Tell us a little bit about your writing and educational background
Dr. Subramanian: I began my career as a high school science teacher in southern Texas and then New York City. I left the classroom to get my doctorate in Communications and Education at Columbia University Teachers College. I worked a number of jobs while at Teachers College, including interning at Sesame Workshop. I eventually got hired at Sesame full time and spent five years working in their global education department, where I advised on the educational content of shows all over the world – Nigeria, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Palestine were some of my favorites. Then I spent about a year and a half doing education policy at the New York City Council. I left Council when I received a Fulbright Fellowship in 2012, and I have been living in Bangalore, India ever since. Thanks to the fellowship, since 2012, I have been able to write pretty much full time.
Although most of my published work thus far is for adults, my favorite audiences are children and young people. My short stories have appeared in Kahani, Skipping Stones, and The Hindu’s Young World. Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide is my first book for teens, but I hope to write many more.
What is your book about?
Dr. Subramanian: This book is all about bullying: why it happens, how it happens, and how we can stop it. Instead of focusing on individuals, though, it looks at the social conditions that perpetuate all kinds of violence, including bullying. The volume has three sections. The first is about the roles young people play in bullying, including bullies, victims, and witnesses. The second is about types of abuse, ranging from cyberbullying to sexual harassment to adult bullies. The final section is about creating change, and it includes information on developing strong anti-bullying policies, and community organizing strategies. The underlying message of the book is that change is possible, both on an individual and collective level.
Why should readers read your book?
Dr. Subramanian: Nowadays, everyone seems to be talking about ending bullying. But no matter how much we talk, the violence doesn’t end. I think this is because we focus too much on individuals: teens who choose to be bullies, teens who witness bullying, and teens who survive bullying. Instead, we should be examining the reasons why people of all ages turn to bullying behavior to navigate their worlds. This book is different because it looks at how we Americans view masculinity, popularity, and wealth, and tries to explain how these views lead to violence.
Another reason why this book is different is because at its basis, it’s about taking action. This doesn’t just mean that the book has hands on advice about making change (it has those too). It also means that it begins with the assumption that we can all change individually. Acting like a bully or a victim is different than being a bully or victim. We all have complex identities, and we are all capable of personal growth.
Finally, this book is not a lecture. For one thing, it’s interactive. It has quizzes, games, and activities that you can do with your friends (who says changing the world can’t be fun?). Additionally, it features the voices of young people who have bullied others, witnessed bullying, and been bullied themselves. The stories by and about these teens are representative of different races, gender identities, abilities, income levels, faiths, and sexualities. Hopefully readers will see themselves reflected in at least one story. Using the tools and narratives in this book, I hope teens will come to their own conclusions about bullying, and will be motivated to take action in their own communities.
Did you have any obstacles while writing this book? What were they?
Dr. Subramanian: The biggest obstacle I had was finding diverse voices. For example, despite asking multiple friends and organizations, I was unable to find a transgender teen to write for the book. I also couldn’t find a teen who used to be a bully to tell their story. I overcame this by quoting and paraphrasing stories from the news and wonderful sources like Teen Ink / Youth Communications, and crediting their sources.
One of my pet peeves as a reader is when writers do not include multiple, diverse viewpoints. I always feel like telling them, there are diverse, articulate, and brilliant young people out there, how could you not find them? If we ever do another edition of the book, I’m going to work harder at taking my own advice.
Is this the first book you have ever had published?
Dr. Subramanian: This is my first single authored book. I have also co-edited an academic volume with Jill Koyama called U.S. Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice. It’s being published by Routledge, and it’s coming out around the same time as Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide.
Are you working on any projects right now?
Dr. Subramanian: I write compulsively so I’m always working on something. Right now, I’m writing a lot of fiction. It’s funny because I moved to India planning to write creative nonfiction about the government preschools here, where I’m doing research. But being around kids and teachers all day, I started imagining the adventures they might have after they left school. Their voices became the loudest in my head – louder than my inner journalist. I don’t know where this is going, but I’m enjoying it, so I’m going with it.
The other project I’m working on is very different than anything I’ve done before. I recently partnered with professional photographer Greeshma Patel to train some of the preschool educators (called anganwadi workers) in photography. They’ve produced a beautiful body of work, and we had an exhibition at Thalam gallery in Bangalore in October. We’re having our second showing at the beginning of March at Sutradhar, a toy store and training space, also in Bangalore.
The work has been received so well that I’m trying to find a wider audience for it. Consequently, I’m looking for an Indian publisher to do a professional photo book, ideally in both English and Kannada (the state language in Karnataka, where I live). The process has influenced me personally, but it’s influenced my writing as well: I find myself thinking more visually, and even picturing my work as comic strips or drawings. (Unfortunately, I don’t have any artistic talent, so I’m going to stick to text for now!)
What is your advice for writers wanting to turn authors out there?
Dr. Subramanian: It’s only recently – meaning the past 2-3 years – that I’ve had any luck getting work published. Yet, I continue to send pitches and articles and stories to a million places, bracing myself for disappointment. Sometimes, getting a rejection feels like a punch in the gut, especially when it’s for a piece that I feel bares a little bit of my soul. I know it’s not the editors’ intentions, but when you put your heart into a piece, it can feel more like the publisher is rejecting you instead of your writing.
Consequently, my advice to writers is to be brave and keep perspective. Don’t be afraid to write your truth, even if a million editors and agents and even friends tell you that what you have to say is not relevant or interesting or marketable. Don’t be afraid to be rejected, and then to pick yourself up and try again. Don’t be afraid to take on new projects that may be unfamiliar to you if it gives you a chance to do what you love.
I think another misconception many people have is that books are solitary pursuits, and that authors work alone. For me, writing has been all about relationships. I am friends with a number of generous, caring, creative, and talented writers, teachers, and academics who somehow manage to both constantly encourage me and are honest about what I need to improve. I also met and married a wonderful partner who has always supported my wildest dreams (although he has also done his share of bringing me down to earth from wherever I was floating). These are the people who tell me to keep going, who read drafts, who connect me with editors who might be interested in my work, who reassure me that what I had to say was important. Because of them, I had the courage to submit to places I thought would never publish my work. And guess what? A lot of these places rejected me, but a few have published me. (Remember what I said about being brave?) So surround yourself with people who you love and who love you, and they’ll help you along the way.
(I should add that this is good advice for everyone with dreams, not just writers!)
What made you become a writer?
Dr. Subramanian: I never felt like I had much of a choice! I started writing when I was five or six years old. I used to fill up spiral notebooks with stories and poems and rambling thoughts. (I remember when we went to Sam’s Club, my mom would always make sure we bought notebooks in bulk just to feed my habit.) Now that I have semi-successfully transferred to the electronic age, I probably have hundreds of pages of stories and essays and editorials that will never be published. I used to find this disappointing, but now I realize that it doesn’t matter: I write because I can’t help it, and whether my work is published or not, I can’t stop creating it.
The other reason I became a writer is because I think stories are such powerful tools for activism and change. Growing up as one of the only children of color – and basically the only Indian girl – in several communities in the US, I often felt alone. For me, reading was a way to find hope and belonging amidst this loneliness. Eventually, writing became a way for me to confront that world. Now I write nonfiction and op-eds to try and bring other possibilities to light, and to help all of us imagine a more just world. It’s healing for me, and I like to think that it’s healing for readers as well.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Dr. Subramanian: I love to read, and picking one favorite author is impossible for me! Some of my favorite fiction writers include Chimamanda Adichie, Yiyun Li, and Ediwdge Danticat. (Danticat has also written one of my favorite books of personal essays, called Create Dangerously. If you haven’t read it, go find it immediately!) In terms of young adult, I love Sandra Cisneros, Gary E. Schmidt, Walter Dean Mosely, Marina Budhos, Neesha Meminger, Kashmira Sheth, Zetta Elliott, Shyam Selvadurai, and Rita Garcia-Williams.
Generally, I gravitate towards authors of color, especially immigrants, and especially women. I am the daughter of Indian immigrants, and ever since I was a child, I’ve always been hungry for stories written by and about people like me – people who felt a little bit like outsiders, who love who they are and where they come from, but don’t quite know where they belong. When I was growing up, it was hard to find books like these. There are still not enough – particularly for teen readers – but there are certainly more than there were twenty years ago. One of the reasons I want to write for teens is so that I can fill the world with the types of books I wish I had growing up.
Where can we find you?
Dr. Subramanian: I don’t yet have a web site, but I’m working on it! My twitter is @mathangisub, so tweet me if you want to be friends.
Anything you would like to add?
Dr. Subramanian: When I was writing this book, a picture formed in my mind of a teen girl or boy (cis-gender or transgender) reading it in a public school library and finding hope and direction within its pages. I didn’t necessarily picture a teen who was being bullied – although certainly I had these teens in mind too. Instead, I pictured caring friends who wanted to protect someone, or a teen who wanted to stop acting like a bully. I hope that somewhere, young people who want to change the world (or just their own lives) will stumble on this book and find it useful. If that happens, I’ll feel like I have done my job as a writer.
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