The Idea of Asia through Children's Books

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers, Workshop in Singapore, 20 November, 2003

Some years ago I was in the company of a group of women from Asia, Africa and South America. When we were all at lunch on afternoon, somebody walked into the restaurant. A stranger, nobody knew her. Immediately, however, all the African women in our group got excited and literally ran to talk to her. She too broke away from her party and came up to our friends. She was from Ghana, I believe. Whenever the women from Africa, from different countries in Africa, saw somebody who looked African, they immediately walked up to each and spoke. It worked both ways. Every time. That's when I got a sense of African-ness. 

A few years later, on another occasion, in another continent, 40 women from several Asian countries spent a week together, speaking, sharing, Laughing, arguing ... At the end of each day, however, the party split up into Filipino, Chinese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Nepal, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Mongolian ... and so on. The lone representative from Laos usually spent time at the sauna, and the lone representative from Malaysia on her mobile phone. Peculiarly the Indians split up themselves: one went off with her husband, one was with the Pakistanis and the other two latched on, in turns, to the Mongolians, the Chinese and the Vietnamese. 

That's when it hit me really hard that we Asians completely lack a sense of being Asians, collectively. So what, you might ask. In fact, why have such narrow, parochial distinctions. But then, it seems even more parochial to split country-wise. And when I speak of a sense of Asiannness, it is in a positive sense, as in a sense of belonging and sharing. 

I started to think about why we didn't have this sense ... and I realized there were many reasons. We don't look like each other. Our languages are so different. We live pretty far from each other, and so on. And when you think about it, I suppose there are several more reasons. Then I started to think of what we had in common. What do we have in common? 


1. Ask participants to make a list of areas of commonality or common interest. Share the points and discuss them. (a short list appended below) 

2. Pass around copies of the stories, each one can read one story. Some may already know some of the stories in which they can exchange. 
3. Now make a list of things in the story that you find interesting or striking or curious. 
4. Share your observations. 
5. Now, what common threads can we find. 
6. Let's think in terms of children's books in general. Can we extend our thinking a bit to include some more. 
7. Perhaps write down riddles, proverbs, songs, sayings, rhymes from our own cultures, and compare the motifs.... 

Yet, the fact is it is very difficult to find each others' books in each others' countries. Even though we have so much in common and in fact, we do belong together. The few books I have, have either been picked up in the country one has visited or been gifted. But bookstores, no. They don't stock them. Chinese books (we used to get a few in the NCBH bookshops or at exhibitions), Vietnamese books, Sri Lankan books ... there are many. If there are stories of Asia, they are usually produced in a western country, the USA or the UK. We do get some Malaysian books, but they are mostly activity books for the very young. Not books you can read, and in that sense, not Malaysian books really. 

I know you get something of a mix in Singapore, of late particularly. We know, for instance, there is a bigger market in Singapore for our Tamil titles than in India itself ... several reasons, many economic. But let's put aside the marketing question, the economic question now. Let's look at the market question. Why don't we see each others' books in each others' countries? 

Yet, we have so much in common. One thing is we do all look only West. Take our cues from the west, the bows too. Then there is also the influence of the mass media, of Hollywood. The disneyfication of even stories from Asia ... Yet, that culture is often so different. And in the process, there is a real danger of our cultures and languages being subsumed, standardized. I don't know if we want that. 

What we are talking about is books that help us feel comfortable with the idea of differences, with differences themselves. Not adapting or converting something to become what we want it to become. 

People complain that some of our books have a lot of text. Okay. But we do tend to be talkative, as people. We like to go into the ins and outs of things… As these stories will show you. Sometimes there are no neat endings in our stories. That's okay too. It's not okay in the west, because they have other considerations, other perceptions, other cultures. But in these ways, our cultures are so similar. The way we use colours, for instance, is different. 

Also in most of our countries we often have to grapple with issues of literacy vis-a-vis literature. And that's an important consideration.