Author Sowmya Rajendran: Changing the World One Book at a Time
After only a 50-minute long conversation with author Sowmya Rajendran, I have gained a new perspective on what it looks like to be a writer and fight stereotypes in literature. It was an absolute thrill to talk to Ms Rajendran about gender equality, and the representation of people of different genders, castes and colours.
Personally, as a fan of her books, the conversation and information I got was eye-opening and inspiring. That’s because as a girl in the nine-grade, I grew up wishing to see more female characters in books who looked like me. It was so refreshing to talk to Ms Rajendran and see that her feminist spirit and passion for equality reflects in her personality, just like it does in her books.
As you read on, I hope you get hooked on interesting insights into how the author incorporates these illuminating themes in her stories. All of which is evident in her books, ‘The Weightlifting Princess’, ‘Girls To The Rescue’, ‘The Pleasant Rakshasa’, ‘The Boy Who Asked Why’ and the Mayil Series.
So, let’s dive right in!
Diving Into her Passion for writing
When asked about her first experience publishing a book, Ms Rajendran lit up, saying , “I just looked at the manuscript guidelines on the Tulika website, and then sent it off. I think the website said, you will hear from us after three months. So obviously, at the very end of three months, I mailed them saying, do you want the story or not?
I remember it was around 10:30 pm, when I checked the acceptance email confirming they wanted to publish my book. I was so happy I ran to my parents’ room. They were fast asleep and I yelled and I woke them up, saying “You know what? I’m going to get published,” to which they replied,”Oh, Okay.” and they went back to sleep. The rest of it is just a blur. I was so happy that even if they had told me that I had to stand upside down and do the book launch, I would have agreed to it.”
I hope to one day share the joy of being a published author, but in the meantime, I do resonate with Ms Ranjendran about why she started writing.
“When I started writing, I realised that it was easier for me to process everything that was happening to me. So, if I wrote down something that happened to me, something that I felt bad about, or something that I enjoyed, I felt that it helped me deal with my emotions better. I think that is still my most favourite part about writing, that I get to know myself more.”
Writing is a beautiful expression and art form, and just like the author, I too, write to let out my emotions. Poetry is one particular format that I love to explore. However, maybe in the future, I can create stories and characters just like Ms Rajendran.
Diving Into the Characters
Ms Rajendran’s writing is very personal to her, and most of her characters are inspired by the people in her life. It was very interesting to hear that Mayil, from the Mayil Series goes through many of the same experiences that she and co-author, Niveditha Subramaniam have gone through over the course of their lives.
“When I create characters, they reflect the emotions that I felt at some point in my life. I feel that creating characters based on reality lends to that authenticity, so your readers are also able to relate to it,” says Ms Rajendran.
I found it fascinating that the author put so much of herself into her book. Many characters represent versions of herself, which is the case with her book, ‘Girls to the Rescue.’ “I wrote that book at a period in my life when I was very, very tired. My daughter was very young at the time and Sleeping Beauty in that story is quite representative of the life that I was leading. There is this queen who just wants a baby who will sleep so that she can go and write a book. So there’s a lot of me in that story.”
Ms Rajendran goes on to explain how she takes inspiration from her daughter and how it helps her get a clearer understanding of what the children of today are going through. Interestingly, ‘Girls to the Rescue’ came about because her daughter loved listening to stories, but she didn’t like the narrative of ‘the-helpless-princess’ that the stories portrayed.
“When I was reading fairy tales to my daughter, I realised that I didn’t want to tell her such stories where the princess is always waiting for the prince to come. So then I changed those stories, and I rewrote them.”
I think I speak on behalf of so many girls my age that we’re all so grateful for Ms Rajendran deciding to write these strong female-led stories. Because I too, wanted to see more courageous and bold princesses who looked like me, in books. In fact, one of my personal favourites, ‘The Weightlifting Princess’, was also conceptualized in a similar way when her daughter, who is a huge fan of Disney’s Frozen, asked her, “Why are the arms of all the girls in books and in Frozen so thin? Why is it like that?” This inspired Ms Rajendran to create Nila, a princess who is also a weightlifter.
“Frozen is considered to be a much more progressive story than the average princess story, but still, the girls are drawn in a certain way. They have narrow waists and thin arms. That’s when it struck me that we (authors) have changed the story so much, but the representation in art hasn’t really been that radical. I thought, let me create a princess who has big arms, who is a weightlifter, who’s interested in sports, and actually wants to put on weight,” says Ms Rajendran.
Apart from her daughter, Ms Rajendran, like many authors, leans on stories from her childhood, for her writing. Take for example, ‘Ashwathy and the Boot of God’, a detective story based upon a childhood anecdote from when the author was about seven years old.
“My native place is in Kerala, so when we went there, we discovered this old boot in the yard, and nobody knew where it had come from. That’s because nobody wears a boot like that in the village. So, some of the kids just made up the story that maybe it is God’s boot, because it looks so different. So, we spent an entire afternoon worshiping that boot, we did pujas and we circled around it. It was just a very funny memory from my childhood.” And just like that, what started off as an idea for a picture book turned into a must-read novel for children.
Diving Into Her Love For Children’s Books
You might be curious as to why Somya Rajendran writes children’s books. The answer is as wonderful as her books. “Writing for children is really important. I feel that you are writing for a much more honest audience. If you write a book for adults, even if it’s not that great, they’ll tell you it’s great. However, if children find something boring, or not appealing they will just reject it. I find that honesty to be very appealing.”
It’s very clear that she is against preaching, lecturing, or talking down to children, and forcing them to think a certain way. She believes that her obligation is to entertain her readers. From our conversation, I discerned that she hopes her books provoke children to question things about the world around them. She wants them to challenge stereotypes and break down barriers through her books.
As an example, in her book, ‘The Pleasant Rakshasa’, she depicts the protagonist as a lovable and beautiful Rakshasa and wants this representation to help kids see Rakshasas in a new light. Showing them that they can be beautiful in spite of the way they are portrayed in mainstream media.
“There are so many things that I wish I had known as a child, which would have made growing up much easier. If I had found these things in a book at that time, I feel I would have dealt with many emotions that I went through in a much better way. So, I want to give that kind of access to kids who are growing up.”
Ms. Rajendran’s aim is to make people feel represented in stories, and she feels extremely happy when they express that sentiment. She hopes her books educate children and make them feel less alone.
“I become very happy when somebody tells me things like, ‘Hey, I’ve never come across a character like this. In the other books that I’ve read, the girls don’t look like me or the girls don’t behave like me. But, I discovered that with this book, and it made me happy.’ It makes me realise that they felt connected to a character in my story.” That’s the sort of compliment any author would want, and while reading Sowmya Rajendra’s books, I know I mentally said all of the above!
Diving into Her books That Challenge Stereotypes
We might think that representation and inclusivity is no longer an issue in today’s evolving world. However, Ms Rajendran sheds light that we still have a long way to go on this journey. Which was very apparent in the few incidents she shared with me.
The first being, a teacher, who looked at the cover of ‘Mayil will not be Quiet,’ and instantly said that the boys would not read it as there was a girl on the cover. The other incident was of a colony boy who refused to read the classic children’s book, Matilda, for the same reason. However, with a little coaxing from the author, he eventually read it and really enjoyed it. Ms Rajendran hopes that her books will have the same effect on someone who previously didn’t think a story with a female protagonist could be interesting.
I guess, the road to change is a long one. However, Ms. Rajendran shares with me that there is progress within the writing industry when it comes to representing female characters. However, negative stereotypes have not been completely eradicated.
“Publishers, as well as writers and illustrators, have become quite conscious about how they’re representing girl characters. I still see a lot of stereotypes in these mass-produced books that are there in the Indian market, the same thing about skin colour or gender stereotyping. It hasn’t really permeated across the publishing houses. Unfortunately, many schools also use such books in their classrooms and in their libraries. Otherwise, I think there has been quite a lot of progress in how girls and women characters are represented in books.”
I greatly admire Sowmya Rajendran’s passion for feminism, which is why I couldn’t help but probe more on the subject that is so vital in today’s day.
Diving into Her Unique Feminist Perspective and Indian Culture
As a feminist Miss Rajendran says, “Feminism, to me, is the very simple idea that women are human and women are not goddesses, they cannot always multitask, they cannot always live up to the societal standards of perfection that they are expected to follow. They should be allowed to make mistakes just like everybody else, they should be given the opportunity to succeed, and they should be encouraged to follow their dreams.
Unfortunately, women in our society are not treated as human, they are always considered to be lesser than and to make up for that, society glorifies us and turn us into goddesses which is not necessary. I feel my definition of feminism is to live as a human with all the freedom to make mistakes, and with all the freedom to live with flaws. So that is what I fight for.”
Clear, decisive, and captivating. It’s no wonder these notions have been so expertly depicted through the characters in her books. Sowmya Rajendran lives and breathes her passion and has an infectious conviction that is so inspiring for a ninth-grader like me.
I was also particularly interested in the representation of Indian culture in literature. So, when I asked her about this topic, her answer was eye-opening. “Depends what you mean by Indian culture, because we are in such a diverse country. Who are the people who are actually creating children’s literature? Most of us are from privileged classes, especially those who are writing in English.
We are people who have had access to the language, people who’ve been able to go to college and people who have the time to sit and write these stories. So, then there is a certain similarity in the kind of stories we write, because these are the realities that we know. So, in that sense, we may not have representation from all social classes and communities.”
Ms Rajendran also cites Andaleeb Wajid as a great example of someone showcasing Muslim characters, a section of India which is often overlooked. I will be adding some of Wajid’s books to my reading list because like any avid book reader, I want to expand my horizons and thoughts.
And the Dive comes to an End
My conversation with Ms Rajendran is one I will never forget. Her perspective on feminism and how women are represented in media is one echoed by many young girls of today. It gives me a lot of hope that authors like her are making such important steps to help kids feel less alone and more represented in media. Listening to her opinion on casteism in Indian culture once again, got me thinking about how overlooked the issue is and how necessary it is to talk to young children about these issues in an entertaining yet educational manner.
I also got a great insight into what being an author looks like. Being an author truly changes your perspective in life. Ms Rajendran advises aspiring writers to read, read and read! But, she also stressed the importance of observing the world around us.
So, as a last parting gift, I’ll leave you with her best advice, which really resonated with me and inspired me to use aspects of my own life in my art and writing:
“Life is material.”
Thank you for reading. All of author Sowmya Ranjendran’s books can be found in the GetLitt! library. Head to www.getlitt.co/library to start reading!
I’m Shreya Upadhyay, a student in the ninth grade. When I’m not studying, my hobbies include reading, writing, and crocheting. I’m the kind of person who can read anything, fiction or nonfiction. I love fantasy novels like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and Lunar Chronicles. I also enjoy writing poetry and experimenting with different forms of poetry and writing. I love to learn new things and when I decide to do something, I will not stop till I get it done. Earlier this year, I decided to learn how to crochet. After following a few Youtube tutorials, I really got into it and now I always have a project to work on. I also like to play the piano and basketball. I love cats and dogs as well :) Shreya Upadhyay is part of the GetLitt! Editorial Student Council, a 10-week, literary initiative aimed at getting students actively involved in reading, writing, and editing.