Local author Padma Venkatraman reaches teen audiences everywhere with new novel
Narragansett resident Padma Venkatraman began her career as a young adult writer in 2008 when her first novel, Climbing the Stairs, was published.
It wasn’t long before audiences and publishers made the Chennai, India native aware of her unique position as a South Asian-American writer.
The most surprising moment happened at a Rhode Island literary festival shortly after Climbing the Stairs was released. There was a problem with the books that the organizers had offered him to sign.
“They were the books of Jhumpa Lahiri,” referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian-American author. “I was really kind and everything, but it upset me.”
Although far from the first – Dhan Gopal Mukerji published Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon in 1927 – Venkatraman is one of the few Indo-American young adult authors in the United States and, in his words, ” probably the only oceanographer and author and woman of color.
Born in 1969, the New York Times bestselling author had to navigate often rocky relationships with violent and abusive family members during her childhood. She also lived through “the emergency” – a twenty-one-month state of emergency declared by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 when civil rights were suspended and political opponents punished.
Venkatraman moved to the United States at age nineteen to study oceanography at the College of William and Mary before pursuing a doctorate. at Johns Hopkins University. In 2004, she was a professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.
His stories often deal with populations reduced to silence. In his most recent book, Born Behind Bars, Kabir is a half-Muslim child born to an incarcerated low-caste mother in Chennai. He spends his whole life in prison until the director orders his departure on his tenth birthday. Outside, he meets a young Roma girl, Rani, who teaches him the street way and helps him find his paternal grandparents in Bangalore.
Although his books are set in India, Venkatraman believes American youth can identify with them because of the challenges facing their respective societies.
“My books are definitely set in India, but they also have so much resonance in this country,” she says. “It frustrates me when people don’t see that.
“There has always been a clear resonance between what is happening in the United States and what is happening there. Island’s End is about how India treats its indigenous people and it’s an issue that this country doesn’t have
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Now a full-time author, Venkatraman wants readers to know that while she’s honest in addressing the issues of her two houses in her books, it comes from a place of love.
“Despite the negative things I’ve witnessed personally and professionally, I sincerely hope…and believe that deep down, humans everywhere equally share the potential to act with tremendous empathy,” she says. “I guess that’s why I keep and keep writing.”