Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is an educator, writer, activist, and scholar who speaks regularly on diversity, inclusion and equity. Simran is currently based at Union Seminary, and he’s the host of Spirited, an interview-based podcast on justice and spirituality. He is the author of Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Run a Marathon, which is the first-ever children’s book from a major U.S. publisher (Penguin Random House) to center a Sikh story.
It was a pleasure to speak with Simran about his wonderful, thoughtful book.
MEENA JAIN: What made you write this particular story, esp as a children’s picture book?
SIMRAN JEET SINGH: I’ve wanted to write a children’s book for as long as I can remember. In fact, when I told some of my friends that Fauja Singh Keeps Going was coming out, a friend from HS reached out to congratulate me and recalled how I used to talk about this dream in high school.
I think there are several reasons behind that. Growing up, I never saw any books where people like me or my family were characters. I was tired of seeing people who looked like me being portrayed as terrorists or threats or extremists. I wanted kids to finally see a positive representation. I wanted people to see the humanity of these folks as I knew them.
In terms of the process, I have to admit that it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was one of those people who thought writing a children’s book would come easily. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. I had so many bad drafts and false starts, and I just couldn’t seem to find the right story. Then, one day, my friend Supriya Kelkar sat with me and asked what resonated most deeply and personally—and that’s how I came to Fauja Singh’s story. He had changed my own life, and I had so much admiration for him. And I knew then that I had to write this story—the intersection of representation, sports, ableism, ageism,, and the humanization of a culture that is so often misunderstood, misrepresented, or subverted. It lined up with my personal passion for justice and equity, and it also felt like I was sharing a gift that I cherished with kids everywhere who could benefit from it.
MJ: What is the main point you want children and families to walk away with after reading this book?
SJS: More than anything, I want to undercut stereotypes of who we think is remarkable and who are our heroes. Certainly most people don’t think of the elderly or someone who has a disability, or someone who wears a turban to be one of our exemplars. That’s a problem! We dehumanize others, and we all lose out! This story is about Fauja Singh, absolutely, but it’s also about expanding our minds and our worldviews to be more inclusive of folks who we tend to leave on the margins.
MJ: This book is being published by one of the big 5 publishers—Penguin Random House. Can you speak to that?
SJS: It’s a dream come true! Because the book is being published by Penguin Random House, Fauja Singh’s story will have a further reach and impact. My dream had always entailed seeing a book like this in bookstores and libraries everywhere, and it feels surreal that it’s finally going to happen. It’s so powerful, thinking about my own community seeing themselves in places where they have forever been rendered invisible—and now they’ll be seen. The psychological impact of that alone gives me so much heart. Add to that the kids and parents all over the world who will be encountering a Sikh for the first time and seeing them as fully human. I can’t even articulate how much that means to me. Especially at a time when we are all getting negative messages about who counts as fully human and worthy of our respect and dignity—it’s so important to me that they see Fauja Singh as someone to celebrate and perhaps just as critically, confront their own implicit biases.
MJ: The illustrations are beautiful in Fauja Singh, how was the collaboration process with Baljinder Kaur for you? How did the illustrations inform the storytelling?
SJS: I had been following Baljinder Kaur on Instagram for some time and had long admired her work. So when it came time to find an illustrator, I suggested her name to my publisher. Part of my own political and spiritual philosophy is to help lift up others whenever and however I can. I knew her drawings were wonderful and had no doubt she would be up to the task. I also wanted an illustrator who understood the community and cultural context, because being authentic to the “own voices” experiences has been important to me. But to be honest, I didn’t actually anticipate how valuable it would be to have a fellow Punjabi Sikh as an illustrator. Because of her insight and upbringing, she enhanced the story immensely by adding details that never even crossed my own mind. I loved that.
There was also a great synergy between me, my agent and editor who are all South Asian. At one point, we were talking about the image of Fauja getting on the plane to go to his family. I said, “this feels like colonialism” and that’s all I needed to say. They immediately understood, knowing the history of the British rule in India, how it was colonized, and how it has had a long term cultural impact. It was a huge weight off of my shoulders to be working with a group that, first, wasn’t dismissive of my concerns and, second, understood and empathized with being sensitive to those kinds of issues. Because of that shared understanding, we were able to talk through the image and make a few adjustments to help address that concern.
MJ: One thing I really enjoyed about Fauja Singh was that it didn’t talk down to kids—using language they might not understand and concepts that can be difficult (even for adults!). It seemed that you really trusted that kids would get it. Can you speak to that?
SJS: Well, I have young kids at home, and one thing I’ve learned as a father is that they’re a lot smarter than we often give them credit for. We don’t have to dumb things down for them or even spell everything out for them. We have to trust that they will figure things out—and that even if they don’t, that’s okay too! I’ve learned to be comfortable with that ambiguity in my classrooms and now at home—and again, it took me some time to find that some comfort in writing a children’s book.
I like that this book can speak to many audiences, not just the Punjabi community. In trusting the kids (and families) I challenge them to grow and allow them to sit with questions or be uncomfortable. For instance, we used some Punjabi words, and that was really important to us. We thought and talked a lot about how introducing foreign languages normalizes foreignness. It makes it more comfortable and familiar when children can see and hear and be a part of what they perceive as difference.
I had the opportunity to read the story to my daughter’s class. It was wonderful to see that she saw herself reflected in the story but it was also wonderful to see her classmates’ reactions to it. For them, it was just a story, one they enjoyed and had questions about. That’s where I think the humanizing aspect is so important, for children to see “others” as just normal parts of their lives.
(MJ: This opportunity to reflect on reading the story to Simran’s daughter’s classroom, makes me think of Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of picture books being both mirrors and windows. Simran’s daughter saw Fauja’s story as a mirror of some of her own experiences whereas her classmates could see it as a window into another person’s experience, hence building empathy)
MJ: Let’s talk about racism. I noticed that you didn’t really bring it up until late in the book in an overt way. What was the thinking around that?
SJS: That was very intentional. I didn’t want the book to be just about racism or about a victim. That’s the primary frame through which our experiences are seen these days, and although it’s not malicious, it’s still flattening and dehumanizing. I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted the book to be about a hero whose life and experience is about more than how people mistreat him.
It was also important to me that the degree of discussion around racism was age appropriate. Kids understand bullying and, to some degree racism, so I didn’t think it had to be a constant theme. I also wanted it to be a bit jarring and uncomfortable—kids can feel that tension in the book and it cultivates their empathy while sparking their curiosity. Ultimately, I want children to be able to empathize with Fauja and see that his determination, perseverance, and faith are what build his resilience and help get him through the various challenges of life that we all encounter in our own ways.
MJ: What did you learn while writing this book?
SJS: I learned so much about Fauja through this process. He had so many challenges but also many “moments”—like walking, farming, leaving India, starting his running career. I learned so much about depression and mental health issues, and that’s something I have been thinking a lot about in the past several months. What does it mean for our heroes to have undergone their own personal traumas and depressions? And what does it mean for how we think about the cultural stigmas that prevent us from honoring or even talking about these aspects of our lives that are quintessentially human?
Fauja went through a major depression after not running his best at the New York City Marathon. He really felt that he was disappointing the Sikh community that he wanted to represent, particularly in the context of violent hate in post-9/11 America. It was the only time that he remembered that he felt that he might have given up. Fauja definitely experienced these emotions and was able to overcome them for periods of time through his running and accomplishments. Reflecting on his experiences has made me think a lot about mental health within my own family and my own community.
MJ: In one of the video clips on your website, you mention “shared humanity” and “collective dignity”. What does that mean to you in regards to life and this book?
SJS: Shared humanity is actually the central concept of Sikhism—that everything is connected by a single light and so what affects one, affects all. In humanizing Fauja and, consequently, humanizing Sikhs, my hope is to create empathy for others and, ultimately, move towards a collective dignity. I strongly feel that humanizing through storytelling is a powerful tool to move towards this goal.
MJ: What did you find challenging about writing this book?
SJS: Well, first, how to tell a story to kids 🙂
And, I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of implying that anyone can overcome a disability by hard work. That’s a common trope in how we talk and think about disability, and it’s so deeply problematic. We actually hired disability consultants to help us avoid that trap, and frankly, it was tough to thread the needle on this one. We wanted to be true to Fauja’s story, and he was able to walk and eventually run through persistence and perseverance—but not everyone will have that experience. We talked a lot about how to present this and ultimately settled on the need to make Fauja’s disability specific to him. For example, we amended the refrain he heard from his mother from “Always do your best” to “You know your capabilities, always do your best.” It was an incredibly important distinction.
MJ: What was missing in the world of picture books that led you to write this story?
SJS: There’s so much I could say here—but let me start with this. I find it troubling that there are so few picture book biographies that center on people within the Asian culture. I live in New York and go to the library with my kids. It’s a diverse city, but the books on the shelf just don’t match up with the families in the room. They don’t reflect us. And that’s so disheartening when you’re trying to instill in your children who their heroes are and what they look like. Could it really be that someone from our own background would never be a hero? Of course not—but how would our kids know otherwise?!
A more light-hearted thought on this question—there are even fewer books about sports icons of diverse backgrounds. I’m a huge sports fan and to never see a book about an Asian sports figure just seemed like a huge hole in children’s publishing. What would it mean to my kids, who love sports, to be able to imagine themselves as capable athletes? And, on top of that, I wanted to pay cultural homage to atypical athletes—Fauja is an Asian, elderly runner. That’s nearly unheard of, and yet, it speaks to me for so many reasons.
MJ: How did you feel when you first met Fauja?
SJS: I have to say, it was unbelievable—you so rarely meet someone who absolutely lives up to your expectations of who you want them to be. As a runner myself, he’s been a hero to me for a long time. When I first met him, he was 101 or 102 and he was full of energy and humor. We had started a running club in New York City named after him, and his silhouette was even our logo. We had the chance to present him with a t-shirt with his own silhouette on it, and I wish I could have captured the joy in his eyes then.
MJ: Has Fauja read your book and, if so, what does he think of it?
SJS: He hasn’t read the book himself. He doesn’t read or write in any language (literacy as intelligence is just another cultural bias that this book undercuts!). In fact, his signature at the beginning of the book is essentially the only thing he can write. Harmander Singh, Fauja’s running coach and friend, has read the book to Fauja but he hasn’t seen it with the images.
I can’t wait to show him the book! He’s 108 now (almost 109) so I think it will be wonderful to share the final book with the pictures with him. He is such an inspiration to me and when I spoke with him, he told me the one regret he has had is that he has not been able to inspire young people. I hope this will lay that regret to rest.
MJ: I hope you videotape his reaction when you share the final book with him!
SJS: I hadn’t thought of that, but we may have to do it!
MJ: Final question, what is next for you, Simran?
SJS: I’m currently writing a book about Sikh wisdom for today’s age. That’s also with a Penguin Random House imprint (Riverhead). I’d like to write more children’s books. And while I love to tell Sikh stories, I’m just as open to and interested in other experiences. My commitment is to help tell stories that aren’t usually told, especially about marginalized and underrepresented communities. That’s where my passion lies, and that’s what I hope to continue doing in the future.
MJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Simran. I can’t wait for Fauja Singh Keeps Going to be in the world on August 25th, 2020!
I also had the opportunity to have an email exchange with Baljinder Kaur, Simran’s wonderful illustrator for Fauja Singh Keeps Going and she had this to say:
I think all children’s picturebooks are important, but stories like this are particularly close to my heart because they reflect my own world, which is rarely explored in the mainstream. I am a second-generation Punjabi immigrant and when I sit with my mother to read visual narratives she understands through the illustrations. It is healing and demonstrates the power of visual storytelling which transcends beyond language and culture, connecting us all deeper.
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