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“Shall I tell you a story?”

“Shall I tell you a story?”

Reflections on the 10-Year Anniversary of Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

 

Written by Uma Krishnaswami

 

In the last few years of my father’s life, whenever I called him, he’d ask, “Shall I tell you a story?” and I’d write down whatever would follow. Sometimes he’d relate anecdotes from his long career as a government official in India. They’d feature eccentric people he recalled, or events he’d found funny or moving. One day, he read me a newspaper clipping about a group of villagers who had protested the poor maintenance of a public road by planting trees in the potholes. I sensed there was a story in there.

 The first time I tried writing it, more or less the way it had sounded to me, it didn’t work. I kept fiddling with it. Eventually, I came to focus on a single character, a boy who finds a seedling growing in the middle of the road. I couldn’t figure out where or how the story would end, so I settled on an ending that I knew was just a placeholder. It was a little too direct — it was trying too hard to make a point. And what was the point anyway? Was the story about the tree or the road?

 Predictably, early drafts were rejected by several American editors whom I knew and respected. “Whose story is it?” they asked. “How come the boy is just a witness and not a participant?” And “What is the story? What’s this really about?” Hmm, right. Those were my questions too.

 I went back to revising. I gave the boy a name. I introduced conflict. Pretty soon a bunch of people turned up to cut down the tree. I stopped being able to recognize my story, so I sent a version to Tulika Books in India, asking for feedback. I received a response from the editorial team. “You’ve got a tree and a road”, they said. “Do they have to be in conflict? Why does it have to be either/or? Why not both?”

 I’d always thought of myself as plot-challenged and conflict-averse. To make up for that perceived weakness, I’d been sending the work screeching toward conflict. That was the wrong direction. Just manipulating craft elements as I’d been doing — mechanically, trying to “fix” my work, adding conflict, raising tension — hadn’t served me or the story. I had to loosen my control and start paying attention to where the story wanted to go. I had to get out of its way.

 As it turned out, I had everything I needed in my early drafts. What I had to do was elevate two important elements — community and time. The boy was a witness, but who said that had to be a powerless role? This boy with no name could take a single action. Just one. That action would change everything. The story was about how people can be moved by having someone take a single step. About how that single step can have consequences over a long period of time.

 In 2010, the year my father passed away, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! was published in India by Tulika Books, in English and in eight Indian languages. In 2012, ten years ago, Groundwood Books published a North American edition. As a bonus, the illustrator’s name is very close to my own, with the difference of a single letter. In a story about the chance sprouting of a seed in the middle of a road, a story that depends as much on its brightly flowing visuals as on its repeated refrain, the author and illustrator names also repeat themselves. I think my father would have liked that.

 

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