Allison's Book Bag

Writing About Dance, Spiritual Awakening, and Love

Posted on: June 16, 2015

PadmaVenkatramanPadma Venkatraman is an award-winning American author who lives in Rhode Island. All three of her critically acclaimed novels have been Booklist Editor’s Choice Best Books of the Year and American Library Association Best Books of the Year. Venkatraman enjoys discussing her work with interested audiences and has provided keynote speeches at teacher and librarian conferences as well as commencement speeches at schools. She’s also been the chief guest at international book/author festivals, along with having been invited to participate on various prestigious panels. Tomorrow I’ll review her book A Time to Dance. Save the date: June 17!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Born in the south of India, Venkatraman completed her schooling and her undergraduate studies there, but then moved to the United States to further pursue her studies. She obtained her doctorate degree in oceanography at The College of William and Mary and is currently Director of Graduate Diversity Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. She enjoys writing for young people, and her stories combine her knowledge of science and mathematics with her passion for literature and writing.

Beyond the above, I couldn’t find much personal background about Venkatraman, except for answers to some random questions asked by Penguin Teen Tumblr. Here is a sampling:

Who is your favorite hero or heroine of history? Sangamitra, a princess, daughter of Ashoka, the most powerful monarch to rule the Indian subcontinent. She gave up all her wealth and power, became a Buddhist nun, and lived a colorful though peaceful life during which she traveled one heck of a lot.

If you could spend one year on a deserted island with one character from literature, who would you choose?

  • Winnie the pooh, because he’d help me philosophize;
  • Frog and Toad, because they’d make me laugh;
  • Hermione Granger, because she’d magically get me a laptop to write with and also help me get home sooner than a year.

What is the best concert you’ve ever been to? Zakhir Hussain, an amazing drummer who plays the tabla. He’s handsome, too, so being at one of his concerts is a treat to the eyes as well as the ears.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever tweeted? I just started tweeting (@padmatv), and my funniest tweet so far is my daughter’s words: “Mommy, I love your three books the best in the world even though I haven’t read them yet.”

If you could teleport anywhere in the known universe right now, where would you go? Just got back from an exhilarating but exhausting week in Trinidad. I’d love to teleport to a tropical beach there, as I didn’t get enough time to enjoy the sun and waves.

What is your idea of earthly happiness? Items number 3, 4 and 5 on my multi-racial, multi-religious daughter’s Christmas list last year: No ill people; No cruel people; Nobody too poor. Plus, one item of my own: everyone loving all three of my novels and everything I write in the future!

BOOK BACKGROUND

A Time to Dance is about a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee and shatters her dreams. What follows is background information gleaned from Nancy Tandon.

Written in verse, A Time to Dance reads like a long, narrative poem. Venkatraman shares that she initially fought against this form because although she loves poetry, she’s never studied. However, the voice of character of Veda spoke to her in verse. An opportunity to sit in on a poetry workshop also helped Venkatram overcome her fear of experimenting with this form. Moreover, her editor was a stalwart supporter and stood by her through numerous revisions. Finally, as Venkatraman was revising my work, she realized that the form was particularly well-suited to two of the three main themes in her novel: Veda’s love of dance and her spiritual growth.

Venkatraman notes that many young girls learn Bharatanatyam in India, just as many in the West take Ballet lessons. She herself took lessons from a few different teachers. Although Venktraman views herself as having zero kinesthetic ability, she feels lessons helped her appreciate what it takes to become a great dancer. Her flirtation with dance informs Veda’s serious pursuit of it.

When Venkatraman’s agent saw the word “God” on the first page, he apparently felt scared, because few writers dare to approach this topic. He told Venkatraman it was hard to write spirituality without coming off as proselytizing or religiously bigoted. To her relief, even in the draft phase, her agent had nothing but praise for this aspect of the book. As for Venkatraman, she says that while Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious but spiritual. Her awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context, and the novel doesn’t try to push a particular religion.

As part of her research into A Time to Dance, Venkatraman spoke to several disabled people, physical therapists, doctors, and physiatrists when she wrote her novel. She also spent a lot of time doing experiments to simulate the tactile illusion of a phantom limb, using crutches, etc. In her late teens, Venkatraman also narrowly escaped the loss of a leg and so in some ways Veda’s experience was near to her heart.

One of Veda’s love interests, a doctor named Jim, was inspired by several American volunteers whom Venkatraman met who travel to other countries to help with the making of prostheses. When she visited India, she also came across many programs to aid socio-economically deprived people including those who were disabled. While noting that several groups of people in India and elsewhere inspired her, Venkatraman recognized that Robert C. James and his son Josh James, who create artificial limbs in Rhode Island, gave her more time than probably anyone else. In part to honor them, she named her character Jim.

One other piece of novel trivia involves Veda’s grandma who makes a hot snack for her after school. The snack is Sojji or sweetened semolina. Here’s a link to the recipe and a photograph of it on the web: Food and The Fabulous.

In conclusion, Venkatraman says it took years to get A Time to Dance right. After it was done, she was terrified. It was a tremendous relief then that A Time to Dance was released to starred reviews in five review journals. Many newspapers also carried glowing reviews. In addition, A Time to Dance is a Booklist Top 10 book for youth!

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Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

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