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Writers Against Racism: Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives and writes in northwest New Mexico. 

She is the author of a dozen books for young readers. Among them are picture books including Chachaji’s Cup and Monsoon, early readers (Yoga Class, Holi), and a middle grade novel, Naming Maya.

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

I grew up in India and it wasn’t so much about racism, although I certainly grew up with other negative "isms." I’ve written in this blog post about how the privileging of English texts over ones in Indian languages had an impact on my childhood reading and on diminished fluency in my native language:   

They hardly even acknowledged that India existed, and when they did they often showed it in a light that was less than flattering. So I didn’t even have to live in a foreign land that didn’t value my culture, to have this experience of what happens when you don’t see yourself in a book.

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?  

I’ve been in the US since 1979, and I’ve seen racism take more and more subtle forms, become more nuanced. Back when I was in graduate school, it used to be teenagers yelling slurs as they drove past a group of us "foreign students.’ Now, it frames the conversation in ways that aim to drive the elephant from the room, as when people insist they’re color-blind. Oddly, I don’t know a single person of color who claims that! A long time ago, I left a writing group in tears when someone in the group suggested I assume a pseudonym and write stories about "regular" kids. As if my name, and the South Asian kids in my stories were, you know, irregular! And I had to wonder, when I began to submit work to publishers in the early 90’s, whether there was some rule that people from my part of the world could only be shown as illiterate and barefoot-and far away. I’m stubborn, though, so all these things only made me more determined to write the stories I wanted to write.

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance? 

I’m no expert in the uses of literature to achieve social justice, but I do believe that children should read a lot, and read for pleasure, and that the present diversity in books for young readers could be even greater and even richer. And oh, please, we must somehow keep our public libraries alive. 

Uma is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Aline Pereira of PaperTigers describes as remarkable, Uma’s "commitment to good books for children and young adults related to South Asia and the South Asian diasporas and to promoting understanding within and across cultures."  For more, please visit Uma’s blog, Writing With a Broken Tusk.


  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Uma! Linguistic India is a passion of mine. I have to tell you, though, that when our Indian Fulbright came a couple of years ago to teach Hindi at our university I was a bit disappointed that our city’s Indian community (which is relatively large) wasn’t as excited as I was. In fact, one of my Indian colleagues at the university said, “But we all speak English!” (I know not everyone gets as excited about linguistic diversity as I do!) I’m glad that you didn’t let that person talk you into changing your name and writing about “regular kids.” How asinine! Why can’t we in this country celebrate all of the heritages that make up the United States? Thank you for doing such a fantastic job with India. I think your books are very special!

  2. Oh, no. Write for “regular” kids under a pseudonym?! Man, I hope someone said something, even if you could not. That’s just insane.

    Thank you for persevering in spite of everything, I enjoyed your cute Yoga Class book, and look forward to reading more of your work for older readers.

  3. write about “regular” kids? People from different culture backgroudns aren’t “irregular!” Grrr. That kind of thing makes me so mad! I’m so, so glad you were stubborn and didn’t listen.
    I haven’t read Naming Maya yet but I plan to soon!
    I wholeheartedly agree that diversity in children and young adult books could be so much greater (although I think there is way more diversity in children’s books than young adult books).
    Thank you for sharing! :)

  4. Yes, I think you should write about regular kids. Regular kids exist in every culture and every place on earth. They play, love, suffer and struggle to grow up, just like we did as kids. Your answer should have been, “I am writing about regular kids. I don’t write about stereotypes.” Ignorance often causes us to say stupid things. That’s why reading is so important. We can learn so much from reading books about people and places which are different from those which surround us, thereby avoiding some of those stupid comments. As a child I traveled, experienced adventures, and fell in love through books. As an adult I have realized those books helped me accept everyone I met as regular – and to ignore those who treated me differently because I knew they just didn’t understand how alike we really are. I’m also pretty good at Trivia games because of the variety of books I’ve read.Thanks for being persistent and writing what you know for those of us who didn’t know and for those who were looking for someone like them in the books they read.

  5. I have never understood the color blind declaration

    I hate when I hear someone say I don’t see color when I read only people.

    To me that’s like saying I don’t see gender when I read only bodies

    We should be encouraged to appreciate and talk about differences. Talking can lead to common ground, respect and understanding.

    But taking the color blind approach to reading helps no one and its wrong.

    Uma, thank you for telling your stories and not listening when someone said tell stories about so called “regular kids”

  6. Suzi Steffen says:

    Those of you who haven’t read NAMING MAYA, you’re in for a stunning treat. Really gorgeous language! Also, it’s not mentioned in this post, but Uma has written great pieces for the award-winning and fantastic children’s magazine Kahani (which Fuse #8 blogged about on SLJ, but I can’t actually link the hypertext in this comment, unfortunately).

    And her blog “Writing with a Broken Tusk” is a lovely fount of info and good writing. Great choice, SLJ!

  7. Amy Bowllan says:
  8. Richard Crasta says:

    My books “The Killing of an Author” and “Impressing the Whites” both tell similar stories. It is amazing how much of Obama’s success in becoming President, and perhaps winning a Nobel, has to do with my prescriptions in “Impressing the Whites.” Both books are available at my website .
    richard crasta