

Read lots of picture books and understand the constraints of the container. Unless you are an illustrator, know that process is very collaborative. Realize that picture books aren’t “easy to write” because they are shorter; the genre presents its own challenges and it’s difficult to get it right.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I am slowly working on a YA novel. I am honing my presentation, “More Than Monkeys, Maharajahs and Mangoes: An Overview of South Asian Literature for Kids,” so that I can provide more teachers and librarians with an overview of representations of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora in children’s literature and tools to select authentic books for their classrooms and communities.

I am researching the lives of two American writers: Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936) and Jean Bothwell (?-1977) with the hopes to publish biographical profiles of both. Mukerji is considered to be the first successful Indian American man of letters in the United States and, in 1928, was awarded the Newbery Medal by the American Library Association for his middle-grade novel, Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon. He is the only South Asian American to have won the prestigious award. Bothwell, a Methodist missionary who worked in India, wrote over 60 fiction and nonfiction books focused on that country.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I am not writing, I can be found reading, watching past episodes of “The Office,” noshing my way through New York City with my husband or volunteering for Girls Write Now, a wonderful NYC-based non-profit which pairs teenage girls with professional writers in one-on-one mentoring relationships.

Cynsational Notes

See also Books: Interview with Pooja Makhijani on Mama’s Saris from SAJA Forum.