Published on August 27th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein0
“Sadness Amid Joy”: Lakshmi Iyer’s Middle-Grade Novel Brings New Perspectives to Adoption Literature
When my partner C.C. and I decided we were open to adopting a baby of any race, we dutifully completed each module of our agency’s mandatory online transracial adoption training. It took the better part of a day, but could be summed up as: “Racism exists, which is a thing that you, as a white person, may not be aware of” and “Here’s how to deal with the fact that strangers will know that you, a white heterosexual couple, didn’t birth your dark-skinned baby.”
C.C. is not a white person. I am, but I’m in a queer relationship, so the idea that strangers would assume the two of us made our child with our own bodies was never really on the table. Maybe it’s no wonder that, even as our son enters kindergarten, my ears still perk up whenever I encounter an adoption story–real or fictional–that acknowledges the not-so-crazy fact that people of color adopt children too. That’s one reason I appreciated Lakshmi Iyer’s MUTHA essay, “How to Make a Family.”
Iyer’s new middle-grade novel, Why Is My Hair Curly?, features a different adoption scenario: Indian parents who’ve adopted Avantika, the book’s narrator, and her younger brother from an orphanage near their home in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Avantika is a generally happy kid with natural curiosity about her birth family and frequent frustration with her hair. When a kind old woman with curly hair befriends her at the park, we wonder whether she might be a long lost relation, but Iyer eschews predictable plot developments in favor of something much warmer and lovelier.
I was excited to interview Lakshmi about the book, the narrative choices she made, and the juggling act that is writing, parenting, and working a day job.
Tell me a little about what inspired you to write Why Is My Hair Curly?
The book came to me in an unconventional fashion as I did not have a story and pitch it. The publisher reached out and basically commissioned the work. So, given the mandate to write a children’s book for 8-12 year-old kids, I started from what kind of books would I want my children to read. I definitely wanted them to read books where they can feel seen. I wanted them to hear the words they hear at home. I wanted for them to read about the foods that are familiar to them.
Living in the US, the diverse literature selections are fairly small. Even if I did pick out a book by a south Asian author, I am likely to find it whitewashed for the global audience.
Knowing all this, I started from the things I am intimately familiar with. Most mornings, getting my children ready for school starts with minor tussles about getting dressed and ready, about food. I often repent when I send my children upset about something. I apologize all the time. I worry about how they process being adopted. As a mother to three children who look different from each other, I am often at the receiving end of questions like “Why is my hair black?” or “Why is my skin different from my sister?”
All of these every day events and questions were the seed for the eventual book.
The protagonist, Avantika, is curious about her birth family, and in some ways the book is set up as a mystery. I don’t want to give away too much, but can you talk about the choice you made to let some of Avantika’s questions go unanswered?
The book is set in India, specifically south of India. Adoption in India is largely through a central system called CARA which matches families with a waiting list of children. There are no “official” private adoptions the way it works in the US. What this means is that very few adoptive parents have an idea of their child’s roots. There are rules and age limits as to when children can petition and get access to information housed with the various agencies loosely associated with CARA. Even when they do, societal stigma often prevents successful reunions. It is very rare for children to find their birth parents or have ongoing contact.
Knowing this and intentionally setting the book in India meant, I had to keep the book true to the ground reality.
What do you think is missing from adoption-themed literature for young readers, and how do you hope your book addresses some of those gaps?
When my daughters were young, I scoured my local library for books on adoption. We have a very open adoption with visits and everyday communication. Most books talked about children being the answers to adoptive parents’ prayers. Sometimes, they talked about how much they were yearned for and longed for and most books ended on a happy note telling the child that they were in a good place and everyone was happy.
As someone who lives it every day, the happy, happy, joy, joy narrative did not sit well with me. Even from the beginning my happiness was always tainted by the knowledge that another mom was grieving the loss of her children and my children are grieving the loss of their birth mom.
Openness in adoption themed literature seemed limited to events as in meeting birth family, sending pictures etc. What I wanted to show my children was that it is okay to feel sadness amid joy. It is okay to see your mom and dad talk about homecoming day and know that a day that was joyful for them was a hard day for them and their birth family.
Adoption is complex. This complexity only grows with time. Through this book, I wanted to let children know that big feelings are okay. I wanted to offer writing as a way of processing feelings. I also wanted to suggest that talking about worries with parents is okay. I wanted to do all of this without coming across as preachy or being on a soap box.
Only time will tell if my intent came through.
Have your daughters read the book (or have you read it to them; I know you have three, but I’m not sure of their ages)? What was their reaction?
Of my older twins, one child read most of the book. We listened to the book on Audible as a family. We sat in our family room cuddling with each other as we listened. It gave me a great opportunity to watch their reactions and see if the book hit the right notes. My twins would reach out and squeeze my hand where they thought they were heard or if they noticed something that we do at home found mention in the book.
For a few days after we listened to the book, I noticed they processed the book in layers. One day they would talk about Avantika’s struggles with her hair and why she wanted badly to fit in. They would relate it back to them in different ways. Another time, my youngest brought up the fact that the grandmother in the book seemed to understand Avantika so well. She was rooting for a different ending. They all noticed that adults in the book mirrored adults in their life.
Now, Avantika and Avnish come up as examples when [my children] try to explain how they feel. It has been a heartwarming experience to see them relate to fictional characters as real.
You’re raising your family in the U.S., but set the book in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. How did you arrive at that choice? Red Panda is an Indian imprint, but I hope and imagine the book will find an American audience as well, and children tend to acclimate quickly to unfamiliar literary/real-world environments (often more so than adults give them credit for).
The setting of the book was dictated in part because the publisher is India based. However, I took trouble to keep the location neutral as in, there are no landmarks, nothing to identify the city or the place in any specific way. This could be a city or town anywhere in the world. Walking to the park, interacting with strange adults, early morning tussles as the family scrambles to get ready for work and school, communication gaps – all of these themes are universal. Most of all, acceptance and the need to feel part of a whole is universal.
I grew up reading Enid Blyton and relating to blonde, blue eyed protagonists who were having adventures while I was sitting in a town in south India. I had no idea what treacle and scones were until I was in my mid-twenties. I traveled the world through books. I hope this book will be the portal to some blue-eyed, blonde haired child in America who reads about dosai chutney or kesari and looks it up on Google.
As a follow-up to the above, I have often been frustrated by how white the most prominent adoption stories are. Stories of transracial adoption tend to be about white parents adopting children of color, either internationally or domestically. But when I think about the adoptive families I know, this group includes lots of parents of color, some of whom–like yourself and your husband–have adopted white children. My own family includes one white mom (me), one Mexican mom, and our son, who is also Mexican; we’re hoping to adopt again and our next baby could be any race. All of which is to say: I found it really refreshing to read about adoptive parents of color. Was that something you were conscious of as you created the world of the book?
This is an interesting question. This was not as much a conscious choice as much as trying to write from a place of authenticity. The life I lead is the one I know best. Most of my work so far has been creative nonfiction. In creating a work of fiction, I have drawn from experience and the people in my life. For instance, the father character is an amalgam of the father I had and the father I wished I had. Setting the story in India made it imperative that the protagonists all had to be people of color. In the larger sense, this family could be of any homogenous identity and it would still work. In Avantika’s case, her hair marked her as different from her family. In another family, it could be skin color or a snub nose or chubby cheeks. The yearning to fit in is universal.
How do you balance (hahahaha…what is balance?) your work as an analyst with writing and parenting? Especially during a pandemic?
The biggest lesson I have learned is to let go of the notion I can do it all or even that I have to do it all. I have outsourced cleaning and yard work. On any given day, I prioritize what needs to be done and let go of other things. If writing takes priority, then I order take out. If a work deadline is staring me in the eye, I put away writing. The only thing I am sure to make a priority every day is sleep. It has been a lifesaver!