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Thursday, October 15, 2009

October: Recommended Read, Padma Venkatraman


Padma Venkatraman's novel Climbing the Stairs is one of our postergirlz recommended reads in the October 2009 issue of readergirlz. Here's a special guest blog from Padma about what she calls the universality of human nature and experience:

I’m delighted CLIMBING THE STAIRS is one of your picks this October! THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

What a perfect month to pick the book, too. October. The month when Hindus (like Vidya in my book) celebrate the festival of Diwali. At least this year it’s in October. Sometimes it’s in November. That’s because the Indian festival calendar is different from the calendar used most widely in America today. But regardless when it appears on any calendar, this festival of light is about remembering and honoring the spiritual light within each of us. All of us. Regardless of culture. Or time. Or place.

Which brings me to my blog topic. The universality of human nature and experience.

I completely realize and understand and expect and CELEBRATE the fact that most of the readers who climb the stairs with Vidya will enter a world they find exotic when compared with there own. But I hope hope hope that when they re-read the book, they’ll hear the echoes of familiarity.

Familiarity? Yes. I’ve often been at events where people feel like they are being utterly polite when they ask questions such as, “What do you think of YOUR culture’s stone age treatment of women?” I was recently where I was asked precisely that.

Well, well. I was (I hope) utterly polite when I replied that (a) my second novel, ISLAND’S END (scheduled for 2011 release- yay) is set both in the present time and in the Stone Age and my research indicates that some Stone Age tribes treated their women quite well indeed (b) that I’m not sure what “my” culture is anymore because I’ve lived in and loved at least 5 different countries (c) that if they are referring to the mistreatment of women in India in 1941, let me just point out that mistreatment of women has (unfortunately) occurred in all societies at different times in our shared human history (and I've never found it pretty).

Yes, not all things are equal in today’s world. In many ways, America is ahead of other nations. But (and I am American) America has not always been, nor is it wholly unassailable today in its treatment of women and minorities. There are many inequalities in our society, too (just read Libba’s fantastic blog about bagels and moisturizers). As a woman who spent many years (before becoming a writer) doing mathematically interesting things like oceanographic research in physical chemistry (and some madly interesting things like wrestling a crocodile on remote islands), I’ve experienced inequality here in America and in India (and everywhere else I’ve lived).

CLIMBING THE STAIRS shows the breadth and depth of Indian culture – because the two very different families Vidya lives in are both equally Indian. In Vidya’s nuclear family, appa values freedom and equality – because of his Indian and Hindu beliefs. He is not Westernized – he is the most Indian character in the novel. So Vidya’s loving immediate family is no less Indian than her nasty extended family. To assume that the nasty family alone truly represents Indian culture is a mistake. Extremes of thought and belief and action exist within every culture, just as they do among cultures. When Vidya climbs the stairs, she reads books by Indian authors and non-Indian authors. And sees liberal ideas expressed by both sets of people. Love and joy and freedom are fundamentally the same whatever culture one is part of. In the library, she discovers the universality of human experience.

It makes me sad when readers only ask questions about the ugly aspects of culture in the novel and forget or ignore the parallels between the problems in the book and problems here and now. Though my novel is historical and multicultural, it is about here and now, too. Rather than read Vidya’s story as just a story about one girl growing up long ago and far away, I wish readers would see the parallels between the questions raised in the book and those we face as a nation today. After they put the book down, that is. When they read it, of course I want them to be in Vidya’s world entirely.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad to be labeled as a ‘multicultural’ American author. But I believe that every good book, any good book, is fundamentally universal, in addition to being multicultural or historical or whatever.

I was spurred to write the novel by the question of when, if ever, a person or a nation should ever act violently. That question is as important in USA today as it was in India in 1941. Although CLIMBING THE STAIRS is based on my family’s story and every character and every incident is based on the truth – and is the culmination of several books and letters and newspaper articles I read and of people I interviewed – the story and the characters reflect the commonality of the human experience. Appa’s determination to act in accordance with Gandhian nonviolent principles is no different from Rev. MLK Jr.’s or Jane Addams’ or Julia Ward Howe’s dedication to Peace and Justice. Kitta’s courage is no different from that of any American soldier who is willing to lay down his life to protect an ideal. And Vidya’s hope is not just the hope of my mother (whose life story inspired my character), it is the hope that every woman and every minority must preserve in the face of oppression, anywhere at any time in our shared human history.

- Padma Venkatraman

Learn more about Padma at her website and blog.


Lorie Ann Grover said...

Thank you, Padma, for this beautiful post. Your voice rang clearly through it!

Little Willow said...

Thank you so much for this, Padma! I agree that we should celebrate both our differences and our similarities, to recognize the familiar while being unafraid of the unfamiliar. I'd rather people be curious than fearful! (I'm Alice in Wonderland.)

Melissa Walker said...

Great post, Padma--I hope readers always find the familiar so they can feel safe exploring the differences in a curious way, like Little Willow in Wonderland.

MissA said...

What a lovely post!
I very much want to read Climbing the Stairs, especially after reading this post!
I agreee with you, that in multicultural novels people should see the differences in cultures, but also the similar.
I can't believe someone asked you that about "your culture's treatment of women." Like you said ALL cultures have disrespected women. I'm always suprised when I read comments like that, but I guess I shouldn't be.
Congrats on having Island's End coming out!

Shelf Elf said...

Padma, it was a treat to read your thoughts in this blog post. Thank you.
This was my favourite part:

"Love and joy and freedom are fundamentally the same whatever culture one is part of."

I agree that it matters so much to focus on this, just as it matters to focus on the ways that oppression exists in all cultures.

Kate said...

Wow, amazing guest post. It really makes you think =)

susan said...

Oh, definitely adding this to my tbr and adding your link at Color Online.

Thanks for a great post.

Padma Venkatraman said...

Dear All,
Thanks so much for the comments! I can't believe how madly full the past few days were - maybe those of you who are mums could though...my days and nights seem occupied with chasing our toddler around (and revising novel # 2 when I am not)...it was so good to read your supportive words!

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