Happy Birthday, Shadowland: Thinking Back to the Beginning

Excitement! Excitement! My new children's fantasy novel, Shadowland, came out today! (For a description and excerpt, see www.chitradivakaruni.com). It is a stand alone book, but it's also the final novel in the Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy, a project I began in 2002--a long haul. I want to share with you a bit of the story of how all this came to be.

At that time I'd been writing for several years and had already published Arranged Marriage, Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Vine of Desire and my books of poetry. I was perfectly happy writing for adults and had no plans of venturing into children's literature. But something happened late in 2001 that changed my mind.

This was in the difficult days soon after 9/11, when as a nation we were grappling with tragedy and a sudden new feeling of vulnerability. A wave of hate crimes were sweeping the country, mostly directed towards people who looked "dangerous." The Indian American community was targeted, too--businesses vandalized, people beat up, lives lost.

I was in the parking lot outside our local grocery one evening with my seven year old son, just having finished shopping, when a couple of young men drove up in a truck. They yelled obscenities and told me to "go back where I came from," then roared off. I was speechless with fear and anger and an illogical sense of shame--the more so when my son asked me what had we done, and why those men had been so mad with us.

That night I lay in bed unable to sleep and thought about one of the main reasons I had started writing--that I believed it was a wonderful way to share my stories, my culture and the history of my people with readers who were Indian as well as those who came from other backgrounds. A good book dissolved boundaries between people and promoted understanding--of the self, and of those we might have labeled "other."

But now I saw that in some ways my work had been futile. I'd been preaching to the choir. People who picked up my books most probably were Indian--or already interested in other cultures . People like the men in the truck would never read any of my books. They had already closed their minds. I would never change the way they felt toward people like me.
That was the moment when I decided that I must write for children. I felt it was imperative to touch readers who still had the capacity to embrace the unknown and whose views of the world were still being formed. My hope for children of Indian origin was that if they saw themselves reflected in art, it would interest them in their culture and strengthen their sense of identity. My hope for children of other backgrounds was that they would come to love the Indian characters in the books and see parts of themselves reflected in them. Once you knew and loved people through books, wouldn't you be less suspicious when you met people like them in real life? Less inclined to look down on them or harm them?

I decided I would challenge myself by bringing  into each book characters who have been marginalized in some way. In the first book, The Conch Bearer, I focused on children who lived in the slums of Kolkata. In The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming,  many of the  characters were Muslim. In Shadowland, I show the plight of the "illegals," people without papers and thus without rights.

That's how it started, this  journey that today has led to the birth of Shadowland.