By: Ada Tseng (CAAM)
Sheetal Sheth may be most known for her acting work — in films like “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” “I Can’t Think Straight,” “The World Unseen,” “Yes, We’re Open,” and “Nice Girls’ Crew“— but what you may not know is that she’s also dedicated much of her life to doing work with students, whether it was developing high school lesson plans while volunteering with AmeriCorps or being a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in Los Angeles.
Her latest project combines her love of storytelling with her passion for youth education: “Always Anjali,” the first of a series of children’s’ books about a very special Indian American girl named Anjali, just living her life.
“Always Anjali” published by Bharat Babies and illustrated by Jessica Blank. We chat with her about looking for representation in children’s literature, talking to kids about bullying, and staying true to your name.
What inspired you to write a children’s book?
Sheetal Sheth: I was pregnant with my first child and trying to cultivate a library for her with books that were more inclusive, so it started with me going, “Really? This is what’s out there?”
I found that in bookstores, there were different sections. There were the main area and separate areas for LGBTQ issues or ethnic books, and I was like, “These bookstores are segregated!” I understand the thought behind it, but it was doing such a disservice to children’s literature by not incorporating these books as equally important in the main area, and if we’re not teaching our kids that they’re just as important and part of the mainstream fabric, then what are we saying?
So I really started getting fired up, because even within these sections, there wasn’t a lot, and there certainly wasn’t much Indian representation. Or if there was, they were books about an extraordinary event or a person or a holiday — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we need books that make us feel like we’re a normal part of the conversation. Even in 2018, only 7 percent of children’s literature deals with kids of color.
In the book, Anjali gets a new bike, and she goes with her friends to get a license plate with her name on it — but her name isn’t there.
SS: I was shocked that when I graduated NYU and started taking representation meetings with agents, that the first 3-4 meetings ended with “Which one of your names are you going to change?” As casually as “Fill out your address on this paper.” It was just a given, and it really stunned me. The idea that you can’t have your name and expect to work. And I did lose jobs because of it. I remember vividly being in a casting room on my third or fourth callback, and the casting director was saying, you are their first choice but that the director was very uncomfortable having someone of my name playing the part.
It was so absurd. The younger generation has no idea because now, that could never happen. And if it did happen, to that degree, you could just tweet about it, and the community would be behind you. But back in the 90s, that wasn’t the case, and I didn’t have any mentors I could reach out to, so I was really just kind of splashing about, finding my way.
Since the book came out last month, you’ve been having lots of events and readings. Have you had any particularly memorable reactions to the book?
SS: One woman I met a few weeks ago — who is Indian — told me her parents named hers so she wouldn’t have to deal with being bullied or made fun of because of her name. They thought that a life with that name would be a different life. But as she was growing up, she didn’t feel connected to her name at all, because she didn’t feel like represented her value system or her culture, and in high school, she legally changed her name to an Indian name. It’s so fascinating to me that her parents felt like they lived in a place that wouldn’t accept their daughter with a name that reflected her heritage. But there are many ways of looking at it.
I actually think it’s really cool that in Indian American culture, parents often do give their kids Indian names. As Chinese/Taiwanese American kids, we often do get Americanized names.
SS: Our names are so important in many ways — how they’re given to us, as much as how we grow into it, how we become it, how we define it. I know people who’ll go to Starbucks, and they just make up another name ‘cause they don’t want to deal with [people messing up their name], and I get it. I’ve done that. But my point is — somewhere down the line, people learned how to say Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, Chekhov. It might take a minute, but they can learn yours too.
But the story in my book could happen to somebody, and we’re teaching kids how to handle it. We have a parent and teacher guide on the website that you can download for free if you want to talk to your kids about the book, and one thing that’s really important to us is: how do you teach kids in these moments to not just be bystanders. There’s a word called “upstanders.” If you’re in a schoolyard and your friend is being made fun of, what do you do? And hopefully that’ll extend to other things, like how do you be an activist, or how do you stand up for other people? How do you do that, because people don’t know how. And to tell kids, it’s ok to be scared. It’s OK to be nervous. But then, what do you do?
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. This Q&A is a crosspost from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
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