Thursday, April 5, 2018

A Departure From The Mainstream

Maria L. Denjongpa grew up in Massachusetts and attended Brown University where she met her Sikkimese husband. She is one of the founders of Taktse International School in Sikkim, where she is also an English teacher.
We interview her about her new book with us, The Truth About the Tooth.

     Tell us about the origins of your story The Truth About the Tooth.                                               
This is a classic Buddhist tale. You hear different versions of the “Dog Tooth Story” all over the Himalayas, from Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. You’ll often hear Lamas (Buddhist teachers) saying, “If you have faith, even a dog’s tooth can radiate the light of enlightenment.”

          Why did you choose this particular story to be told?   
I love so many aspects of this story: the human part of a son forgetting to bring his mom a gift and then lying to her about it, the magic of light coming from a tooth and the idea that our minds create the world. And if that all were not enough, there is also the paradox of Buddhist ethics. We all know that we are not supposed to lie, but in this story the lie is not such a big sin. In fact, it leads to something beautiful and miraculous, something that stays with Tashi the rest of his life. 

The Truth About the Tooth is a twist on the usual moralistic tales - did you ever read a story in your childhood that was like this?                       

Not really. I read picture books like Sam and the Firefly where a naughty character learns a lesson and becomes good. And fairy tales like Cinderella where the hard-working, poorly-treated stepdaughter wins the prince. As a kid, I didn’t find those stories true to life. At least not true to my life. Bad things happened to good people all the time, and people rarely learned lessons and suddenly became good. I think that is why a nuanced story like The Truth about the Tooth appealed to me so much.

        Do you have a favourite children’s book that you have read?
     I remember my mother reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White to me one summer when I was small. She’d make us each a glass of lemonade and then we’d go outside and she’d read aloud under a tree. So there was the intense pleasure of being read to, along with the pleasure of a deep and wonderful story. I love books that ask big questions: What is love? What makes a good friend? How do we deal with betrayal and being different? How do we deal with death?

          Has being a teacher changed the way you write for children?    

Yes! Whenever you read aloud to kids, you can instantly tell if a story grabs them. They wiggle and whisper and throw pencils when it doesn’t. They sit in pin drop silence when it does. How I appreciate it when a writer has pared down the text so the sentences roll off the tongue! How I dread long sentences and bombastic words!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
       And finally, are you planning on writing more books for kids?           

Yes! I just completed a chapter book on Buddha’s life for eight to twelve year olds, and am working on two more Buddhist-inspired picture books for younger kids. 

You can buy The Truth About the Tooth here.