Nandana Dev Sen is a writer across many genres whose first two books for children were published earlier this year: picture books Kangaroo Kisses in the UK and the US, and Mambi and the Forest Fire in India. She is a script-writer and frequently writes for newspapers and journals. She is also a traslator and most recently she has translated a book of poems, Make Up Your Mind, from Bengali into English: the poems were written by her mother, award-winning poet, novelist and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen; her father is the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.
Nandana grew up in India, England, and the US. She studied literature at Harvard and filmmaking at the University of Southern California, and her varied career has included work as a book editor, a screenwriter, a short-film-maker, a poetry translator, and as Princess Jasmine at Disneyland. As well as her work as a writer, Nandana is a world-renowned actress, with over 20 feature films ( in multiple languages) to her credit. Most recently, she won the 2015 Kalakar Award for Best Actress, for her role as Sugandha, the muse of artist Raja Ravi Varma, in the film Rang Rasiya.
Nandana is also a tireless child-rights activist. As an ambassador and advocate, Nandana works closely with children (and adults) at Operation Smile, RAHI (India’s first organization for survivors of child sexual abuse), and UNICEF, to promote child protection and to fight against child abuse.
Nandana is married to John Makinson, Chairman of Penguin Random House, and lives in Kolkata, New York and London. She is quoted on her new website nandanadevsen.com as saying that ‘she loves to “eat, bike, rhyme, dance, and argue.”‘
- Welcome, Nandana. You come from a very literary background (both your parents are internationally renowned, award-winning academics) – did you grow up surrounded by books and were you a book-worm – and/or was it clear from an early age that you would be drawn towards acting?
It was wonderful, and quite unique, to grow up in an all-female family of writers (my grandmother, mother, and elder sister) in an old book-filled Kolkata house (in which we’d get regularly pushed out of rooms by ever-growing piles of books). My sister and I were taken to poetry meets, book fairs, and author readings much more often than to the cinema – or the zoo!
My father too, who lived in London then, added much to my book collection. I always had a book glued to my hand; and most precociously, I started writing my first novel at ten. In fact, my first poem (if one may call it that) was published when I was six (in Sandesh a magazine edited by the filmmaker Satyajit Ray). And yes, my ‘literary family’ has always been very excited about everything I write, whether or not it merits their excitement! To this day, my mother loves poring over all my manuscripts and proofs.
As I was growing up, I developed a strong interest in the influence of cinema, though from a writer-director’s point of view. Acting happened to me entirely by accident (a happy one!) when I was a student at the USC film school. My first film as an actor, The Doll, got officially selected at Cannes – and all of a sudden I found myself with quite a lot of work, and agents in New York, London, and Bombay.
- What were some of your favourite stories growing up?
Many of the authors I loved the most in those years are my favourites even today: Lewis Carroll, Rabindranath Tagore, Margaret Atwood, Roald Dahl, Satyajit Ray, Jane Austen, A.A. Milne, Toni Morrison, T.S. Eliot, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Mahashweta Debi, Erich Kästner, Sukumar Ray, Jorge Luis Borges, and many more.
It’s no coincidence that most of them have written marvellous books for children as well as adults. I’ve always read voraciously (and quite indiscriminately) across all genres, from magical realism to naturalistic and historical fiction, from nonsense rhymes to love poems, from fairy tales to survival narratives.
- You have worked as a writer across many genres, including film scripts and poetry, and this year has seen the publication of your first two children’s books. Can you tell us about your route to becoming a children’s writer, alongside your career path not only as a writer but also as an actress and an activist?
Yes, 2016 has been beautifully full of books (a third one came out this year too, a bilingual book of my English translations of my mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Bengali poems, titled Make Up Your Mind).
Many of the stories I’d like to write for kids grew, in some way or another, out of my work in child protection – they kind of took root inside me and piled up over the years, as I worked with kids, and I knew I had to make the time to start writing them down. I’m also blessed with six amazingly playful and imaginative nephews and nieces to whom I’m very close and who are a huge source of inspiration.
As for writing, acting, and activism: there are constant intersections between the three, and they have always complemented each other in my life. My experience as a writer helps me ‘create’, in my own way, the characters I portray as an actor – their back stories, their emotional history, the silent dialogues in their heads. Equally, my experience in films helps me greatly in visualizing my children’s books in a more cinematic way.
Working with kids will always be a huge part of my life: in fact, many of the choices I’ve made, as an actor and as a writer, have been directly shaped by this work. What makes children’s books especially fun is that it allows you to use fantasy to make reality more vivid (including, sometimes, difficult realities from which privileged children can be quite disconnected). Just like acting, writing for children too is all about imagination and instinct; at the same time, it’s a big responsibility because one book can change the way a child looks at the world and what she values.
I trust in the transformative power of children’s books as much as I’ve always believed in the influence of cinema. It’s no coincidence that my choices as an actor are often viewed as eccentric, as the themes of my films and plays reflect the causes I believe in the most (ending violence in any form, be it religious war, child abuse, gender-based violence, apartheid, or the assault on freedom of expression). So my work, whether as an actor, writer, or advocate, has always criss-crossed in a more than serendipitous way. For example, my first released Hindi film, Black, explores the rights of children with disabilities, while my first children’s book, Mambi and the Forest Fire, celebrates the unique or different abilities that every child has. Both are about discovering your own strengths and embracing ‘difference’.
But I’m sounding way too serious here – what I love the most about children’s books is the utterly magical interplay of fantasy and reality they allow. And it’s no coincidence that Kangaroo Kisses is all about this!
- What insight did your previous experience as an editor offer in terms of your approach to writing these picture books?
Ironically, I was offered editorial jobs in two different divisions at Houghton Mifflin at the same time – literature and children’s books – and though I absolutely loved working on The Riverside Shakespeare, The Riverside Chaucer, Best American Essays, etc., a part of me never stopped hankering for Curious George!
Of course, having worked as an editor teaches you to better understand the publishing process and production schedules, and to appreciate visionary publishers such as Janetta Otter-Barry (who immediately recognized, in a few lines of poetry, that Kangaroo Kisses could be a rather fun book). As I mentioned, I also find that my experience in cinema affects the way I visualize my children’s books. I map out a rough storyboard for each picture book (with figures that would make sense to no one else) – and that helps me determine how I’d structure the text and write out each page. It helps me ‘see’ the book from the start, even if it all changes eventually!
- What is the background to Kangaroo Kisses?
I wrote Kangaroo Kisses for my niece Hiya, who always has endless excuses for not going to bed, each more inventive than the last. She is my muse for the naughty little heroine of our book. But equally, the book is about the girl’s (mostly) patient mother, who must get her ready for bed. I wanted to write about this very special moment between parent and child, a moment of great closeness and, very often, of playful negotiation.
Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the magical time between being awake and falling asleep, when our imagination runs wild. I think of all kinds of books to write, make detailed plans for my life, have long conversations in my head with people I like – and people I don’t like – and it all happens just before I fall asleep! Anything seems possible at that time. I wanted to bring this sense of limitless possibility and imagination into this book, along with a lively, loving dialogue between parent and child.
- I love that the mother is kind but firm – and does seem to get slightly more frazzled as the story progresses. Was that a conscious decision or did it just evolve that way?
Both. It was a choice I made based on experience – even the most patient and loving put-to-bed-ders get exasperated at times! I wanted every bit of the book to ring true, without losing the fun of it. In fact, the mum’s fleeting impatience provided an opportunity to inject humour and drama into the verse, and into the design elements.
- The story is written in verse and the voices of the mother and daughter are very distinctive within the poetry. Did you go through many drafts for the rhythm and those voices to work or did it all just fall into place?
It came to me in rhyme, but at first I’d written the story from the little girl’s point of view. It was quite sweet and read well, but it didn’t feel complete. Once I got the idea of a playful argument between mother and child, it did all come together very naturally. I’m very particular about rhythm, so I did spend time perfecting the way it scans when read out loud. By the time I was ready to send the manuscript out, the text (the voices as well as the structure) was very clear.
- Did you have any input in the illustrations? I love how Pippa Curnick offers pointers as to what has sparked the little girl’s imagination.
Pippa is an immensely talented artist. There were a few points that we all discussed to begin with, so we were on the same page (such as the girl having a favourite toy that our little readers would look for on every page, or each fantasy being triggered by the animal objects around her, or the importance of the family being ‘ethnically ambiguous’). Pippa has a wonderful gift, and visualized the story beautifully, as you can see in our book!
- I was going to ask how important it was for you that the mother and daughter be depicted as Indian, but from what you have just said, that is obviously not the case?
I didn’t see the girl as necessarily Indian, but nor did I see her as a golden-haired princess type. I saw her as a very spirited (rather than dollish) little girl of colour, possibly biracial – and as we know, Janetta has always been very focused on diversity as well. It was important to both of us that the girl and her mum should look like they could be from anywhere in the world. (And that they weren’t wearing woollies all the time, indicating a cold country!)
- Have you shared the book with children?
Yes, several times, and it’s always so much fun!
Kangaroo Kisses had a wonderful launch at the Hay Festival, with my youngest and most enthusiastic audience ever. In fact, there was such a demand for our session that it had to be moved to a much larger auditorium.
I’ve had equally fun and boisterous sessions with kids in lovely bookstores such as the Book Nook in Hove, the Holt Book Shop, and most recently, Books of Wonder in New York, where our book just had a launch party full of games, balloons, animal masks, play-acting, tail-swishing, and a Kangaroo Kisses cake. The kids loved the book so much that I got very sweetly mobbed and had to read out the book again!
The next festival Kangaroo will be making an appearance in is the South Ken Kids Festival in London, this November. I love interactive storytelling sessions, and I’m very excited to do more with kids in festivals, bookstores, and schools in the UK.
- You recently had another book published, Mambi and the Forest Fire illustrated by Saskia Pekelharing. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, it’s the first of the Mambi the Marvel series. What’s marvelous about Mambi is that she is just like any other little girl or boy: full of imagination, energy, curiosity, fears and trepidations, yet capable of great courage and self-discovery.
Mambi came into my life in a room full of amazing kids, in SNEHA, a children’s home in Kolkata. The plan for the day was to encourage them to express themselves through performing arts, but because most had come from traumatic pasts – they had been rescued from trafficking, or from the streets – this group was initially very shy. Though they were incredibly creative and resilient, the kids had little confidence in themselves, and most didn’t believe they had any ‘gifts’ worth sharing – that everyone else was, somehow, much better at doing all things.
Struggling to break the ice, I found myself conjuring up my friend Mambi on the spot – a shy but spunky monkey who wants to be like her older, ‘cooler’ jungle friends, but is more heroic than anyone else. By the end of the afternoon, I was playing with the most delightfully raucous, utterly irrepressible bunch of kids, as we kept creating (and acting out) characters filling up the entire forest (and setting it on fire)! The transformation was incredibly moving. And that’s why this first book of the Mambi series focuses on embracing your own identity, while celebrating difference.
There can be so many pressures on kids, in school as well as at home – I feel it’s important to reinforce in a child that it’s absolutely fine to have different abilities and interests than her/his peers. And Mambi is not only about accepting yourself: learning to respect the diversity of your peers at an early age is equally critical in a world where children most often have classmates from different countries or communites, religions, ethnicities or economic backgrounds. The thought behind the book was to find a fun and engaging way of making kids think about the fact that everyone is equally special.
- Please can you also tell us something about your work with children’s charities, including Operation Smile, UNICEF and RAHI and why you became involved – and about some of the children you have met through your fieldwork?
I’ve been super lucky to meet a great many truly inspiring children over the years. Asha, the child-bride from rural Maharashtra who refused to get married on the day of her wedding, citing the law that makes it a punishable offence. Little Kiran of Guwahati, who broke out into a jig on her hospital bed after her cleft lip surgery – and taught me dance moves when we walked the ramp together in Bombay.
Ashok of Bombay, who runs HIV awareness and safe-sex campaigns in his local schools and red-ribbon clubs, much to the embarrassment of his family. Rahnuma of rural Bengal, who escaped from a brothel in Pune and went back with the police to free her friends, despite multiple threats from gangsters. And so many more.
This work has always been a big part of my life, whether as a student volunteer in Boston (against domestic violence); as Cause Ambassador for RAHI (against child sexual abuse); as Smile Ambassador for Operation Smile (children with cranio-facial disabilities and deformities); or as a jury member in Public Hearings for the National Commission of Protection of Child Rights (advocating for the right to education, and against child labour and trafficking).
My longest relationship is with RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest), with whom I’ve been working for over 15 years. RAHI was the first organization in India to work with survivors of child sexual abuse. It broke the silence around this critical issue that is still largely neglected or denied in India, even though over half of India’s children are victims of sexual abuse.
RAHI and I came together for a play; in fact, the very first acting role I played in Bombay was that of the traumatized protagonist of 30 Days in September, a play commissioned by RAHI, which was based on its pioneering fieldwork. Speaking of inspiring young people I’ve met, at the close of our opening night at Bombay’s leading repertory Prithvi, a fearless young girl stood up in the audience to say, through tears, that watching me was like ‘looking at myself in the mirror’. That was the first time she spoke out about having been abused by her uncle for years – and she wasn’t the only one who reached out. The play prompted many survivors to speak up and begin the process of healing; it even inspired an audience member to start an NGO in Bombay. It was a very powerful experience as an actor as well as an advocate, and RAHI and I instantly became a unit.
With other organizations such as UNICEF, Terre des Hommes Foundation, Sanlaap, and FXB, our goals have been to stop the exploitation of disadvantaged or vulnerable children, and to promote safety, through adolescent empowerment programs; providing food and shelter for trash-picking ‘railway children’; opposing child marriage and encouraging girls to stay in school; reintegrating children rescued from sex trafficking.
Why did I get involved? Because I believe we must see every child in the world as our own. It can be so easy to distance ourselves from the disturbing realities of the children who most need our protection – the child living on the street, the child raped at home, the child driven out of school, the child working hazardously, the child sold to slavery. Not getting involved is not an option, is it?
- Do you have any other books in the pipeline and what are you working on at the moment?
Yes – a few!
I have three children’s books coming out next year. The first is a bilingual picture book in rhyme that will be published in 9 languages in India. The second is Book Two of the Mambi the Marvel series, and the third is a colourful rhyming story that’s also a word-puzzle, called Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm.
I’m also developing a lovely children’s project with the Institut Français in which I’ll be collaborating with a French illustrator. And I’m writing a monthly fiction series inspired by current affairs and contemporary reality – Youthquake focuses on young-adult issues, and is published across a few platforms (The Wire, Huffington Post, The Telegraph, Youth Ki Awaaz, etc.) Eventually, this will also come out as a book of short stories.
And when I have a little time, I’d love to set aside a chunk of it to write for grown-ups too. I’ve been asked to write a book tracing the evolution of a woman-powered literary and political identity in Kolkata, seen through the eyes of three generations of rule-breaking Bengali women. In many ways, this would be the story of my fearless foremothers, and I’m very excited to write it. I’m thrilled too that a feature script I’ve written—set in the interconnected worlds of cinema, journalism, and politics in Bombay—is gaining a lot of interest; and I’ve been asked to develop this into a novel as well. The script incorporates some of the concerns I care about deeply (one of the central characters is an eight-year-old boy). It’s a story about second chances and making amends – about celebrity and responsibility, about power and its abuse, about trauma and memory. But above all, it’s about the conflicted love that can make or break a family.
- Thank you so much, Nandana – it has been very interesting to find out about your work (when do you draw breath?!); and you have certainly given us much to ponder. Before you go, just a few quick questions under the MWD Spotlight….
The first book you remember reading as a mirror of you and/or your cultural background?
Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, given to me by my father. It’s my all-time-favourite book of nonsense rhymes.
Reading preference – paper or e-book?
Definitely paper. I’m embarrassed to admit how much of a digital dinosaur I actually am.
The last book you read that opened the window onto a new-to-you cultural landscape?
A Gentleman in Moscow – a brilliant new novel by Amor Towles
And Dear Genius [edited by Leonard S. Marcus] – A compilation of incredibly witty, wise, warm (and at times withering) letters that legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom wrote to her authors (including E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and Maurice Sendak) from the 40s to the 70s. The letters reveal a creative intimacy that had a purity and intensity that just seem unimaginable now.
If you could choose any authors and/or illustrators to collaborate with on a book, who would you choose?
Margaret Atwood and Quentin Blake.
On holiday, lie on a beach or hike up a mountain (you may include any conditions necessary to your choice!)?
Bike along flat-ish country roads, and read on a hammock!
Initial ideas – notebook or computer?
Whichever is handy at the moment. Sometimes it’s a scrap of paper, or my phone.
Most personally precious object on or within 1 metre of your desk?
The cloth-covered notebook my grandmother gave me when I left for college. It’s full of beautiful letters she wrote to me in advance so I wouldn’t miss home too much, in her calligraphic but shaky handwriting. She was beginning to lose her vision then.
Something you have done or want to do because of reading a book?
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (her ‘cover version’ of A Winter’s Tale) made me wish I could reverse time ‘like in Superman‘. It made me start thinking again about how important it is to make amends, and to forgive.
Something about yourself that might surprise even your friends?
1. My NY bicycle is called Beatrice (and it’s blue). My Essex bike is called Titania (and it’s green).
2. Once upon a time, I jumped off a 50-storey building, bedecked in tattoos and leather, on a very different kind of a bike. It was for a film. I teetered from a cable on a crane for what seemed like an eternity. But the shot looked great.
3. I like to eat peanuts with soy sauce. It’s inexpliably delicious.
A peep at what today’s work entails?
Finalizing the Bengali translation for my next children’s book, the multilingual one in rhyme.
Writing the first draft of the next story in Youthquake, my monthly fiction series.
Writing to my friend Anuja, the co-founder of RAHI, to fix a time for us to speak.
Emailing the editorial team of Penguin India with my response to a lovely sample spread they just sent me for Talky Tumble.
Sending my screenplay to a very interesting studio head in India with whom I was on a call recently and who has asked to read it asap.
Struggling to upload pictures from the New York launch party to the Kangaroo Kisses FB page. I’m new to FB, which, as I am discovering, moves in VERY mysterious ways.
Working on my new website www.nandanadevsen.com with my infinitely patient friend David Ouimet