Interview with Kashmira Sheth
By Vivi Lee
1. You’ve worked in a bakery, worked as a food microbiologist after studying it in college, ran a dance school…what inspired you to begin writing?
I come from a family of storytellers and a country of storytellers. I was also fortunate to be born in a newly independent country—at once it was a young country with an ancient culture. Growing up, I was surrounded by stories from the great Indian epics of Mahabharat and Ramayan. Those stories have been told and retold for thousands of years. Then there were stories about freedom fighters that were discussed at dinnertime. My grandparents and parents also shared many personal stories with me and some of them have become germs for my novels.
When my children were young we exchanged stories. I read and told stories from my childhood and they told me about books their teachers and librarians were recommending. We read them together. For many years I shared and discussed children’s books—Number the Stars by Lois Lowery, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on The Prairie, and many more. Reading them made me want to tell my story, too. I started writing my first novel, Blue Jasmine, and after five years of writing and revising it was accepted for publication.
2. Did you have a favorite writer when you were younger? If so, what qualities about their work made them your favorite writer?
I did have several favorite writers and poets. Unfortunately, their works are not known in the West. Gijubhai Badheka’s books for young children were the first ones I read. Later Javerchand Meghani filled my childhood with stories of courage and sacrifice (he was a freedom fighter). Dhumketu and K. M. Munshi’s novels transported me back to the Gujarat of centuries ago and made the hot summer afternoon breeze by. I admired the poets Kalapi and Sundaram. They brought the beauty of nature and spirituality in their work. We studied their work in school and I loved them so much that when I came here I bought thick volumes of their poetry with me. My uncle told me stories like The Merchant of Venice and The Count of Monte Cristo. In school we studied poetry of William Wordsworth. All of these opened up new worlds to me and yet I could relate with them.
[Gijubhai Badheka is a very popular writer in India; he has published close to 200 books, which also include storybooks. Javerchand Meghani, author of more than a 100 novels, was given the title of Raashtreeya Shaayar, or National Poet, by Gandhi.]
3. According to your biography, you moved to the United States and started learning English in the fifth grade. Your protagonist of Blue Jasmine, Seema, is around the same age when she makes the transition from India to the U.S. How much of your work is autobiographical, or based on people you know?
Like many fiction writers’ first books, my first novel is also semi-autobiographical. I did start learning English in fifth grade but I was in India. Unlike Seema, I came to this country to attend college. Years later when I started writing, my daughters were in school. I volunteered at their school so I was fairly knowledgeable about their experiences and was able to write Seema’s story. The main thing I had in common with her was the emotional part. Like her, I missed my family, friends, home, and country. It wasn’t easy to be part of the new world and I had a desperate desire to go home.
4. Many people say that writers should only write about things they know about. Your books span a range of genres, from semi-autobiographical to historical fiction. What are your opinions on such an idea?
Writing is a creative process, and in fictional writing it is imagination that fills our characters with personality, places with sensory details, and interactions with dialogue. So in a way, writers create their own worlds. Fantasy is the best example of a genre that employs the power of imagination. However, when someone writes historical or contemporary fiction in a set place, there must be truth in that story. I believe that is difficult to create unless you have in-depth knowledge of that place, that culture. The more the culture is different from yours, the more one needs to submerge in it to understand and portray it truthfully. I was lucky when I wrote Keeping Corner, my novel of historical fiction. I had been to my ancestral home, had met my great-aunt, and had my parents fill in a lot of cultural details for me. Also, the Indian town had not changed much from early 1910’s to when I visited it in the late 1960’s. I also had devoured literature written between 1910-1970. This, I believe, helped me tremendously to write that book.
5. Your novel Boys Without Names—which addresses the complicated issue of child labor—is primarily targeted toward younger readers. Did you have a specific audience in mind while writing the book, and if so, what was your decision behind writing the book for such an age group?
I didn’t have target audience when I first thought of writing the story, but as soon as I settled on my protagonist, 11-year-old boy, Gopal, I knew who my audience would be.
6. Using storytelling as a method of sharing information about who he was outside of the factory and to combat the silence they are forced to work in, Gopal creates a bond with the other children. What is your experience with storytelling as a method of communication?
Like music, painting, or a sculpture, storytelling is a great tool for communicating with people of diverse backgrounds. Of course, language can be a barrier; but once that is taken away, story can triumph—the sensory details can create different worlds, and the same human emotions can move readers or listeners. Those emotions are universal and timeless.
7. At the end of Boys Without Names, you include a blurb on your experience researching for the novel. There are some experiences you’ve described—such as the twelve year old boy using his sweater as a rag to clean up the spill in a railway compartment—that shocked me. Will you continue to address the issue of child labor in future books, or have you started working on something else?
As fiction writer it is very difficult for me to write a book on the same subject over and over again. The research and writing for Boys Without Names took a lot of emotional energy from me. Before that I wrote Keeping Corner, which was also emotionally demanding. After writing those two books I worked on a few projects simultaneously. My chapter book for younger children, The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule, will be out this September and it has humor and playfulness. I also have a picture book titled Tiger in My Soup coming out in April 2013 where imagination and the sibling relationship are main focus. Currently, I’m revising a YA novel about a boy torn between two worlds.
8. Not only have you published novels, you have also published two picture books: My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon. How was the writing process for these different from that for your novels?
For me, the writing process is quite different for picture book and novel. When I write a picture book I have a story with words and rhythm in my head. I try to get it down on the paper as fast as I can. It is not that I don’t revise the manuscripts—but those revisions seem minor. When I write novels, I start with a character. I have some ideas about her or his journey but I don’t have a detailed outline. I let the character help me find the way to the story. In some ways, a novel allows me more freedom to explore than a picture book does. At the same time, in a novel a character can take over and the plot can meander away from my original ideas. I must say revising a picture book is more fun than a novel. Not because it is easy, but you see the result instantaneously and can afford to tweak it many times over until you find the right word or a phrase.
9. As well as being a writer, you are a teacher. Has teaching shaped your writing in any way? If so, how?
Teaching has been a lot of fun for me. I think when you teach something, it becomes clearer in your own head. At some level writing is a mysterious process, but teaching has shown me how to approach writing from a very logical, step-by-step process. I think it has added some solid steps to my own creative process.
10.What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
To be able to share stories and make someone cry, laugh, smile, or sigh.