I want to give a shout-out to a new book written by my blog pal, Shelley Seale. The Foreward is by Joan Collins with endorsements by Geralyn Dreyfous (Executive Producer of Born Into Brothels), Kate Dancy (Save The Children), Dominique Lapierre (Author of City of Joy) and more. I first “met” Shelley through her blog The Weight of Silence — we both share a love of Ma India that is primal.
Shelley first went to India to volunteer with a children’s charity and fell in love with India and its people. I know how she feels because when you travel to India you are inevitably surrounded by begging children wherever you go. It’s been three years since I saw this girl in Pondicherry and the photo still haunts me…those are my rupees in her hand.
Shelley’s book is available in stores right now. Buy her book, donate money, help the children of India.
You can read an excerpt from Shelley’s book here.
Q&A with Shelley Seale author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India
1. What is the book about?
By now, everyone had either seen, or at least heard of, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about the lives of two brothers who come from the slums of Mumbai – made even more desperate after they are orphaned. What many don’t know, however, is that for 25 million children in India, the harsh world depicted in the movie is their everyday reality. Yes, that’s 25 million kids who have been orphaned, abandoned or trafficked. My book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows my journey over the past four years into the streets, orphanages and slums of India where these children live without families or homes of their own. I became immersed in their world, a witness to their struggles – but also their joys, their incredible hope and resilience that amazed me time and time again. The ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. My sole purpose in writing this book was to give these millions of children a voice that could be heard by others in the world who, I was convinced, would be as moved by their plights as I was.
2. When did you first go to India, and why?
One day in early 2004 I was paging through a local magazine when an article grabbed my attention. It told the story of Caroline Boudreaux, who had visited India three years earlier and happened upon an orphanage full of children living in incomprehensible conditions. She had returned home and started the Miracle Foundation, a nonprofit which raises money and recruits sponsors to help support the home. I began volunteering for the organization and sponsored a child, and Caroline invited me to go to India with a volunteer group. My first visit was in March 2005.
3. How did you first start thinking about writing this book?
When I arrived that first time, I assumed all the kids there were orphans in the true sense of the word – their parents had died. Instead I was shocked by how many of them had been “orphaned” by poverty; their parents had left them at the Miracle Foundation home because they were too poor to feed them, which in some ways seemed an even greater tragedy. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go back home, or if they ever had. Many of them had also been affected by other issues such as disease or child labor and trafficking; some had been found living on the streets.
As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because of their pasts, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist. So I embarked on a three-year journey researching the issues, traveling throughout India and talking to many professionals and those working in the trenches to uphold these children’s rights and improve their futures. I could see that they were “invisible” children, without a real voice of their own. My sole purpose in writing the book was to give these millions of children a voice that could be heard by others in the world who, I was convinced, would be as moved by their plights as I was.
4. How did you involve your daughter in your work?
When I first went to India in 2005 and the idea for this book was planted, my daughter Chandler was a 14-year-old junior high student. Like most typical teenagers, she paid little attention to my volunteer work with the Miracle Foundation – until I actually went to India.
When I returned, Chandler was pretty excited and enthralled by my photographs and the stories I told her. That fall she started at a new high school that was very progressive, featuring a Global Citizen class and a spring “project week,” in which students were given a week off regular class schedules to complete a project of their own design. Some students made videos or art projects, others did community service. Between the school’s focus on social and political issues and living in Austin among a set of friends with broad viewpoints of the world, Chandler decided that her project week would be India – going on the volunteer trip and compiling a photo journal of the experience.
Chandler already had a broader sense of the world than I had at her age, and a compassionate nature. I yearned to foster that seed in her. I thought, what an incredible blessing it would be for a person to grow into adulthood without the blinders, without the sense that the small corner of the world she knew was the only one there was. I knew she would be enriched by the experience, and I also knew it was a gift she would not take lightly. And so I returned to India exactly one year after my first trip, with Chandler in tow. It was such an amazing journey for both of us. The look on her face our first day with the children beat any day I had ever spent with her in my life, after the day she was born. She never once complained about the heat, the dirt, the food, the place we stayed…you have to know that this was not Mumbai, this was a tiny, poverty-stricken, rural village. She didn’t want to come home and cried when we left – as we drove away from the orphanage on our last night, at the hotel, on the airplane.
5. What was a pivotal moment in writing The Weight of Silence?
I was about halfway through the book when I attended the Prague Summer Workshop for writers in the Czech Republic, in July 2007. There I was part of a nonfiction manuscript workshop with about ten other writers. I couldn’t really figure out how to integrate the personal journey and story part of the book, with the bigger picture research and statistics about the issues affecting these kids. It was unbelievably helpful to get objective input into what worked and what didn’t, from people who didn’t know me at all and hadn’t read the manuscript before. And learning what worked – it was almost magical, sitting there listening to the other participants read aloud the passages that they loved. It was like an “a-ha” moment; I knew exactly how it was supposed to flow, exactly how the finished book would read.
6. There is so much poverty and plight in the U.S.…what drew you to India?
This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked: Why India? You’re right, there is much poverty and need in the U.S., and we must all be aware and active in the struggles against poverty, racism, sexism, social inequities and other challenges that create vast problems right here at home. I believe that, and I am also involved in a huge amount of work on behalf of foster children and children’s rights in the U.S.; I donate much money to these causes and volunteer hundreds of hours a year here at home. I truly believe it is all of our obligation as citizens. It’s not like I think only India has children in need.
My simple answer to the question “Why India” is, why not? Once I got involved and then traveled to India and the orphanages myself, and began researching the issues for my book, the vast differences between children’s issues and lives in the two countries were glaring. Extreme poverty in India is not the same as poverty in the United States. And there are very little, if any, safety nets for the children who fall through the cracks. Although we have vast problems as well, millions of children in the U.S. aren’t threatened by malaria and tuberculosis, denied their entire educations or trafficked – sold into factories or domestic labor if they’re lucky, to brothels if they’re not. A childhood cannot wait for the AIDS epidemic to subside, for poverty to be eradicated, for adults and governments to act, for the world to notice them. And quite simply, because those twenty-five million children exist.
7. Do you worry about being a non-Indian writing about these issues?
Yes, I am very aware of being a westerner writing about India, and am quite direct in the book about its purpose not being to tell Indians how to solve their own problems. My only desire was to give a strong and hopeful voice to these children. Foreigners, including myself, do not and cannot know what is best for India. It is not a matter for us to come and instruct or order; for efforts undertaken in that way, no matter how well intentioned, will always fail in their arrogance. Foreigners rarely fully understand the society they think to “improve,” and the potential for imposing their own cultural bias can result in negative consequences for those whose lives they seek to change. We should come to listen, to learn, to assist where and when asked; and so the goal of this book is simply to allow us to hear what those voices have to say.
8. Who has inspired you on this journey?
From a very early age, my grandparents and parents always inspired me. I have the most wonderful, close, loving family who have always supported me unconditionally. It’s an amazing gift, which is why it breaks my heart to see other children go through life without that. While writing the book, there were so many people along the way who inspired me and have become my heroes. Caroline Boudreaux was the first one – this woman gave up a very successful television advertising career after meeting a group of orphans, by chance, on one evening – and dedicated the rest of her life to supporting them and ensuring their fundamental rights. Dr. Manjeet Pardesi, her Director of Operations in India, has a similar story – he left behind a successful accounting business in Delhi to open and run an orphanage and home for unwed mothers hundreds of miles away.
Outside of the social workers and professionals, there were so many people who awed me with the lives they laid bare to me. One woman in particular in Vijayawada in Central India, named Durgamma. This woman lives in a slum village that has been completely devastated by AIDS, which has wiped out a large portion of the middle generation there. What it has left behind are dozens of families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren, after their own children have died of AIDS. This type of household is so prevalent there that the women have developed “Granny Clubs” to support each other. Durgamma is trying her best to raise her two young grandsons – one of whom is HIV-positive. She is a stooped, elderly woman who can barely walk, and yet she may be one of the strongest women I have ever met.
9. If you had one wish what would it be?
That there was never a reason for me to have written this book in the first place – that as I sit here and complete this interview, there aren’t currently 25 million children living in orphanages or on the streets in India. All lives, no matter where they are lived, have equal value. All children are born with fundamental rights – to food, clean water, medical care, education, and a home. It’s up to us to ensure those rights – as well as that most basic of rights – a childhood. Once it’s gone, that childhood can never be regained. Let’s not wait until it is too late.
10. What do you hope the readers “take away” from your book?
Two things. First of all, that even though the topic is serious and the stories often heartbreaking, it is not a depressing book or subject! These kids, and their stories, are incredible and awe-inspiring, hopeful and inspirational. In my journeys over the last three years into the orphanages, slums, clinics and streets of India I have become immersed in dozens of children’s lives. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give. The issues are tough, what has happened to a lot of these kids makes you want to cry – but the bottom line of their stories is a very strong, hopeful voice.
Second, just to get involved and do something; to realize that just a little bit can move mountains. Too often, I think the natural inclination of most of us in the face of some of the large problems in the world is to become overwhelmed and throw up our hands in despair. They seem insurmountable. But the truth is, the smallest actions can make the biggest difference in just one person’s life, and if you can affect one person’s life, it is the world to that person. Most of us could never sell all our belongings and go work in the trenches in India, but that doesn’t mean we should think, then, that we can’t do anything at all. Amazing things can be done that aren’t difficult at all. A reader doesn’t even have to come away from my book and do something about India – I think the key is to discover what you are passionate about, what you have genuine feelings and caring about – and then do something about that issue. But just do something.
11. If you could ask people reading this to do one thing, what would it be?
Give these children a voice by reading their stories. And, as I said, find the something that is “your thing” and take action to make a difference in someone’s life. Remember, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Slum boy using garbage for a toy, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 2008
Slum children, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 2008
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