The incredible Shruthi Rao in the house! Shruthi’s Manya Learns to Roar, a Children First winner by Duckbill Books, made people sit up and think about stammering as a disability too and feisty Manya swept readers off the ground. Now, she’s back with a story about Susie, the girl with a lisp who gives up speaking – Susie Will Not Speak. Both of Shruthi’s books entered in the Children First contest were selected by Duckbill for publishing. Shruthi speaks to Harshikaa Udasi about sensitizing young readers to various speech problems and writing both these books almost simultaneously, a challenge most wonderfully handled.
Manya and Susie were happening simultaneously in your head, right? And then, I understand, you halted Manya and decided to concentrate on Susie? Could you tell us about how this happened?
Manya of Manya Learns to Roar speaks with a stammer. When I was writing this story, I came to a point where Manya is tired of all the pity and the jeering and she feels she should just stop speaking. At this point, a question exploded out of nowhere and filled my head. What would happen if she did follow through on her threat? I couldn't make Manya stop speaking - I had different plans for her - so I knew I just had to create another character who did indeed stop speaking!
Wow! That’s quite interesting. You have freely spoken about how you underwent a torrid time due to stammering. Do people tend to take speech difficulties lightly?
Yes. There's very little understanding and empathy towards speech difficulties, and it is not seen as a "real problem" - after all, we can speak, can't we? And the moment they think that it is not really a problem, people tend to be dismissive and insensitive.
When you are in the middle of one story and the other calls out to you, how do you deal with it? Is it easier to write one at a time or prioritise or just simultaneously write both?
I haven't written enough to answer this question honestly. But in theory, I would stick to what I'm writing unless the call of the other story is too strong (like what happened with Susie.). After all, most of my "brilliant", shiny ideas fizzle out into nothingness. So, unless I see real promise in the idea, and unless that new idea pulls me, consumes me, I would probably not turn my back on something that's already going well.
That’s a good tip for our young writers. Back to Susie, I believe earlier Jahan was your central character. Was it a conscious decision to shift to Susie?
Not really. It was essentially just a change of name. My story demanded that the protagonist have trouble saying his/her name. When I changed the speech difficulty from a stammer to a lisp, I needed a name that could be lisped on. And since my story would work irrespective of whether the protagonist was a boy or a girl, I chose the name Susie, and turned all the "he" and "him" into "she" and "her". Since I like the name Jahan, I gave Susie's friend (who is an equally important character) that name.
Manya Learns To Roar has been an emotional book - I am sure for you - as well as for the readers. Could you share some of your personal experiences of feedback received from them?
The most intense emotions came from my family. Before the book, I have been generally reticent about my experiences growing up with a stammer. Because of Manya's story, I guess they got an idea of what I went through. My Ajji, for instance, has read the book multiple times, and each time, she says, her eyes mist over. My readers have told me that they find the story inspiring. People send me pictures of their children engrossed in the book. I've had people who stammer write and tell me "at last somebody wrote about it"! One person called me her hero. Just yesterday, a mom wrote to tell me that her little daughter has read the book 25 times so far. I can't get enough of it! :)
How did it feel to see both your books shortlisted and published by Duckbill?
That was exciting! Before the Children First contest, caught in the usual throes of self-doubt, I almost didn't send my stories out. And then I forced myself to, and then went into hiding, convinced that the folks at Duckbill wouldn't read past two pages. But a couple of weeks later, I got the courage to re-read my stories, and felt - ah, well, they're not bad. So when both stories were shortlisted, my heart did somersaults. And as the weeks went past, it turned out that I would have TWO books coming out of this, and that too with Duckbill. So much joy. And also, you know this already - working with Duckbill is such a pleasure.
Yes, it’s an absolute pleasure! Do let us in on what's lined up next?
I'm working on a non-fiction book for children. It's hard but fun as I strive to figure out the best way to write so that children don't yawn through the book.
That, we are sure, they never will!
(Copyright: Book Trotters Club)