Thursday, April 28, 2016
It is always a pleasure to read and spotlight teen lit that features underrepresented or marginalized characters -- after all, that's the mission of YA Diversity Book Club -- but it is a particularly special honor to have S.J. Laidlaw, author of our April pick Fifteen Lanes, here to talk about some of her incredible life experiences and how they inspired her latest novel.
Please describe your book in a sentence or two.
Set in Mumbai, Fifteen Lanes is the story of an impoverished sex worker’s daughter on the brink of being trafficked and a privileged but socially shunned Western girl, whose lives intertwine in a triumph of empathy over ignorance.
What was your inspiration for writing this book?
I spent over two years volunteering at NGOs that worked to prevent second generation trafficking in Mumbai, India. And I’ve spent many years counseling depressed teenagers clinically and in international schools.
One of the things that really surprised me about working with girls in the red-light district of Mumbai was how strong they were compared to many of the wealthy expat kids I’ve worked with. These brothel-raised girls are exposed to soul-destroying horrors and humiliations but somehow most of them rise above it. One thing is that they don’t consider themselves victims and definitely don’t want to be seen as such. I was constantly in awe of their resilience and determination. It was a story I had to tell.
What kind of research did you have to do to make sure your characters were authentic?
I’ve worked as a counselor in international schools and clinical settings for a long time, so that part of the research was already done, though I did interview the principal of the international school in Mumbai to discuss some of the cultural nuances I wanted to capture, for example attitudes toward homosexuality among her wealthy Indian students.
I spent more than two years volunteering at a night shelter in Kamathipura, the largest red-light district in Asia. I also tutored daughters of sex workers in my home and visited many organizations that provided support for the children of sex workers, including rescue homes and homes for HIV-infected children.
In addition, I attended a countrywide conference on sex trafficking in India and edited a national report on sex trafficking for Dasra, one of India’s largest strategic philanthropy organizations. The latter forced me to read extensively on sex trafficking so I could understand how the industry functioned.
The story is told in the alternating first-person voices of an Indian brothel-raised girl and a Western girl, both of whom experience sexual violence. I also included a gay Indian boy, who’s struggling to come out to his family and friends. I wanted to include him for the many Asian boys I’ve counseled who’ve struggled with this. As hard as it is to be gay in Western culture, it’s even harder in most Asian cultures, including India.
How does the diversity in your book relate to your life?
I left Canada when I was 21 years old to teach in a remote village in Africa. I spent close to three years in Africa. Often I was the only white person that people had ever seen. Some children in my village would run from me screaming. Others would stand at my window and watch me for hours, like I was a zoo animal. Most of the time I just read, or planned lessons, or marked papers, so I was the most boring zoo animal on the planet. But I learned what it felt like to be judged by my skin color. I also learned that a color is just that, nothing more. Even culture is an artifice to some extent. There are differences but they’re insignificant compared to the commonalities we all share that transcend culture.
Since that early beginning, I’ve continued to live and work overseas, mostly in the developing world. My students and counseling clients have always been racially, culturally and religiously diverse. Many are non-white and either Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. Where I live, white kids are the minority.
When I do author visits now, I’m typically speaking to mostly, if not entirely, non-Western kids because I live in Asia and I speak to local as well as international school groups. I don’t know if I’d even be capable of writing a story about entirely mono-cultural kids. That hasn’t been my life experience for more than twenty-five years.
What are some of your favorite YA books about diverse characters?
I hate to choose favorites partly because I have a lot of author friends and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone off the list but also because I read voraciously and usually my favorite is the last book I’ve read. Today it’s Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan, which I finished reading yesterday! I’m also uniquely proud of the Gilded series, by Christina Farley, which draws on her years working in Korea. Christina and I have been critique partners for years.
I could read you some of the titles on my bookshelf that are staring at me as I answer these questions: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Lost Girl Found, Sold, I Am Taxi, Chanda’s Secrets, Copper Sun, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, Pigeon English, My Name is Parvana, Does My Head Look Big in This, Half of a Yellow Sun, Monster, I am Malala, The Alchemist and a bunch of adult books, many of which also feature diverse characters.
When I go into a bookstore I always scan the shelves for books set in foreign countries, with diverse characters, but truthfully I’m not sure I’m consciously thinking about promoting or supporting diversity. Those are just the books that interest me.
I enjoy books that help me to understand the world and different perspectives. I also look for books that resonate with me and because my life has been lived mostly in foreign lands, that results in choosing multicultural books. When I read Golden Boy I was transported back to my African home. I remembered the Albino boy in my village who the other children threw rocks at. I remember the hunted look in his eyes and our moment of kinship when I picked up a stick to chase off his tormentors.
What areas of diversity do you want to draw attention to or do you feel are underrepresented in books?
Personally, I’m interested in the lives of kids in the developing world who are marginalized through poverty, as well as ethnicity, gender or caste. I want to give a voice to children who have no voice. Someday I hope that they will have the education and freedom to tell their own stories but until that happens, I want to help bring their stories to light.
* * * * *
For more on FIFTEEN LANES, check out:
• Our group discussion at Teen Lit Rocks
• "Human Trafficking: Further Reading (and Fifteen Lanes book giveaway)" at The Reading Date
The entire YA Diversity Book Club archives can now be found on Tumblr, along with information about our upcoming book selections.
Next month we're reading THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi. Join us!
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