Paro Anand is one of India’s top writers for children and young adults. Her book, No Guns At My Son’s Funeral was on the IBBY Honor List, 2006 and has been translated into Spanish and German. She has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Bal Sahitya Puraskar Award, 2017 for her book Wild Child, which has now been published as Like Smoke with additional content. Her book, The Little Bird who held the Sky up with his Feet was on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Grow Up, an international gold standard of the world’s best children’s literature. The Other is her new book for young adults.
Excerpts of an interview with Paro Anand:
Why do you write for the young?
It’s what comes naturally to me rather than a conscious decision. I started out as a drama teacher in a Delhi school. I discovered that there were no play scripts for contemporary Indian children. The choice was between our folk stories and mythology or foreign play scripts. None of these really connected with my students so I started out writing plays. And that’s when I fell down the magical rabbit hole of young adult and children’s literature.
Young adults often find themselves at odds with the views of people around them. They find themselves misunderstood, they find it difficult to fit in. In what way(s) are the teenagers in The Other different from those (other teenagers) around them? Are they doubly marginalised in some way? Or, is it conscious way of portraying the “otherness” that all young people feel in a world dominated by authoritative adults? Who is the other in The Other?
A bit of both, I think. I work a lot with children in difficult circumstances as well as schools of privilege. And in both, there are always those who find themselves on the periphery. I think discriminatory behaviour is part of the human psyche. I would like to make young readers conscious of the fact. And at least give them the tools to think and question and decide for themselves. Which way they want to lean.
Was The Other the most difficult to write? Or was it Like Smoke/No Guns at My Son’s Funeral? Why?
Each of the books you mention was difficult and easy in different ways. It’s not easy for me to explore the pain of the ‘dark side’. I get very drawn in. I weep and rage with my ‘babies’.
The Other was difficult in a whole other way. My mother was very ill, struggling towards the end. And she would encourage me to write. She said it made her feel so much better to see me at work. So exploring pain, (especially in the story Grief is a Beast) while in so much pain myself, was both a comfort and deeply, deeply hurtful too.
Do you take your personal experiences into your books? Or, are you able to completely detach yourself from your own life when you write?
I can’t detach at all. I become the character, within that circumstance. That is why I cannot ‘plot’ my story out as many writers do. I have been encouraged to try to do that. But, as in life, you can’t tell the future, I can’t do it in my stories either. I have to live moment by moment.
Of course, there are threads from my own life woven into the stories. Most often, it’s not consciously there. I discover it only when I am reading it. In No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, it was only a year after the book came out and I was reading a passage out loud to a group did I realize that I’d taken a line from a song of The Doors!
The father’s shawl, in Weed, is my own father’s shawl. After he passed away, I used to inhale his scent in this old, brown shawl. And started to panic as the scent of him faded from it. That sense of loss is exactly how it really was. And it found it’s way into the book.
So yes, there are very personal threads in the stories, but they are not my stories.
How do you enter the lives of teenagers so easily? How do you understand them so well? Is it only by talking to them? Or, is it because you never really grew up/didn’t want to grow up?
I think it’s both. I spend almost half my professional life working with young people. I am informed by them, their voices, their mannerisms, their reactions and responses. I would feel that I am writing in a vacuum if I didn’t have the privilege of these interactions.
And I know that the child and teenager in me is alive and well.
But I never try and be ‘cute’ or ‘cool’. Some writers do and it really jars.
Tell us about your everyday writing routine. I loved the picture with your pets. Tell us about them.
I try and write for two hours everyday. I need to. One of my favourite things in my life is to write. I have a little cottage at the end of my garden where I disappear. I have a bell in the shape of a woman at the door. If someone needs to enter, they must ring the bell. If I don’t answer, they must go away, unless, of course it’s a real emergency.
But I have had this wonderful writer’s retreat for a very short time. So I don’t want to get too dependent on it. I want to be able to write any where, any time.
I actually love Delhi’s traffic jams. I disappear into my laptop and write away. Sometimes the jam is opening up and I am like, ‘wait, wait, just 20 minutes more’.
But I find the discipline of the two hours a day something to look forward to. If I haven’t done it I feel almost constipated!
And as for Gia and Nadia, our two beautiful German Shepherds. There is this lovely lady who runs Lila’s Place, a home for abandoned pets. We were so lucky that she liked us enough to give us Gia who had been abandoned with acid burns on her back and Nadia who was starving, maggot filled and near death. But they are now the loves of our lives.
Which are your most favourite young adult books and who are your favourite authors?
Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, Himanjali Sankar’s Talking About Muskan, Wanting Mor by Ruksana Khan, Unbroken by Nandhika Nambi are some of my favourite books. But there are so many more. And then there’s Harry Potter – how can I not include JK Rowling?
Cover photograph: courtesy Speaking Tiger Books.