Welcome to the Q&A for the April edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
This month I’m talking with author Sayantani DasGupta and giving away one signed copy of her demon-filled and very funny new middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic Press).
In its starred review of The Serpent’s Secret, Booklist writes, “Inspired by Bengali folktales, this is an exciting, fantastical debut grounded by Kiran’s wry, clever voice and her experiences as a child of immigrants. With a vibrant supporting cast, a world steeped in Bengali folk stories, and an action-packed story line, this is a series starter that rivals Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (2005). A breathtaking adventure.”
If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of The Serpent’s Secret to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on April 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Sayantani DasGupta.
Chris: You’ve written about how your own children’s love of the Percy Jackson books helped inspire The Serpent’s Secret (“a story in which my own kids could see themselves being brave, dashing, smart, funny, strong and true”). Was the freshness of these Bengali folktales to American readers — compared to the familiarity of the Greek myths adapted by Rick Riordan — liberating to you as a writer, or did you feel a responsibility to be faithful to elements of these stories that you grew up with?
Sayantani: The Serpent’s Secret draws from many beloved Bengali children’s stories and folktales — regional stories that have, for the most part, an oral tradition to begin with. These were tales my grandmothers and aunts would tell to me when I was young, and would go on my long summer vacations to Kolkata, India. Even then, I was aware that each teller would slightly change the story as they were telling it, adding their own embellishments and moral lessons. (Say, if a cousin had been caught lying that day, suddenly a character in the story might have to face consequences for lying too!) Because oral stories have this tradition of adapting to context, of changing at each telling, I actually felt free while writing The Serpent’s Secret to mix and match, trying to stay true to the heart of any one character or story, but simultaneously putting them in a 21st century diasporic context.
Kiranmala, my heroine, is a Bengali folktale heroine — she comes from this story called “Arun, Barun, Kiranmala.” In the original folktale, Kiranmala’s older brothers Arun and Barun go off on adventures, leaving her at home because she’s the youngest and she’s the girl. Of course, when they get in trouble, it’s Kiranmala who has to go save them — so it’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day, and I loved that even as a kid. So I wanted to stay true to that. But in The Serpent’s Secret, I got rid of Kiranmala’s brothers and made her the only daughter of loving, if kooky, immigrant parents living in New Jersey. Her friends, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, are princely brothers from an entirely different folktale, as is her talking bird companion Tuntuni. So clearly, I was playing fast and loose with many tales.
The one important point I want to make too is that while I draw from many children’s and folk stories, I don’t draw from myths in The Serpent’s Secret — in other words, stories based primarily on spiritual or religious traditions. While my own family’s particular identities undoubtedly creep into the novel, the Bengali folktales I draw from are regional not religious in nature — beloved by people of many faiths and multiple nations — both West Bengal, India and the country of Bangladesh as well, not to mention the entire Bengali speaking diaspora! I want to make that point because it’s really important to me that these wonderful stories don’t get falsely attributed to one nation of people or any one religious group. Bengal all used to be one common region prior to the bloody 1947 Partition of South Asia at the time India and Pakistan gained our independence from the British (Bangladesh later gained its independence from Pakistan in their own independence battle). So these are pre-partition stories shared by Bengalis of many faiths and nationalities!
Chris: With the arrival of The Serpent’s Secret, you’re now a published author of children’s books in addition to being a pediatrician and a teacher. Which of those three pursuits would be most surprising to those who knew you while you were growing up in Ohio?
Sayantani: While pediatrician, narrative medicine scholar, and children’s writer seem like they are three disparate careers, they’re ultimately each about giving and receiving stories, and being wholly present for another person. They’re also, of course, about power and justice — paying attention to issues like whose stories get heard and whose silenced, whose are centered and whose are marginalized. They’re about questioning who gets to tell the story, and who gets to be the hero.
As a lifelong lover of stories who grew up in an activist, immigrant household, I’m not sure any of my careers would surprise anyone who really knew me well as a kid growing up in Ohio. My best friend from third grade on is still a dear friend and actually flew out recently for the launch of The Serpent’s Secret. (Hi, Kari!) Would she be surprised at any of my careers? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. We were the kids who lived in the library and inside the pages of books, we were always imagining our way into fantasy tales or out into the galaxy through our favorite space shows and movies. We were into science, and we were into stories — so really no surprise my careers are at the intersection of those two things!
I’ve been so lucky — to be able to explore so many different approaches to my interests and passions, to be able to contribute to the world in these different ways.