September 24, 2020

Asian Identity in Children’s Books and Multicultural Life

Ira Saxena: Some years ago I attended a class of bubbling six year olds in Wales for a storytelling and chat session. As the session advanced, the pupils got friendlier and opened up with a volley of questions when a bright eyed youngster enquired, “Do children in India go to school on elephant backs?” The innocent query sparked off a stockpile of issues concerning the level of information to cultural appreciation and the appropriateness of global understanding through books for pleasure. – What is being portrayed in the current literature? – Is the package correct? – Are the accompanying illustrations true? – Why do we need books about other cultures? – Do they conform to desired level of good literature? During my brief stay at International Youth Library in Munich in 1998 I took chance to study a wide range of western publications that dealt with Asian presence in children’s books. My interest focused on the authenticity of characters and situations, whether the interactions and the outcome were culturally relevant as well as its potential to enhance familiarity about a culture among those belonging to another culture. While the themes and characters added to inform the majority readers of the west they also cater to the needs of migrated Asian children for emotional support. If children do not see characters like themselves in books they may feel that they are of little value to the society they live in. In turn, they anticipate bias and suffer the anguish of being marginalized, discriminated against because they look different, a reality they cannot change, ever. It affects their self-confidence and emotional security. The majority of peer-group is able to understand what it is like to be someone different from them having the same emotional and intellectual needs. The true denominators of national identity materialize in mental habits, cultural symbols and natural actions. Through creative teaching and librarianship it is possible to use the reading materials to broaden young people’s perceptions. To what extent the characters present their national identity of the Indian sub-continent in particular and to what extent it is authentically portrayed remained the major concern of the study. Shahbano – the Daughter of the Wind brings to life the determination, rebellion and rough-ride of the nomadic girl of in Cholistan Desert of Pakistan. The sequel – Haveli – portrays her trapped in tradition of her culture as the fourth wife of prosperous Rahim. The insight into tradition versus her independence is sensitively drawn by Suzanne Ficher. More recently, The Bread-winner and Parvana’s Journey written by Deborah Ellie relates realistic plight of an Afghani girl under Taliban regimentation. The details are true-to-life and the problems credible magnifying the tortures of terror at the same time. A very popular trilogy by Jamila Gavin sparks from the India with stowaway Indian kids, arousing reader’s interest into a different culture, fields’ action in the lanes of England whereby the characters lose their original identity amidst surmounting adventures. Real characters reveling in poverty stricken life merrily unburden their stress in the village pond (Swami and his Friends, Tiger for Malgudi) and tackle their difficulties believably in harmony with social norms flourish in the writings of R.K.Narayan and Ruskin Bond. A set of characters from Indian community, which are growing-up amidst constant stress in trying to establish their role and sometimes, in search for their true identity, emerge convincingly in the writings of Farukh Dhondhy (Trip Trap) and Jan Needle (My Mate Shofiq). The reality of physical attributes was easier to locate, while the truth of a westernized Asian culture diverse from their ethnicity indicate towards the emerging Diaspora, a sort of natural process to merge into the environs. In fiction authors depict situations, attitudes, problems and experiences which are similar to those in the lives of readers enabling them to identify with the characters and understanding the complexity of actions and reactions. The process alleviates hang-ups, informs viewpoints, makes them understand themselves and others eventually softening stress, offering Book Therapy in the process. The treasure house of Indian folklore, ringing with enchantment of a tale, color and values has attracted many publishers who came out with gorgeous colorful books. The tales wrap around the way of life of a people and rich account of the setting. The Rajah’s Rice written by Barry David and illustrated by Donna Perrone is a charming retold story of the little girl who seeks the favor from the King for the starving population, by placing two grains of rice one a square of chess-board, doubling the grain in the other square the next day. The amount of rice gradually exceeds King’s calculations and royal granary. The mathematical concept of powers of two is brought home with colorful appeal of Indian palaces and attire. Seasons of Splendor, Savitri, and The Golden Deer are Indian folktale collections splashed with regal charm of kings and queens, color of jewels and costumes and charisma allure of traditions. Such well-produced, richly illustrated are extinct, only to be sometimes seen in some libraries. The twentieth century movement of population to the western world has brought an amalgamation of people mainly from China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, all falling under the same banner – Asian. The multicultural reality of current times melted the geographical boundaries as globalization set the pace of social issues. Those of us who, work in the field of books for children and young people, realize the importance to promulgate literature for the minority groups, to avoid branding by omission of a large segment of society and so that the majority understands their emotional needs. The struggle continues to portray the multicultural element in books enabling the Diaspora to mingle suitably. Multiculturalism in India, weaves a unique pattern creating a unity in diversity, whereby different language groups, divided by large stretches of land, radically varied in physical appearance, strangely suggest a common heritage that blends together like the multi-colored pearls of regional ethnicity thread into one string. The epics and folklore form the undercurrent of a whole culture. The value system descending from generations familiarizes in-depth emotions and outcomes among the populace practicing different traditions and customs. The global issues of ethnicity, racial discord and rebellion against cultural norms in the pluralistic society create complex situations and interesting characters. Mostly it is simply the presence marked by different attire or festival celebrations. The ‘otherness’ is portrayed as a contrast. Generally, the inner conflicts of Indian characters surface in realistic situations – culturally imposed threatening restrictions and demands. The expressions of their problems, in the context of culturally expected norms of behavior, concurrent to the demands of the society they exist in, and further complicated by the attitude towards ‘differentness’ of the majority, presents interesting comparison of characters. Today’s global reality is merging of languages and cultures. In a state the phenomena is so advanced that there can be no return from the current reality – Hispanics and Africans intermingling with White Americans, from the far-east Chinese, Japanese and Koreans travelling across continents to make their presence felt in arts as well as economy and similarly, the widespread influx of technocrats from Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia making their home far away from home. Invariably literature will need to amalgamate the influence and mirror trends and ethnicity for harmony and cultural affinity. Summary: The cultural roots mark the Indian identity beyond their physical attributes. The literature for young people in a multicultural society depicts minority groups in realistic literature so that the majority understands their emotional needs. However the characters display a newer culture evolved in the process of adaptation and assimilation and meeting current demands of the society.

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