I was surprised to see, recently, a whole bunch of new reviews of my book Aruna’s Journeys on Amazon.com. It appears that these reviews are from young Indian-American readers.
The reviews were mixed: one recent reviewer liked it because “in this book I felt as if India was important. Some characters in this book were supportive, and liked India.” Another reviewer said “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because they will get the wrong idea about Indians.” One reader said that the book “made me feel different. I felt that I wasn’t something good, like all Indians/Indian Americans were bad. But they did show our traditions and stories.” Another reader assumed that I was trying to show “how all Indian Americans acted when talking about their culture.”
I found it interesting, and somewhat dismaying, that all these reviewers assumed that I was trying to say something universal about all Indian-Americans, or all Indians, or even all of India, in my little book. Why did they assume that this book, and the character of Aruna, was representative of all India or all Indian-Americans? Why did these reviewers assume that if a character in the book behaved in a negative manner, then that meant that all Indians are bad? Why did one reader feel bad about being an Indian-American after reading this book?
It was certainly not my intention to speak for all Indians or all Indian-Americans with Aruna’s Journeys. It is a book based on my own childhood, and although it is fiction, it includes details that I picked up through many childhood trips to India, and through being part of an Indian-American community in northeastern Ohio. So I hope it seems authentic, and I hope kids of many different cultures find something to identify with.
But since India is extremely diverse, one book cannot hope to universally represent all Indians or all Indian-Americans. After thinking about this, I believe that the readers quoted above came to assume that Aruna represents all Indian-Americans because there are so very few realistic novels about Indian-American kids out there. Most of the children’s books that deal with India are folk-tales. They do not feature realistic characters who are of Indian origin and living in America.
After all, when a reader reads a book such as Ramona the Pest, they don’t complain that Ramona makes them feel bad to be a white girl! Or they don’t say that the book shows that the United States is important! They just view it as the story of one particular girl with her own unique concerns.
We need more realistic novels about Indian-American children, to show the diversity of lives of Indian-Americans. Then maybe Aruna can go back to being just one girl with her own unique concerns, instead of some sort of mascot for Indian-Americans, which she was never intended to be!
Here are a few other books about East Indian-American children for ages 8-12:
- Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Sheth — a lovely story about an 11-year-old girl who moves from a small town in India to Iowa City. As she struggles to fit in, she also develops compassion for a poor girl she had shunned back in India.
- Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee — my husband read this book to our 8-year-old son, and they both loved it. Poppy is an 11-year-old Indian-American girl who wants to be a veterinarian. She gets to spend the summer with her Uncle Sanjay, a veterinarian on an island near Seattle. This book contains lots of great details about animal care. Indian culture is not front and center in this book, but I found this realistic since none of us thinks about our culture all the time.
By the way, I would like to thank the readers who posted reviews. These reviews have given me a lot of food for thought.