Celebrate Gender Expression with a South Asian Focus: An Interview with Jyoti Rajan Gopal About MY PAATI’S SARIS
At this exact moment in time there are libraries across the country being forced to remove or restrict books where characters, be they penguins or people, have the freedom to express themselves and declare who and what they love. The answer to this, I should think, is obvious. Let us flood the market, my friends. Let us create an unceasing tidal wave of books on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. And, in the ultimate act of defiance, let us make them be really good books. Books where the plot is far more than a declaration of who a person is. Books with plot. And, better still, books not restricted within the borders of the U.S.
Today book checks all of those boxes. But what’s weird about today’s book is that it’s the rare case where it actually came out . . . wait for it . . . last year. I know! I never do that! But My Paati’s Saris, which ended up being a School & Library Journal Best Picture Book of the Year as well as a New York Public Library Best Book For Kids of 2022, is the book I want to talk about today. In a country where so many push us to be only one way, it’s good to see books that break that binary.
The publisher describes the book this way:
“A Tamil boy explores his love for his grandmother and her colorful sari collection in this tale of expressing your true self.
Another exciting day with Paati begins with a host of fun activities done in preparation for tonight’s party; threading flowers into garlands for decoration, going to the market, and helping her in the kitchen with the scent of sambar in the air.
Through it all the boy finds comfort in Paati’s sari, whether he’s wrapped in its colors for dress-up or clutching its folds for comfort. Each sari holds a story—ones that speak to him, but most important of all they allow him just to be.
With joyful text by Jyoti Rajan Gopal and dazzling art by Art Twink, My Paati’s Sari is a commemoration of how clothing can convey tradition and individuality, and connect us to both our families and ourselves.”
Today I’m speaking with author Jyoti Rajan Gopal about what makes this book tick:
Betsy Bird: Jyoti, thank you so much, for talking with me today. So let’s talk shop! Like a lot of librarians I’ve a bottomless pit of appreciation for process a.k.a. how any given book comes to be. So please, Jyoti, how did you come up with the story?
Jyoti Rajan Gopal: Thank you for having me – I’m a huge fan!
I love saris – the patterns, the colors, their versatility, their history, the memories they hold, the way they make me feel when I wear one. Both my mom and my paati passed down their love of saris to me, and when I started writing for children, I was sure that at some point I would write a picture book about saris. I really thought it would be more of a non-fiction picture book.
But a small moment in my Kindergarten classroom with a student and a sari ignited the spark that led to this book. That moment took me back to days of playing dress up with my brother, that feeling of freedom and joy, memories of my paati, and I decided I wanted to explore those themes in a story about saris.
BB: I’d love to talk about gender expression in picture books published in the United States at this time. I’ve not seen many titles that have focused on South Asian kids and their culture. So, first, can you talk a bit about the importance of creating this book in the first place? What are you hoping it can provide that other books on the market today cannot?
JRG: When my daughters were little, they didn’t see their Tamil identities reflected in picture books. And while I was grateful for the few middle grade books we found with Indian American main characters, they tended to represent a very specific immigrant narrative. These stories are so important, and they are not enough. It’s heartening to see how much has changed and expanded since then, but there’s room for so much more!
When I first started writing MY PAATI’S SARIS, I wasn’t setting out to write a book about gender expression necessarily. I wanted to share my Tamil heritage and the tradition and beauty of the sari while also telling a story rooted in how clothing and people can be safe harbors. As I wrote and rewrote it, it grew into a story about family, lineage, and loving relationships that provide security, comfort and the freedom to explore, regardless of how one identifies.
While we are incredibly lucky to now have a variety of picture books about gender expression, I hope this book expands that conversation beyond the more common Western centric narrative and that it feels inclusive for a broader audience. Art Twink’s illustrations are just glorious and have added beautiful layers and thoughtful details that really make this book far beyond anything I ever imagined could be.
BB: Can you tell me a little bit about the choices you didn’t make for this book? Were there any ideas that you rejected? Or any first drafts that weren’t quite where you wanted to go?
JRG: While the story was always about a young boy and his grandma, initially the narrative focused more on the saris themselves as seen through the boy’s eyes – their colors, the different fabrics, the patterns, their richness. I was reading a lot about saris and their history, and I think that was bleeding into the story in ways that felt less personal. So, I put all that reading aside.
Once I concentrated on the relationship between the little boy and his paati, it all fell into place.
BB: When picture books embrace themes of self-expression and independence, I worry that there’s always a danger of them all ending up feeling samey. This book, in contrast, has a distinct point of view and, quite frankly, joy. How did you make sure that this specific culture shone through throughout the book?
JRG: It was so important to me that this be a story of joy and celebration, so I love that this stands out for you Betsy. I find that often, tension and conflict seem to be an inherent part of stories about identity and belonging, and again, while these are important stories and must be told, I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to immerse readers in the sights, sounds, smells, textures of a day in the life of Paati and her grandson, and through that emphasize the tenderness of their relationship. It’s all those little things that families do for each other that reveal love and care isn’t it?
In my community, I think we more readily accept fluidity in gender play and expression when children are little. Why do we let that go as our children grow older? There’s such power in our families and communities to nourish and care for our young people. I hope this book serves as a reminder that no matter their age, and no matter how they identify, our children always need us to be their shelter and their home.
BB: That’s lovely. Finally, what can we hope to see next from you?
JRG: I have several picture books coming out over the next few years, which is very exciting! Two in 2023, DESERT QUEEN (Levine Querido) and ONE SWEET SONG (Candlewick), two in 2024, SISTER DAY (FSG) and LOVE IS HERE WITH YOU (Candlewick), and two that have yet to be announced.
While I do write stories that speak to my Desi identity, I also write stories about the natural world, the environment, about subjects that have sparked my curiosity and led to deep dives of research. I am currently out on submission with just such a non-fiction manuscript that I love so much and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good news!
That was lovely! Many thanks to Jyoti for taking the time to answer my questions today. And many thanks too to Kaitlin Kneafsey and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for setting this up. My Paati’s Saris is on bookstore and library shelves everywhere, so check it out today!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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