Our Culture is More than a Holiday

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Episode 50│Our Culture is More than a Holiday

Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021

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Sheetal Sheth

From people who mispronounce your child’s name to teachers who expect them to explain your family’s holiday traditions to the class, your child may be struggling with the pressure to represent an entire culture. Actress and author Sheetal Sheth joins the show to discuss how families can help kids embrace their identities and explains how she shared her own identity and experience as a mother in her children’s books Always Anjali and Bravo Anjali


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to today's episode, I'm Helen Westmoreland

LaWanda Toney: And I'm LaWanda Toney, and we're your co-hosts.

Helen Westmoreland: We have got a great episode for you today with a very special guest, and we're going to be covering lots of different topics from fostering pride in our kids' identities to helping kids respond to bullying and creating more inclusive spaces in our children's literature.

LaWanda Toney: I'm excited to discuss all these topics with acclaimed actress, author, producer, and activist Sheetal Sheth. That's a lot of titles, Helen can you tell us a bit more about today's guest?

Helen Westmoreland: Absolutely, Sheetal Sheth has starred in over 20 feature films and many TV shows and has earned a loyal international following. Sheetal supports traditionally marginalized communities and is currently on the advisory board of Equality Now. Her first children's book Always Anjali was published in 2018, to wide acclaim. She has just recently released her next book, Bravo Anjali. This is a distinguished series being the first featuring a heroine of South Asian descent for this age range. Sheetal is also very importantly, a mom of two. Welcome to the show, Sheetal.

LaWanda Toney: Yes, welcome.

Sheetal Sheth: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Helen Westmoreland: We're so excited to talk with you. You've done so much incredible work. We'd love to hear a little bit about you and your background, and s what drew you to talking about these issues, writing about these issues for children?

Sheetal Sheth: Yes. When I started having children, obviously, everything intensified around this, but I've worked with children my whole life. I think I have a minor in education, cause I used to take tons of classes in early childhood education. If I wasn't an actress, I always said I would definitely be a teacher, I'm obsessed with teachers.

So, one thing I always noticed though, with children's books and the way we treat children as a whole is we don't talk about real things and we skirt around stuff that I think all kids want to talk about, need to talk about. And desperately, I think we've seen what happens when we don't. So I really believe that you're not too young to talk about anything with the right language.

And I like to write about real things, whenever I get pushback on it, I always remind people that our dear children are getting gunned down in schools. So, if they can have lockdown drills, they can certainly talk about racism, bullying, misogyny, all the other things. Again, in the right context. And so that's really my mission, my goal. I love telling stories, obviously I do that with all the other jobs I have, but when it comes to the children's books, I write. I want them to be entertaining, but there's always a layer of something more that will hopefully allow for conversations that I firmly believe if we don't have with our kids young, we will end up with what we've seen happens over and over again with the adults that fail us.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. That's real.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, I will say that I really needed your book when I was a kid. Because the story about embracing your name it resonated with me so much. Having a name like LaWanda is different. And when she went to get the license plate and her name wasn't there, that was me always when we went on field trips and so I was like, oh my God, this is a perfect story to tell and how you're able to frame it in a way that her parents were able to tell her the pride of her, her name. I had the same thing when my mom, she, I told her mom, why did you name me LaWanda? Like, this is so weird, I don't understand and she was like, you're named after my favorite student.

Sheetal Sheth: Oh, was your mom a teacher?

LaWanda Toney: Yes. My mom was an English teacher and I got to meet her and it really changed the way that I thought about my name. So, to see this in a children's book really meant a lot to me, and I know it's meant a lot to a lot of children as well. So thank you, first.

Sheetal Sheth: No, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And I, and it's true. It's, it's broad, it's across all, identities, people, experiences. And at the end of it, for me, the broader message of Always Anjali is, this idea of kids knowing that they don't have to change any part of theirself to fit in. And for Anjali, she's dealing with her name and figuring out who she is and her place in the world and what that means. But, you know, in general, kids are constantly, I feel like I should change this or this, whatever. It'd be like, all that stuff all comes into the same idea of like, you're perfect, you don't need to change to "fit into anything."

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, absolutely. So we started off, I think it was before we hit record, but checking our own pronunciation of names and making sure we were trying to do a good job of that. Why was that particularly important for you to pull out in these books?

Sheetal Sheth: Yeah, I mean, there's that section in Anjali, there's parts where people do mispronounce her name and it's written in that way, and that was purposeful, because the mispronouncing, the misspelling, the given you a nickname that you don't want. All of those things, as LaWanda shared, I, and many other people dealt with. I always knew when my name was coming up in attendance, because there was that pause, that the teacher would have they'd be going down the list, and then it was like silent. And I was like, oh yeah, that's my name, they're trying to figure out how to say it. And, when a teacher, especially in a school setting, doesn't take the time, or you don't feel like they care enough - your name, which is like the first thing you learn about somebody to say it right.

You don't feel valued, you don't feel seen, you don't feel like you matter in the way that everybody else does. And, you know, LaWanda. Yes, our, our names are not common here. The world is a global place. And when I say to the kids, when I do school visits, is I say, some of your names in other countries would be quote, different and untraditional as well. So it's really about all of us understanding that we live in a world, what makes it rich is all of us and all of the different things that, we can bring to the table because we are different, and so teachers have such a strong role to play in the value of our children.

And I cannot tell you how many kids tell me that their teachers can not say their names. And, but, but on the other hand, the amount of teachers that now will take the time to like, reach out to whoever the adult is as a grownup and figure out. I also hear from them saying, we, we asked before we even get to school, like we practice, we get it right, we want to take the time. Which makes me feel very happy. I get so many direct messages from people who are reading my book saying, tell me how to say your name, can you write it out? Because I want to say it right, and I wouldn't even met that person or been in that place to even hear them say it. But the fact that they're taking the time to ask me, tells me that we are shifting and we are realizing that these things are really, really important.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. Super important. I agree. So we know you're passionate about representation, both in your acting and career and as an author, can you talk to us a little bit about what this work has looked like in recent years, especially as the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been subject to even more discrimination and harassment since the start of the pandemic.

Sheetal Sheth: Yeah. Thank you for that question. It's been a tough few years, this is not new racism has existed for a long time. But, something I always like to point to is inclusive texts are, are not nearly represented enough in, in our schools and libraries, we know that, but all around, but the Asian American experience and Asian characters as the leads of their own stories are the most underrepresented texts in schools, in books, all around.

And so that's something we can fix right away. Having teachers and librarians and parents realizing it's up to them to bring texts and narratives into your home, that normalize all of us and not make us feel like others. And I would say, the text should not be revolving around a cultural holiday or a religion. Not that those don't exist and they're not great for their own reason. But my thing is like, that cannot be what represents us. That is not our only narrative. I am tired of explaining my existence to people. I am tired of explaining, like, this is what an Indian person is, like, that's not why we're here.

And in order to push the needle forward, we need to show texts where we're like, like Anjali, she's the hero of her own story. Obviously, her family is from another country, that's a rich part of who she is, but she's an American girl. And by the way, we also play instruments, have dogs, have pets, have dinners with our family, like wash our hands. We don't just sit around like celebrating holidays in ethnic garb all day, you know what I mean? And so, that to me is like when I see more texts that normalize us in the fabric of everyday things, I always say there need to be as many texts about the mundane as there are the extraordinary, and we're not there yet.

Helen Westmoreland: That's a good phrase.

Sheetal Sheth: That's my response to when I see, the rise of kind of racism, especially geared towards Asians, it's because we're not doing our part, you know?

Helen Westmoreland: I see so many parallels with that too. Of how schools think of parent involvement. It's like, let's have the multicultural fair, right?

LaWanda Toney: Everyone bring their dish.

Helen Westmoreland: Bring your food and  like you said, it does have a place, there's something there. But, there's also something to be said, to say, like, let's just create an inclusive place. So parents from all kinds of different identities and cultural backgrounds can talk about what's going on with their kids, right? Like, that's what all parents want, and it's not as flashy as a big celebration, but that's where we need to be plugging in more. I could totally see that parallel.

Sheetal Sheth: It's, it's almost like framing. It is, like you said, there's a place for it, but we really need to focus on what we have in common. What do we have in common more than what separates us, , and of course we want to learn about each other's countries and all that is fine, but that can not be the narrative that you attach to a kid of color, when you see them in your class. That's not their responsibility, it's not what we need to be doing, you cannot put that burden on them to have to explain everything about a country that they probably haven't even been to. I'm sure LaWanda you've experienced this. Like, you should be the expert on like many different things, which maybe you are, but like that's not your responsibility, we're Americans. And so stop it.

LaWanda Toney: I like it, just stop it.

Sheetal Sheth: Just stop.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. So normalize our everyday existence, that will be nice. Yes. Understood. I love that. And how do you teach your children that? How do you teach them how to deal with those situations?

Sheetal Sheth: You know, I really just in the moment, try to be honest. I'm really, really, really honest with my kids about everything, to the point where my husband's like, you really think you should say that I'm like, yeah, I do.

Helen Westmoreland: Remind us how old they are again.

Sheetal Sheth: Four and seven, yeah, they're at a great age and they want like, they want in, you know, you can tell they love it. They ask lots of questions and I try to be as honest with the right context as possible. But I really so take every moment for what it is. So if they say something that I know is not appropriate, Instead of saying, that's not the way to say it. I say to them, why do you feel that way? Why did you use that word? Why do you think that's the association, you make to that thing?

So it's more like, I want to learn where they got it from, because it wasn't me. And so I want to know what that is. And I also then want to disseminate and be like, well, actually imagine how you would feel if someone said this about you, you know? And so I try to just like bring it to something personal and then also not shame them because again, we're all learning and they're young. I don't want them to ever feel like they can't figure something out or come to me.

So I always just try to keep the lines open and not, you know, I do say to them, I will tell you if these words are unacceptable in our house. I don't ever want to hear about you guys saying these things anywhere and I tell them why and they get it. They get it immediately.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.

Sheetal Sheth: Because I mean, they come home and I'm like, where did you hear these things?

 LaWanda Toney: I know they're full of surprises, I have an eight-year-old and he surprises me almost every other day. And I'm like, Okay, so then I'll go downstairs and like, Dion, okay so this is the situation. Here's what I'm going to say. Are you okay with that?

Why did you decide to become an author? Why was that important to you?

Sheetal Sheth: I love telling stories and that's really what I think about, like when I think of myself I feel like I'm a storyteller, whether that be as an actress, producer, in all the work that I do. , but it wasn't until I was pregnant with my first child and I was reading the books out there and it was like, really? This is what we have like, oh my God. So I thought I'd take a crack at it, And I wanted us to be telling our own stories as the hero of the story. And so I just took a crack at it. I didn't know what would happen if it would work, if I could even figure out, I mean, publishing was all new to me. I knew nobody.

It was really about me taking years of knocking on a lot of doors, emails, cold calling, going to conferences, doing the work, and then when the first book came out, I didn't know what was going to happen, but it has done so well. It clearly speaks to the fact that people want this content. Clearly there was a hole and I get to make a lot more books, so that's exciting. So it's basically combining my two loves, which is pure joy for me in terms of storytelling and working with kids. Like I am thrilled that I'm able to keep doing it.

LaWanda Toney: I just wanted to follow up from there. Anjali, it sounds like she's becoming a series?

Sheetal Sheth: Yes, yes, yes. She is a series and this is the only illustrated book series that features a South Asian American hero like that doesn't exist. And while surprising, not shocking, right? And so it's, it's exciting. And so, yes, the second book just came out and the third one will be out next year and we're writing and doing it all.

LaWanda Toney: Awesome. Congrats.

Sheetal Sheth: Thank you.

Helen Westmoreland: So tell us about the second book, LaWanda and I have both read and read with our kids, Always Anjali. Tell us about Bravo Anjali and where that picks up with the character.

Sheetal Sheth: Yes. So Bravo Anjali you know, it's interesting, I had a completely different manuscript, originally for the second book. And then it was the height of the Me Too movement, and Trump just won the election.. And I'm very politically engaged and I was angry. And I found myself, I was so sick of the misogyny and the vitriol.

And I started thinking again, like, we need to talk about this with our kids young, and nip it in the bud or at least give them tools. And so I thought, is there a way to do this and kids world and kids speak, like bring this into a narrative that would, that would make sense. And so I threw the other manuscript, I put it aside and I started writing and, I have Easter eggs at the end of all the books. And at the end of always Anjali there's a picture of Anjali playing the tabla, which I had put there, because I knew she'd be doing, I didn't know how it was going to take shape, but when I looked at it, I realized, that's it. The tabla is a traditionally male dominated instrument, you don't see, you mostly see men playing that instrument.

And I was like, this is it, Anjali is going to play the tabla, she's going to be the best. She'll be the only girl in her class, which is very common and that's where the story begins. And so it's really about, Anjali owning her excellence and not feeling like she can't celebrate that she's good at something, because in the book, she is the best and the boys tease her about it, they don't like it. And so she starts messing up on purpose and she has to figure out, is she going to let people make her feel bad for being good at something? And so it's really about her exploring all the feelings she has about it. I also wanted to have a strong boy character that would really allow for conversations with our boys about these feelings that we may have.

And at the end, there's a conversation that they have that I spent so much time working on, because I wanted it to be kid accessible, but I didn't want her to let him off the hook. And I wanted him to own how he was feeling. So he would have language as well to talk about this and be honest. And so yeah, it's about all of those things, and really she ultimately learns to never dim her light, which is the lesson for all of our kids.

LaWanda Toney: I can't wait to share that one with Caleb. He will like that.

Sheetal Sheth: It's interesting people, people keep saying oh is it for girls. I go, no, it's not. By the way boys have the same thing, I actually got the idea from my husband because he was messing up on purpose, because he was the smartest at math and didn't feel like he could be good at it. It's all about like this idea that you can't own your excellence. It's all about claiming your excellence and there’s a way to celebrate it without being a brat about it.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah it's a way to feel confident. Yes. It's okay. To be confident. Yes. I totally get that. You don't have to be a jerk about it.

Sheetal Sheth: Yes exactly, and that's why I like never dim your light. Like, we all have this light and it's like, let's how many times do we tell our kids? Like, you're too much or just settle down or you're just not right now.

Helen Westmoreland: That's so true.

Sheetal Sheth: We need to like, let's bring the light out.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. I love it. I agree that the books are not for girls. Itis a way to share perspective. And to also, if you see this happening in your classroom, now you know, another perspective, you know how this might make someone feel, so think about it as you're in the situation. So that's what I like about it.

Sheetal Sheth: And it's also about processing big feelings. Like you see Anjali in both books, having very big feelings. And for me, it's about telling our kids like, it's okay to have these big feelings, often again, we tell them like calm down, whatever it is, when actually what we should be doing is helping them process those feelings, cause of course we have feelings, we all have them, but how do we process it?

LaWanda Toney: Yeah.

Helen Westmoreland: It's so true. I mean, we, we just recorded an episode also around, life skills and socio-emotional learning. And so that really resonates for me, yes, so mine is three years old, so she has a lot of big feelings, not that they ever go away, but I do think there's truth, Sheetal to what you say that our education system in particular, sort of dampens some of that, right? Like you do get messages the longer you're in that system of like, oh, I should just suck it up or I should make myself smaller or I don't want to be the center of attention.

And I think like you said, there's a universal theme to it, but I also don't want to lose sight that, there are kids that more often experience these challenges and have these struggles than others, whether you're a child who's a student of color or speaks another language or a girl.

LaWanda Toney: I want to go back to talk about instilling pride in our children. How can families help kids feel proud about who they are? Are there anything or tips that you have that you can share with our listeners about how to instill pride?

Sheetal Sheth: I'll tell you a story that made me stop myself in my tracks. When I was growing up again, I was the child of immigrants, my kids are not, I was born and raised here. So that in itself is different in the sense of like their experience. But I was very aware, it was also the eighties, and there weren't Indian families in our town. We were very suburbia. We were very one of very few families of color. I don't even know how to describe it, because at the time there was no conversations about it.

I felt like I didn't fit in, and so I was always trying to hide that part of myself, because I always felt like they had to stay separate. I'd always have my Indian friends and I'd have my school friends and I'd have my time there. I was like separating parts of myself because I didn't know how to just be myself or even what that was, that was just what I was told. Like that part of you doesn't belong here. To the point where, things that I love, like dance and music that was from India was something that I would always keep separate.

My kids are again, they're kids of mine and we're American, so like they don't have that same burden. We just raise them the way we want to raise them. And we, we bring so many influences into their life, which is great. So my kids love all kinds of music. And my oldest loves Indian music. We put a lot on, but she's just gravitated towards Indian music in a way that I'm like actually quite shocked.

She can sing them, she does them all, and she had a birthday party this summer and we were making a playlist for her and she started picking a lot of Indian songs. And I had this reaction, I was like, oh no, no, we can't, have all those songs, none of your friends are Indian. And I had to catch myself, because I didn't realize it was so indoctrinated in me. I've been so conditioned to feel like I can't be me, that my God I'm so happy, and I was like, oh my God, of course you can, you can pick whatever music you want, who cares?

Your friends can listen to this music and they're not going to feel like it's not good. It's my own baggage that I realized I am carrying. That, I need to check myself, cause she wasn't even thinking it.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. Really thinking about what we may project.I think that's a great tip, because, and taking a pause, you did the right thing, you definitely took a minute and like, yeah, why am I making this a big deal?

Sheetal Sheth: Yeah. Why am I making this a thing, like pick whatever music you want. Yeah. Like I wish I had that, I wish I had that confidence. Like I didn't, she's not even thinking about it. Like, that's the thing it's not even thinking about. Whereas all I did was thinking about like, how do I like fit in? How do I melt? Like this whole idea of a melting pot, which we've told ourselves we need to be is we don't want to be a melting pot. That's the opposite of what we want to be. The point is we don't want to lose these parts of ourselves, but I was trying to melt and fall into these other places so that I wouldn't be seen, cause I didn't know how to do that.

Helen Westmoreland: It's so hard, but, I mean, kudos to you that your kids aren't themselves worrying about that. My daughter, her Grandma's from Guatemala. And so we speak Spanish and English at home, and she's frequently with me, like, I don't want to speak Spanish. I don't want to speak Spanish. And I'm like, but honey, that's part of who you are, and at three years old, there's some message that you're getting sent that some language isn't as, I don't know, it's just that human instinct around difference is so strong and switching that narrative for all of our kids, no matter what that difference is, that's a difference to be celebrated, not to hide. That is something to lift up that makes you, you is something I've really appreciated in the work you've done. Sheetal and that comes across in your book. So thank you for that.

Sheetal Sheth: Thank you.

Helen Westmoreland: So we have one last question for you. Which is, of everything we've talked about today. What is one thing you want to be sure that our listeners and parents take away from the conversation?

Sheetal Sheth: I would just say that, there's no such thing as girl books, boy books or books for a certain culture or a certain person of a certain background. Like, we didn't really need to, like often people will say, oh, I love your books, I'm going to get it from my friend, who's Indian and her family. And I'm like, what about for you? Again, not separating these things and these narratives, because the only way we push the needle forward is by reading and showing our kids that this is the world that we live in.

And let's think about what this girl may be going through, or this boy may be going through and being empathetic in that way. And so when you see a book of a person of color, don't associate it with only those people and make sure that you realize they're for everybody.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.

LaWanda Toney: I love that.

Helen Westmoreland: Good parting advice.

LaWanda Toney: So Sheetal, before we leave today what are your social handles and where can people find out more about you?

Sheetal Sheth: Yes. Thank you. So the easiest place to get everything from is my website, which is SheetalSheth.com. And if you go there, it's home base for all the stuff where my Instagram, Facebook, Twitter handles are. And then you'll see pages on my movies and my books and all the work I do.

LaWanda Toney: Perfect. Go to your website. One-stop shop. I love it.

Helen Westmoreland: And are there places that you want to encourage people to go, if they are interested in bringing some of this literature into their own homes?

Sheetal Sheth: Yes. The books are available, wherever books are sold, so that is everywhere. And I know people are thinking, is it on there? Is it on there? Yes, it is.

But if you want to support indie booksellers, Indie bound, bookshop, mangoandmarigoldpress.com, which is the publisher, they're a small independent publisher buying directly from them, is amazing. But get it wherever you want. Just throw it out. Some independent options.

Helen Westmoreland: Good, and to our listeners. Thank you for joining us. Don't forget to visit our apple podcast page and please leave a rating and review, these help others find our show, and we'd love to hear from you and your feedback. And as always for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. Thanks for listening and join us next time.