Himanjali Sankar is an author and editor. She writes across age groups–from picture books to novels for adults. Her books have twice been shortlisted for the Crossword Award. The Lies We Tell is her second novel for teens, published in January 2019.
She is interviewed by writer Anil Menon. His most recent book is Half Of What I Say (Bloomsbury India). His website is anilmenon.com.
AM: The Lies We Tell revolves around three Indian teenagers and their mutual friendship. There’s now irrefutable evidence you like writing about the lives of teenagers. What motivates you to write on this topic?
HS: It’s somewhat stupidly personal as so many things tend to be. The two minds I’ve been in closest contact with in the last ten years or so have been those of teenagers – my daughters’. My younger daughter is made of sterner stuff and doesn’t let me into her life too deeply but the older one (hope she doesn’t read this) has allowed me to be a part of her rather fascinating, disturbing, weird, teenage world and as an adult with a sneak window into this universe the possibilities were immense and I’ve exploited and fictionalized them and done whatever I’ve wanted to with great delight and satisfaction. Also, being in touch with their teenage years brought back many of my own memories of growing up but possibly from a different perspective now that I am an adult.
AM: I found The Lies We Tell particularly interesting for what it doesn’t tell. Irfan and Uma are in love, and one is a Muslim and the other is a Hindu, but unlike Mr C’s prejudice against Muslims in Mrs C Remembers, no one in this story seem to think the religious differences are a big deal. What made you decide to ignore this source of potential tension?
HS: The structure and plot of this book was such that I needed to keep religion peripheral – it might be there, tucked in occasionally between the lines, but it’s a book about urban westernized kids for whom religion (hopefully!) is a non-issue. In Mrs C the characters were adults so religious differences played out differently but here the religious identity of the kids is meant to be incidental and, as you said, what the book doesn’t tell is meant to be more telling than what it does.
AM: In your recent novels, the driving force isn’t so much what your characters do, as much as what they know or don’t know about other characters. But commercial YA, especially the US variety, seems to be more adventure oriented. Let me be blunt: you don’t have a single sulking vampire in this novel! Do you think there’s an unaddressed desire amongst teen readers (and adults) for realist, relationship-oriented YA?
HS: I know very few vampires and don’t feel confident of representing them in my books while when it comes to relationships I feel I am as qualified and experienced as Sadhguru to scatter my knowledge like confetti on the world! Though even in the US, in the last some years there has been a spate of realist, relationship-oriented YA with authors like John Green, E Lockhart and Jennifer Niven and these are some of the writers I’ve admired and who possibly influenced me when it came to choosing the themes for my YA books.
AM: In The Lies We Tell, as in your other novels, you subtly and skilfully play with different perspectives. As a result every character is comprehensible, even when they’re doing or saying cruel things. No one is entirely evil; we get where they’re coming from. But if fiction teaches us to have empathy, the concomitant danger is that it might lead children to identify with the “wrong” characters. So does children’s fiction have an obligation to push this or that moral view? If not, why are you ruining other people’s children?
HS: You have shrewdly exposed my hidden (no longer) plan for the promotion of debauchery and immorality vis-à-vis tender, impressionable teenage minds! But it is also a fact that there is much I disapprove of in this world (I am not completely amoral after all) – arrogance, self-aggrandisement, bigotry, unkind or hurtful behavior – and my attempt is not to justify any of it but to reveal the underpinnings, what leads to such stupidities so those can be addressed rather than the behavior traits that are already too deeply entrenched to dislodge. I would hope kids would be discriminating enough to pick on this and not identify with the “wrong” characters so to say. And if they can’t, well, they are already on the wrong path and my role in nudging them along it is hopefully marginal.
AM: Children’s fiction or YA fiction is distinct from other genres in that it is usually written by authors who don’t belong to the same age-group as their readers. If this was the case in any other genre, we’d hurl accusations of colonisation, lack of authenticity, appropriation, marginalisation, and so on. Indeed, the critic Jacqueline Rose has argued that children’s fiction isn’t about children, but about what adults need children to be. How does a writer deal with this indelible gap between who they are and who they’re writing for?
HS: It’s difficult admittedly but it’s also true that every adult was once a teenager (except Benjamin Button) and would have memories of those years – good, bad, indifferent – and as Freud has let us know in no uncertain terms it is the experiences of our childhoods that shape the rest of our lives. The authenticity of the teen voices that one captures tell us whether we have succeeded as writers or not but it isn’t quite the same as accusations of appropriation or colonization which have more to do with identity politics. Also, at another very basic level, as adults most of us come in fairly close contact with the lives of teenagers, whether it is as a parent, an uncle or aunt, a neighbour or a friend. And those of us who don’t or those of us who are unmoved by teen experiences would naturally (or let’s say hopefully) stay away from writing for young adult audiences.