I first met Uma Krishnaswami via email, when, as then faculty chair, she invited me to be a guest lecturer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA for Writing for Children and YA program. It took several years and a new chair before our schedules meshed. Last January, I spent a glorious ten days on the VCFA campus, drinking up words (and experiencing my first 3 degree weather). And when I heard Uma give a reading of a picture book in progress, about math prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan (the subject of the film, The Man Who Knew Infinity) I knew I had to host her on Friend Friday. Her writing is lyrical, strong and graceful, as you will discover when you read her newest book, Book Uncle and Me (Groundwood), just out September 13.
Book Uncle and Me: Building a Fictional Family Outside My Comfort Zone
My chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, came from two sources familiar to me:
- urban south India
- my own childhood obsession with books and reading.
I had the idea of a street corner lending library and a girl who depended on it, but I couldn’t find a name for the girl in my story. I tried several. She seemed not to own any of them. I didn’t know very much about her parents. They felt generic, without substance. That was hardly surprising, since I couldn’t even figure out what they’d named their daughter!
I free-wrote in journal notebooks and on paper bags, on newspapers with glittery ink, on fan-folded pages with different pens, trying to trick my writer self into creative mode. Nothing worked.
There is a moment in the life of a book when it acquires a heartbeat. I was visiting my parents in India, in 2007 or maybe 2008. I was doodling on the front page of the Indian Express, when I noticed an item about a city mayoral election. My election subplot fell right into place.
I don’t recall when Yasmin Kader, with her middle initial (Z) arrived in my mind as a possible protagonist. I do know that she slid right into the part. I wanted to show an apartment block where people could come together in a common cause, despite their varied religious and linguistic identities. But Yasmin is a Muslim name. I am not Muslim, so that was a bit daunting.
Around that time, I came across a blog by a woman named Fathima Cader. I wrote to her:
Do you have any idea what [my character] would be likely to call her parents? Mummy and Daddy? Or Amma and Appa? Or are there other more Tamil/Muslim-specific possibilities that I don’t know about?
For me, my mother and father are Umma and Wapa, respectively. This was also what they called their parents. My mother’s sister’s children, however, call their parents (my aunt and uncle) Mamma and Dadda. I think this has certain class connotations for Sri Lankan Muslims – those titles come with a certain level of Anglicization. There are also Sri Lankan Muslims, most of them Colombo-based, who call their parents Mummy and Daddy. These titles are consciously English.
Wow. Umma and Wapa it was. I traded a few more emails with Fathima. By the time I got around to asking if she’d like to read a draft, her email address had changed and I couldn’t find her again. But she’d given me lovely details—I chose not to make most of them overt in the book, but this correspondence and Internet research yielded me the profile of a family, possibly from Sri Lanka, settled in an unnamed Indian city, with real or imagined connections to an 18th century Tamil Sufi saint.
With a heritage like that, my girl grew into an activist, gathering her family and friends and claiming her right to read.
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of over twenty books for children, from picture books (including Out of the Way! Out of the Way!, The Girl of the Wish Garden, and Monsoon) to novels for young readers (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic). Her chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, won the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the Crossword award (India). A North American edition is now available from Groundwood Books. Uma teaches Writing for Children and YA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, USA. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.