interview: Padma Venkatraman

I recently reviewed  The Bridge Home and today, I have a wonderful interview with the author, Padma Venkatraman.

“THE BRIDGE HOME is that long overdue promise. It was, indeed a very hard story to write, because in writing it I had to revisit some very painful times in my childhood and adolescence and that’s always a bit traumatic. But it’s also what we have to do, as authors, if we need to tell a story with honesty and power.”

EC: How did you decide to frame the story as a letter from Viji to Rukku? That choice made for a story that really brings us into the intimacy between the two girls.

PV: All my novels begin as voices I hear in my head, and then they become a movie and finally the characters turn into ghosts that haunt my home and then possess me until I DSC_7813 - Copybegin to dream as if I am them, experiencing what they experienced. That said, I also take about 5 years from the time I hear the voice to the time the novel is complete – and with my previous novels, I sometimes didn’t trust that what I heard would work. With THE BRIDGE HOME, it was different. When I heard Viji’s voice for the first time, I knew I was hearing from a girl who’d been separated from her sister and I just had to follow the voice to find out what had happened to the siblings. Luckily, I studied oceanography, so I hadn’t read books on how to write (which usually say, quite correctly, that second person point of view or direct address is hard to write).
And I framed it as what the reader could either think of as one letter that Viji’s writing to Rukku or else as part letter part “talking” to Rukku in her mind – I left that open because I wanted intimacy and weight, so it was recorded like I heard it and so it has an epistolary feel but isn’t sort of banal “dear Rukku, love Viji” again and again.

EC: One of the first things I noticed about The Bridge Home was that the glossary was placed in the front of the book. Could you talk about the decision to put it there?

PV: The decision to have a glossary and about where to place it was not mine. Before the story went to print, my brilliant editor, Nancy Paulsen, asked me to write a glossary. She chose to place it in the front.

EC: In your author’s note, you explain that this story originated in your childhood and that it shares the lives of people you knew growing up. You’ve shined a very empowering light on them, but I still wonder if this was a difficult story to write. Why did you want to tell this story?

“I want to say, can’t your students relate to laughter, and courage, and friendship and family? If a reader can relate to those things, then a reader can relate to the two boys and two girls in THE BRIDGE HOME.”

PV: Indira, one of the friends I had on whom this story is most closely based, once asked me if I would write her story some day. THE BRIDGE HOME is that long overdue promise. It was, indeed a very hard story to write, because in writing it I had to revisit some very painful times in my childhood and adolescence and that’s always a bit traumatic. But it’s also what we have to do, as authors, if we need to tell a story with honesty and power.

I felt and still feel that this story is so very important – in a way it feels like it isn’t my story, it’s the story of so many children who suffer even today and so much more than I did. Unless young people all over the world understand and discuss and think about human beings who experience dire, grinding poverty, and homelessness and hunger, I don’t think our world is ever going to change.

With all the challenges that face us as human beings today, I think it’s immensely important to look beyond just what each of our countries faces, and to understand that there is so much that brings us together.

Sometimes – even now, even after all the work done by WNDB and so many many of us before that, and people who lived before us – I’ve heard teachers who worry that their students may not be able to relate to THE BRIDGE HOME because it’s set in a different culture; and that’s even after it’s been selected as a GLOBAL READ ALOUD – which is such an honor.

When I hear this, I want to say, can’t your students relate to laughter, and courage, and friendship and family? If a reader can relate to those things, then a reader can relate to the two boys and two girls in THE BRIDGE HOME.
And again, the situations the characters face are, unfortunately, global and still incredibly timely even though we’ve been on the planet for over a millennium.

As for those who worry about protecting their students, I can relate to the desire to shelter young people – but they are exposed to so much – and by meeting the characters in THE BRIDGE HOME, they are, ultimately, going to be exposed to compassion.

Compassion means laughing together with the characters in THE BRIDGE HOME and seeing how they find moments of joy in toughest times, not just about empathizing with their troubles. Why should anyone be afraid of increasing /evoking readers’ compassion?

EC: It does sound like you had a very special childhood. Did you read a lot as a child?

PV: Books were my saving grace in a difficult childhood. I did read a lot. Many of the books I had access to were old classics, laced with prejudice, although well written – so I knew even as child, way back when, that someday, when I wrote books, I’d write about dark skinned people like me, dark skinned heroes whom I knew.

EC: I saw you briefly at ALA in June, just before you were to leave for India. What was it like to share your book with children there?

PV: It was an amazing experience to be at ALA and incredible to be surrounded by Indian readers – readers who actually live in cities like the one in THE BRIDGE HOME. Some children opened up to me about difficult situations they’ve encountered after hearing me speak about my childhood – and it was deeply humbling to know that the book has been one small step in helping them get closer to safer and more nurturing situations.
So often, when there’s a child of color in the audience, I see a special spark in that child’s eye and I know it’s because I’m dark skinned, too, like them. When I was in India, I was surrounded by kids for whom I was a role model and it felt really so amazing. I am so grateful to Penguin India for sending me on tour.

One of the most wonderful moments came when a young boy (whom the teacher later told me could sometimes “clown around”) volunteered to give a spontaneous vote of thanks after my talk – and he was so moved by the story that he broke down on stage. It was just the most incredible gift to see how deeply the story had touched him.

Something else that I think is really important and felt especially vital in India is that I’m finally able to openly say, I have a chronic condition, and that helps. The idea of invisible disability and the acknowledgement that I, and many people in my family, have disabilities and lead happy lives is something that often strikes a chord in listener’s hearts and I’m glad I have the strength to share this.

EC: You dedicated your book to Margarita Engle. How did you come to know her?

PV: Author Holly Thompson (who wrote FALLING OUT OF THE DRAGON’S MOUTH) invited me to speak at IBBY with Margarita once. I met her there and stayed in touch, and she has been such a true friend and incredible supporter of my work. She was one of the first to openly praise THE BRIDGE HOME and it was such high praise that I don’t dare repeat it. But more than this, there’s also a connection I feel with her. She is a lovely human being with a deep sense of spirituality. And one of the greatest honors I ever received was her invitation to co-author a book of poetry together, about wildlife corridors. A draft of this book, tentatively titled THE PANTHER’S PATH, received a blurb from President Obama’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, and it’s now on submission.

EC: What does home mean to you?

PV: I’ve called five countries home, and most of all, Rhode Island USA is home. But Home is also people to me, more than place. Home is feeling close to people who love me, wherever they are…and as I write that, I’m reminded that it echoes the title of the last chapter of THE BRIDGE HOME: Wherever You Are.

Thank you so much for these beautiful questions and for the honor of this interview on your wonderful blog.  

EC: Thank you, Padma! Even in this interview, you write with honesty and power. I wish you the best of health and continued success with your writing.

Padma Venkatraman is an American author who has lived in 5 countries, explored rainforests and served as chief scientist on oceanographic vessels. Her latest novel, THE BRIDGE HOME, was released this February to five starred reviews (in SLJ, Kirkus, SLC, Booklist, and PW), and was a Washington Post summer book club selection, a Project Lit Community selection, a Today Show recommendation and a 2019 Global Read Aloud. The New York Times describes it as “gorgeous storytelling” and the San Francisco Chronicle calls it “beautifully rendered.” Padma Venkatraman‘s previous novels, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, ISLAND’S END and A TIME TO DANCE were also released to multiple starred reviews and have recieved acclaim and awards. Visit her at www.padmavenkatraman.com or follow her on twitter (@padmatv) or ig (venkatraman.padma)

3 thoughts on “interview: Padma Venkatraman

  1. This interview with Padma touched my heart. I’m currently reading THE BRIDGE HOME and am enjoying it with a tissue box nearby. Such an important story told from her heart, to touch the readers soul. I also loved finding out that she calls RI home. That is where I grew up and lived until 12 years ago.

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