Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on Citizenship, Culture, and Community

Today is the release day of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, a middle grade historical novel about nine-year-old Maria Singh who longs to play softball. To celebrate, we interviewed author Uma Krishnaswami to find out more about her writing process and her inspiration behind Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh.

Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh highlights the little-known Mexican-Hindu community in northern California during World War II. How did you first hear about this community?

I heard rumors about them way back when I was growing up in India. We lived in Delhi, and an aunt of mine was going to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. The taxi driver who took her to the airport (along with a load of us relatives who went to see her off) talked about how his people, from the Indian state of Punjab, had been going to the US for years. In fact, he said, the first lot went a very long time ago and married “foreign” women and never came back. “American women?” someone asked him. He shook his head and said no, they were from somewhere else. I remember hearing similar stories on other occasions. Only years later did I come to know that these references might have been to the Punjabi Mexican families of Yuba City and further south, in Imperial Valley.

What was the inspiration behind your book?

If there was one in particular, I think it would have to be Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s documentary, “Roots in the Sand.” It made me think that this old story, which felt almost like folklore in my memory, could be turned into a novel for young readers and that I could perhaps do this work. Inspiration also came from a generous, soft-spoken man, Ted Sibia, who had collected a marvelous archive of photographs. Both those sources drew me in. They made me recognize this as an American story worth telling. A third source of inspiration was Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s poetry collection, Leaving Yuba City.

Roots in the Sand

Stories that include the complications of citizenship aren’t seen as widely in children’s literature. Why did you feel it was important to shine a light on this topic?

I think we tend to simplify history for children and indeed for ourselves. A single story usually emerges and it’s usually the story of the dominant culture. It’s understandable that every society wants its history to show a continuous linear progress. But history’s not like that. It can be a source of information but it also contains many cautionary tales.

As for citizenship, I could certainly relate. I was once an Indian citizen living in the US. Now I’m an American citizen living in Canada. But I live in a time when I have (or at least had at those junctures in my life) the freedom to make those choices. What was it like, I wondered, to have your choices hemmed in by discrimination and by arbitrary legal constraints? What was it like to be a child growing up in a community that had made, in Karen Leonard’s words, “ethnic choices,” creating its own unique culture against the odds? Who would such a child want to be? As I worked through the book, I began to see how relevant the story of the Punjabi Mexicans remains for us today.

Tell us about your research process. What was the most fascinating fact you discovered while doing research?

My research process sort of dragged me along with it. I was never in control, and that was fine. I watched that documentary—maybe fifty times!—soaking in the voices of the people in it, their gestures, their eyes, their stories, their joys, regrets, hopes, and sorrows. I began to read everything I could lay my hands on—newspaper articles, interviews, and Karen Leonard’s wonderful ethnographic study, along with many of the sources she cited and some of their sources as well. The newly founded South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) was a gift to me at just the right time. Later, when I went to Yuba City, I printed out a 1945 map at the library and walked around town with it, trying to place it in my mind as a kind of overlay. I was surprised to find that some things hadn’t changed. I could place some streets, even a few buildings, once I’d learned where to look. The Yuba City families were also incredibly generous. They shared their time and food and stories with me—they even gave me a couple of copies of family pictures. The research only began to make sense, however, when I set it aside and let the story emerge from it.

The most fascinating fact? I have to say there were two, both of which found places in the book. Firstly, that girls in the Punjabi Mexican families wanted to play ball, and that some of the fathers objected to the girls wearing shorts on the ballfield. Secondly, that Punjabis fought in World War II, even though they weren’t citizens. They hoped that military service would gain them citizenship, although there were no guarantees. They put their lives on the line for a country that was basically saying it didn’t want them. It was very moving.

What do you hope readers will take away from Maria’s story?

I hope they will see that community and caring cross boundaries of language and race. That friendship is a better choice than hatred and suspicion. I hope they will see that playing ball can be competitive but it can also be a way to come together and heal divisions.

Learn more about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh here.

Uma KrishnaswamiUma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Krishnaswami now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Visit her online at umakrishnaswami.org.

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