IN HER POEM won’t you celebrate with me (1993), Lucille Clifton writes, ‘won’t you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life? i had no model. / born in Babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did i see to be except myself?’
Although Clifton’s words describe her experience as a Black American woman growing up in the Civil Rights era, when I read them, I felt like she had written them for me. My parents moved to the United States from Chennai in the mid-1970s, their immigration enabled by my father’s medical degree. For them, there was never question of moving back to India: my mother still tells the story of picking up her Green Card from an immigration officer at Logan airport in Boston, where she landed in 1976. Growing up, my brother and I were often the only children of colour in our schools, neighbourhoods, and community. Like Clifton, I didn’t know anyone who looked like me, ate like me, spoke like me, or thought like me. I had no choice but to be myself.
The only problem was I didn’t know who my ‘self’ was.
I looked for answers the only place I’ve ever known where to find them: books. I devoured volumes of Nancy Drew, the Fabulous Five, and the Babysitter’s Club. Maybe, I thought, if I read enough, I could become a feisty girl detective, an innovative entrepreneur, a brave adventurer with a house full of secret passages.
But though I searched and searched for myself, and for who I might become, all I found were rich, Christian, White girls becoming rich, Christian, White women. Adventure, wealth, romance— these were the provinces of girls with blue eyes and freckles, girls whose parents had arrived on steamer ships in the 1870s, not aeroplanes in the 1970s. Their world was endless with possibilities. My world did not exist.
I started writing at the age of five or six, as soon as I knew how to hold a pen. At first, my stories were populated by these same types of White protagonists, gutsy tomboys with smart mouths and blonde hair. I didn’t start writing writing Indian and Indian American characters until I was in college, but even these imaginary women existed only in the context of tragedy and loss. My protagonists suffered through false promises, arranged marriages, circumscribed educations, and broken dreams—the same types of dilemmas I read in recently released books like Brick Lane by Monica Ali and The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
None of my characters had the courage of my grandmother, the creativity of my mother, the brazenness of my cousins. None of them felt like the truth. It didn’t occur to me that I could write myself and the people I loved into the world. My invisibility not only limited my imagination, but also blinded me to my own reality—of myself, and of my world.
Now, I live in India, where I have recently become a mother. My Hindu, Tamil husband and I adopted our daughter from Jharkhand, and, although we do not know her birth family, we know she is Christian and Adivasi. Like my mother, I am raising a child in a country that is not my own. Like me, my daughter is growing up in a society intent upon ensuring her invisibility.
Unlike me, though, my 15-month-old daughter was born into a world full of books about girls who look like her, and who she might become. Curly-haired girls who are confident, angry, rebellious and loud. Dark- skinned girls who love themselves, and are the primary architects of their worlds. Girls who are able to be a whole range of selves, not just selves shaped by casteism, colourism, or patriarchy.
Girls who look and breathe and laugh and dance like my daughter.
There are still not enough of these books. But they are out there. And they are on our bookshelves.
MY DAUGHTER’S FAVOURITES
OF THEE I SING: A LETTER TO MY DAUGHTERS
by Barack Obama
Illustrated by Loren Long
My daughter refuses to eat her lunch unless she can do it while she flips through the pages of this inspirational, gorgeously illustrated book. She often pauses at the picture of Sitting Bull, points to the horses and makes galloping sounds. On the page about Cesar Chavez, she raises her fist, just like he does. Although she doesn’t have patience for listening to all of the prose, she loves to hear the affirming questions that Obama poses to his daughters, questions that help them understand that they are brave, powerful, creative and smart. Although it’s slightly nationalist for my taste, I do love the message that Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, are loved, and that girls have the potential to be so many versions of themselves. Plus, Sasha and Malia appear on every page, and their skin tone is the same as mine and my daughter’s.
THE GRUFFALO’S CHILD
by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler
In this story told in verse, a monster called the Gruffalo warns his daughter not to go into the deep dark woods. Instead of listening to him, one night, when she’s bored, the Gruffalo’s child goes looking for the very Big Bad Mouse the Gruffalo warned her against. My daughter loves to find the animals hidden on every page—she especially loves the bats and the crows—and often babbles to herself while we read. I love the story because the Gruffalo’s daughter is independent, adventurous and clever.
PRINCESS EASY PLEASY
by Natasha Sharma
Illustrated by Priya Kuriyan
Spoiled Princess Easy Pleasy repeatedly goes on vacation but is unwilling to fully experience the countries and cultures she visits. Although the narrative is humorous and fast moving—I especially appreciate the spare prose that allows my impatient toddler to flip through the pages— it’s the details that my daughter loves. When the plane crashes, she likes to throw her hands up in the air and make the noise of an explosion. She loves the fact that there is a page where the princess is angry, and she often growls and pretends to lose her temper. We have very few books where there are angry girls, and I want my daughter to know that it’s okay to be angry sometimes.
by Shamim Padamsee
Illustrated by Ajanta Guhathakurta
In this story, a mother lion leaves her cubs alone in the jungle while she goes to get them some food. On each page, the rowdy cubs climb, tumble and run. In the end, the mother and one of her cubs roar and scare off the predators. While the book is about animals, and not girls, I appreciate that the mother lion is explicitly female. A study from 2011 showed that the majority of children’s books have male main characters, including those that star animals. In fact, only 7.5 per cent of children’s books in English have female animal characters. Like many toddlers, my daughter loves anything to do with animals, so I’m grateful to find any jungle-themed books with lead female characters.
ONE WORD FROM SOPHIA
by Jim Averbeck
Illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
This book is about a bi-racial Black girl whose ‘one true desire’ is to get a giraffe for her birthday. Throughout the story, Sophia, the protagonist, uses charts, graphs and big words to try and make her case to her mother, father, uncle and grandmamma. The women in Sophia’s family are also wonderful: her Black mother is a brainy judge, and her grandmother— much like mine—has no time for nonsense. Much credit for this goes to the brilliant illustrator Yasmeen Ismail, who conceived of the family as multiracial. The bouncy colours and pictures make me giggle.
HAPPY TO BE NAPPY
by Bell Hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka
When I first read the work of Black feminist bell hooks (pen name) in my twenties, it felt like coming home; hooks is practical, compassionate and, above all, writes about the importance of Brown and Black women loving ourselves and each other. I am so happy that my daughter doesn’t have to wait two decades of her life to receive hooks’s affirming messages. Happy to be Nappy is not only poetic, it is, at basis, a celebration of Black hair. My daughter’s hair is not nappy, but it is curly, and most of the books I’ve found about girls assume that hair ought to be straight. This book is an unbridled ode to unruly locks.
CATCH THAT CAT
by Tharini Viswanath
Illustrated by Nancy Raj
This is a simple story about a girl who decides to help her friend find her lost cat, Kapi. The brilliance of the book is that the protagonist is dark skinned, curly haired, and in a wheelchair. Plus the pictures remind me of villages in Tamil Nadu, and it’s so refreshing to read a story of a girl living in a village acting like a real child, rather than the heroine of a folktale.
THE WHY WHY GIRL
by Mahasweta Devi
Illustrated by Kanyaka Kini
This book by the late feminist activist Mahasweta Devi—who is one of my heroes—is based on the true story of a girl named Moyna who is unable to attend school. I love this book primarily because I love Moyna, who is irrepressible and full of questions. I hope that my daughter grows up to be just as curious, stubborn and rebellious.