Recently, after the outrage at the Singapore National Library Board’s (NLB’s) decision to pulp three picture books because of their “gay content”, the board backtracked and moved one of the titles to the adult section so that parents could decide if they wanted their child to read it. The book, And Tango Makes Three, is the true story of two male penguins raising a chick at the Central Park Zoo in New York.
“It is depriving Singapore’s children of a gentle introduction to what the world is really like,” says an angry Ovidia Yu. A playwright and novelist, Yu announced her resignation from the steering committee of the Singapore Writers Festival (of which NLB is a partner) to protest against the decision.
India hasn’t seen such developments in children’s publishing yet. Are Indian writers and publishers playing safe by ignoring such topics? Not really.
Many are considering LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) themes in books for young adults, or YAs (roughly, 12-17 years old). One of such early books was Payal Dhar’s A Shadow In Eternity, published seven years ago. Though it did not have gay children, it had adult characters that were gay.
Dhar’s next book, Slightly Burnt, to be published by Bloomsbury in December, is about a teenage girl and her best friend. “It’s a story about understanding what it means to be different,” says Dhar. Other publishers and authors are also looking at the genre with interest.
Duckbill Books has planned a November launch for its first LGBT-themed YA book, Talking Of Muskaan. Written by Himanjali Sankar, it has an LGBT theme. “But it also has other interesting ideas woven into it,” points out Sayoni Basu, publisher, Duckbill Books. Interestingly, Sankar is the editor of Dhar’s book.
Tulika Publishers’ forthcoming YA non-fiction, Big Hero, Size Zero: Gender Talk, deals with LGBT issues among other gender-related issues. HarperCollins has scheduled an early-2015 launch of Judy Balan’s second book in the series, Nina The Philosopher, and it will feature a gay character. “It’s a style that children will relate to because it’s really non-preachy,” says Manasi Subramaniam, commissioning editor and rights manager, HarperCollins India.
Penguin Books India (now part of Penguin Random House India), surprisingly, hasn’t got into the act yet. “The reason is simply because we haven’t found the right voice so far, but the search is on,” says Hemali Sodhi, director, children’s books, Penguin Random House India. Although YA is part of its active publishing programme, LGBT fiction is restricted to international titles so far. “But it’s refreshing that today’s generation reads about real issues that they feel a connection with,” adds Sodhi.
YA is where most new LGBT fiction is appearing, probably because young adulthood is a time when people find out about themselves—who they are, and who they are attracted to. It could be an eye-opener for readers as well—reading about similar situations may help them feel less alone and less likely to condemn and bully other young people who may be different. “LGBT children are invisible and unacknowledged in our society and it’s about time they got even a teeny hint that they are not alone,” says Dhar.
Speaking of hints, Chennai-based Tulika Publishers has a book about homes and families—Home, by Nina Sabnani, published first in 2009, and going in for a reprint soon—that has a visual of a same-sex family. Just as the book shows structures made of brick, thatch, or a pipe on the road as homes of people, it shows large and small families, a single-parent family and a same-sex couple with a child.
The pictures are there for the adults to explain that people, homes and families can be different. Children can absorb the details and come up with more questions. “With increasing awareness of LGBT issues, it is but natural that such themes will be reflected in books for children, pre-teens and teens. What matters is how sensitively and imaginatively such issues are dealt with,” points out Radhika Menon, publisher, Tulika Books.
Another Tulika title, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet, is a diary of a 12-year-old girl who talks about all the things that she is concerned or curious about, including gay relationships. “As publishers,” says Menon, “we don’t believe in taboos in children’s books.” Others might, though.
It is no secret that librarians and teachers in schools look askance at what they consider irregular. LGBT fiction will have a hard time getting past first base. “I hope that librarians and schoolteachers are evolved and intelligent enough to include books that deal with life and reality,” says Diya Kar Hazra, publisher, trade, Bloomsbury India.
Books like Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series, which deals with bullying, get the boot in most school libraries and book fairs. A book with the word “fart” or “kick-ass” is enough to send the guardians in their ivory towers into hysterics. Booksellers at book fairs in schools have hilarious stories about innocuous books being swept aside because of the name or a blurb. What chance does a genre like LGBT fiction stand?
“I can’t understand why pretending something doesn’t exist is more comforting than coming to a proper understanding of it. But that is how hetero-normative societies work—the very suggestion of ideas that are outside the tight boundaries of their existence send them into a paroxysm of fear and outrage which is almost quaint in its naiveté,” says Sankar.
Is it a misguided sense of what is right and wrong that makes librarians do this? Or is it the apprehension of a backlash from overprotective parents? A few librarians feel that it is not their duty to go chop-chop. Sadly, they are in the minority.
What happens when self-appointed guardians of morals or culture decide to censor what they feel is out of order? Does such an eventuality make publishers nervous? There are enough examples of intolerant “gatekeepers”, more so in recent times.
“The number of YA books sold is so small that I am sure the gatekeepers have better gates to keep,” says Basu of Duckbill. Younger children, however, are guided by what parents think is suitable—even though such fears may be unjustified.
There is another danger. “The moment you start censoring you begin killing the desire to read and affect their reading habits,” warns Kar Hazra. The truth is that most children are quite matter-of-fact and non-judgemental about things that adults feel will scar them for life.
“Sometimes, it might not be a bad idea to discourage a child from reading a book you think they are not ready for—war or relationships or whatever you think they will not have the maturity to understand,” says Sankar. She, however, doesn’t mind her daughters reading what they want to.
But what if a government body—or the government—does what the NLB did? “The government and authorities don’t stop children from eating sweet drinks and deep-fried fatty fast foods, which are probably more damaging, do they?” is Yu’s stinging retort.
If they sense resistance, will publishers opt to sell in safer markets and avoid others? While some authors feel that being selective could help a book reach more people in what they call a “supportive” market, publishers don’t.
The reality is that publishers in India—especially of children’s books—are busy getting books to as many store-shelves as possible. Choosing a market is not an option for them.
The author is founder director of Bookaroo, a children’s literary festival.