Fauja Singh Keeps Going: An Interview with Scholar and Activist Dr. Simran Jeet Singh
Sometimes I’m just chock full of interviews. In my defense, however, it’s not my fault that 2020 has turned out to be such a strong year for picture book Nonfiction! Biographies in particular are coming in from a variety of different areas, each more fascinating than the last. And few would contest that the subject of the picture book Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon doesn’t deserve his book ten times over. I mean, he was the first one hundred-year-old person to run a marathon. How you gonna resist a story like that?
But I am not interviewing Fauja Singh today. Rather, I’m more interested in the book’s author, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. The book’s publicist told me this about him:
“As one of the most influential and eloquent Sikh voices in the world today, there could not be a better author for Fauja’s story than Simran Jeet Singh. Featured by TIME as one of “16 People Fighting for a More Equal America,”Simran is a fervent supporter of the antiracism and representation movements, often taking to Twitter (@sikhprof) to join the discourse with his 85k+ followers. Most recently, Simran started an online video series called “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Antiracism”. Additionally, his pieces for the Religion News Service about COVID-19 and the Sikh community, including his own reflections after his entire family contracted the virus, have received thousands of shares on social media.”
Dr. Singh kindly agreed to answer my questions about this book.——-
Betsy Bird: First of all, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I know from your pieces for the Religion News Service about COVID-19 that your entire family contracted the virus. So to begin, how is your family right now?
Dr. Simran Jeet Singh: Thank you for asking. We are all well and healthy now, so we couldn’t be more grateful. It was scary to be infected, especially to see our young girls so sick. Coming out of a moment like that is a powerful reminder to stop taking life’s gifts for granted. –
BB: Although you’ve made a career of being a writer and journalist, Fauja Singh Keeps Going is your debut picture book. You are also the father of two small children. I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection or if you had intended to become an author for kids all along.
SJS: It’s funny you ask that. I’m blessed to have had many amazing experiences in my life, but I have to say that publishing this book is the first time I’m fulfilling a childhood dream.
Part of that dream comes from my own yearning as a child to see people who looked like my family in picture books. Growing up in South Texas with turbans and brown skin was isolating enough; to not even be represented in popular media made me feel even more alone. I wanted to write stories like these – in part – so that kids no longer had to feel as alienated as I did growing up.
BB: You’ve made a career of being a strong voice for the Sikh community. My confession to you is that until I saw your books, I didn’t realize that I had never seen Sikh characters in children’s books. Have you encountered other people who’d like to write books like yours about Sikh life and characters and realities? Do you think we’ll be seeing more in the near future?
SJS: Yes! There are so many coming forward these days, which makes me excited for all of our children. As I say in my inclusion trainings, if we can learn to see the humanity in those who seem most different from us, then perhaps we can learn to see the humanity in everyone we encounter. Here are a few of my kids’ favorite books at the moment that feature Sikh characters and stories:
- The Garden of Peace, Navjot Kaur
- The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, Supriya Kelkar
- Super Satya Saves the Day, Raakhee Mirchandani
- Ajeet the Invincible Lion, Bhajneet Singh
- Guru Nanak the Magnificent, Baljinder Kaur
BB: So, let’s get a bit into your own book. How did you first hear about Fauja Singh? What was it about him that spoke to you as a good candidate for a biography for kids?
SJS: I first learned of Fauja Singh while watching tv with my friends. He popped up on an Adidas ad, alongside sports legends Muhammad Ali and David Beckham. My jaw dropped upon seeing him, because I had never before seen someone with a turban and beard presented in a positive light on television. I had to learn more about this man, and the more I learned, the more inspired I became. The day he crossed the finish-line at the age of 100 was the day that I signed up for my first marathon, too!
I continued deriving inspiration from Fauja Singh over the years, and when my older daughter was born, I took her to meet him. He was 105 then, and I realized how much I would love for him to transmit some of his wisdom and qualities to her — the power of perseverance, finding joy in the struggle, defying odds and stereotypes and expectations.
It was in that moment that I realized how compelling a picture book about his life could be, and how much we all had to gain from his life could be.
BB: One of the things that impressed me the most about Fauja Singh’s story involved the choices you made in the narrative. Because for Singh it wasn’t a straight path from I Want to Run a Marathon to I Won! There were definite setbacks and challenges and problems and, quite frankly, outright failures. And when I read picture biographies, too often the authors want to make it seem like their subject’s life was some predestined sweet song. Did you always intend to show the full story or did it come out in the revision process?
SJS: It’s a lovely point. From the outset, I wanted to be intentional about presenting Fauja Singh’s story with authenticity. His struggles with disability as a child, his loneliness upon losing his wife and son and emigrating to a new country, his disappointment in a relatively poor performance at the New York City Marathon. These were defining moments in his life, and they help illustrate why Fauja Singh’s life is so remarkable. At the same time, you’re right to point out that this is not an easy task, and that there were many questions around how to depict these challenges in ways that were age-appropriate and that didn’t fall into problematic tropes (e.g., ableism, ageism). Fortunately, I worked with a fantastic agent and editor who helped me navigate these potential pitfalls, and with their help, we’ve nurtured a story that feels appropriately complex and authentic.
BB: Fauja Singh Keeps Going is not the only picture book biography out there to celebrate a centenarian, but it may be the first I’ve seen to discuss a centenarian athlete. What are you hoping kids take away from Fauja Singh’s story?
SJS: As a racial justice activist, it always comes back to teaching our kids to honor one another’s differences. Fauja Singh’s story is powerful in this regard because it opens up multiple entry points for conversations around power and privilege — ableism, racism, ageism, xenophobia. I will consider this book a success if it helps our kids see people with diverse identities as fully human, and I will be especially pleased if it helps them see people with diverse identities as fully capable of being our heroes.
BB: Last but not least, what are you working on next?
SJS: Thanks for asking! I’m enjoying my current show, where I spend time speaking to brilliant thought leaders about anti-racism. It’s called Becoming Less Racist, and it’s been such a balm in this time.
I’m also working on a book for adults, also with Penguin Random House, on Sikh wisdom for today’s world. It weaves together personal storytelling, experiences from my work on the frontlines of hate, and insights from Sikh teachings that help us understand how we might live in today’s complicated world without constantly feeling angry and frustrated. I’m hopeful it will be a timely contribution, as well as a meaningful addition to our diverse and anti-racist bookshelves.
Great heaping hunks of thanks to both Dr. Simran Jeet Singh and to Kaitlin Kneafsey at Penguin Young Readers for making this interview possible.
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