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Supriya Kelkar: Indian American Children’s Author On Racism and Other Microaggressions

Supriya Kelkar: Indian American Children’s Author On Racism and Other Microaggressions

Born and raised in the Midwest, Michigan native, Supriya Kelkar is the author of numerous children’s books which include Ahimsa (2017), The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (2019) and her latest venture – American as Paneer Pie (2020). 

The daughter of Bollywood screen writer Subhash Kelkar, Supriya is a chip off the old block. A University of Michigan graduate, Kelkar has a degree in psychology and film with a concentration in screenwriting.  She has worked with well-known Bollywood writer-director-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, on his Bollywood blockbusters – Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) and Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007). Kelkar was also part of the writing team for Hollywood film Broken Horses (2015), by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and can be watched on Prime Video.

Growing up in predominantly white, small town America, Kelkar was subjected to many instances of “racial microaggression.” And all these incidences found a home in her book, American as Paneer Pie, which follows the life of 11-year-old Indian American Lekha. Torn between two versions of herself —eating Indian food and watching Bollywood movies and the school, Lekha shies away from bringing attention to her ethnicity and avoids confrontation at all costs. And when a racist incident rocks her community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: remain silent or speak up and find her voice before it’s too late. “A lot of the incidents in the book came from my childhood experiences,” Kelkar says.

Deciding early on in elementary school to become an author, Kelkar has realized her dream today. Ahimsa won the New Visions Award and is about 10-year-old Anjali, who is pulled unexpectedly into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter and is imprisoned. Based loosely on her great-grandmother who took part in the freedom movement and went on to become a two-term Congresswoman. “Originally, the idea was to do a historical biopic on her but somewhere along the lines, I thought it would be more interesting as a children’s novel.”

Based on social issues surrounding untouchability, women empowerment, and racism, her books work to give the voiceless a voice. “It stunned me to realize that things I was writing about and which happened in 1942 India, were being mirrored in 2016 America. It made me realize we have come a long way, and yet we haven’t!”

Kelkar, now a mother of three, who continues to live in her hometown, adds, “I was concerned that my children would face the same bullying and racism that I did, even though the town has doubled in size and is really diverse. But the issues of racism very clearly exist here and throughout the country. From that fear, grew the idea for American as Paneer Pie.”

Written in a record five weeks, the book reflects everything she had gone through in her childhood. “I did not have a voice growing up to stand up against bullying. It was really scary. I did not find my voice till college when it took the form of my writing. I wanted to write something that would encourage and empower kids from everywhere, from all backgrounds, to know their stories matter and to give them a voice in whatever shape it comes – poetry, art, dance…to fill them with hope,” she says.

A writer with a cause, Kelkar visits schools to inspire young wanna-be writers. “Today, when I visit schools, I tell the kids all the characters I read about were white with yellow hair. And that would have been fine, if that’s what I looked like. And because in the 80s and 90s, there were no books, TV shows, movies or even a Kohl’s catalogue with South Asian characters (chuckling), we (desis) just never saw ourselves in the media, unless it was the racist Appu in The Simpsons. We never knew our stories mattered. And so, when I started writing, I was only writing stories about white people. The message had been received. I am very proud now to be able to boldly and fearlessly tell my story.”

An avid reader herself, Kelkar grew up reading Babysitter’s Club and Ramona Quimby, and has too many favorites to list. She has also passed on her love for reading to her children, the oldest of whom is inspired to become an editor. “They live in a house full of books, so I guess they have to love to read,” she says laughing.

Bollywood has always been a huge influence on Kelkar’s life – from Bollywood music playing in her home to learning Hindi in the ’80s by watching 3 Bollywood movies a week.

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“Growing up my mama-mami had given me the gift of a book-of-the-month club. I still have all those children’s books. I was able to learn so much from them. Even ones, I didn’t like, would teach me something. And I have so many author friends, I keep buying all their books. We are drowning in books!” she adds with a laugh.

Bollywood has always been a huge influence on Kelkar’s life – from Bollywood music playing in her home to learning Hindi in the ’80s by watching 3 Bollywood movies a week. “Those were the days of VHS and no subtitles. So, you had no choice but to figure out what was being said.”

No wonder then that her next venture, That Thing About Bollywood (summer 2021) centers around a shy girl, Sonali who gives voice to her emotions through, none other than, the iconic Bollywood naach-gaana numbers.

Other works to look forward to are Strong as Fire, Fierce As Flame (2021) and Bindu’s Bindi (2021). 

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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