[COLD OPEN] Now, I do hear a little bit of what seems like maybe movement noise; I don't know if maybe you're talking with your hands or fiddling with anything, but just a reminder that if you are somebody who talks with your hands, you should try to kind of sit on your hands or fold them together...
You caught me there, I'm a big gesturer.
Because it will pick up that kind of sound.
All right, I will sit on my hands now. Okay, okay, I will sit on my hands.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Today, we're going to talk with Ambika Sambasivan, and Maxine Rose Schur, publisher, and author respectively, of Brave with Beauty, a picture book biography of the 15th century Queen Goharshad of Afghanistan. This book gives me life by shining a light on an incredible role model, a ruler who used her power to make the world a more beautiful place. This episode is part of the Through the Window series, the Association of Jewish Libraries' diversity exchange program. If Brave with Beauty gives you life too, please recommend this episode to your friends. Word of mouth is the best way to help us find new listeners. Send your friends to Bookoflifepodcast.com.
This episode of The Book of Life podcast is part of the Association of Jewish Libraries' diversity exchange program, Through the Window. We are going to be looking through the window at another culture and opening our own window to be looked through in turn. Our partner in that exchange today is Ambika Sambasivan of Yali Books, and one of the authors from Yali Books, Maxine Rose Schur. So welcome, Ambika and Maxine.
Thank you. Thank you, Heidi.
Thank you for having us.
Ambika, what is Yali Books?
So Yali Books is a independent publisher of children's books, and our focus is South Asian cultures.
And what do you want the wider world to know about South Asian culture?
Our primary motivation is that we want to showcase the incredible diversity, we want to show the world that there are many many different kinds of cultures, many people who reside here, incredible number of languages, places, and a very very rich history, and we want to also bring about the common threads that unite different nations in this area. So there are a few nations in the area and they have traditionally not been politically united so we want to bring the cultural threads and the language threads and the things that unite us to show our common history to the world.
Great! When you learned about the Through the Window diversity exchange, what made you eager to participate?
I was fascinated by the idea. I wanted to learn more about Jewish cultures. We have Jewish populations in South Asia, and I admit, I don't know much about that, and I thought this would be a way to learn more about the broader Jewish culture, Jewish history, maybe Jewish authors, at the same time showcase other cultures that make up South Asia. So I saw it as a very valuable way to learn more about other people.
Maxine, you've written at least half a dozen Jewish children's books, including the 2000 Sidney Taylor Book Award winner The Peddler's Gift. Your newest book, Brave with Beauty is about a Muslim queen from 15th century Afghanistan. So tell us about this book and how you came to write it.
Well, I'm also a travel writer. So the two things inform each other, my travel writing and my children's book writing. You know, when I travel I get ideas for my children's books, and I often infuse my children's books, including the books I've written on Jewish topics for young people, with things that I've seen on my travels. I came to write this book, because believe it or not, many, many years ago in the early 70s, one of the places I went on my honeymoon was, Afghanistan, and this was an extraordinary experience for me. It was during the time that the king was still in power in Afghanistan. Not only was I traveling very far in distance to visit Afghanistan, but I felt when I was there that I was going back into the past, that many aspects of Afghanistan were entirely medieval. There was very little if any electricity, almost no real running water, there were pumps in the middle of the city. There were very few cars, and even fewer bicycles, and people got around by either donkey or by horse and buggy. So, I really felt that I had entered a very different world and I was fascinated by it. And one day, we went to see the Masjid-e Jameh mosque which is in Herat, and it was so intricate and so gorgeous, so spectacular that I thought, wow, you know, here is something that doesn't quite fit with this primitive daily life that I was seeing of the people. And then when I went to see the tomb, this really rundown, uncared for, broken, almost a ruin of a tomb of Queen Goharshad, I became curious about what Afghanistan was like, how it had become so so poor, when it had in fact this magnificent mosque. And I did a lot of research and then realized, to my astonishment, that this part of the world was a great center of culture and art and even a center of the world that rivaled, in the 15th century, even rivaled Florence for art and culture and science, and that was a little known fact that I wanted to share with the world, and I did it through telling the story of this remarkable queen.
So tell us about this remarkable queen.
Well, Queen Goharshad came from a very great dynasty. She was a descendant of Genghis Khan. When she was married at the age of 14, her husband's father was Tamerlane, the great warrior of legend. So she came from a very powerful family, she married into a powerful family. This was during the Timurid Dynasty, which was in many ways a Persian dynasty. In this particular dynasty, women held a great deal of power. There were many women who were patrons of the arts, and who really encouraged arts and sciences, and I think nobody more than Goharshad. She was in love with things that were beautiful. She had practiced calligraphy and had become quite adept at that; she also was an architect, she wrote poetry and so she really was instrumental in making Herat, in particular in Afghanistan, a great center of culture and learning, and she sponsored several spectacular buildings, some of which architectural historians said were the models for the Taj Mahal. So I loved her story, I loved the idea that women had these really great roles of power at this time and I wanted to write about her. I think in some ways I was trying to dispel a lot of the negative imagery that had come through our television sets, at least here in America, about Afghanistan that it was a Stone Age culture, they were very backwards and primitive. I wanted to show that in fact they came from this incredibly high culture of Arts and Sciences.
The title Brave with Beauty... It's sort of an unusual phrase, can you explain that?
Yeah, I really made it up. I've always been fascinated with concepts of beauty, what constitutes beauty. How is beauty appreciated in different societies. And I think sometimes to throw yourself into the arts, and to advocate for things that are beautiful, takes a certain amount of courage. That's what I tried to show with her, she wasn't a warrior, she didn't lead troops into battle, but she was very courageous when it came to instituting beautiful monuments, beautiful buildings, gardens and promoting music, and in fact, all the arts, painting and calligraphy and also promoting the sciences and I thought that that takes a certain amount of courage in itself.
There is a modern award named after Queen Goharshad for "benevolent women of monotheistic religions," can you tell us a little bit about that?
I actually came across it when I was doing some research on Goharshad. And in Iran, she's an important figure in their history and the mosque at Mashhad in Iran still stands, in all its glory. So they institute the award to recognize women's achievements. I think it's incredible. They have honored a number of women in different fields of study with a charitable component to it. And it's a testament to Queen Goharshad's legacy.
This book has three illustrators, Patricia Grush, Robin DeWitt and Golsa Yaghoobi. How does that work, to have three different people illustrating the same book?
It was a very interesting process. So Patricia and Robin, they are twin sisters, they are professional illustrators and they work on books together. So they have a process where they collaborate on the sketches, the artwork, and the coloring, as they work beautifully amongst themselves. Golsa was someone that they brought in because they wanted help researching a number of historical details, which were not easily available from searching in English. So Golsa is from Iran and she was able to help with the searches in Farsi, so she was able to provide historical reference on costumes on architecture, and so many other details which we couldn't have easily found without her help.
Oh, that's interesting. So did Golsa actually create artwork or she was a research assistant to the artists?
She is an artist herself, so she mainly did the research work but I think she did provide them reference sketches and things like that, but she didn't actually work on the art itself.
Yeah, that's very interesting. I was trying to figure out how you could have three different artists combining their work on the same page, and the art is very beautiful. I just want to mention and I will put examples of that onto the web page at BookofLifepodcast.com. When you saw the visuals to go with this story, were there any details about the art, the interpretation or what the research turned up, was there anything that surprised you or delighted you or that you had any strong reaction to?
Yeah, I think one thing that really surprised me, and I just loved, there's a page in it where there's a little snippet of a poem by Hafez, they did that poem in a circle, the poem goes around and comes back upon itself in this beautiful calligraphy and I thought it seemed more enchanting to me than if it were just written out in a normal fashion, that was a very nice surprise.
So as you know, this is a diversity exchange. So I wanted to see if you had any questions that you would like to ask me.
I was wondering how this program got started what was the impetus for it or what was the original idea.
Okay, great. So, this program is a project of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and it was created in January of 2020 after the very difficult Hanukkah season of 2019, when there were a lot of antisemitic attacks happening. We were looking for ways to build allyship and build understanding across cultures. That was where the idea came from, that it would be a two way street. And the window metaphor is part of the well known, within the children's literature world, the metaphor about mirrors windows and sliding glass doors. It was established by Dr Rudine Sims Bishop that children's literature should reflect your culture back to you but should also be a window for different people to see each other's culture, and then a sliding glass door that you can, through the magic of reading, step through it and imagine yourself into other situations besides your own. That was the impetus for this program.
That's a beautiful metaphor.
Yeah, I love that.
Ambika, let me point out that you actually participated in an earlier Through the Window exchange with the Jewish Women's Archive. Can you talk a little bit about that exchange? What material you got from them and they got from you....
So the Jewish Women's Archive was fascinating because I took a deep dive into their blog and I read a number of articles, and honestly, I was blown away by by what I read. And I collaborated with them to swap a blog post, and this was Pride Month so this was June and we thought it would be fantastic opportunity to do a LGBTQ themed blog swap. So I looked through their blog and I found a number of interesting posts in the LGBTQ section, and the one that really caught my eye was a Jewish teenager talking about how she helped a set up a book club and a sort of a community safe space within her school, and this was a Hebrew school in Kentucky. And she talked about how she had never thought of the need for this and when it came about, you know, many different students from the school found a wonderful resource. And I really liked that because to me that demonstrated the activism of children and things that they can do within their own spaces. So that was what we sort of borrowed from Jewish Women's Archive, we reposted it with their permission. In exchange we provided an author interview with Ameya Narvankarr. He is the author of Ritu Weds Chandni, from Yali Books. It's a picture book for ages five to seven, and it's a book that features a big Indian wedding with two brides. And it's a beautiful little story of how a child stands up to the bigotry that the two brides face on their wedding day, and it's a example of how children can actually make the world a much better place, and it was appropriately themed for the blog on Pride.
Right, and for the Jewish Women's Archive because it was a very female-centric story with two brides. Excellent. So just to do, I guess, a little bit of mythbusting or a few points that I would like to make, and then if you want to do some mythbusting about South Asian culture you can do that as well ,we can swap that. So I guess what I would like other audiences besides Jewish listeners to know is that, first of all, that Jews are diverse, that Jews are not all white Europeans. The majority I suppose are white Europeans, but that is definitely not the complete makeup of the Jewish people. I'd also like to point out that our literature reflects Jewish joy, as well as pain, that having been victim of atrocities should not be the focus. There are many many many Jewish books about the Holocaust or the Inquisition, or pogroms or antisemitism, but that's not all there is. And it's very important to read about joyful times and celebrations and just living normal life as well. And I'd also like to point out that Judaism is a religion but it's a culture as well. Judaism as a religion generally doesn't proselytize in any case, but anyone who is wary of reading books about a different religion, because they think that the authors might be trying to convert them or win them over to a different way of life, it's very easy to read Jewish books that have nothing to do with sacred practices or ritual or anything along those lines. So just to reassure people that it's very easy to encounter Judaism culturally, if they're not comfortable encountering it religiously. So those are a few things that I just want people in general to know. Is there anything along those same lines, that you would want people to know about South Asian literature or culture?
This really dovetails into what you had just mentioned, Heidi, in the fact that there's not one monolithic culture of Judaism. I mean Jews have lived in just about every country of the world including the countries of South Asia. Jews have been a very important population, for example in Iran, there were Jews in India, particularly in South India, where there's still a small synagogue, and Jews were also very important in Afghanistan during the time of the Great Silk Road, when there was a lot of trade between Asia and Europe, a lot of the traders who went back and forth from Europe to Asia and South Asia were Jews, and they settled in, in a lot of different areas of South Asia. So I've always been really fascinated by this, by the fact that I don't think you can find any country in the world, just about, where Jews haven't settled and, and that has been actually a great interest of mine. One other Jewish culture that I wrote about were the black Jews of Ethiopia, and in fact they were so little known that they were really only I guess quote discovered unquote in the 1930s. And these black Jews who lived in the high tabletop mountains of Ethiopia, they actually were so isolated, they did not know white Jews existed. So, Jewish life is extremely diverse, even within itself. And I think that's an important thing to keep in mind, there's not just one way of being Jewish, or looking Jewish or practicing Judaism.
Good, thank you. Ambika, did you have anything you wanted to add about mythbusting or anything like that?
So when it comes to South Asians, I think I could echo the sentiment that we are extremely diverse. We have various religions, cultural practices, languages, and we celebrate so many different festivals, and it's difficult to pin us down to one or two things. What does happen is that the representation outside South Asia tends to pick a few symbols that are easily recognizable: Diwali,we have Bollywood, you know, henna, yoga and, you know, a few things that people easily recognize as South Asian, but that's a very, very tiny, tiny part of who we are, there's so much beyond that, a whole world beyond that. That's what we want to do with Yali Books, to broaden the bookshelf, to make sure that so many different stories can live side by side and that all of these stories represent South Asia. But I wanted to make a comment on Brave with Beauty, and one of the interesting things that really hit home for me when I was working on the book with Maxine is how the history of Afghanistan is intricately connected to India because it was the descendants of Goharshad and her dynasty, which became the Mughal dynasty in India, and the Mughal dynasty has had a tremendous impact on Indian history, but this little known link between Afghan and Persian history and Indian Mughal history, this is not very well explored, and many people would not know much about. So to me this was fascinating.
Very interesting. Thank you. So it's time for our tikkun olam moment. What action would each of you like to invite listeners to take to help repair the world?
So the thing that I would like to talk about today: as an immigrant, I've been of course, watching the news and really deeply understanding how this pandemic is playing out and affecting different people, the economic damage and so on. But I'd like people to keep in mind that there are immigrants who are still currently detained under very, very challenging conditions throughout the United States, and who are especially exposed to the dangers of this disease. So I want to talk about Freedom for Immigrants, which is one of the organizations that's actively advocating for their health and their safety, but there are many other organizations in this space. And I believe that we can volunteer, donate, or help with their advocacy efforts. This is one of the ways to repair the world.
Good, thank you. Maxine?
I think in terms of tikkun olam, repairing the world, I'm always reminded of a line from a poem by the late Mary Oliver. She passed away last year; she was probably one of the most read poets in America, and in her poem which is called Sometimes, she wrote "Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." And I think that is good advice for everybody. I would almost add in addition to being astonished to be shocked. I think we have to retain our ability to be shocked at the things that we see in the world that are just plain wrong. And we need to not only tell about it but to do something about it. And in terms of things that are beautiful and wonderful, again, we need to be astonished and to tell about it. I guess my advice would be to stay aware, to stay aware of the world, what is going around you, and to pass what's going on through you, through your own feelings, not to shut off your feelings to what's happening in the world, whether it's good or bad.
Is there anything else that either of you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
When I was young and very naive and totally ignorant of the world, I spent a year and a half, traveling around the world with my first husband. We actually traveled from Switzerland over the Alps in the dead of winter, and our goal was India. Because it was cold, we had to stop, you know, in various places until the snow melted and we spent a good deal of time in Turkey and then we went on to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India and Nepal and we went to I think about 35 countries on that trip and we ended up in New Zealand, and that really was a defining experience of my life. I not only fell in love with travel, but I began to see the world firsthand. Not from what people had told me about the way other countries were, but actually to experience them and to talk to people all over the world. I've written a book called Places in Time which is a memoir of that journey, but since then I've just been in love with travel. I twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing in America, and through that I was able to travel even more because I got invited here and there, but I really think that travel is one of the most important educational things anybody can do. I actually think that nobody should be president unless they have traveled extensively and met other people around the world. It's a life changing experience to get out of your own perceptions of the way the world is, and actually meet other people, sit with them, learn what they love, learn what they believe in, learn what they care about and what they hate, and that will make all the difference in the world, to how you view people who are different from you.
Wow, 35 countries. That's amazing!
The other thing I just wanted to mention is, going back to the concept that cultures are not monolithic, I'm currently writing a book for children on a wonderful woman I met in Mexico City, who was the foremost authority on Mexican folk art, and who had amassed more than 10,000 objects of Mexican folk art and they were all in her apartment. And I got to visit her and learn about her, and she was a Holocaust refugee as a teenager, and what I learned was that it's so important to look very closely at culture. As I'm researching this book, I realized that Mexico has 56 different indigenous people, that means there are 56 different languages spoken in Mexico, in addition to Spanish and 56 completely different cultures. So I think like Ambika was saying, I mean when we look at a culture we tend to just sort of see the stereotype of it or we see it in a very monolithic way, but I would say probably every single country we can think of, has extreme diversity within it. And that's what's so fascinating to seek out. And it's also a very joyful experience when you realize that.
And I just want to say one last thing. As a Jewish woman writing of a Muslim woman in Brave with Beauty, I think that in some way, in my own way, I'm interpreting the saying of a second century rabbi, Simeon ben Azzai, he said "do not scorn any man and do not discount anything. For there is no man who has not his hour and no thing that has not its place." This is a very important point, that we need to value other peoples, we need to see what is beautiful and what is strong in other cultures, not dismiss them as I think so many people have done recently in our politicized environment.
I love that. Thank you. Maxine Rose Schur, Ambika Simbasivan, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you so much Heidi for having us.
Thank you, Heidi. It's been wonderful.
[MUSIC, TEASER] I'm Wendy Shang
And I'm Madelyn Rosenberg, and we're the authors of This is Just a Test, and Not Your All-American Girl, and we'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life Podcast.
We'd like to dedicate this podcast to Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat who worked in Vienna, Austria during World War II.
He wrote visas for thousands of Jews, allowing them to escape Austria between 1938 and 1940.
He is honored on the roll of the Righteous Among the Nations.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473, or Bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life Podcast Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too at @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife, to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon, or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com. Our background music is provided by theFreilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening, and happy reading!