The Ms. Q&A: Sayantani DasGupta Wants to Empower Girls to Slay Their Demons

Sayantani DasGupta—featured on the cover of Ms. in 1992 with her mother as part of our “Feminist Mothers and Daughters” issue—is now writing a new world into existence for girls. Sayantani’s books include The Serpent’s Secret: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond (her debut children’s novel, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2018), Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor (reviewed by Ms.) and Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies. She is also faculty across three departments at Columbia University: the graduate program in narrative medicine, the Center for Comparative Literature and Society and The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

Ms. spoke with DasGupta—now a pediatrician, writer, activist and mother herself—about growing up in a feminist household, politically conscious parenting as an essential form of activism and the light her forthcoming book will shine for middle-grade girls by offering a new brand of she-ro that invites girls to be what they can see.

In 1992, you and your mother appeared on the cover of Ms. What did it mean to you at that point in your life to be considered among the “Hottest New Teams: Feminist Mothers and Daughters?”

It was an incredible honor to be featured on the cover of Ms., particularly in conjunction with that wonderful article about mother-daughter activists and change-makers. Having grown up in an antiracist immigrant feminist activist household, admiring such she-roes as Gloria Steinem and bell hooks, Angela Davis and Gloria Anzaldúa, I understood the role of Ms. in this country’s feminist consciousness. But while I appreciated the honor then, I’ve grown to cherish that cover more and more over the years, as I’ve grown to appreciate how deeply my feminist upbringing determined the course of my life.

What does it mean to you 25 years later, especially now that you’re the mother of a daughter?

I’m an only child and my mother and I were—and are—very close. In the 1970s, while she finished her PhD, I tagged alongside her. I hung out, a kind of a mascot, during her consciousness-raising group meetings. During my teenage years, she formed the first anti-domestic-violence organization among the South Asian American community, Manavi. So I had a beautiful model of how to be a feminist mother to a daughter. What I didn’t realize is how important it was to be a feminist mother to a son as well. Now, as a mother of a teenage son and daughter, I realize how critical it is to raise antiracist feminist children of all genders. I think that kind of politically conscious parenthood is an incredibly important form of activism.

The protagonist of your middle grade novel (The Serpent’s Secret: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond), is a sixth grader from New Jersey who discovers herself a demonslayer. What has it been like to create a girl hero of this age? What do you hope young readers will learn from Kiranmala?

I think of that saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If a young person never sees a hero of their gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, if they never see positive reflections of themselves in books and media, it becomes very hard to trust in the strength and heroism that undoubtedly lies with them. I wanted to create the kind of heroine I needed when I was young—an ordinary Desi immigrant daughter who grows to recognize her power only by accepting all the different parts of herself. Toni Morrison has that wonderful piece of advice, “If there’s a book you want to read, and it doesn’t exist, then you must write it.” And I was trying to write the book that I needed when I was younger.

Kiranmala is an ordinary sixth grader who discovers, on her 12th birthday, that her parents’ outrageous stories may actually be true—that she is really a powerful demon-fighting princess. While on one hand, the story is a fast-paced interdimensional romp inspired by the Bengali folktales I heard growing up—tales of flesh-eating rakkhosh, evil serpent kings, flying horses and talking birds. It is also an homage to immigrant families and, particularly, the strength of immigrant daughters. I hope that all young readers will read about Kiranmala, and realize that heroes come in all hues, shapes, abilities and genders. What I hope that young girls of color will see in Kiranmala is their own power and potential—their ability to slay whatever demons they encounter in their lives.

Kiranmala’s transition from average Jersey sixth grader to demonslayer comes when a rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. Working through a bit of doubt that she has what it takes, she rises to the occasion in this unfathomably dire situation. What are the elements that create heroes?

Yes, she does indeed rise to the occasion! In the same way that I discovered so much about myself by going on long summer vacation trips to India, my heroine Kiranmala ends up having to go across the galaxy, to the place her parents’ come from, to discover the truth about herself. It’s a story of having to go far away to finally meet your true self, and make your way back home. And I think that’s a common element of many hero stories, that the hero’s strength isn’t something gained, but rather, uncovered. In other words, heroism is something that was there all along, heroes simply need permission to tap into it, to recognize that part of themselves rather than hiding from it or denying it.

How is Kiranmala like and different from other fictional heroes that are available for this age readership?

As a child, I loved Madeline L’Engle’s books, particularly, A Wrinkle in Time. So this book has those mysterious elements of space and time and cosmology tucked into it. I was also inspired to write the book when my own children were becoming incredible fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. But Kiranmala isn’t exactly like Meg Murry, or Harry, or Percy. And yet, she is someone who has to travel across the galaxies find her parents, she has to learn to believe in her own power, and her adventure is inspired by cultural myths and stories. She’s also a brave, bow-wielding warrior, say like a Katniss Everdeen, but also irreverent and funny and as influenced by American pop culture as she is by Indian traditions, like Mia from The Princess Diaries. So needless to say, Kiranmala will appeal to fans of many different types of books, but she is ultimately her own person, her own new type of heroine.

You’ve written before about demonslayers in your book The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folk Tales. What is the role of demonslayers in the folklore of Bengal? Have women typically been the demonslayers? How has Bengali folklore influenced your work?

I love folklore and mythology, but I’m not one of those people who think that cultural stories are all the same the world over. In fact, I think that folktales and mythological stories from different cultures reflect the particular geographies, politics, beliefs, and histories of those places. Folk stories teach us about what is valued in a particular community—is it independence or interdependence? They teach us what ideal families look like in a community. Folk stories teach us about good and bad, what is to be feared and what is to be cherished. A region’s folktales teach the reader about the heart and soul of that place.

The flesh-eating, rhyming, ferocious and yet hilarious rakkhosh of Bengali folktales are a unique sort of creature. They are neither entirely evil nor are they entirely frightening. Yes, they eat people, so that’s not good. But there are lots of fantastic stories about rakkhoshis falling in love with mortal kings and hiding their identities—despite how delicious their stepchildren might smell. I draw from one of these classic demon-slayer tales, about the princely brothers Lalkamal and Neelkamal, in The Serpent’s Secret, as well as a different folktale about a young princess named Kiranmala who must ultimately rescue her less capable elder brothers. The Kiranmala story drew me because of its feminist implications: It is a story about female strength and smarts saving the day.

The Serpent’s Secret is at its heart an homage to Bengali folktales, as well as other beloved Bengali children’s tales. Of course, I combine stories and change them. But even though I change the details, I hope those familiar with these folktales will recognize my novel as the love-letter it is meant to be to Bengali children’s stories.

What does it mean to be an interdimensional demonslayer? What kind of knowledge is gained when switching dimensions that can be brought into this dimension?

Being an immigrant is, in a sense, being an interdimensional explorer, right? I mean, when I was growing up in Ohio, and I would go on these long summer vacations to my grandparents’ homes in Kolkata, there were times I would get off that 20+ hour plane ride to India, walking into that wall of humidity and heat, color and chaos, as soon as the plane doors opened, and I would feel like I hadn’t just entered a new country, but a whole new galaxy. Particularly back then, before my grandparents had TVs, before they had phones, before the internet even existed, I would feel like I had travelled to this magical land out of time, out of relationship to my life in America altogether.

And I think all of us who are immigrants, or third or fourth or fifth culture kids—we are interdimensional travelers. We code switch between different languages, communities, clothing, and ways of being. We, in the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, “put chile in the borscht, eat whole wheat tortillas, speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent.” We live at the borderlands of cultures, worlds, universes. We contain multitudes. So even though you can certainly read and enjoy The Serpent’s Secret as a fun intergalactic romp, it is this cultural multiplicity that is at the heart of Kiranmala’s superpowers. That is what I wanted to honor and celebrate.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the colorful, golden foil cover, featuring a powerful Kiranmala Desi, standing squarely on the head of a cobra, the moon at her back, her bow and arrow posed to be drawn? I’d imagine it’s a bit of a strange moment, seeing an artist’s visual interpretation of your text?

I am so thrilled with the beautiful cover, illustrated by Vivienne To and designed by Elizabeth Parisi at Scholastic. They are the artistic geniuses behind this image, although they were extremely gracious and collaborative about the choices they made. Does she look like a Bengali girl who lives in New Jersey? How active should she be? What should she be wearing? These were all conversations we had together, and I’m just thrilled with the bow-wielding, kurta and combat boot wearing end result. I’ve honestly never seen a cover like this before—a brown girl front and center, in control and powerful, smirking even. I think what Vivienne and Elizabeth have created is essentially a game-changer in middle grade fiction, and I’m so deeply honored that this is the cover that graces my debut novel!

You teach doctors and other heathcare professionals how to listen at Columbia. In your TED Talk and elsewhere, you’ve said that medical technologies have caused doctors to “push the storied heart of medicine to the wayside” and you’ve cited gaps in patient-physician relationship as being a “crisis of story.” Is this book a response in any way to that? Does it speak to the power of listening to stories? Or is it a track to something new entirely?

To me, being a Narrative Medicine/Health Humanities scholar, a pediatrician, a parent, and a writer of children’s fiction, it’s all a part of the same thing. Giving young readers a brown girl heroine—allowing readers to see themselves in her—that is a kind of storied medicine. It is critical, particularly for marginalized folks, folks who haven’t otherwise seen their stories told in mainstream books and media, to see their lives and experiences not only reflected, but reflected in all their variety and nuance. The novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks brilliantly, in her TED talk, about the danger of the singular story and the importance of therefore telling many stories. I couldn’t agree more.

I wanted to write a funny and fast fantasy adventure about an immigrant daughter heroine both because that’s the sort of book I like to read, and my children like to read, but also because I wanted to tell a different kind of Desi immigrant story. There is sometimes a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in telling and viewing and reading stories about the pain, the suffering of Black and brown people, Black and brown women in particular. We begin telling and re-telling a certain type of sad, suffering story, a singular story. We tell of Black and brown women’s oppression and not of Black and brown women’s strength, we tell of their suffering and not of their joy. So to me, this is all a part of the same work. To me, the Desi immigrant community experience is joyous, and quirky, and at times exasperating or complicated but certainly not tragic. I wanted to tell of an immigrant daughter who has joyous, quirky, madcap adventures on the road to finding herself, who comes to accept all of her nuanced selves, and thereby finds her own strength.

What do your students, colleagues, and (most importantly!?) your daughter think about your work on this book?

My students and colleagues don’t all know yet. It’s been a strange process of dropping it in conversation. The one set of students who did find out last semester were the students in my multicultural futurisms class. It’s a class I call “Visionary Medicine” and we essentially ask: What kind of imaginative acts are necessary to envision an anti-racist anti-sexist future? How can we imagine ourselves into a healthier society? Anyway, the book seemed relevant to talk about in the context of that class, and the students were incredibly supportive. I have really terrific students, I must say.

And my children, my son and daughter, are just thrilled. I started writing this story for them, when they were first discovering these sorts of novels. Of course, as publishing time works a bit differently than real time, they are teenagers now, but that means they can read my drafts and help me brainstorm plot points and give suggestions and critique. I always try out all the silly jokes on them.

It’s an incredible joy to share not only the novel with them, but role model for them that it’s never too late to begin a second, or third, or fourth career. It’s never too late to fulfill your dreams, no matter how many times you have to get rejected or things don’t go the way you planned. If nothing else, this publishing process has taught me the importance of a strong vision, but also, collaboration, humility, and patience. I’ve learned to enjoy the journey and I think that’s the best any of us can hope for. That, and the courage to slay whatever demons come our way.

Erin Wood writes and edits in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is editor of and a contributor to Scars: An Anthology, which assembles the work of nearly 40 contributors on scars of the body. “We Scar, We Heal, We Rise,” was chosen as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, The Woven Tale Press, Anderbo, Tales from the South, The Healing Muse and elsewhere. Visit her at woodwritingandediting.com

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