Oorja Gonepavaram, a fourth-year undergraduate student at Mount Allison University, defies academic norms by writing a children’s book focusing on Buddhism and coming to terms with one’s sexuality in faith.
The book caught the attention of an annual international conference called the UCR Conference on Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion. Gonepavaram is due to present his book at the event in February, which will be hosted by the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Gonepavaram, who identifies as bisexual, said she was inspired after taking a course in Buddhism and curious to see what the religion thinks about homosexuality.
While researching for a school assignment, she discovered that the Buddhist faith allows people to be gay as long as they follow other aspects of the religion.
“You just shouldn’t have sex while you’re in the Sangha,” Gonepavaram said, referring to the Buddhist community. “…But apart from that, you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re consensual about it.”
She took her findings and used them to write and illustrate a children’s book, titled As you are, which follows two children: Daniel, a Korean-American and second-generation Buddhist, and Natasha, an African-American and Christian.
The children face challenges related to sexuality and identity throughout the story, such as Natasha, who faces backlash when she introduces herself to her parents as a lesbian, but finds more later acceptance into Buddhism.
Gonepavaram said the book was developed through community learning and hands-on work in Sackville, New Brunswick, where Mount Allison is located. She learned about the impact of children’s books by reading in classrooms at a local elementary school.
“At this vulnerable and malleable age, they learn a lot from their stereotypes. They learn a lot of their ideologies through children’s books,” Gonepavaram said.
Sackville, Gonepavaram said, is becoming more diverse through the university. She hopes her book can help encourage inclusion and diversity in the small town.
“We wanted to make sure that the future generation has good books and that they are more inclusive of the people around them,” Gonepavaram said.
Although aimed at a child audience, the book touches on sophisticated ideas. Dani Dempsey, a Mount Allison professor specializing in Western religions with a focus on queer and trans studies, worked with Gonepavaram on the book and credited her with the new presentation style.
“It takes some pretty complex ideas but explains them in a really accessible way. I think that’s an interesting thing that we’re doing, some of us are doing, in the academic setting, it’s also challenging assumptions about what constitutes academic work,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey, who is also a member of the conference planning committee, said Gonepavaram’s work is unique because very few works are submitted outside of the North American and Christian area of interest.
“So doing queer and trans studies in the time of Buddhism is actually really cutting edge,” Dempsey said.
Other professors who have taught the Gonepavaram, including Barbra Clayton, a Mount Allison professor and scholar of contemporary Buddhism, encouraged her to continue with the book after using it for class assignments.
“She did a really good job, both in the illustrations but especially in the writing and I thought that was something that, you know, was worth pursuing and not being dropped out at the end of the course,” Clayton said.
Gonepavarm, who is originally from India, said she struggled to find books that represented the LGBTQ2S+ community while growing up and didn’t come to terms with her own sexuality until high school. She hopes her book can help others find community and acceptance earlier in life.
“A lot of times people feel dissonance with their sexuality and they feel shame,” Gonepavaram said. “Buddhist meditation techniques and prayers…these can all help to harbor self-acceptance of homosexuality and queer identity.”
Gonepavram said she would likely seek to publish the book in the future and hopes to continue her studies on the subject.
“We need more voices like her just around the world and in a college setting, so I just hope she continues to grow this project,” Dempsey said.
Featured image provided by Oorja Gonepavaram.