Everyone please welcome Padma Venkatraman, author of Climbing the Stairs, a YA historical fiction novel about fifteen-year old Vidya’s struggle for personal freedom that plays out against the backdrop of World War II and the nonviolent Indian independence movement led by Gandhi.
1. Hello Padma. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. So I’m going to jump right in and start off by asking what drew you to historical fiction, and your setting in particular.
Interestingly enough, what drew me to history was a question of current relevance, which is the central question that fuels the plot in CLIMBING THE STAIRS – the meaning of violence and nonviolence and the role of each within ourselves as individuals as well as in society at large.
When I started writing CLIMBING THE STAIRS, in 2003, I was the head of a school in England. Every day, I saw students faced with different kinds of violence – overt and subtle – name calling, bullying, and caste-like cliques. At that time, I had also chosen to become an American citizen and thus was particularly concerned about the Iraq war – and the larger issue of war itself. As I grappled with the question of whether a person should ever act violently, and of when, if and why a nation or a person should ever take up arms, my mind flew back to a different era, a different circumstance, a different culture, in which people I knew and loved had debated those same questions.
India, 1941. The time of Hitler and of Mahatma Gandhi. A setting of unparalleled contrast, I think, in which that timeless debate over violence and nonviolence and the meaning of war and peace was especially poignant.
2. What type of research did you do for Climbing the Stairs?
Visited libraries in Britain, America and India, read several books written during and about the time, read newspaper articles published at the time in India and across the world, looked through old family photographs and letters, and interviewed several people who had lived through that period, as well as people who had experienced peace marches in America during the Civil Rights movement – because their experience was in some ways similar to those of the Gandhian freedom fighters in India.
3. Along the same lines, did you encounter any problems when researching (or writing) this novel?
Not while researching, but while writing, yes. I was shocked to see the level of cruelty meted out by the British as well as the way this cruelty has been covered up by the world – even justified, occasionally. And in spite of making this discovery, I wanted to be sure I kept that question of what it means to be a colonial power open-ended just as I did every other question in the novel – I wanted to be sure I portrayed good British people and didn’t end up taking sides on that thorny issue of the possible benefits of colonial rule.
4. What was one piece of interesting information you had to leave out of the finished book?
Several. American readers often find it hard to fully grasp the politics and power-struggles that women participate in while living in an extended family household. There were several cruel incidents I witnessed or heard about of women ill-treating one another – which I cut out of the finished book, so that the nasty “periamma” is far less nasty in CLIMBING THE STAIRS than many actual matriarchs were in real life.
5. What do you hope readers took away from your novel, particularly in terms of the time period?
I hope that as they climb the stairs with Vidya, they will not only notice the differences between her life and thiers, but also see beyond it, to the universal struggles of the characters that transcend time and place and culture.
Kitta’s inner debate about violence is nothing if not relevant in America today. And his choice is the choice made by every American soldier who fights for freedom across the world. Appa’s sacrifice is no different than the sacrifice made by those who fought alongside Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, nor is his dedication to the ideal of nonviolence different from that of Jane Addams and Julia Ward Howe and other Americans who were devoted to peace. And the hope that Vidya preserves in the face of the oppression she endures is not just my mother’s hope, it is the hope for freedom that every oppressed minority must preserve in the face of inequality, anywhere, at any time, in our shared human history.
So CLIMBING THE STAIRS isnot just about a girl growing up in another culture. It is also about the the courage that human beings across the world to believe in themselves and their chosen way to fight for freedom; it is about climbing the stairs from the violence that is within us all toward the light of peace that also shines within each of our hearts; and it is about the validity of varied answers to a single question and about respecting and truly accepting our differences and diversity when we disagree. And that, if nothing else, makes CLIMBING THE STAIRS an American and a universal book.
6. Did you pull from your own/your family’s experiences when writing Climbing the Stairs?
Yes, indeed. The first character who formed in my mind was not Vidya, the narrator, but her brother, Kitta. Kitta’s character is based on that of a grand-uncle of mine. He embodies the novel’s central question about violence versus nonviolence. His struggles personify that contrast.
Yet, when I began writing, I didn’t hear him. Instead, I heard the voice of a teenage girl. I saw an image similar to that on the cover of CLIMBING THE STAIRS – a young girl, standing at the foot of a forbidden staircase in her grandfather’s extended family home, where men lived upstairs, and the women who lived below were meant to be married, not educated. And I knew she would take the risk to climb those stairs because she was my mother. And Vidya’s character is largely inspired by my mother’s and the thread of Hindu philosophy which is woven into the book came through my mother, because it is important to her. Then again, Vidya isn’t just my mother. Her personality is very much her own, and her story undoubtedly owes something to all the women I knew who grew up in the 1940’s and were successful in their searches for personal expression.
And really all the characters and incidents in CLIMBING THE STAIRS are based on truth – gleaned from letters, interviews, and so on. My father participated in India’s freedom struggle, as Vidya’s does in the book, although the resemblance ends there; thatha’s character was inspired by that of my own grandfather; Raman’s choice of a place to study was the same as my uncle’s; Rifka’s character is based on some Indian Jewish friends of mine and my sister’s; all Vidya experiences in the extended family household draw on real incidents.
7. Do you have other eras you’d like to explore (writing wise)? What are some of your other favorite time periods (in general)?
Several other eras I’d like to explore, but I can’t really pick favorites…except perhaps to say that the past excites me more as a writer than the future. Perhaps I will write about the future someday, but I don’t see it happening yet.
8. I read that you are currently working on a new novel titled Island’s End. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
I am indeed! Island’s End is about a tribe in the Andaman Islands (which is part of India). I spent a year on these islands and was privileged to have contact with some of the indigenous people there, who look “African” and live in the forests in much the same way that our ancestors did. The tribes are only now coming into contact with our modern “civilization” and the novel explores the tension between these ancient people and the brown-skinned settlers who come from the Indian mainland. It is written in the voice of a girl who is training to be the tribe’s leader and must battle to preserve the tribe’s culture in her rapidly changing world.
9. Do you plan on writing any more historical novels? (If Island’s End isn’t a historical novel.)
10. What are some of your favorite historical novels?
My favorite historical novelists for kids: Rosemary Sutcliff and Scott O’Dell.
11. And lastly, I’m always curious to know what other authors are reading. What books are on your to read list?
Jerry Spinelli’s LOVE STARGIRL has been on my list for ages and ages. Also Sneed Collard’s DOG SENSE and Kelly Easton’s THE OUTLANDISH ADVENTURES OF LIBERTY AIMES and Sally M. Walker’s next book whatever it is – in large part because they are writers I know and have a great affection for.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Padma’s novel has received many awards including Winner 2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club Young Readers Award, 2009 Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the year, 2009 ALA/YALSA Best Book of the Year, Booklist Editor’s Choice Best Books of 2008, 2009 NYPL Books for the Teen Age, 2009 Cooperative Children’s Book Center choice, National Council of Social Studies /CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book 2009, Capitol Choice, 2009, Shortlisted for Maine State Awards, Shortlisted for Utah State Awards, Children’s Literature Network Top 25 07-08, ALA/Amelia Bloomer 2009 Book, Starred Review, Booklist, Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, Starred Review, VOYA, Booksense Notable, Shortlisted for RARI, Booklinks Best New Books, and Publishers Weekly Flying Start. We wish her continued success and look forward to Island’s End.
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