Bollywood Beauties and Smudgy Lines

I just finished reading Shalini Akhil‘s very fun novel The Bollywood BeautyIt made me deeply nostalgic for India, even though it is set here in Melbourne and in Fiji. I loved all the references to jalebi’s (yum), bhangra dancing and Bollywood movies. It’s a feast of a book in terms of Indian culture and a nice take on the dilemmas faced by young people who bridge multiple cultures (Indian, Fijian and Australian). There aren’t enough Aussie books like this around.
‘The Bollywood Beauty’ was published as an adult book but apart from a few fairly irrelevant (and irreverent) references to drugs and alcohol, it’s got a very YA feel to it. I know a number of youth librarians that are recommending it to older teenagers. It’s one of those books that sits on the smudgy line between adult fiction and youth literature. Sometimes I wonder who draws these lines and what exactly makes a book sit on one side or the other. I suspect books like ‘The Bollywood Beauty’ have a foot firmly in both camps but to prevent too much outrage from the gatekeepers of youth literature some books are best left on the adult shelf, waiting for a teenager to stumble across them.

Reading India

The boxes of books that I bought in India arrived by sea mail more than a month ago but it took awhile to sort them into some sort of order. So many of them had been bought in a frantic, last minute attempt to get hold of books that would be hard to find in Australia. They smelt very faintly of the docks – a vaguely chemical smell rather than the rich, spicy smell of India. I hadn’t had a chance to read many of the books that I bought in those last few days in Chennai so last night I pulled ‘Victory Song’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni off the shelf and lost myself in Bengal in 1939. ‘Victory Song’ is the story of eleven-year-old Neela who runs away from her village in search of her father who has gone to Calcutta to join the freedom fighters marching to protest against Britain’s occupation of India. It gives a good taste of that era in Indian history and Neela is a great, spunky protagonist. Unfortunately, you can’t buy ‘Victory Song’ in Australia. As with the Phillipines, getting hold of authentic Asian literature, especially children’s literature, is depressingly problematic.

Ruskin Bond is an author that I only discovered this year, while in India. He is one of India’s most famous children’s authors writing in English and I loved reading my way through his collected works. I think my favourite story was ‘Binya’s Blue Umbrella’. Bond has written so many stories for adults and children that it’s difficult to decide which is the strongest of his huge body of work. His stories are poignant and true and full of human strengths and frailties. Thanks to the fact he is published so widely, you can buy his books through Amazon in the UK but, yet again, the complex mess of international distribution keeps his books largely unknown in Australia.

Back from Ubud

I flew back from Bali on Tuesday, my head full of new ideas, my suitcase full of new books and my imagination fired. The Ubud Writers’ Festival was serious fun. Every day I met new and intriguing writers – there is such a huge world of books that I want to explore. I would love to spend a whole year doing nothing but reading – there’s a lot to catch up on.

Authors from India, England, Turkey, Egypt, China, Singapore and the Philippines, to name a but a few of the countries, attended the Ubud Festival. I spoke on a couple of panels including one called ‘Through the Looking Glass”, along with two other children’s writers; Singaporean author, Jin Pyn, and E.B. Maranan, a prolific Flilipino author who writes for readers of all ages. Jin Pyn’s first book ‘The Elephant and the Tree‘ has a strong environmental theme. E.B. Maranan has written several books in a ”contemporary folk lore” style, merging modern ideas about the world with ancient myth. I’ve only just begun to discover the rich world of Asian myth and folklore.

Earlier this year I attended the Children’s Literature Association of India’s first conference and met another well-known Filipino children’s writer, Christine Bellen. I loved her bilingual retellings of the stories of Lola Basyang. Lola Basyang was a Filipino grandmother who told traditional legends to children. Her stories were originally written down by a famous Filipino writer called Severino Reyes. In Christine’s re-tellings, the text is in both English and Tagalog, one of the langagues of the Philippines, so everyone can access these great legends about cowardly princes and man-eating giants.
These are classic myths that transcend cultural boundaries and yet you can’t buy them in Australia. It’s only since travelling through Asia over the past two years that I’ve started to realise how many good stories we are missing out on because of the way the world book market works. One of the most fiery speakers at the Ubud festival was another Filipino writer and folklorist, Rosario Cruz Lucero. You can’t buy her books in Australia either but I did manage to get a hold of several of her titles at the festival bookshop. Hopefully, events like the Ubud festival will help change the way our stories travel through the world. There’s a great festival coming up in Sri Lanka in January, in the old walled fort town of Galle. They have an incredible line-up of world authors and the setting for the is pretty spectacular. If I could only write fast enough to get all the books I’m working on finsished before Christmas, I’d love to check it out.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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