Ruchira Gupta is the author of I Kick and I Fly, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.
Gupta is an Emmy-winning journalist and founder of the anti sex trafficking NGO, Apne Aap that helps women and girls exit systems of prostitution. I Kick and I Fly is her debut fiction novel. She has been given the French Ordre National du Mérite, Clinton Global Citizen Award, and the UN NGO CSW Woman of Distinction among other honors for her contribution to the establishment of the UN Trafficking Fund for Survivors, the passage of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act and her grassroots activism with Apne Aap. She holds a Doctor of Humane Letters from Smith College. Ruchira has worked for the United Nations in Nepal, Thailand, Kosovo, Iran, and the US. She teaches occasionally as a visiting professor at New York University. She divides her time between New York and Forbesganj, her childhood home in the foothills of the Himalayas, where she paints her mother’s garden.
Gupta summarizes her own journey to creating I Kick and I Fly: “Ever since I can remember my father told me stories. I wanted to be a storyteller just like him. I wanted to write stories about girls who fix problems. When the school magazine actually published my article, The Autobiography of a Pencil, I was ten. I immediately resolved to be a journalist. I didn’t really want to go to college but the newspaper in Kolkata refused to give me a job without a degree. So, I went to college in the daytime and to work in the evening. Once, while on assignment in Nepal I stumbled upon rows of villages with missing girls. I asked the villagers where all the girls were, and that question changed my life. I found that little girls as young as twelve were smuggled across the border and sold in brothels in India. I related the story in a documentary, The Selling of Innocents, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. As a journalist, I had covered famine and conflict, but I had never witnessed such intimate violence and on this scale. I wanted to do more. So, I quit journalism and started the NGO, Apne Aap inside the red-light areas of India and began to work with the United Nations all over the world. I made many friends. Slowly but surely, I became part of a global movement against sex trafficking. I have won many awards. But I know that my work is not finished. I have written I Kick and I Fly so I can share the movement with you. I am still happiest when I can curl up in a corner with a book or take a walk with my dog.”
Emily Autenrieth of A Seat at the Table Books in Elk Grove, California, served on the panel that selected Gupta’s debut for Indies Introduce. Autenrieth calls the book “an incredibly immersive, honest, yet YA-appropriate novel based on the real experiences of trafficked young women and those who work to free them. This incredible book manages to offer an uplifting and hopeful story without downplaying the incredibly harsh realities its characters, and the people who inspired them, face. A must-read.”
Here, Gupta and Autenrieth discuss I Kick and I Fly.
Emily Autenrieth: This book foregrounds characters whose lives are defined by the international sex trade, bringing to life harsh realities that are being faced by real girls who are even younger than your 14-year-old protagonist. Where I live, trafficking is a significant issue and this book will be an important tool in starting conversations about a frightening but crucial topic. What is the importance of writing books about heavy issues like this one for young audiences?
Ruchira Gupta: I truly believe that it is important to write books about issues that matter to young people but in a hopeful, interesting, and truthful way. It warns them of danger and equips them with tools so they can save themselves and their peers. Human trafficking has become a widespread issue. The UN says it’s the second largest crime in the world and at any given time approximately 27.6 million people are victims of human trafficking. And in US, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates the number of trafficked people is between 240,000 and 325,000. 27% of the victims are children.
Just recently the CDC came out with a survey that teen mental health is the number one pandemic in US and kids are reporting hopelessness and sadness. They point to the same themes that I write about in my book, I Kick and I Fly, as the root causes for this — bullying, body-shaming, food insecurity, homelessness, and sexual violence.
I wrote this book because I want young people to know what children their age go through and that they are not alone. I also wanted adults, especially parents and teachers, to find a hopeful way to talk to young people about issues that are present in their lives but not spoken about. I wanted to offer some clues and examples that might help young people as they face the harsh realities of life.
I hope they find a friend in Heera, my 14-year-old hero, a kung fu champ, who successfully challenges a human trafficking ring. Though the ominous world of traffickers, poverty, and hunger is the backdrop, the story is an action-packed page turner focusing on Heera’s journey as a girl who discovers the power of her body and fights for it.
I want young people to know that adversity can be overcome and standing up to injustice is possible and winnable.
EA: You based much of this book on the lived experiences of young people whose paths were forever changed by your own kung fu training program. How much of this is derived from your work with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, your anti-sex trafficking organization? What does it mean to you to be representing the stories of the 20,000 girls and women from India whom you’ve helped to rescue from prostitution?
RG: I actually experienced the change that I write about through my NGO, Apne Aap and also through stories that were related to me by survivors of trafficking, all the way from Forbesganj in India to Queens in New York. There are many girls here in the US just like Heera, and Salman, her 15-year-old brother, who are at risk of being preyed upon by traffickers.
But the good news is that there are also many real girls like Heera who did win gold medals in karate and kung fu in my NGO, Apne Aap, in Forbesganj. They were kicked out of school but got back in with strength and courage. Many of those girls are college graduates and have jobs as teachers, chefs, graphic artists, lawyers, gas station and pizza parlor managers. One is even a police officer. Their mothers did and do fight for them.
I know them and have been part of their triumphant journey. I saw how the first gold medal in karate gave not just the girl who won a surge in confidence but boosted the entire community. They all found renewed strength to stand up to traffickers. More mothers joined Apne Aap and fought to keep their daughters in school. The very townspeople who used to tell me to start a separate school for the “children or prostitutes” were suddenly proud of the girl gold medalists representing their community.
I began writing this story when a girl just like Heera won a gold medal in karate in Forbesganj. And the stopped for a few years. The lockdown gave me the time and the reason to finish writing the story. I realized it is important to share true stories of hope with young people. And that is what I Kick and I Fly is.
EA: You humanize many of the characters in the book who would’ve been throwaway villains in a simpler story. For example, Heera's father is complicit in the structures that perpetuate the Red Light District as a hub of prostitution and Heera’s bully makes life unquestionably harder for her, but there are moments where their vulnerability comes through. What was your reasoning for showing the deep humanity behind people who are harming Heera and other characters?
RG: I actually met and knew people like Heera’s father through my NGO activism. I used to see them work through their dilemmas. Their bravado often masked a deep insecurity and helplessness, sometimes even pain. I could see how they were controlled by ruthless traffickers and organized criminal networks. In my own work, I have seen how the police always want to arrest such people, rather than the real kingpins. I have also met people who would try to pin the blame for the whole trafficking system on the father and his caste. “These men are lazy, good-for-nothings.”
While this was partially true, the root causes of trafficking lie elsewhere. On the supply side are the girls who suffer from intersecting inequalities and whose vulnerabilities are preyed upon by traffickers. On the demand side are the men who want to buy “young, fresh-looking girls.” Their demand drives the traffickers who make a profit from trading in vulnerable girls.
That is why I wrote Heera’s father as a more complex character and he has a more complicated journey. I wanted young people to see beyond the obvious and understand what systems of oppression like colonialism and casteism can do. I also did not want to reinforce the existing stigmas against the community, that the men are pimps and thieves.
EA: Despite the heavy nature of your topic, so much light shines through. This is an inherently uplifting book. How did you find a balance between honestly portraying the trauma and showing us the optimism, joy, and potential for progress in your characters and the systems they inhabit?
RG: Ultimately, the characters wrote the story. I confess when I started writing, I knew the beginning of the story, and the end of the story, because I had seen it in real life. I had no idea what I would write in between. There were so many real incidents and stories in my head. But as I began writing, Mai, Meera Di, Salman, Baba, Heera and even Rini Di showed me the way. Rini and Heera were always optimistic and determined. Every time I tried to write in their sadness or helplessness, it did not last. They would do something and my pen just followed what they dictated.
Subconsciously, I think I was influenced by the grit and determination of the real-life people, who were in my NGO. They live with joy, laughter, and dignity in the middle of everything. I think my own spirit also influenced me. I am a great believer in possibilities. I had no way of know when I was sitting on a straw mat in the red-light district with a few women who wanted to educate their daughter, take on trafficking rings and build new lives for themselves, that we actually could. We learned from each other by listening and invented methods as we went along.
We succeeded girl by girl and law by law. But the one tip I have to share now when I look back and realize that my work has helped thousands of women and girls is this: When you do something, you don’t know if it is big or small, only time will tell. But you have to do it as if it matters.
The book has caught the spirit of our work. Because the work mattered to us, we did it with great joy. And now I am passing the baton on to the next generation of young activists.
EA: What actions do you hope your readers of all ages will take after reading this book, personally and in their spheres of influence?
RG: I want young people to learn, spread awareness, volunteer, donate, and take action against human trafficking. There are some resources on my website at ruchiragupta.com.
I think it is one of the last true evils left in the world. It doesn’t have to be. If we unite and keep pounding the door, we can break it down and create a world in which no child is bought or sold.
I Kick and I Fly by Ruchira Gupta (Scholastic, 9781338825091, Hardcover Young Adult, $18.99) On Sale: 4/18/2023.
Find out more about the author at ruchiragupta.com.
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