“Don’t be chicken about butter chicken! It’s important to accept and trust in all parts of yourself, including the culture from which you come,” says Mahtab Narsimhan.
Narsimhan is a Canadian author of young adult novels who originally hails from India. Her newest novel, Embrace the Chicken, deals with just such an immigrant experience. She will be reading from this and previous novels at the Vancouver Public Library on May 7 as part of Asian Heritage Month.
“Immigrants are [often] torn between the culture that they left behind and the one they want to embrace. Breaking in is difficult; it’s even more [so] when you come from a completely different background,” says Narsimhan.
Spices and shame
“The story revolves around a teenager, Shivani, who is desperately trying to fit into the Canadian culture,” explains Narsimhan. “She tries to hide her culture, especially her mother who doesn’t speak English very well.”
The turning point of the novel comes when Shivani’s mother decides to help at a school fundraiser by serving traditional Indian food.
“It turns out that the very things [Shivani] was ashamed of are the things that endear her to the community,” she says.
Narsimhan’s novel refers to being embarrassed by your parent, a feeling common to teenagers everywhere. But the novel will also be relevant for those teens who have experience immigrating or with immigrants.
“Teens are in that middle ground where they’re not kids. If you start at kindergarten, it’s a lot easier to integrate into the culture and make your own friends, as opposed to later when friendships have already formed,” says Narsimhan.
Narsimhan believes these teens will be comforted by some truths.
“When it comes out that the reason [Shivani] isn’t bringing her mother to parent-teacher conferences is her mother’s [poor] English language skills, [Shivani’s] friend says ‘how many of us have tried to speak with [your mother] in Hindi? And if any of us attempted [it], we’d be bad as well,’” she says.
Narsimhan emphasizes that Embrace the Chicken and her other novels are a lot of fun too. In a previous novel, Mission Mumbai, from which she will also read, Narsimhan tells the story of a North American boy’s trip to India, a mirror image of her current novel.
“The funniest part [is] the Indian toilet,” Narsimhan laughs. “In many Asian countries, it’s just a hole in the ground. [The protagonist] Dylan has been waiting to go, and he comes running out saying ‘someone’s stolen the toilet!’”
Narsimhan feels she can relate both to the experience of immigration and that of visiting India as an (almost) foreigner.
“I came to Canada 21 years ago, to Toronto,” she says. “I was on shaky ground when I came here, wondering ‘am I going to fit in?’ ‘Am I going to have to go back home?’ [And] I used to wonder how I was going to survive the cold because I’d never seen ice and snow except in my freezer!”
Narsimhan has returned to her home country on visits with her young son, and it’s one of these voyages that inspired the story about the toilet.
“He was seven,” she recalls. “I remember him saying, ‘Mom, I think there’s a bit missing here!’”
Narsimhan will share this and other stories at the reading, which will also include tips for budding writers.
“Kids always ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” says Narsimhan. “I love showing my drafts because most people seem to think that a story comes fully formed in your head!”
Though her novels focus on young adults, they aren’t the sole intended audience.
“It’s not just for kids. It’s also for adults. It’s for the rest of us to be more tolerant and accepting of those of us who are [different],” she says.