Author Meera Sriram makes world literature come to life for young readers and their parents.
You have a Master’s degree in electrical engineering and worked for a bit in the corporate world. What led you to writing for children?
Growing up in India, I read a lot of British publications and homegrown stories, myths and folk tales. My parents loved to read – they still do, in fact — and they always stressed the importance of books. But there was nothing like the picture books published in the U.S. When I had my first child, I wanted to expose her to great books, especially ones that mirrored our distinct experiences. There was almost nothing from my own culture then so I turned to immigrant stories from other cultures. When I went back to work after staying home to raise my daughter, I realized my priorities and aspirations had changed. I started reviewing books and eventually began writing stories.
On your website you write that “I believe my life across two continents puts me in a vantage point when I write.” Can you tell us more, please?
Living in the U.S for more than a decade, I see India and the culture there like an outsider in some ways. I tend to appreciate things that I might not be actively thinking about if I lived there – this helps me pick unique themes. It also helps me understand what intrigues Americans about India. Additionally, raising first generation children comes with its own challenges and pleasures. I hope to write stories about issues that pop up when cultures intersect – something that’s still missing in mainstream children’s literature.
Your namesake was literary, wasn’t she?
Yes, my first name, more commonly, refers to a 16th century princess and poet, also a devotee of Lord Krishna. Or at least that’s the context my parents based it on. The literal meaning is not clear, I’ve come across “light” in many places. I like to think of my name as also being multicultural – it’s of Israeli and Persian origin, it’s French (spelled Mira), and “mira” in Spanish means “look here”. So several cultural connotations, I suppose
Tell us about your new children’s book.
Bijoy and the Big River is a photography-based narrative non-fiction for children 8 and above. It part of the “Where I live” series which explores living traditions and lifestyles through stories of children living in different environments. It’s the third book I’ve co-authored with my friend, Praba Ram. Dinaben and the Lions of Gir was our first, a bilingual picture book about the life of people in forests. This was followed by an early-reader book Subbu the Signal. I’m thrilled about my recent book because the story is set in the northeast of India, an area under-represented in books.
It sounds perfect for Earth Day!
Yes, children will join Bijoy, an Assamese boy growing up near one of Asia’s largest rivers, on a little adventure. They learn about the people, culture and the landscapes of Assam, a beautiful state in the northeast of India. Plus, they will see the story of silk and silk-making unfold in the midst of lofty mountains, the big river and the endangered Gangetic river dolphin, xihu.
You came to the U.S. in 1999. Can you share a funny or surprising experience you’ve had here?
Once, an African-American at a toll booth spoke to me in Hindi. I was speechless, and only because I didn’t know Hindi, although I am from India. The only Indian language I speak is Tamil. So, it was pretty funny how we both reacted. I’ve had many a-ha moments, mostly with discrepancies in British vs. American English. I remember being stuck with a milk-less herbal concoction instead of masala chai when I ordered tea on my first day in the U.S.
There are a lot of cultural stereotypes about India. What’s one thing you wish people knew about your culture?
Just one? That’s going to be hard. I wish people knew that not every Indian is an engineer or a doctor. Several people have asked me about this. Illiteracy is still a huge problem in the country. It’s just that only these fields open up job opportunities for people to migrate here. Also, arranged marriages, eating with your hands, living with parents even as adults are all not as weird as they might seem. I believe most cultural practices have a rationale behind them.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to become an author?
Read a lot of the kind of books you want to write or see yourself writing. It is difficult to quantify what you’ve accomplished on a daily basis until publishers accept your work, so it is important to keep at it without losing hope. I tell this to myself too.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think it is important for children to read culturally diverse stories. It helps them develop a better understanding of their peers and of the bigger world they are part of. I’m glad there are blogs like Culture Every Day that nurture cultural awareness among us. I honestly think these will go a long way in fostering peace.
Your turn: Any questions or comments for Meera? Let us know in the comments box!
Other “Where Does Culture Take You?” interviews you might like:
Amanda Moutakki (food blogger)
Irene Antonoglu (founder of “Footprints of The Mind”, a geography enrichment program)
Teresa Barile (administrator at a foreign language teaching center)
Megy Karydes (fair trade entrepreneur)
Jason Levine (English language teacher)
Jenny Samaan (international education expert)