Multiculturalism and Political Correctness in Children's Books: A View from India

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
from a talk delivered at the University of Madras as part of a refresher course for teachers and later adapted for an article in the November 2001 issue of Bookbird, USA

Like a lot of things that have come into India from the West, the terms multiculturalism and political correctness have come into the world of children's books — late. So that now, when a lot of fuss has been made and dust raised about it in the West, we in India are only just beginning to see them as issues. With some of us, these are very important questions that need to be addressed immediately. With the majority, however, they are merely long afterthoughts. There is probably no more multicultural nation in the world than India, given the number of racial types, languages and dialects spoken, organised and unorganised religions practised, and cultures represented. And as for point of view, the joke is: one plus one Indian makes eleven opinions! In this climate, therefore, the multiculturalism and political correctness debate cannot go along the same lines as it does in the West. Lines are nearly impossible to draw because there are more exceptions than rules. 

          This leads to the question: When we create books for children, which children do we address? The middle and upper middle class English-speaking children who go to school in cities and towns? Rural children who go to one-room, no-roof shacks with one teacher who almost never turns up? Children attending elitist residential schools? Poorer children who are eager to go to school and whose parents are eager too so that their children may at least have one full meal by way of the noon meal incentive scheme in some states in India? Who?

          Seen in this context, the definition of multiculturalism as an effort to reflect the real world of varied people and cultures, or at least helping children find their own space in books, takes on new meaning. And political correctness? That is even more difficult. Different things mean differently to different people in different cultures, regions, religions, and so on. Where do you draw the line? Or rather, how do you cross them, obliterate them? The easy way is to pretend they don't exist. 

          There is very little study of children's literature in India save the odd dissertation often based on stereotypical ideas. So we have no way of judging; we have no parameters with which to examine children's books. Somehow, books for children are still not considered important enough for critical examination and evaluation. This is why we often first look to the West for models of multiculturalism and political correctness before we realise that no, those systems and standards don't apply in quite the same way. India as a mosaic of cultural representations must be reflected in the books. Where one rule can apply in one book, it cannot in another.

          For instance, Hazel Rochman discusses Virginia Hamilton's work in her book Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World, explaining how she once was on a committee that selected Hamilton as the U.S. nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen award. Some said she didn't have a chance "because foreigners wouldn't understand her, wouldn't read her, wouldn't translate her ... too difficult, too idiomatic, too local, they said. They were wrong. She won." (ALA Books / Booklist Publications; Chicago and London: 1993, p. 25)

          This notion of being too local, too idiomatic, too difficult is something we encounter with Western publishers and distributors all the time. The responses to Indian books range from "lovely picture, alien story," to "the English is funny," to "too culturally removed." Removed from and alien for whom, we may ask. For children, who clearly revel in stories of the unfamiliar — dinosaurs from a strange past, aliens from wherever . . .? Perhaps adult minds tend to judge from conditioned adult perspectives on behalf of children, whereas, left to themselves, children are naturally multicultural beings — comfortable with the familiar, yet quite accepting of the strange.

          Interestingly, we once had some Sri Lankan distributors wanting some of our Tamil titles, but they had problems with the language. They said the Tamil used in Sri Lanka was a little different and suggested we change it to suit their needs. Surprisingly — and happily for us — they later got back saying they were willing to go along with the Indian Tamil because they felt it was time their children started reading other kinds of Tamil too! Sometimes, looking for similarities can kill a thing, appreciating differences can make a work live. This was the case here. Take a book we did early in our publishing life: Ekki Dokki (Chennai: Tulika Publishers, 1996), a classic folktale about two sisters — one with one hair, one with two. Eventually, the girl with one hair gets lots of hair, the girl with two loses both, but they all live happily ever after. The objection in the U.K. was that showing a bald child would upset the feelings of children on chemotherapy for cancer. For a while we were stunned. Had we gone completely wrong? Then, upon reflection we realised that maybe that maybe that was their perception. In the Indian context, shaving the head is commonplace, connected with various rituals and beliefs, even the belief that doing it to children encourages more luxuriant hair growth! Then along came someone who had had a long battle with cancer herself and simply pooh-poohed the suggestion of it being hurtful. But it took that long for us to understand not to go by Western notions and that it is time the West understands us too.

          It is the same with illustrations. We have come across comments from Western publishers to the effect that "nice books but the pictures are not Indian" — meaning of course, not their vision of "Indian". Too often, these publishers will change pictures around, change colours to what they think it should be to fit preconceived notions, often leading to a completely wrong perspective. As far as illustrations go, only Mughal or Miniature style is "Indian"; nothing else is. Sorry, but maybe we know better?! Then again, merely reiterating what one already knows doesn't make something multicultural or politically correct.

          We cry ourselves hoarse in India, and to all those outside who will care to listen, that children here have for years been reading all about scones and chocolate eclairs, meringues and tongue sandwiches, pixies and gnomes, oak trees and ginger ale, perhaps not technically understanding all of it, but enjoying the books immensely. Loving them, in fact. All of us grew up on a diet of mainly imported British books. Anyone who has worked with children knows how naturally and easily they absorb what seems alien and strange to adults. It is a pity that adults decide what children read and impose narrow taboos on the kinds of books that may be written for them, instead of recognising children's instinctive ability to live comfortably with the diversities that surround them.

          Children extend their imaginations to include all possibilities, questions asked and answers sought. The difference is, they believe in the world they visit. When that is the case, who are we to determine which worlds they may and may not people?

          These are the dangers Isaac Bashevis Singer warned of when he said, "In our time, literature is losing its address." (When Shlemiel Went To Warsaw; Farrar, 1968 — opening note) In the great race to be all things to all persons, we run the risk of being nothing to anybody. Books produced in India will, indeed must, reflect the Indian ethos in all its layers, moods, and complexities. Others reading these books must simply try to understand, just as Indian children try to understand the fine undercurrents of being black in the United States of America, or young Zlata writing her diary while Sarajevo is being bombed. Singer reminds us that we often come close to losing our sense of place and identity and, as a result, we are losing our voices.

          Singer makes another equally valid statement: "Unknown words don't stop the child, a boring story will." (from Children's Literature, 6, 1977, pp 13-14) That then is the crux. If the voice is true and if it calls with passion and appeal, readers will listen. It doesn't matter that they don't understand each word and punctuation mark. Do we understand every single thing in every single book we read? It's the same with books for children.

          This is the way we in India understand multiculturalism and political correctness. Talking about something in one culture may be completely unacceptable in another, but that's okay. One of our authors, Cathy Spagnoli, once wrote to us about how American publishers were very touchy about body functions but the Japanese were not at all : "Japanese children's books have for years included folktales with references to excrement, urine and so on. I used to be fascinated as a teller in Japan to watch other storytellers, often elegant librarians or stiff-looking businessmen, tell tale after tale about passing gas and how urine became a river and so on. Audiences loved them. I could never do that in the United States and the few times I have tried such tales I've had school principals giving me a talking to!" Stretching the point further, poet, translator, folklorist and scholar A. K. Ramanujan believes that such stories were in fact part of the traditional toilet training process for children, told to them while on the job, just as Indian folklore wove in "tales of passion and trouble, told to children by their grandmothers and servants as the dusk descends." (from Radhika Menon, 'Are there taboos in children's literature?' — paper presented at the Delhi Book Fair, February 2000) These tales involved issues which may not have met the standards of 'correctness' in children's books today — issues which, however, were commonly encountered by children living in large joint families. Stories have a way of speaking of what cannot usually be spoken, and these tales were tools to help children deal with the complexities of the world they lived in.

          The correctness, then, comes in the manner of telling, not by imposing taboos. Books must reflect the people, the times, and things the way they are. Good books write about them easily, tinge them gently with colour. In a lovely short story for children, "Clear Sky," (One World; Chennai: Tulika Publishers, 1998, pp 9-16, story translated from the Tamil) feminist writer Ambai raises questions about existing gender and caste disparities. A reading of the story at a University seminar once led to a heated discussion about including issues like caste in children's books. "These are bad things. Why talk about them and reinforce these in the minds of children who may not know about them at all," ran one argument. The response was that others in the room had been at the receiving end of caste discrimination and children must surely be made aware that it is still happening today. Now, if children in the U.S. and U.K. will not understand this, we must help them understand, just as issues of racial tensions and anti-Semitic feelings are understood by cultures that don't experience them.

          A corollary to these issues is the question of who is qualified to write about a particular culture: only someone from within, or anyone who is sensitive and understands? The latter has its pitfalls, and can be more open to criticism simply by virtue of being an outsider. But to restrict a writer on these grounds would be a pity, for a good writer can well overcome all such barriers. The onus is on publishers to verify authenticity of facts and tone, to see if a story rings true. It is also their responsibility to ensure that books claiming to be multicultural are truly so — not merely European, African and Asian faces put together on the same page. But publishing, too, is a business, driven by global market forces, by the ideas of whoever holds sway at the time. Power is glamorous, and more likely to attract and influence than the other way round, even in the case of books read by children.

          This is the imbalance that has to be corrected. We must ensure that multiculturalism does not emerge as another face of cultural imperialism. Only when there is a flow of books and ideas freely the world over can there be true multiculturalism. An acceptance of this would automatically unshackle political correctness from the rigidity in which it is held. The good news is that it is indeed happening, if in a small way. A review of a set of Indian folktales published by us — and modified in no way for non-Indian readers — carried in the School Library Journal of North America (Angele J. Reynolds, November 1998) says: "The result is a cultural lesson that entertains and enlightens . . . The stories have a familiar ring to them, but a distinct Indian tone that transports listeners to faraway lands." And again, the same story that was once rejected by some as too culturally removed evoked the response: ". . . a delightful, humorous creation story from the Bhilala tribe in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India . . . Accompanying this lively tale with its understated wit are primitive, stylized illustrations in bold primary and secondary colours on a rich tan background . . . it is a real treat to have this charming tale from an area not always represented in folklore collections" ( Diane S. Marton, School Library Journal, July 1999).

          Clearly, multi-way understanding is essential, possible too. While adults may have to consciously work at it, the advantage with children is that they are naturally open and will understand. Conducting a workshop for Tulika recently on writing for children, Suniti Namjoshi, one of Tulika's authors, beautifully encapsulated this expansive idea when she spoke of cyberspace as really a form of "common cultural space," a space shared not by computers but by human minds. With the internet well on its way to becoming yet another medium in the evolution of storytelling, cultural flexibility and understanding become that much  more important. To then put children in straitjackets would be to handicap them. We must let their minds free.