American-born Punjabi author Parveen Kaur Dhillon strives to bridge cultural barriers, one story at a time.
By Ashima Sethi
Growing up, many of us can recall reading picture books like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown or The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. But as Indian children, we were hardly ever exposed to stories where the characters exploring magical worlds or running through meadows looked anything like us. So dedicated family woman Parveen Kaur Dhillon made it her mission to spread cultural awareness by ensuring that Punjabi families had access to books that celebrated their diversity. This led to her ﬁrst two children’s stories called My First Sikh Books and Lohri: The Bonﬁre Festival.
Masala meets this multi-talented wordsmith, who sheds light on the importance of retelling our histories to shape our futures.
Was becoming an author always something you wanted to pursue?
I was never set on becoming an author, however, I graduated from the University of Virginia with a Master’s in Education, so teaching people is something that has always excited me. Even when I was in school, I would always volunteer to perform cultural dances at talent shows because I loved sharing Indian culture.
How did your higher education aﬀect your career goals?
Before I attended graduate school, I spent a lot of time travelling through Asia. I even lived in Japan for a year teaching English. When I was in college, I studied abroad in Nanjing, China, where I did the same thing. During both experiences, I taught children about American culture as well as Indian culture, which made me realise the importance of being a cultural ambassador. I always knew it was a part of me, but my higher education helped seal my goals.
What were some of the experiences that led you to your ﬁrst book?
I pursued this path after starting a family because I realised that there were no books for kids who looked like mine. My husband and I always wanted to raise our children in our tradition, so when my son was three and a half years old, I began creating a book for our family’s personal use. When my friends found out, they began asking me if they could use it to show their kids, and soon enough it turned into a published work. I never had dreams of becoming an author. It happened because I saw a need that I could ﬁ ll in my community.
What were some challenges involved in publishing your books?
My biggest challenge was ensuring that my books have the same great quality as other available children’s books. I was lucky to work with people that supported my vision, so My First Sikh Books became the ﬁrst board books ever to depict a Sikh boy and girl. The fact that it became one of the ﬁrst South Asian books sold at Costco is a testament to how there is a demand for texts like these.
What motivated you to pen children’s books about Punjabi values?
I wanted to be able to share our cultural practices with people who have no exposure to them in order to bridge a divide and create an understanding. In America, post 9/11, Sikhs have faced a lot of racism because people don’t understand our religion. I think it’s great that Indians are making the eﬀort to educate people at workplaces and high schools, but if we don’t start teaching young children about Sikhism, how will they have an appreciation of our culture when they are older?
What type of topics do your books cover?
All of my books have an educational element to them, including an ‘About Sikhs’ section and a glossary, so readers can understand the main words associated with our culture. The stories also oﬀer insight into festivals, recipes, arts and crafts, clothing, food and more, so children aren’t just reading, they’re equipping themselves with tools they can use to teach others. The books are written in English, Punjabi and are Romanised, so even if someone can’t read the language they can still read the Punjabi words in English.
Many third culture individuals struggle with their identities. Being an American-born Indian, how do you ensure you stay connected to your roots?
I’m a big Bollywood fan, and even though my husband and kids aren’t as obsessed, I always insist that we see a ﬁ lm together, especially when it is a phenomenal one. Often times, these movies cover important themes, especially recently, as there have been many biopics that double as history lessons. My husband and I also teach our children’s bhangra teams and we volunteer in the community whenever we can. It really comes down to the little things, from taking the initiative to have tea with your grandparents to keeping up with Indian personalities on social media.
How does your career tie into your role as a dedicated mother?
I have always looked at writing books as a gift to my children, and I hope that they will be passed on from generation to generation.
What upcoming projects are you looking forward to accomplishing?
I’m currently working on my third book for middle schoolers. It tells a beautiful story of a granddaughter and her grandmother who are cooking together while talking about the events of 1984, in which thousands of Sikhs were killed during riots across the country. I think it’s important that we’re able to teach our children, in the softest way possible, about what happened. So in the same way that recipes are passed on from generation to generation, our histories need to be passed on as well.
What do you hope to achieve in the years to come?
I write for people like us to remember our culture and history, so I want to continue taking verbal stories and transforming them into permanent ones. My goal would be to have my books donated to all the public schools in America, so that all children can understand our religion better.
Parveen’s books are available for order online at Amazon.