Interviewed by Ritwika Roy
This interview was originally taken on 18th May 2022, for a conference paper I was working on, where I discussed Talking Cub’s A Bend in Time: Writing By Children on the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh (@SudeshnaShome) is Head, Talking Cub and Speaking Tiger YA, the Children’s & YA Imprint of publishers Speaking Tiger. She also runs Cosy Nook Library for children in Bengaluru.
Bijal Vachharajani (@bijal_v) is Commissioning Editor at Pratham, award-winning author of A Cloud Called Bhura (2019), Savi and the Memory Keeper (2021) and Kitten Trouble (2021), and recipient of the British Council International Publication Fellowship 2022.
In 2020, they dreamt of and executed A Bend in Time by bringing together 12 young authors ranging from ages 9 – 17 to reflect on the pandemic.
[Note: This was a semi-formal interview. The transcription is as accurate and unedited as is possible.]
Excited Fangirl Introduction by Ritwika Roy [RR]:
So whoever’s watching this, good evening, good morning, good afternoon where ever you are in the world, whenever you’re watching this, whether that’s tomorrow or 20 years down the line, if this exists uptil then. I am beyond excited to be here with Bijal Vachharajani and Sudeshna Shome Ghosh (I can’t believe I get to say that!), because I am writing a paper on this fantastic book called A Bend in Time: Writing By Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic which they have edited and put together together, and, it’s this wonderful book which centers children as authors of their own stories, which –
If anyone’s read the – there was an article in The Telegraph a few years ago – 2 years ago? – where they were talking about children being published, and I think the Marketing Head of Scholastic was extremely patronising in that article – it really made me very angry; I’ll send you both the link if I can find it – because they were talking about “we publish children, we have writing competitions for them and we publish them, but they’re not very good and many of them don’t go onto write later on”. And then I came across this book [holds up A Bend in Time], and it’s so respectful towards the child author, whatever their age – the youngest is I believe 9 years old?. So I really wanted to talk about this at a conference where the conference topic is childhood, children as agents, children as activists, children as changemakers. And I really couldn’t think of better people to speak with – who are activists and changemakers in their own way.
So I’ll start with the first question, which as I said, I had sent them to you both earlier, so it’s about the same questions but we might go a little informally as well.
So how did the idea of this book come about? How were the stories collected? There’s such a wide age range and location range.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh [hereafter SSG]: So the idea of the book came about in the first lockdown, when India, in March 2020, when we went into the severe hard lockdown. And it was pretty much, you know, one heard about children just like being at home; one had kids at home who we were seeing were completely stuck at home. And slowly one realised that this was an incredibly unprecedented thing that was happening. I mean, initially in March we thought by April this is going to be over, and we’ll go back to our old lives. And slowly April came and went and we realised that that was not happening, and if it was difficult for us to process, we could see how difficult it was for children to understand that suddenly they were without anything that they had taken for granted, whether it was going out, or playing, or meeting friends, or going to school. Everything was new for them. And we also that…at least the privileged children, they were able to adapt…but we also saw, there were visuals all over the place about whole families, migrants going back home and there were children who were trailing after their parents and walking for miles and it was all very, it was a very horrible time actually. That is when we thought that given this is such an unprecedented thing that is happening to children, what would it be like if we asked them to record their feelings about it, in whatever form they wanted, whether it was a story or poem or non-fiction or fiction, whatever. So that’s how the book, the germ of an idea originated.
Were there particular demographics you all were looking at? That these are the exact kinds of kids you want published?
SSG: No actually my thing was that I want any kind of, any kind, but all that, what do I say, all kids who want to write something like this, to be able to reach out to them: which is when I spoke to Bijal about this book and I told her about it and she was of course very enthusiastic about the idea and I said that can you help me reach out to more and more children, because I know lots of kids where I live but they are all very much in the same sort of category, so…she then put me in touch with a lot of wonderful people – Mridula Koshy at the CLP [Community Library Project], Timira Gupta at Akshara [High School] and some others – that’s when we started talking to these people and they did in turn said that okay I know this child who will be able to write. So they in turn did their bit, so the contribution of Mridula and Timira to the book is actually equal to Bijal.
Bijal Vachharajani [hereafter BV]: I just want to add to that that I feel like, it was, we were all in such a bubble in many ways, one was the safety bubble, one was just in our own spaces, and when Sudheshna talked to me about A Bend in Time, I think for me it was just amazing that Speaking Tiger was thinking of whom all we can reach out to and let’s listen to all the voices in this book and that’s why, I think, this book really works because it brings together so many different perspectives and it’s richer for that.
Moving on from that, maybe I’ll switch up the order of the questions a little bit. So when the submissions came in, how much editorial intervention was actually needed?
SSG: There was a fair bit…there always is; even for established writers there’s always a fair bit of editorial intervention. And these were kids who were possibly, I mean they were writers but they were writing for a book for the first time so obviously there was a lot of writing intervention. But the pieces that came through Mridula or Timira, they did their one set of vetting at one point because they reached out to 5-6 kids in their – either at Akshara or CLP and those kids came back with ideas which then sort of Mridula and Timira sort of shared with me and said, “you know this kid is thinking of writing this and this kid is thinking of writing this, and what do you think?”. So we sort of discussed that and said, “yeah this idea sounds good so let’s write that”. And then there were others that I reached out to and they came back with various ideas and some of them were very confused – “I don’t know what to write.” There was one child – she had wonderful ideas but sadly none of them made it to the book, but I thought it was a: she came up with (funnily enough I published a book like that), but she came up with an idea of a murder mystery that happens in the lockdown, but she got completely stuck and said, “I can’t write it, just go ahead without me”.
So yeah, that was how it came about and a lot of them needed a lot of refining at the ideas stage, in the sense that they said, you know, what if I write this, what if I write that? And fully editing, in the sense of copy-editing some of them needed it, some of them not so much. Because obviously, we wanted the voice to be there and obviously, a child who is writing will be writing in a different way from a grown-up, so there the editorial intervention has to be very sensitive, like the voice of the child has to be there, like a 9-year-old has to sound like a 9-year-old, a 9-year-old cannot sound like me. So these things were there…but it was more at the ideas stage. They came up with bizarre ideas. To be honest, when you talk to kids that you realise that their minds work in ways we just lose somewhere in our teens and late twenties. It’s just remarkabletheir headspace is a great place to visit.
BV: When I do writing workshops with children – especially with A Cloud Called Bhura which Sudeshna has edited and is responsible for how it reads – one of the things that I’m constantly taken by is how children’s imaginations run with it. So we do this whole apocalyptic retelling of their cities where they use their senses to describe a disastrous event that is going to happen, and almost at the end of it, everyone’s dead. Everyone, all their characters.
SSG: They love having people die. Even in this book there are so many deaths. They did not need to die.
RR: They’re all Shakespeare. Everyone dies.
Okay, so the stories, the poems – one poem, beautiful poem – the essays, they are so far reaching in their way of expression, imagination and their political consciousness. Are there particular things you would attribute these traits to in the authors? Maybe in their association with the CLP, a brilliant endeavour…
SSG: Yeah definitely because the piece by Shivani, for example, that was written in Hindi. Which is also what we said; that you write in any language you want, and you know, we’ll take it from there, we’ll find a translator. So this was the only piece that came to us which was not in English and I just loved the voice, the way she wrote in the Hindi original. Each piece sort of reflects the author’s…not just their mindspace but where they’re coming from, what they’re seeing around them. Like Lavanya’s piece is very internal; she’s sort of fighting her own demons. Whereas Shivani’s piece is a fiction piece but she’s obviously writing about something she’s seeing around her, reading about, or feeling very intensely about. Then some of the others…the first story, where she loses her dreams. That was such a, I mean that was like one of those ideas, which if I asked any, a bunch of adult writers to write this, they…any of them would come up with such a thing. So that is also something, you know, obviously she was feeling about; and when I talked to her about it, she was like, “yeah but you know those parathas, my Mom’s parathas”.
BV: I mean I got the privilege of writing a foreword; I got to read all the stories before, and I think I was mostly very – and now that I’m revisiting the book for this conversation…Sudeshna and I had a conversation at that point saying, I was just struck by how mature they sound…and how honest they are, because as adults we tend to cloak it. So much of honesty with the dreams, the dreamlessness, or even the darkness but also hoping that there’s light after that, or just what we are doing to this planet, what is happening to others. It was so searing the honesty and we were still reading it in the throes of the pandemic so, I think for me it was just that distinct voice which I constantly feel amidst around children is that they just say things so as it is, and there’s a poetry in much of that writing, it’s very lyrical in parts. But it was that honesty because a lot of us were feeling some of these things, and when you read it it’s like she just said it better than I could have.
SSG: there’s also that little cheekiness that comes through in some of the pieces, in I think, Shreya’s piece about reading.
BV: None of us could read, remember?
SSG: Yeah, none of us could read, we were just scrolling through and Zoom.
RR: At the same time, she’s advocating for open libraries and the dissemination of knowledge and everybody not having to hide behind paywalls. I mean, paywalls are the worst. As a grad student, paywalls are the bane of my existence
The thing is that, KidLit as, I mean, it’s one of the first critical things we start with when we study children’s literature as a subject, is that it’s a field, it’s a genre that is entirely more or less controlled by adults. It’s something that is for children, but it’s not by children in most cases. So when you have a book like this, there is a sort of flipping of that pre-existing power dynamic, where adults are creating what children are consuming, here the children are creating themselves and the two of you just allied along and helped them along with that. So how would you say that the child’s voice can factor into these dynamics, especially when it comes to their agency, and how is the balance maintained – I mean you have addressed some of it earlier, but still how is the balance maintained with the unmediated expressions of their voice? Not just in this book, but in writing for children in general…how much the editor can do.
BV: I’m a huge advocate for creative expression. And it’s something Anushka Ravishankar once said, and a lot of children’s authors say this that we were all children once, and as authors the one thing we have to try and do is to step back into those shoes, like we…maybe some of us have been…you know, we’ve never been vampires, – again like I said some of us may have but I have no idea – but it’s very easy to slip into what you were once, perceptively easier…so I kind of feel like that becomes a responsibility of the author to remember what it was like to be a child. What it was like at the age of 7, at the age of 12 and you’re just becoming a teenager, preteens, all of that, and kind of write with how you felt at that point, and then agency I think becomes very much a part of what you create. As a child I was very shy and introverted and honestly, I would not raise my hand in a classroom, even if I knew the answer or even if I had a question because I didn’t understand most of the things most of the time because I was so scared. But my characters can have that agency because I always wanted to have that. So I think that’s the slight difference that all of us can…we need to be able to do that. Also if there’s no agency, if there’s a situation where the child doesn’t have the agency, we need to be able to ask why it’s not there and it’s not like as a pedagogic thing but as stories about your protagonists, it’s about the villain who will take away that agency and the protagonist is like no! I want it back and has to fight for it.
So those are the things I kind of feel like we are meant to do, we end up doing and editors are there to remind us that “this character is not doing much hello, give them some agency. And more and more I’m realising that authors are becoming a lot more thoughtful about the way they create even side characters, when they dream up some of the adults in their books; they try to ensure that the child’s agency is kept at the centre of the narrative, and I feel like it’s evolving much more and it’s very exciting to be part of that, to see it happen. You know Sudeshna, I mean, I still remember when you asked me to write somebody, write a little bit more about one character, and it turned out to be a good thing because I thought he got a lot more agency from me just writing.
RR: I think I froze.
SSG: Yeah you froze.
BV: Zoom took away your agency, Ritwika!
RR: Zoom takes away my agency all the time! I’m in the middle of presenting a paper and I get kicked out and then the people are like, while they’re recording, people are like, “are you there? Are you done?” and I’m like, “No! I’m here! Wait, I’m not finished, I have a paragraph left!”
BV: I don’t know if that answered your question.
I think it did. I think it also answered my next question, which is what does childhood agency mean to you? So if either of you have anything to add to that, wonderful, but I think I’ve got my answer for both questions.
BV: No, I also think as children’s book people – and that includes all of us on this call – one of the biggest things we want children to have more agency is when it comes to also is choosing what they read. As a child I don’t think my parents knew what I was reading; I mean, they basically knew a bit because they had to buy them, but my sister made all the choices and I read them. I had no agency, but my sister had all the agency. But, in that sense, I feel like one of the agencies that I really wish to see more of is when children so select to read more of what they want to and I feel like independent bookstores and community libraries are great spaces that foster that space where children can choose…or libraries like the one that Sudeshna and Radhika [Sathe of Cosy Nook Library, Bengaluru] run where children come there and have, they can ask questions, they browse and pick what they want to read…that one is very important as well
So I have a question which is not in the list, but just listening to the both of you has…a lot of children who are now moving on to adulthood, they’ve been very influential in developing, or rather, generating conversation about childhood agency. People like Greta Thunberg or even Millie Bobbie Brown. But they also face a lot of pushback from adults, who cannot really digest the fact that these are these young kids who are speaking out about these serious political issues – environment is 100% a political issue – or child rights is also 100% a political issue – and they face so much pushback. Was there at point, pushback that you faced during the making of this book? From parents, or other people – collaborators, or colleagues, or readers perhaps?
SSG: Not for this book at all, but in general children’s writing and publishing does get that even to this day in the sense that it’s not seen as serious or as highbrow kind of publishing or writing as other kinds. So there is always a sense of deep patronising about it. If we in the industry face it or writers as adults face it then imagine if the child is trying to get into that space, what they will be facing, and especially if they are talking about issues that are uncomfortable for adults, then obviously, it’s difficult, and yet more and more young people are speaking out because there are more ways to make your voice heard, not just the closed world of books and publishing, there’s a larger way in which you can do it. So yeah, so that kind of pushback is always there.
Just to talk about the Indian books market, till about say 5-6 years back, when children’s books were not as high sellers as, you know, other kinds of books, children’s publishing was never given much of an importance. It is now, when it’s sort of also, you know, even publishers see the kinds of returns that they are getting on books that are selling, that it’s like…Now, everyone’s talking about “You know, I stock children’s books in my bookstore” and all of that, but you know, till that change happened a few years back,till then even our own publishing houses have sort of faced that thing of “that’s nice whatever you’re doing, but it’s not important.”
RR: I know the feeling. I understand the feeling completely.
I don’t have any further questions except one last question I think. I’m sad that this is getting over so soon, because I really enjoyed listening to both of you. So the last question that I have actually is that were there any particular moments during the editing process which were particularly memorable, apart from the weird and wacky ideas the kids came up with? And what have you taken back from this experience? What did it leave you with (apart from the book which is the physical remnant)?
SSG: I think for me each time a piece was turned in and reading it for the first time. I think that was like, each time I was like, ooh okay, like that happened. And infact that happened even with Bijal’s Foreword, and the title of the book came from her foreword because I was struggling with that beforehand, and I read it and I said, “okay fine you’ve solved a couple of other problems for me, because here I have the title of the book”. A Bend in Time was the perfect perfect title of this book and encapsulates all the feelings that one comes across in this book. Other that was just getting to know these 10 young people. It was a privilege to get a glimpse into their thought process, everything that they agonised over, found funny, or found sad. That was really lovely. And it was pretty new for me too because even I have never edited a book like this.
RR: If editors have that experience, of actually working with children. Because with children writing for children, we often tend to just relegate it to the juvenilia – that “oh it can’t be that good, it can’t be that important” – and then 200 years down the line when they are celebrated authors, we unearth their juvenilia, and we’re like, “oh wow, this is how they were writing, this is how they were thinking!”. Makes no sense, give them their due when they were alive.
BV: I wanted to say something which I have forgotten. Something you said with title?
SSG: About your title?
BV: I cannot remember.
SSG: About your foreword?
BV: Oh god no, let’s not talk about that. Yes, I wanted to tell you that actually there’s a lovely conversation online between some of the contributors, and Sudeshna, and Radhika, which you should really listen to, because it was just fascinating to be in the same virtual room as these authors and listen to what they say about their pieces.
RR: I was just thinking that I want to really talk to the kids – I shouldn’t say kids because some of them are definitely adults by this point – I just really want to talk to them and ask them how they were feeling when this was happening: nervous, excited, powerful?
SSG: I think kids are pretty cool. I mean they are really cool. Like, I said okay your book, here’s the book, here’s the book, here a picture of the book, and they were like, [calm] yeah, fine.
RR: That explains why they’re the ones changing the world and we’re just watching.
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About the Interviewer:
Ritwika Roy is a PhD Student in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, and one of the co-founders of ACLiSA. She can be found at @FangirlRika on Twitter or @fangirlrika on Instagram.