Cynsations Intern: Mitu Malhotra Reflects on “Where I’m From”

By Mitu Malhotra

In the foothills of the Himalayas, when the fireflies danced and the moon rose over the sharp silhouettes of the world’s tallest peaks, I listened to my grandfather and father recite Urdu poetry: ghazals, nazms and shers—songs, poems and couplets reminiscing about life. Those are indeed my favorite childhood memories. Those were the long summer holidays before electronic media invaded our lives. Those are the moments I dig into when I write for children now.

I arrived at writing via a long and meandering path. Drawing and painting were my first love. As a child, I hid away in corners, sketching, doodling, coloring when it was time to study. My parents and siblings tripped over my scattered Camlin paint bottles and brushes. I even amassed a trove of awards by participating in art contests. Here’s a picture of my childhood artwork.

As a teen, I scribbled angsty poems in my journals. Sometimes I shared them with others. Here’s a picture of my first ever piece of published writing: a poem in Children’s World, a monthly magazine published in India.

Born in Delhi, I consumed a healthy dose of British literature with George Orwell as my patron saint during my high school senior year in 1984. Then I left home to study design, and learned to savor the regional in handicrafts and in folklore. I traveled my country, listened to village bards sing sagas by lamplight. I wove textiles, created patterns and stitched garments. Five years of design training coached my visual, auditory and tactile perceptions to respond to creative stimulus.

From my twenties, I lived and worked in different countries across the globe. When my children were born there were hardly any characters like them in books written in English for youngsters. It took me months of conversations spiced with stories to answer the question my children asked, “Who am I?” That’s when I started to write about characters who ate foods laced with masala, who believed in 30,000 different gods and who spoke Hinglish—a curious mixture of Hindi and English peculiar to the Indian diaspora.

As an expatriate in the Middle East, I first taught fashion illustration to teen girls dressed in black abayas covering their individualities. When I arrived in suburban America I began teaching school children who claimed their unique sense of self given the lack of uniforms in the public schools. Interacting with children from different parts of the world made me culturally sensitive. I understood that the worries all children face are the same, of identifying who they are and where they belong. So, rooted in the traditions of my birth country, I continued to write to give my own children a glimpse of themselves mirrored on the page. I joined SCBWI, formed my first writing group and found my critique partners.

In 2019 I discovered the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

At VCFA I learned from amazing mentors and peers. And my childhood memories of family evenings infused with Urdu poetry resurfaced. I was once again enchanted by word play, rhythm, poetic forms and techniques. My creative thesis ended up being my first verse novel. During my student residencies and as a graduate assistant at VCFA, I spearheaded an open mic and art event called Poetry off the Page, inviting fellow writers to submit art, interactive installations, and poems that they created as inspiration for their writing life. As an alumnus I continue to participate in an online forum called Poetry Friday where each week we take turns posting a prompt for writing poetry. One of my favorite prompts is to use George Ella Lyon’s list poem “Where I’m From” as a model to create one’s own.

Often when the blank page in front of me feels like a void that will swallow me mute, I turn to poetry to unlock my words. I wouldn’t be here today without the poems I received as gifts in my childhood. And then rediscovered in different languages and forms with my VCFA family.

Cynsations Notes

Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the 2021 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults and Children. Her short story Toxins is part of ELA curriculum. In previous avatars, she was a textile and fashion designer. When she is not writing, Mitu paints, sews, and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials. She is an active member of SCBWI. More on or Instagram @mituart.