Writer-in-residence pulls cultural traditions into Brown Bag lecture



Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

Kashmira Sheth immigrated to the United States when she was 17 years old, but her Indian background is ever-present.

As a child, she studied Gujarati, which is her “mother tongue,” but the most common language in India is Hindi, and in school, she learned to speak English. With three languages at her disposal, she didn’t spend much time reading English, but her uncle told her stories of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Merchant of Venice.

“I was fortunate to have a wide variety of stories either read to me or told to me or that I was able to read, so I think that always stayed in my mind,” Sheth said. “I used to write poetry in my language, but then I pursued science.”

Although the Indian education system has changed, when she was in school, there was a narrow path for her. She chose to study microbiology, which did not lend any time toward other areas of study.

Sheth did not get to experience arts along with science, so when her two daughters were young, she started to read books with them — titles such as Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and the Ramona Quimby books.

“I hadn’t read literature for children written in English,” she said. “I started reading, and I had no idea at that time that I was going to write.”

Now, her daughters are in college, and she has published novels for older readers, young readers and children, and her cultural background is woven into every storyline.

Sheth, who led a weeklong workshop on “The Perpetual Immigrant,” will present a Brown Bag lecture, “Cultural Writing,” at 12:15 p.m. today on the Alumni Hall porch.

“I will be mainly talking about writing from a different culture and how you take a different linguistic and cultural tradition and make it come alive for readers who may not be familiar with it,” Sheth said.

Sheth can address cultural boundaries in a cultural, regional and psychological way, according to Clara Silverstein, director of the Writers’ Center

“Since Kashmira is herself an immigrant and some of her books address that experience, she understands the meaning of straddling the boundary between countries in a visceral way,” Silverstein said.

Regardless of the journey, the emotional responses are the same with readers, and Sheth said she will also discuss how one can unite the boundaries into evoking a response — particularly in two of her books, Boys Without Names and Keeping Corner.

“I hope (lecture attendees) go away with a sense of unity as our journeys, how they converge on the sensory and emotional level,” Sheth said. “We all have different experiences with different cultural traditions, and all the details are very specific in different cultures, but the emotions are powerful and how those journeys connect.”