authors, Christine Van Zandt, interview, Lee and Low, middle grade, Page Street Kids, SCBWI community, SCBWI members, Tina Athaide
Southern California author Tina Athaide’s middle-grade debut was the critically acclaimed novel Orange for the Sunsets (2019, Katherine Tegen). Her latest publication is picture book Meena’s Mindful Moment (2021, Page Street Kids).
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! Your historical fiction, middle-grade book, Orange for the Sunsets, about two friends (an Indian girl and a Ugandan boy) is set in 1972 Uganda when President Idi Amin announced all Indians with British citizenship had 90 days to leave Uganda—a story that is close to your heart. Did the span of decades help give this life-altering event perspective?
TINA ATHAIDE: Time is exactly what this story needed. The decades in between gave me a broader perspective, which allowed for the space to present two alternating points of view. When I first set out to write the story, it was in the late 1990s, and I had a singular vision—telling the story from an Asian Indian POV. Now when I look at the story, I cannot imagine it without Yesofu, the Ugandan boy. Time healed to look past the loss and pain of the Asian Indian experience so I could give a voice to the Ugandan experiences during that time, so the story had balance.
CVZ: On your website, you state, “#ownvoices books portray the subtle nuances of a cultural community that other authors might miss or misinterpret.” Can you tell us more about this?
TA: When the hashtag #ownvoices was first created, it was intended as a tool for recommending books by authors who openly shared the diverse identity of their main characters. In recent years we have seen a shift away from #ownvoices to specific descriptions authors use to describe themselves, but the focus remains the same: giving children opportunities to see themselves in the stories they are reading and know the person behind the words is similar to them.
When I set out to write Orange for the Sunsets, the purpose wasn’t a lesson on diversity, empathy, or racial equality. I wrote about the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda, because that is what I knew. I was born in Uganda. My parents, grandparents, family, and friends had lived there, I knew firsthand about the fear, horror, and uncertainty they faced when they scrambled to get out of the country before Idi Amin’s deadline.
All of these experiences gave my characters an added richness. Similarly in my picture book, Meena’s Mindful Moment, all the places that Meena visits in Goa are the same places my grandfather and I visited.
It is firsthand storytelling!
CVZ: What about the danger of the single story?
TA: The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the phrase “single stories” to describe the overly simplistic and sometimes false perceptions we form about individuals, groups, or countries.
When I told my students that my main character’s family is from Goa (a state in India that stretches along the Arabian Sea), they immediately placed Asha in a box with all other Indians: Asha must be Hindu; She must be vegetarian; She must speak Hindi.
This is the danger of the single story.
Yes, Asha is Indian, but she is Goan and there are subtle differences within that cultural community that make her story unique. The Portuguese influenced the food from Goa. Many Goans are Catholic and speak Portuguese and Konkani in addition to English and Swahili. I share the deepest possible understanding of the intricacies of Asha’s life because I have lived it.
The single story is limiting. It leads children to misinterpret people, their backgrounds, and how they live their lives. It leads children to believe that all Indians are the same. This is why we need books that tell many different kinds of stories about a particular cultural community.
CVZ: Before Orange for the Sunsets you had six leveled readers published and your recent publication, Meena’s Mindful Moment, is a picture book. Why switch categories? Were you writing in all three categories when you became agented?
TA: I write in all three areas—MG, PB, and leveled readers—and have from the beginning. I got my start in this world of storytelling with my collection of leveled readers with Bebop, an imprint of Lee & Low Books. I was teaching first grade at the time and wanted books in my classroom with a wider representation of children from other cultures sharing the same experiences as my students.
For example, in Pran’s Week of Adventure (Bebop), the main character tries to figure out how to get to school when the family car breaks down. He is South Asian and his mum wears a salwar-kameez (a long tunic worn over loose pants) and these were conversation starters in my classroom. I sold my leveled readers and middle-grade story from the slush pile and later found an agent after my middle-grade book sale was announced in Publishers Weekly.
With each project, I don’t think of the category. I start with the idea and allow the storytelling to unfold. Orange for the Sunsets began as a picture book and then grew into a middle-grade story. I would recommend writers focus on the storytelling.
CVZ: How does your writing distinguish you from other authors with similar books?
TA: This question made me pause . . . honestly, I think what sets my work apart from other authors with similar books is the story, the plot, and the characters. This is where I believe that all experiences are seen, heard, felt, and communicated differently, unique to each person, and that is what sets stories apart from one another. I have the opportunity to be on a reading jury and there are several books set during World War II. However, each story is completely original.
CVZ: How do you make time to write?
TA: Finding time to write is one of my biggest struggles as a mother, wife, writer, and teacher, but over the years I have come to understand that working on my writing extends to more than just putting words on a page. That part is critical, but our craft also includes imagining and creating while on a walk or driving home from work. It can be drawing scenes or characters. It is making character sketches, plotting, and outlining. It is taking writing classes or joining critique groups. And, best of all, it is READING.
When I widened the lens and saw the larger picture, my own creativity blossomed and I stopped admonishing myself for not getting those words down on a specific day. There are so many ways to work on our craft as writers.
CVZ: In closing, do you have a piece of advice to help other writers?
TA: Join a critique group and your regional SCBWI. I recently found an amazing writing critique group through my local SCBWI Southern California regional chapter. There are four of us and we meet via Zoom weekly. I treasure these Monday meetings, as it is an opportunity to discuss the craft of writing, share our work, brainstorm ideas, lift one another’s spirits, and have a good laugh with great company.
To learn more about Tina and her work, please visit her website at tinaathaide.com.
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Flap and cover art for Meena’s Mindful Moment by Åsa Gilland, courtesy of Page Street Books. Orange for the Sunsets book cover courtesy of Katherine Tegen, Harper Collins. Author photo taken by Tina Athaide.