For the September #247 21 Sep 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Donna Amey Bhatt about co-writing a children’s book with her husband, Vikesh. Donna was already a published author with her book, How To Spot a Mum.
Co-writing a book was something new for both of them and Donna was worried it might put a strain on their relationship but found in reality it bought them closer together. Although, the deadline for the book ended up being difficult, as their baby was due. It meant they needed to be much more organised.
Donna told me Vikesh came up with the idea for Lands of Belonging: A history of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Britain over lockdown, and together they fleshed it out and pitched it. Lands of Belonging is a thrilling exploration of the complicated history of South Asia and Britain, examining what it means to ‘belong’.
In the interview Donna explained one of the things that inspired the book was the fact Vikesh grew up without being told the full history as to why his family lived here. It’s a huge part of the UK’s story that is often overlooked in both schools and the media. They have also found through their work in marketing not many places truly embrace diversity. This is something Vikesh is passionate about changing, and educating the younger generation is where it really needs to start. It is especially topical this year, 2022 as it is the 75th anniversary of Partition.
Donna elaborated how the combined history is often glamourised, things like the Raj and ‘Britannia ruling the waves’ really don’t tell the story of them people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who lived during those times. Their contributions to our country are so huge, and so brilliant they should be acknowledged and celebrated.
The book is split into two sections. The first looks at the past, and plots the beginning of Britain and India’s relationship, as well as looking at what India was like before it was colonised.
The second half is a look at modern Britain as shaped by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi people. It was important to Donna and Vikesh to include a diverse variety of Indian culture within the book. She told me that as well as fact checking with friends and family, Nosy Crow were incredibly thorough and provided two academics and many fact checkers to ensure all the information was 100% accurate.
Key to them was the fact they had a brilliant illustrator, Salini Perera, who could show things so beautifully. So, things like talking about traditional dishes and costume didn’t need lengthy explanation. They trusted Salini’s skill and it paid off.
“One of our favourite pages explains a few types of yoga, and Salini has done a brilliant job of showing some of the positions.”Donna Amey Bhatt
There are plenty of history books that solely tell you what happened in the past but there are not many that explain how these events effect our culture and the world today. Donna explained she believes looking at how the past has led to how we live today is often what draws readers (and potential publishers) in.
Her advice to other writers who want to write about the history of their culture is to try to think of how you can explain things interactively. Maybe there’s an activity you can include that makes your point, or you can use illustration to plot something instead of using too much text. The great thing about writing for children is there’s space to experiment, and many of the rules for writing can be thought more as suggestions.
They both hope Lands of Belonging serves as a helpful reference to people who don’t fully understand this part of history.
Donna’s latest book is How to Greet a Gran, published by Quarto. It’s a look at grans all over the world, tells you a little about granny customs in different countries, and vitally; what to call them.
You can buy copies of all Donna’s books from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops. It is also available at Waterstone and Amazon.
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