October 23, 2021

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'We're All So Many Things': Divya Srinivasan On Her New Book 'What I Am'

Author and illustrator Divya Srinivasan has just released her new picture book What I Am. It’s the sort of book that’s created for kids but also well-suited for thoughtful adults or, ideally, for thoughtful adults to read and talk about with their kids. And, perhaps surprisingly, Srinivasan came up with the idea for the book while she was doing chores around the house and reliving some negative past experiences.

“I was washing some dishes… and as happens when you’re washing dishes sometimes, I started to think about something that had bothered me, a recent interaction,” Srinivasan says. “I had gone to a playground with my daughter and she started playing with another girl who was there with her grandparents. And the grandparents and I just started talking… and after some time, the man had a big smile on his face and looked at me and said, ‘Your English is really good!’ as if it was this huge compliment. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s good because that’s the only language I’m fluent in.’”

Srinivasan says she explained that she was born in the United States after her parents immigrated from India. “I just kept going on and on and I don’t know why,” she says. “I think I just wanted this person to understand that he shouldn’t make assumptions about people and their backgrounds. And so [later] I started thinking about that while I was washing dishes, and what I should have said and what I could have said.”

That recent interaction reminded Srinivasan of a similar encounter her sister had twenty years earlier in a restaurant bathroom. “A stranger was washing her hands next to [my sister] and out of the blue just turned to her and said ‘What are you?’,” Srinivasan says. “Again, with a big smile on her face, thinking she was being friendly. But it was just very jarring to be asked ‘What are you?’ rather than ‘How are you?’ or ‘Who are you?’.”

Srinivasan stood in her house washing dishes and revisiting the encounter her sister had in that restaurant years ago. “That was twenty years ago, and I still think about it. And it didn’t even happen to me,” she recounts with a laugh. “I think about what the perfect response would have been, twenty years ago. [And] I started to think about, what if my daughter was asked this question, or my niece… or any child? What would I want that kid to say? What would I imagine that kid saying? What if it was me as a kid being asked that question? And so I went and just quickly wrote down the text that ended up pretty much being this book.”

She spent much of 2020 creating the illustrations for What I Am, and only after completing them did she realize that she should include an author’s note – something she’d never done for previous books. While the text for the book itself came quickly, Srinivasan says she struggled much more with the author’s note, which recounts her sister’s incident. “I hadn’t really had to explain why that was not a great question, or why it felt bad,” she says. “Because I think I’d only talked about it with my sister and we both knew why it felt bad. But we hadn’t put it into words.”

What I Am was inspired by an insensitive question, but the book isn’t about why that question is bad; it’s really more about a child’s personal and introspective answer to the question. “I didn’t want it to be a scolding book,” Srinivasan says. “I wanted it to kind of focus on what a reaction to a bad question might be… and to make clear that it’s such a silly question, what are you? Because we’re so many things. We’re all so many things.”

The family connections that inspired What I Am continued throughout its production – the main character in the book is amalgam of Srinivasan, her sister, her niece, and her daughter Uma. And Uma also serves as the book’s narrator for the audio version (Srinivasan’s previous book, Little Owl’s Snow, was narrated by John Hodgman, so Uma’s in pretty good company.) “For other books, I was able to think of people I knew who did this kind of work that would be great for it,” Srinivasan says. “For this book… I couldn’t think of anyone other than my daughter.”

‘What I Am’ is available now wherever books are sold (signed copies available at Book People)

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