Author Padma VenkatramanYesterday, my dear friend, Padma Venkatraman, mentioned she’d be traveling to Trinidad. Shame on me, I assumed it had something to do with her husband’s work. No, no, she was to be the celebrated guest of The Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival.
What an exciting sequel to the news that her newest novel, A Time to Dance received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist and VOYA. I would not be surprised if this third novel eclipses the list of prestigious awards of her other two excellent award winners! But let’s explore this exciting development with Padma!

“Am I Really to be the Guest of Honor at an International Festival?

Lisa: How did it come about that The Trinidad Festival asked you to be their special guest of honor for the festival?
Padma: I believe the couple who are in charge of the festival were booksellers in the United States a while ago. They’d read my earlier books and loved them, and when they saw the galley of A TIME TO DANCE, they decided it was time to invite me to the Caribbean.
Lisa: What was your first reaction? Were you surprised?
A Time To Dance Book CoverPadma: I was delighted and deeply moved by their request, at first. But, that night, I dreamt they’d called back and said, “No, we didn’t want you, sorry, we wanted that other Rhode Island author of Indian origin, Jhumpa Lahiri.” Afterwards, I went about for a while worrying that this nightmare would come true! So despite how touched and thrilled I felt, there was a bit of  disbelief – “Am I really to be the guest of honor at an international festival?!”

A Message Tailored to the Audiences

Lisa: Do you have any specific goals in mind for this trip?

Padma: On a very selfish level,  I want to do all I can to get invited back again! Everything they’ve done so far makes me hope it’s the first of many trips and that through the relationships I develop, I can have a lasting connection with booklovers from across the seas.
On a less selfish note, I hope I can inspire those I meet to live life more fully and develop a lasting love of reading, books and libraries in anyone who doesn’t already have it.

Climbing the Stairs Book CoverLisa: You’ll be speaking at the festival itself, at libraries and at schools. Is your message similar for each audience or are there differences in focus for each audience?

Padma: Differences in focus, for sure.

I’m looking forward to working with young women in the schools, to helping empower them as they move toward adulthood. My protagonists thus far have all been strong female characters, who respect individuality and fight for self-expression and freedom; but they are also compassionate and giving toward others. I hope the young women who read my books will aspire to be like these heroines, who are, to me, very real.

For those I meet at libraries, my message will be one of gratitude and respect and affirmation for all they do. Librarians have an amazing role to play in shaping societies, and are often not given as much credit as they deserve. I will also, for sure, speak to the importance of books and literature and reading; in this age of change, I will be championing some aspects of libraries and books that I feel should be retained. I am sad when librarians call themselves “media specialists” for instance, and I hope they will never alter their role to the extent that they forget the importance of books and the power of the word.

IslandsEnd_book coverFor the general public, again, the importance of books and story in our lives. But also, the necessity to actively support creativity. These days people are so used to getting things free of charge that they seem to forget that writers and all other kinds of artists require support from the community. Their contribution isn’t often noticed as much as scientific contributions are. But if we are to work together with empathy in this increasingly global world, we must value artists and writers – and do all we can to help them flourish.

More Attention and Respect Internationally

Lisa: You’ll be feted at a dinner in your honor given by the Indian Ambassador to Trinidad and his wife. Do you think writers are often treated with more celebrity status in foreign countries than when they are home? If so, why do you think that is?

Padma: I’m not sure I can make a generalization as yet, given how I’m really just starting out as an author, with just three books behind me. But, in my limited experience, I have, overall, enjoyed far more attention and respect from people outside of my home state of Rhode Island.

There are certainly some people here who have been marvelously and wholeheartedly supportive here – you are one of them; but on the whole, one of two things happens: people either say, hey, I have a celebrity in my backyard and they’re delighted; or, more often, they think, oh, sure, yes, that “local” author. When the word local becomes the adjective of choice, the quality of one’s work is somehow not respected as much as it needs to be.

I also do think that in some other nations and cultures, authors are respected as intellectuals, scholars and leaders. Certainly this is the case in Europe – and in the Caribbean.

For the most, part, I regret to say,  in the United States, most authors aren’t really given honest respect. Respect seems to come only after one wins honors and awards. Before that, earlier in my career here, someone said to me, once, “Everyone and their grandmother has written a book.” I think, perhaps, the plethora of self-published books out there, the numerous blogs etc., make people think, anyone can write, what’s the big deal? So, unless and until some large level of external validation occurs – such as this invitation to Trinidad – you’re treated not as a professional, but rather like someone who has a hobby – although a cool one.

I am tremendously grateful for all the external validation I’ve received, and I’m always happy when it gets noticed. But, ultimately, my source of inspiration is internal. I’ve made numerous sacrifices to write – financial, for instance. That in itself, ought to make people respect the profession. It’s hard to live life as an author as it is so up and down financially; so the public should really respect the courage it takes to make this choice, regardless of whether the choice results in publicity and awards (though it’s great when it does)!

Like the protagonist in A TIME TO DANCE who moves from Eros to Charis to Agape through the power of her art, I’ve grown from being slightly self-centered in my pride at having a writing gift, to giving and helping others through it. Someday, I hope, I’ll evolve to someone who can be entirely centered; although I admit I’m not quite there yet – I do yearn for more materialistic rewards than I’ve already received, although I feel enormously blessed and grateful for all I have.

Readers, do you have questions for the author? Ask away!

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