Jyoti Rajan Gopal on Straddling Cultures

Sunayana Surana, Grade 10

The interactive sessions for children were kicked off on Day 1 of the Neev Literature Festival 2023 by Jyoti Rajan Gopal, an author of many cultures. Jyoti talked about the formative years of her life—going from one country to another and learning to adjust and thrive everywhere—she lived in Thailand, shifted to Indonesia in 3rd grade, and came back to India for college while constantly visiting her parents who had moved to Myanmar. After college, she went to live with her parents who had then moved to China, and got herself a job as a kindergarten teacher there, which she loved. There, she realized she loved teaching kids, and went to the US to get a teaching degree. 

After decades of moving around Jyoti decided to create a more permanent home in the US, where she had her kids, and continued teaching. But as she was reading to her children, she, like many authors of multicultural and non-Western origin, realized that the stories didn’t have any connection to her or her kids. According to Jyoti, the stories, though beautifully written, didn’t make her feel welcome. When she visited India, she brought back Amar Chitra Kathas and Tinkles for her daughters, which had Indian roots and were a little closer to her heart. But the move and shift in cultures that was an integral part of her childhood was still missing in these books. Jyoti says that swapping between cultures feels like straddling, “you fit in here, you fit in there, and then you fit in nowhere.” As a person who had lived in nearly 6 countries, she fit in all of their cultures, and yet nowhere. Even in India, the country to which she traces her roots, she was called a ‘foreigner’. 

To cope with and make sense of this straddling, she wrote a poem for herself, which she called ‘American Desi’. She says that though the poem was a terrible one, it was the inspiration for her book of the same name. To her the poem was for older Jyoti, while the book was for the younger one. She expressed herself through it, her own feelings while growing up, and never expected to receive the response that it did. People of all ages, from all over the world related to her book, including, for example, a teacher from Dehradhun and a teenager from Greece. This was the first book she wrote, and the start of her writing career.

A spread from American Desi by Jyoti Rajan Gopal (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2022); Illusrated by Supriya Kelkar

A later book penned by Jyoti, My Paati’s Saris (Kokila, 2022), shortlisted for the Neev Book Award 2023 in the Early Years category, was inspired by a culture day at her school. She wore a sari, and brought some smaller ones for her students to play dress-up in. Though all of them loved it, one of the boys liked it especially, and didn’t want to give it back. This moment reminded her of her childhood where she would play dress-up in her own Paati’s(grandmother’s) saris. She wondered if she would have felt differently if she was a boy, and the only answer that she could think of was ‘no’. That was how a poetic and visually stunning picture book about a little boy playing with his grandmother’s saris took shape.    

A spread from My Paati’s Saris by Jyoti Rajan Gopal; Illustrated by Art Twink

All her books, Jyoti said, were inspired by her childhood or people she had observed. Desert Queen (Levine Querido, 2023), a picture book she wrote when she saw dancers in Rajasthan is based on the life of the drag performer, Queen Harish, also known as the Whirling Desert Queen. The book went on to win a Stonewall Honor at the American Library Association Awards, a few months after NLF 2023 concluded. 



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