Highlights from Delhi: LOGOS 2021 Literature and Childhood
This week we are pleased to share some highlights from LOGOS 2021, the annual literature festival hosted by The English Literary Society of St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi, India. Held over three days, 15-17 February, the festival presented a series of talks, panel discussions, online competitions, and student paper presentations on the theme of 'Literature and Childhood.' In this post, we are delighted to share the reports of two attendees of the festival, Yusra Basit and Syed Muhammad Khalid, who demonstrate that conversations about children’s literature are being enthusiastically pursued in international contexts. The festival appears to have been a great success and we hope that there will be future opportunities for children’s literature festivals at St. Stephen’s.
We would like to thank Yusra Basit and Syed Muhammad Khalid and everyone at the English Literary Society of St. Stephen’s for their participation in this post.
Of Monsters, Towers, and Prisons
Panel: “Childhood Literature: the Personal and the Political”
Panelists: Dr. Geetanjali Chanda and Rinchin
As reported by Yusra Basit
The answer one hopes to arrive at by asking, “Who is a child?” muddies the perceptions of the here and the now, displacing silt and sediment, and stirring waters that have long rested still in tranquil ignorance. There does not exist a singular definition, a hard-set, unbending response to this utopian fantasy that all adults cherish long after it has eluded their still-reaching grasp. Who is a child, they will ask, and a chorus of voices will echo back in answer: is a child an innocent, or a yet-primitive figure in our rapidly evolving world? Is a child a vulnerable being, one not yet versed with the cruelty of the world beyond the bounds of his home, or is he one who has experienced it and now seeks refuge from its ragged edges? Is a child Frankenstein’s monstrous creation, or is she Locke’s blank slate? Is she truly free from the political, or does she live, as all of her essence does, within her very blood and bone?
Dr. Geetanjali Chanda, a professor at Ashoka University and one of the panelists of the first panel discussion at LOGOS ’21— “Childhood Literature: the Personal and the Political,” illustrated how children’s literature is the neglected child in the academia family. Brushed off as simple, naïve, not worth more than a cursory glance, adults often end up being dismissive of what acted, and still acts, as the very foundation of their morality and initial perspective of the world. The Westernised capitalist dissemination of literature might have led to mindless consumption among the target audience, but its exclusion of children’s opinions of what they can and cannot read is perhaps the most hurtful of all. Children and childhood are socio-economic constructs, sketched out in individual situational contexts; the extent of its didacticism must be carefully received, keeping in mind authorial intent and reception by its audience. As Paulo Freire said, the aim of literacy is to liberate and revolutionise the world; how then, can one claim to sieve out the political when literature itself has birthed all revolutions?
The second panelist, Rinchin, a celebrated author of several award-winning books such as ‘I Will Save My Land’ (2017) and a social activist, brought together several hard-hitting questions in an intriguing speech. By proposing innocence and vulnerability to be luxuries not all children can afford in the times we live in, she put forth the idea of a child’s world consisting of binaries of the external and the internal, of reality and fabrication, and how adults fail to bridge the gap between the two themselves, often falling into pits of despair and socio-politico-economic grievances in that very narrow in-between. The pressing necessity of evolving children’s simplistic narratives to incorporate the ever-widening horizon of identities and forthcoming realities of the new world is no longer a suggestion to be brushed off or discarded. Modern connotations of terms such as history, secularism, religion, national unity, glory, and honour can and must fit into the works of upcoming Indian authors. An appreciation of cultural and existential diversity is crucial to stop the ‘othering’ of marginalised groups that do not integrate into the majority, or cater to their majoritarian, cisgender, heterosexual, upper caste framework. Politics has always been involved in representation and interpretation; why now, should it be separated, at a time when the voices of the youth are sliding into symphony, framing these questions to the tune of the same harmonious melody?
What even is the political, while we are existing in an age where apathy cannot be willfully ignored, and must be equated to compliance with the wrong and the unjust? What even is the personal, when existence itself is criticised, voices strangled, hands shackled, feet bound, the light extinguished to plunge each of us into darkness? Can there ever be a distinction, a demarcation, a clear line that a child can cross when she comes of age, well-accrued in maturity and rationality to make sense of the horrors the world has to offer her yet-untainted mind? Is not the ‘ideal’ picture of childhood a utopian fantasy, one that visits the dreams of only those with a roof over their heads and a soft pillow to cushion their drowsy voyages?
One’s definition of radical literature might not fall into line with that of another. Queer representation might have been unimaginable a few decades ago; deviance from the upper caste framework of morality and dharma might have been unpalatable. This was all once upon a time; long, long ago. Consumption of such evolved and inclusive children’s literature will not only perpetuate the vastness of humanity’s existence beyond binaries, but also expand the child’s own mind to greater opportunities of personal expression. There might have been monsters in our stories; there might have been towers, and prisons, and big, bad villains who dressed in lovely dresses and planned to cut your heart out and eat it raw. We have grown out of them, but it is time we checked under the bed for any stragglers that might want to jump out and claw at our ankles; as it turns out, no matter where these fairy tales are from, the monsters are always afraid of the light.
ABOUT THE PANELIST: Geetanjali Singh Chanda is Associate Profess of English at Ashoka University. She received her PhD in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master's degree from George Washington University. She has spoken at international forums and published widely on notions of home, family, and gender in Indian English Literature in US and international publications. Prior to joining Ashoka, Professor Signh Chanda was a senior lecturer in the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University. Her research interests include Children's Literature, Bollywood, Sikh writings and films, Women's Writings, popular Culture, Feminist and Transcultural pedagogy, Masculinities, and Religion.
ABOUT THE PANELIST: Rinchin is a writer and activist based in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. She also writes for children and her writing reflects her social engagement with several people's movements for the past two decades. She loves stories and feels that everyone should have some to read that reflect the world around them. Richin's style is her rare and powerful storytelling technique through which she explores issues using her feather-light touch. Some of her published books are Sabri's Colours (2009), The Magical Fish (2013) in collaboration with Chandrakala Jagat, Trickster Bird (2016), and I Will Save My Land (2017), which won the Neev Book Award for the Best Picture Book in 2018. Several picture books and collection of stories have been published by Tulika Books and Eklavya. Rinchin is also part of Ektara collective, a film making collective which includes such films as Turup, Hotel Rahagirahagir, and Chanda ke joote.
Panel: “Text and Image in Children’s Literature”
Panelists: Shobha Vishwanth, Priya Kuriyan, and Leeza John
As reported by Syed Muhammad Khalid
On 16th February, the second day of its annual literary festival, LOGOS, the English Literary Society of St Stephen's, organised a panel discussion on “Text and image in children's literature.” The discussion was held on Google Meet and was attended by over 50 participants, including students and academics. The panelists were Ms Shobha Vishwanth, cofounder and Publishing Director of Karadi Tales, Ms Priya Kuriyan, author and illustrator, and Ms Leeza John, illustrator and architect. The session was moderated by Hannah Varkey, faculty member of the Department of English in the college. The panel discussion ended with a brief question and answer session.
Great literature has the ability to paint pictures in our minds. As Ezra Pound once cautioned, we should go in fear of abstractions; of words which do not force us to imagine. However, the descriptive word can be daunting for children. Decoding terse, black letters on a page is a hard pleasure to master for anyone. This despair was adequately captured by Lewis Carroll in Alice's puzzling question, “What is the use of a book without pictures?”
In children's literature, readers need something to supplement the text, something which adds immediate vividness and excitement. An image helps to create this ancillary plane of meaning, one that is intricately linked to the text. The image liberates the text from the rigid boundaries of a page while the text animates the image to a new life. Working together, they soar out of the page into the child's boundless imagination. Without John Tenniel's quirky illustrations in Alice in the Wonderland and Quentin Blake's masterful visual rendition of Roald Dahl's world, would these still appeal as much to the millions of children who cherished them? It is hard to come to a definite answer but what is evident is that the relationship between the text and the image in children's literature is quite a deep one.
The first panelist, Ms Shobha Viswanath, understood this relationship as being 'magical'. She said, the text and the image are the two oldest forms of storytelling which elicit responses in children as contrasting as laughter and crying. Ms Viswanath also alerted us against assuming that picture books are in any way easy literature because of the audience they target. The 'marriage between pictures and texts' is a difficult balance for authors and illustrators to attain. In the process of making a picture book, she adds, its creators often leave an imprint of their personalities on its contents, so that no two picture books are ever the same. Through a symbiosis, the editor, the author, and the illustrator create a delightful experience for a child. The author weaves a world with words and the illustrator fills every corner and margin that may have been left untouched by the word with pictures. The editor distills these to create the magic that a picture book is.
Building on this outlook on images, Ms Priya Kuriyan delighted us with a slideshow of her own illustrations done over the years. Through them, she explained that a picture is not merely an assortment of doodles with colour squeezed between the lines. An image is more than that, for it contains multiple layers of meaning. The objective of an illustrator is to create a ‘visual metaphor', a vibrant interplay of colors and lines to help the narrative flow forward with a greater imaginative force. The image captures in its nuances what the word hides in its letters. In one of her illustrations, a bigmustachioed wily character had only one finger painted with nail polish, suggesting that he had got up late in the morning and only had time enough to paint one finger! Such subtle strokes help an illustrator build characters in parallel to the text, making them 'more endearing,' in Ms Kuriyan's own words.
If a book is visually engaging, a child will return to it. Such power in the hands of creators of children's literature also enables them to 'normalise' their viewpoint for the child. So authors and illustrators have to chart their way through tricky terrains of sexist depictions of women and racist denigration of complexion; even the use of gendersensitive language becomes a vital issue. Children often view things as they are and not how they should be. Precisely because of this, Ms Kuriyan adds, we must make children more aware of their identity, by borrowing images from the lived reality around them.
Growing up is not an isolated process. We grow with the images and the stories around us, and in a way, they grow up with us. Our friends, family, and teachers help us in this process. This is what the third speaker, Ms Leeza John, highlighted in her presentation. She was able to help children discover literature in their own lives through community exercises of creating pictures from everyday objects. From making images out of anything from a shriveled leaf to a memory chip, Ms John demonstrated how our life itself is an open picture book. To enjoy it, we only need to keep our childish curiosity alive.
An engaging question and answer session ensued. The audience enthusiastically participated in the discussion which drove home the significance of children's literature and the dynamic relationship between the text and the image. Certainly, everyone left the meeting with nostalgic musings on our own favourite books from childhood whose echoes we still hear. After all, isn't that the purpose of all literature, children's or not, to help us understand our own story through others, and tell them better than we could ever have without knowing them?
ABOUT THE PANELIST: Shobha Viswanath is the co-founder and publishing director of Karadi Tales. Viswanath has been responsible for steering the direction of the publishing house since it's inception. An author herself, she has written over 25 books for children. Her efforts are focused towards reclaiming a place for Indian literature for children in the picture book format.
ABOUT THE PANELIST: Priya Kuriyan is an independent animation film maker and illustrator based in Delhi. She has directed educational films for the Sesame Street Show (Galli Galli Sim Sim) and has also worked on various television commercials. Over the past four years, she has also been illustrating for a number of children's books and comics. She has won the Big Little Book Award 2019 for the best children's illustrator. From the chaotic whimsy of Ammachi's Glasses, her first solo picture book, to the sheepish, happy animals doing their business in The Poop Book! (by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm and Sujatha Padmanabhan), Kuriyan's work is funny, immersive, colourful, and appeals to both younger and older readers.
ABOUT THE PANELIST: Leeza John is a Kerala-based freelance illustrator who loves exploring the possibilities of creating art with everyday objects. Hence her work is varied and constantly evolving. Leeza was selected from India to lead Rivers of the World--an international art and education project by the Thames Festival Trust and the British Council
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
ABOUT YUSRA BASIT: A first year English Honours student from St. Stephen’s College, Yusra Basit considers herself a fiercely ambitious person. She adores silence that allows her to mull over questions of morality and humankind within the restrictive ambit of individual existence, plants, eyeliner, and discourse on the nuances of writing that goes into the construction of literature. A resident of Lucknow, Yusra occasionally croons about the beauty of the Awadhi culture, how she seeks refuge in expressing her singing carousel of thoughts through long-winded prose and bitter poetry, and the frequent boast about the supremacy of the city’s authentic kebabs and biryani.
ABOUT SYED MUHAMMAD KHALID: I hail from Allahabad but was born and raised in Jharkhand. We moved a lot when I was younger and that definitely had an impact on my worldview. I delight in reading well-written books, from Shukl's Raag Darbari to Borges' Fictions. But what moves me most is poetry, where syllables commingle with imagery and meaning. I like to read and listen to Bloom or Russell or Chomsky. I write a diary every day. I fiddle with a harmonica and listen to the Beatles religiously. But mostly I spend time watching TV shows or movies. I love to play football. When it comes to career goals I believe one must endeavour in a field that inspires one to learn and allows for the time and space to engage in creative pursuits. Professional writing and scholarship seem most engaging. I am aware I know too little and have done too little to matter. But there is still time to learn and hopefully 'curb your memes' on Youtube won't prove to be too much of a distraction. I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of English at St Stephen's College, New Delhi.