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Sayantani DasGupta has already led an impressive number of lives. The front of her website politely requests that you choose your own adventure: click left for the home page of Sayantani DasGupta, MD, a physician-scholar with a background in pediatrics and public health who now teaches in Columbia University’s master’s program in Narrative Medicine—a program that focuses on the role storytelling plays in medicine in healing. Click right, and you’ll find the website of Sayantani DasGupta, children’s author, whose debut middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret, publishes this coming February.
DasGupta is also the daughter of parents who immigrated to America from India, and she’s a mother herself. It seems like a lot of identities for one person, but DasGupta is quick to claim them all and to explain the surprising ways inwhich they all come together. The Serpent’s Secret, which is the first book in her planned Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series, features a heroine with several seemingly disparate identities as well. Despite her immigrant parents’ obsession with Indian princesses and folktales, Kiranmala has always had a fairly normal life in a New Jersey town—until she arrives home on her twelfth birthday to find her parents gone, a mythical rakkhosh demon waiting to ambush her, and two warrior princes who tell her that she’s actually an Indian princess from another dimension, born to slay demons. DasGupta weaves in the Bengali folktales she heard as a child, but Kiran is as modern as it gets, narrating her adventures with humor and heart.
Recently, we spoke with DasGupta about her background, diversity in fantasy, and the importance of telling and hearing stories.
REAGAN: You have a fascinating background, and an enormous career already—what made you want to write a children’s book?
DASGUPTA: There’s that Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” This was the book that I needed and wanted to read when I was younger. My parents were Indian immigrants to this country, and in the seventies, we were living in Ohio. I was a bookish kid, and I ate up Madeline L’Engle and Little House on the Prairie. But inserting myself into those books was always an exercise in imagination because there really weren’t books out there with protagonists that either looked like me or reflected my experiences, or were even immigrants from a different country.
My own children were huge middle-grade readers, just like I was at their age, and they had some more choices, but I was disappointed to realize that, at least a few years ago—my son is 15 now—there weren’t that many more choices than I had. There were more faces of color, there were more choices for him for sure, but not in the genre he liked to read. He only liked to read fantasy. When he was around the middle-grade age, I realized that these were the books I had needed at that age as well. And so it really began as an answer to that call. If there’s a book you want to read or a book you want your kids to read, you must write it.
It was a fun thing for myself, for my family, and I didn’t imagine it moving forward until I was in the process of writing it. I’m an essayist, I write academic things, I write things for grown-ups, but I realized that maybe this is really my voice. I love humor, I love fast-paced adventure, and in a funny sense, I didn’t realize that that piece of my voice was missing until I started to write middle-grade. This is my most comfortable sound: it’s how I talk anyway, it’s my sense of humor and my sense of joy and whimsy and fun. I realized that inner 12-year-old, who had been such a lover of books, is still very much the driving force in me as an adult, so when you find, as a writer, your own natural voice, it’s kind of a revelation.
REAGAN: Can you talk about how you balance your very different careers as a physician, scholar, and writer?
DASGUPTA: I know on paper that all my careers look different. I stopped seeing patients a number of years ago and am now a full-time academic teacher of health and humanities. I teach in a program called the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University in New York, and I also teach in the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, but my whole career, in terms of academics and as a pediatrician, has been concerned with people’s need for stories. When I was in practice at the pediatrician’s office, we gave out books at every healthy-child visit. We’d write prescriptions for reading: read to your kids every day for one hour; read to your parents every day for one hour. There is a recognition, particularly among pediatricians and family medicine doctors, that reading and storytelling and listening to stories are critical components of our emotional, spiritual, and physical health. That piece of it was always there for me, because in pediatrics, we celebrate reading aloud and storytelling, and we recognize that it’s a part of children’s health, that it’s good medicine.
In my academic life, I had transitioned into thinking about the connections between stories and healing. When we’re ill, we have to tell our stories, andhave to have someone there to listen to our stories, and that’s a really important part of everyone’s emotional, spiritual, or physical health. In a sense, those pieces aren’t that different than being a middle-grade writer and wanting all children to be able to see themselves in your work or in the books and stories that they read. Wanting stories to function as mirrors and windows isn’t that different than my work in narrative medicine or my work in clinical pediatrics. And, of course, it’s not that different from being a parent. Pediatrician, scholar, parent—all those roles, I feel, actually fed nicely into being a middle-grade writer. Although on paper it looks really disparate, in my mind and in my heart, it’s part of the same interest in representation, storytelling, traditional stories, humor, and health. It’s all a component of healthy individuals and healthy worlds: it contributes to an individual child’s sense of well-being, to both interact with a lot of stories and interact with stories where they may see themselves represented. And it contributes to healthy communities as well, to have a multiplicity of stories and a multiplicity of voices. So, to me, it all fits together.
REAGAN: A few years ago, you did a TED Talk on the importance of listening and the role storytelling can play in health care. How do you think the stories you reference in The Serpent’s Secret can help create a culture of listening?
DASGUPTA: I think we human beings are storytellers by nature, across cultures: that’s how we transmit our values. Stories, these oral traditions, are our cultural jewels that we pass on from one generation to the next. On one hand,they’re fun and adventurous, whether you’re talking Jack and the Beanstalk or these traditional Bengali folktales that I use in my story. I think they all provide a sense of cultural continuity. I think that, inherent in oral stories, there’s an interactive piece: you listen to them at the feet of your grandma or you joke about them with your cousins. That’s why I felt comfortable giving them my own interpretation, because I knew perfectly well that when my grandparents were telling me these stories, they would integrate lessons—if someone had been naughty that day, they would put that into the story they were telling us. They’re meant to be flexible, and they’re meant to be dynamic, so I kind of embraced that rather than feeling like I had to stick to one particular telling or interpretation.
The other thing that I find interesting about these Bengali folktales is that the stories are shared across national and religious boundaries. Bengal used to be one big region, and it was only in 1947, when the British were leaving India at the time of partition, that the region got split, into West Bengal, which is an Indian state, and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. So, in a sense, the stories that I’m using in the novel aren’t nationally or religiously bounded at all; they’re regional stories that are enjoyed by people of multiple faiths and multiple national origins, and, of course, people throughout the diaspora. Things are often so fractured along either national or religious lines, and we imagine that these divisions are inevitable and centuries-long.
I think a book like The Serpent’s Secret, which relies on regional stories, reminds us—it reminded me, certainly—that those divisions are not inevitable. These are stories that are shared across numerous lines, national and religious, that seem insurmountable. But if we go back to the spaces of the stories that we share, I feel like we can listen to and remember our shared histories, at least among Bengalis. I chose these stories because I loved them as a kid. But I realized I was doing something, unconsciously, that promoted a pre-partition sense of being Bengali. That’s been really exciting, to recognize that I’m celebrating the numerous stories of people who now seem to be divided by national and religious boundaries but have an important shared history and, in a sense, a shared future.
REAGAN: Did you have to do any research on these folktales while writing The Serpent’s Secret, or did you rely on your own memories and experiences?
DASGUPTA: Although these are oral tales, just like the Brothers Grimm, there are a few Bengali collections, like a 1902 collection called Thakurmar Jhuli, which means “Grandmother’s Satchel.” It was written down by a man named Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar. There are some written texts, but these are oral stories, so different people have different interpretations.
When I was in medical school, my mom and I got together and we translated some of the stories, partly from written places but mostly from our own memories, and retold them in the process. Our thinking was that kids who don’t have access to storytellers, like a grandma, or who can’t read Bengali, won’t have access to these tales that I had loved. How do we preserve them for kids in the diaspora? And so we wrote this folktale collection. It wasn’t really a kids book, but it was a folktale collection called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories (1995).
When I wrote The Serpent’s Secret, I could go back to Thakurmar Jhuli and to my own book of translated folktales—and, of course, I had my own rich memories. And I had motherhood: I was trying to transmit some of these stories to my own kids, and giving them my own spin even as I was telling them. Certainly, the fact that I had translated some of these tales back in the nineties really helped me have a sense of them, since I’d studied them and thought about the lessons they were teaching: this is a tale of cunning; this is a tale of folk wisdom; that’s a tale about listening to your elders; that’s a tale about not listening to your elders. I had thought through them in an academic way at that point.
REAGAN: How did your experiences as an immigrant daughter help shape Kiranmala’s story?
DASGUPTA: So much! I don’t want to speak for everyone, but as an immigrant child myself, my own relationship to my heritage was necessarily mediated by stories all the time, both folk stories and family stories. There were stories about my grandfather, who was imprisoned by the British at age 15—my son’s age now—for being a freedom fighter. He talked about what he believed in: a free India, and what that meant to him. I grew up hearing these stories, and when you don’t live in your parents’ homeland, the stories can be all you have. You have visits, but those visits are short, and, in a sense, are also stuffed with stories. People are trying to pass on family lore to you, trying to pass on cultural lore. As an immigrant daughter, I think maybe I was already geared toward the importance of cultural stories from a place that I didn’t live.
That was one aspect of it. The other was that I was a brown girl growing up in a pretty homogeneous environment in the Midwest. On one hand, that meant brownies and lemonade stalls, an incredibly warm and supportive childhood with friends I still have. On a broader level, though, being an immigrant daughter meant feeling perpetually alien. I think that’s why I put so much outer space in this novel—it’s not only because I loved A Wrinkle in Time but because I grew up feeling often alienated and feeling like I was literally from a different dimension. Just being able to negotiate these multiple realities was like being someone from a different dimension.
When I went back and thought that through, I started to realize that’s the strength of being an immigrant family and an immigrant child. We’re like superheroes: we can straddle multiple worlds, we can negotiate multiple universes. That’s a sense of power. W. E. B DuBois talks about what it feels like to be a problem, and instead of posing the immigrant experience as a problem, I wanted to celebrate it. What better way than to actually make an immigrant daughter a superhero? Kiran is the superhero I wanted to see when I was younger—she’s literally able to travel through dimensions. I took that metaphor and made it literal by making her an interdimensional demon slayer because of that experience of being an immigrant daughter.
REAGAN: What’s the importance of having diverse titles like this—and diverse fantasy in particular—in libraries?
DASGUPTA: Having diverse titles of all sorts is important, of course, and I think it’s important for everyone, not just for the child who picks it up and says, “That looks like me; I’ve never seen someone who looks like me being brave and adventurous and strong.” It’s also important for kids of all backgrounds to be able to understand that heroes don’t come in one color, or that superheroes don’t come from just one background. For a child who’s not of this background to be able to look at Kiranmala and love that heroine is also super important—it’s a mirrors and windows function. Fantasy is about bravery and adventure; it is about having to dig deep and find the strength that was always inside of you. Kids, all kids, are constantly having to dig deep, and we need to provide them with role models. Fantasy, like all reading, depends on this muscle of imagination, and the more kids read of any genre the more that muscle is going to get strong.
Imagination is central to individual health and to imagining possibilities for yourself as an individual but also for imagining possibilities for us as a world. Fantasy has a particular relationship to imagination: I feel like we are definitely in the business of spring-setting imagination, and we’re in the business of boundlessness. I love the idea of kids of multiple backgrounds, states, colors, genders, and abilities being represented in fantasy. If you can’t imagine a certain kind of future, you’re going to resist that kind of future, but if you have heroes of multiple backgrounds, if you have diverse heroes, no matter who you are, you’re going to be able to imagine a more inclusive world. I think there’s been a recognition of the importance of diversity in fantasy, in middle grade as well as YA, and it feels special to be a part of that shift.
REAGAN: What do you most hope kids will take away from Kiran’s adventures?
DASGUPTA: I hope that kids of all backgrounds read this story. I hope that kids take away a sense of adventure and breathlessness; I hope this is a good and fun story that they can laugh with, that they can celebrate with. I hope it provides thrills and amusement and chuckles, and I hope it strengthens the muscles of everyone’s imagination.
I think at its heart, this is a story of digging down deep and finding out who you really are, being able to see all of your identities and faces at the same time. There’s a line in the book where Kiran’s mother tells her, “None of us are just one thing. We’re all multiple things.” And in order to really find your strength, you have to be comfortable with all of the parts of yourself. Whether that’s being an immigrant kid or something else, I think that all children can relate to that idea of having multiple parts that need to be reconciled so you can come into your own strength. And hopefully that’s the ultimate message, because that’s the journey that Kiran goes on. She’s trying to save her parents, but she really goes on a journey to discover who she is, and realizes that that’s where her strength comes from: not trying to be somebody else but embracing exactly who she is. That’s hopefully the message that will resonate with any kid of any background.
The Serpent’s Secret. Feb. 2018. Scholastic, $17.99 (9781338185706). Gr. 4–7.
Further Reading: Diverse Middle-Grade Fantasy
These recent middle-grade fantasy and action-adventure stories, which feature heroes of diverse colors and backgrounds, make excellent reading and teaching companions to DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret.
Akata Witch. By Nnedi Okorafor. 2011. Viking, $16.99 (9780670011964). Gr. 6–9.
Born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents, 12-year-old Sunny and her family have returned to Nigeria, where she is taunted for being both foreign-born and albino. Then Sunny learns that her classmates’ jeers that she is “half-ghost, half-human” hold truth: she is a Free Agent, descended from the Leopard People, who, like Sunny herself, have magical abilities.
Bayou Magic. By Jewell Parker Rhodes. 2015. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316224840). Gr. 4–7.
Ten-year-old Maddy spends a summer with her grandmother on the bayou in Bon Temps, Louisiana. During her stay, she learns her family’s history and comes to understand that family magic is deep within her. When she senses that something bad is about to happen, she realizes she must keep her beloved bayou from being destroyed.
The Gauntlet. By Karuna Riazi. 2017. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads, $16.99 (9781481486965). Gr. 3–6.
When a beautiful, old-fashioned board game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand shows up on Farah’s birthday, she’s intrigued—until her little brother, Ahmad, is sucked into the game. Farah and her friends follow, landing in a colorful desert city where they must play the game to find Ahmad and rescue themselves.
Hour of the Bees. By Lindsay Eagar. 2016. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763679224). Gr. 5–8.
Twelve-year-old Carolina eschews most of the Mexican half of her culture. When she’s forced to spend the summer in New Mexico with her ailing grandfather, the long summer feels unbearable until Grandfather Serge begins telling half-magical family stories. Magic realism helps create an atmospheric novel of family, heritage, and illness’ difficulties.
The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez. By Robin Yardi. 2016. Carolrhoda, $17.99 (9781467783064). Gr. 2–4.
Mateo Martinez knows he didn’t steal his little sister’s tricycle—skunks did! After a disastrous attempt to ambush the varmints ends with Mateo’s getting sprayed in the face, he learns something else incredible: the skunks can talk. What ensues is an imaginative backyard adventure with light touches of fantasy.
Shadows of Sherwood. By Kekla Magoon. 2015. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781619636347). Gr. 4–7.
Award-winning Magoon’s futuristic alternate-universe reboot centers on biracial Robyn Hood, on the lam after her parents disappear in a raid ordered by tyrannical Governor Crown to rid the city of dissidents. Robyn bands with other orphaned misfits who open her eyes to the tough conditions propagated by Crown. Magoon’s twist on the classic tale benefits from an engaging cast of characters and an intriguing mythology.
When the Sea Turned to Silver. By Grace Lin. Illus. by the author. 2016. Little, Brown, $18.99 (9780316125925). Gr. 3–5.
Lin’s third book in her fantasy cycle set in ancient China beautifully interweaves traditional folklore with the story of Pinmei, a timid girl who must dig deep within herself to rescue her storyteller grandmother from the clutches of the emperor.
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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