In the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, life in the U.S. changed for millions of immigrants – Muslim, non-Muslim, brown, black, Middle Eastern, South Asian, the list goes on. Anti-immigrant sentiment became confused and obfuscated by anti-terrorism measures.
Neesha: The bulk of SHINE was written pre-9/11. It was, initially, the story of three generations of Punjabi, Sikh women, and how they negotiated the bonds and fissures that come with migration, uprooting, generational and cultural divides. The 9/11 piece came, obviously, after September 11th, 2001. After the events of that date, and the year that followed, I felt that I simply could not *not* write about being Sikh in a post-9/11 world. The story wouldn’t feel true to the experience of young people today. And since then, a teacher in Queens emailed me to tell me that a seventeen-year-old Punjabi, Sikh boy in her class pressed my book into her hands and said, "Read this. It’s my life." I had never expected my book might be a "boy book," but that young man’s experience was reflected nowhere else, in a sympathetic, inside-out way, and he really connected with the characters of Uncle Sandeep and Sammy.
The attacks on 9/11/01 have had a resounding impact on South Asians, and our youth are struggling to navigate these often choppy waters. I wanted to add that layer to SHINE because I understood it so well. I grew up in Canada during the 1970s when there was a major backlash against South Asians, and much of the same hostility, fear, and mistrust was directed at us then, as it is now against anyone perceived to be Muslim or Arab or Middle Eastern.
Q. The novel deftly balances very serious issues such as identity politics, social politics, national politics alongside everyday teenage issues including parent relationships, sex, drinking, friendship, homework. How did you strike that balance? Was there ever a time you considered writing this story for a grown up, rather than YA audience?
Neesha: The strongest voice among the generations of women was always Samar’s in this story. Even when it was a multi-generational epic (the likes of which I thought I was "supposed" to write as a South Asian woman writing in English – think: Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc.), Sam had the most energy when I wrote her parts. There was something about her that wanted to be expressed, that wouldn’t allow me to turn away, and so I just went with it. And I’m so glad I did! I quite like her as a character and she’s touching a lot of young South Asians’ lives because they can relate to her. This is what young South Asians are dealing with – racism, sexism, homophobia, parental conflicts, raging hormones, school stress . . . the things of teenagers all over the world, but then some very specific and unique things, as well. But to answer your question, I get a lot of adults telling me they loved the book, too. It’s written not just for a teen audience, but also for folks who want to know more, are looking for insight, and who want to understand how they connect with another’s experience, even if it is nothing like their own.
Q. At one point in the novel, the protagonist Sammy writes "After September eleventh, I never felt more un-American in my whole life, yet at the same time, I felt the most American I’ve ever felt too." Can you tell us about your own reactions to 9-11, and the backlash against South Asians and Middle Easterners?
Neesha: Mostly it was a huge shock. I had a six-week-old in my arms as we watched the towers burn on TV. We couldn’t get in touch with loved ones because the phone lines were all out. l knew the backlash was coming, and I was immediately thrown back into my own childhood and teen years. I remember well, the feeling of being targeted for taunts and threats, the feeling that you must always apologize for something, or defend something, or hide something. And I knew, too, that feeling of wanting to shout, "I’m just like you!", but knowing that I would always be considered, by some, a foreigner in my own home.
Q. A fellow student calls Sammy a coconut – brown on the outside white on the inside. How do you think that identity politics among South Asian or Sikh youth is different to day than when you were growing up? The same?
Neesha: I think there are some changes, definitely. As more and more generations are raised in western culture, there is more of an assimilation on the one hand, and sometimes, a desire to cling to tradition on the other. That’s what my second novel is about – the push/pull of old ways and current ways; of love versus duty; of family unity versus individual expression. The young South Asians I meet now are way more hip than we ever were. They’re deeply enmeshed in current trends, have active social lives with other South Asian teens as well as non-South-Asians, and their parents, who might be second or even third generation arrivals to the US, are more tolerant of their kids’ desires to be part of the larger culture. But South Asian traditions and culture are often deeply embedded among us Desis, and even with tolerant parents, there is always an epic battle in homes where there are teenagers >grin<. It’s the aforementioned push/pull.
Q. Tell us about the journey to publish this novel? Was the publishing community enthusiastic right away? Did you meet any resistance?
Neesha: It took me forever to find an editor who connected with SHINE. Actually, that’s not true. There was one South Asian editor at a large publishing house who LOVED the book. She was completely behind it and busted her behind to acquire it. But, ultimately, the acquisitions committee at that house didn’t feel as strongly as she did, and we had to move on. It was such a devastating experience for all of us. That editor was just amazing and was truly heartbroken. But we did move on and found an editor who was able to acquire the novel. It took me *ten* years from the first stages of beginning the novel, to final acquisition. Now that doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing other stories and novels in the meantime – I was. I had a full book of short stories for middle-graders, I had another novel I’d written, and I was constantly submitting to editors directly, as well as agents. But I kept hearing that my work was not marketable and that it wouldn’t sell. Even with SHINE, I had feedback from some agents that it was too "racially." It’s a real struggle to put something out there that is unique, offers a new perspective, and is outside the margins of what is typically accepted as mainstream. But it’s SO, SO important to get those stories out there!
Q. Mitali Perkins wrote on her blog recently about the lack of humorous ‘multicultural’ books out there. Ie. that ‘multicultural’ authors are pigeonholed as only writing serious, heavy books. Have you felt that? Are ‘multicultural’ YA authors pigeonholed or limited in any ways?
Neesha: I absolutely agree. My second novel, JAZZ IN LOVE, is a contemporary realistic with elements of humor and romance. I could not sell it to save my life. I did a guest post on The Rejectionist about this recently, but basically, every editor we sent it to gave similar feedback to what I was getting when I was shopping SHINE: that it wouldn’t sell, that it was unmarketable. Some said it was "too quiet," others said it was "too commercial."
It’s a tough time in publishing right now, and even white, previously-published authors writing more mainstream fiction are having a tough time getting second books published. In 2009, there were TWO contemporary YA books published with South Asian protagonists. One was mine, and the other was Sheba Karim’s SKUNK GIRL. And both of us wrote books about identity, racism, fitting in, and navigating "other-ness." These types of books are *always* important. But when that’s ALL you get to see, there’s a problem. It means some large chunks of the youth population are not given the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the full spectrum of their experiences. They are not allowed to be anything other than "other."
The CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) puts out statistics of books published each year. And the number of authors of colour published is dismal, with African-Americans being the highest at 0.05 percent. There’s a zero before that five. And in this economy, if the white kids are having a tough time getting into the party, brown folks better be prepared for a long wait. So I’ve decided to publish my next novel on my own. What’s important to me is getting these stories to the readers who need them – young South Asians and East Asians, and other marginalized readers who rarely get glimpses of themselves in their vast spectrum of experiences. I don’t have to prove I can write – SHINE garnered rave reviews from top industy resources and is taught in classrooms all over North America. My readers know me – and I see it as my responsibilty as a voice for those who don’t have a platform, to speak the truth, and to craft as accurate a representation as I’m able – to help shape and reflect the lives of our young people.
Q. There seems to be a surge of South Asian YA authors out there. Why do South Asian women write such fabulous books? Any advice for upcoming South Asian women YA authors? (not that I know any…)
Neesha: Yes, there certainly has been a surge, hasn’t there?! I think anyone who has access to different languages and different perspectives can write beautifully. It’s certainly true for African and African diasporic authors (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich to name a few), Asian authors (Grace Lin, An Na, Cynthia Kadohata, etc.), Latina authors, and the list goes on. It’s part of a rich and far-reaching tradition. But mostly, writers are a sensitive, inquisitive, watchful bunch. We pay attention to emotions and details and what’s unseen, then we give it solid form in words. How could that not be fabulous?
As for advice . . . hmm. I would say that right now, given the climate in publishing, I would explore what options are available to dedicated, committed writers who have something unique to share. If you’ve really paid your dues, written a fantastic manuscript, had it critiqued until it hurts, had agents show interest (even if they ultimately passed), then you are very, VERY close. Don’t give up! We need your voices. Write what the young adult inside you would have wanted to read. Because, really, young adults today need the same things. There were zero YAs featuring South Asian protagonists when I was growing up, and there is maybe a handful now. Nowhere near what’s necessary.
Q. Favorite current day YA reads – go. Childhood faves – go.
Neesha: I haven’t read much YA lately as I’ve had my head stuck in documents of my own, but let’s see . . . I’m going to say, in no particular order, BINDI BABES by Narinder Dhami; BORN CONFUSED by Tanuja Desai Hidier; TELL US WE’RE HOME by Marina Budhos; SKUNK GIRL by Sheba Karim; BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins; A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT by Zetta Elliott; and though it’s not YA (it still reads like it could be), 8th GRADE SUPERZERO by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.
Childhood faves are tough because there was no YA category then. We just read what we wanted. But from the "juvenile" shelves, these were the titles I cherished ;). Again, in no particular order: TUCK, EVERLASTING, Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, Paula Danziger’s THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT series, S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS (and every other book she wrote), and many of Lois Duncan’s books.
Q. What you’d like to see more of in the YA market – sexy brooding South Asian vampires perhaps? What are you working on now?
I’d like to see more genre fiction by authors of colour – more sci-fi/fantasy and romance by South Asian authors, mystery books by authors of colour, and in general, just expanding the box of authors of colour, so that we’re writing more than race and identity and the angst of being "other."
Right now, I’m working on getting JAZZ IN LOVE out in the world and into the hands of my readers – I’m aiming for a release date of late November.
Q. Do you think your story is good medicine? (I think so – but I’d love to hear your answer!)
I think all stories can be good medicine! Stories heal, they mend, they expand, they offer insight, they teach. How absolutely critical is that? 🙂
And that’s not all! Here’s a short synopsis of Neesha’s forthcoming book, JAZZ IN LOVE. It’s a light, fun, humourous contemporary –
Jasbir–a.k.a. Jazz–has always been a stellar student and an obedient, albeit wise-cracking, daughter. Everything has gone along just fine. She has good friends in the "genius" FSL (Future Stars & Leaders) Program that she’s been in since kindergarten, her teachers and principal adore her, and her parents dote on her. But now, in her senior year of high school, her mother hears that Jazz was seen hugging a boy on the street, and goes ballistic. Mom immediately implements the "Guided Dating Plan," which consists of laying out photos for Jazz to pick through, and setting up blind dates with "suitable," pre-screened Indian candidates. The boy her mother sets her up with, however, is not at all what anyone expects; and the new boy at school, the very unsuitable hottie, Tyler R, is the one who gets Jazz’s blood boiling. Suddenly, everything in her otherwise stable, ordinary life explodes. Her best friend turns her back on her, the plan Jazz had hatched to get her Auntie Kinder, a family friend, back together with her long lost, now-famous first love – and to prove to her parents that finding love on your own could be a perfectly viable path to marriage – backfires, and Jazz must decide between the traditional, acceptable path laid out for her by her parents, or the rocky, unpredictable one she seems to be stumbling headlong into. Jazz will need a lot more than her genius, FSL education to figure out how she’ll manage to follow her own heart and stay in the good graces of her parents.
Intrigued? (Who wouldn’t be – check out the photos of the Gossip Girls holding up copies of Neesha’s book on her website!)
Want to hear more about Samar, Coconuts and post-9-11 America?Well, simply leave a comment on http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com and
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