We welcome debut author Sonia Patel to the blog. Rani Patel in Full Effect hit the shelves last month and we were able to review it here. Rani is a young woman trying to sort out who she is apart from the father who has been sexually abusing her for years. She feels strong and in control when she’s rapping, but when she’s with her new boyfriend (a much older man) or on her own, she falls into old destructive patterns. Sonia Patel has created a powerful and intense novel and she’s here to talk about it with us today.
Many readers wonder about the line between reality and fiction. In your author’s note and on your website, I noticed many of the experiences that shaped Rani may have carried traces of your past – starting with her heritage. Can you tell us a little about growing up as a first generation Indian American in Hawaii?
The first word that comes to mind with that question is isolative.
My Gujarati parents, like Rani’s parents, had a traditional Hindu arranged marriage in India. They immigrated to New York and that’s where I was born. My early years were spent there and in Connecticut. Both places had a large Gujarati immigrant community and we spent practically every weekend with other Gujarati immigrant family or friends. This was quite important for my mother who clung tightly to her Gujarati social network and culture. So it came as quite a shock to her when my father decided to move to Moloka’i. Like Rani’s family, we were the only Indian family on the island (compared to the other Hawaiian islands, Moloka’i is the island with the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians) at the time. It was very difficult for my mother to be cut off from her Gujarati connections, especially because my parent’s marriage was rocky. Once on Moloka’i, I basically lost all connection with my Gujarati culture because our family fell apart. Though from the outside, no one could tell. All I knew was that I was glad I was brown because at least I fit in with most of the kids at school, even though when I opened my mouth I couldn’t speak pidgin at first and sounded totally haole (foreign with my mainland accent). The only thing that reminded me that I was Gujarati was the food my mother cooked and the Bollywood films she would watch. Other than that, I felt basically culture-less. Unless you count my father as a culture.
Moving to a more difficult question about your life – what was it like to look back at your own family issues as you worked through Rani’s story?
It was—is—emotionally charged. I’d been writing rap as a way to cope with my issues, then later my experiences with treating patients. This kept things kind of at arm’s length. When I realized I had a story to tell that involved parts of me and parts of teen/women I’d treated and known, things became real. Fast. I couldn’t stop the story from flowing onto paper. The way different teens deal with the effects of family dysfunction and covert and overt familial sexual abuse is often similar. I never had a psychiatrist to discuss and work through my experiences when I was growing up, so I’d been putting the pieces of my life together haphazardly. When I started writing Rani, things came together and made more sense. When I read snippets from the book it still evokes feelings of sadness, hurt, anger, shame, and joy.
Sexual abuse may not be an easy topic to read about, but it’s a reality for a large number of young adults. As you’re sharing this novel, what kind of reactions have you been hearing from readers or potential readers?
Most adults and teens seem to get it. They appreciate that Rani’s father abused her and that the abuse wired Rani’s brain to think, feel, and act in negative ways that set her up for recreating the abuse with other men. They understand that Rani isn’t dumb and though they feel mad at her at times, they have empathy that it’s part of her process in being a trauma survivor. Rani doesn’t have the words to describe the covert and overt incest and family problems so she speaks through her negative thoughts, feelings and actions. Most people seem to get that it takes awhile for her to gain insight into this and so it’ll take time before she can begin to make positive changes in her life.
There are the few readers who think Rani is dumb and too naive. They can’t understand why she drinks, hangs out with an older man who sweet talks her, and basically, to them, seems to set herself up for being raped. They get mad at her and then seem to forget empathy for the trauma induced brain changes that cause her to repeat negative behaviors. A couple of them have said that she’s a tease. It was almost like they were blaming the victim. All I can say to that is perhaps those readers did not truly understand my author’s note at the end of the book. Those readers don’t seem to appreciate that a survivor of covert and overt incest has been a sexual object or in that role for years and that the way they think, feel, and act has been hardwired into their brains. They’ve learned that that is all they are good for. Those readers don’t seem to understand that survivors can’t just become empowered and feminist simply because being raped is wrong. Of course rape is wrong, but a survivor of chronic incest has been conditioned to expect nothing more for themselves and to repeat negative patterns. Until they gain insight, they will likely continue to engage in the same negative behavior. So healing starts with insight and insight can only begin when they find the words and support to describe their traumatic experiences.
Throughout the book, music empowers and brings healing to Rani. What is it about hip-hop specifically that can create such change?
For Rani, the power of hip hop was multifactorial. Rap was front and center. The powerful beats and poetry allowed her to express the misogyny she experienced in a way that wasn’t encouraged in her life otherwise. It resonated with her and gave her a sense of the self-worth she still didn’t have. Plus, she was exposed to hip hop during its golden age—when there was tremendous political,social, and musical innovation in rap. Rap was building its identity and this was symbolic of how Rani was also building her identity. Additionally there was hip hop fashion and dance that allowed Rani to create her own identity separate from her abusive father and distant mother.
Does hip-hop still play a significant role in your life?
YES! I can’t imagine my life without hip hop music, rap, fashion (especially my kicks), and dance. I still write rap. It’s still my primary form of self-therapy. I feel the most like myself when I’m writing rap or poetry. Also, when I’m sportin’ my latest fly hip hop outfit. And when I travel, I always look for hip hop clubs. Recently I was in Oakland and got to shake my thang at two such clubs with amazing hip hop music. Overseas, Seoul and Tokyo had a killer hip hop music and dance scene.
Hip-hop is sometimes included in discussions about poetry since there is such attention to the sound and impact of the words. Do you write a lot of poetry and do you have plans to publish a verse novel or volume of poetry? I would totally read either.
Awww! That is so sweet! Thank you. I actually love writing poetry, especially poetry that I can perform. Like rap, poetry helps me express issues that I feel passionate about or issues I’m struggling with. Recently, I performed one at a local slam called Stop Visually Assualting Me (&Yourself)! It’s based on the issues of how many of my teenage girl patients are being lured into a false sense of self-worth by posting revealing body shots on social media. Body reveal in social media seems to be turning into a horrible epidemic that’s hurting the youth I treat. Of course I discuss these issues with my teen patients, but it’s so troubling to me that I had to write about it in a poetic manner.
There are very few young adult novels that address Native sovereignty. What led you to include this in the narrative?
I was fortunate enough to have some amazing mentors in the fight to protect the water of Moloka’i from developers. Some of them were also active in sovereignty issues and actually most locals on the island are activists in one way or another. Whether it’s testifying at hearings. Or protesting. Or choosing to live off the land in ancient Hawaiian ways. My empathy and support has always been towards oppressed and subjugated cultures because I come from one—Indians at the hands of the British, being a colored kid on the mainland, etc. I am honored that I got to participate in much of the activism around the water issues on Moloka’i growing up. That was something my father was involved in, much like Rani’s father in the book.
I had to include those issues because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be depicting Moloka’i’s vibe accurately.
What’s up next for you as a writer?
I am currently working another YA novel. It’s a love story about a trans Gujarati boy from the city and a girl from rural Hau’ula and involves issues of sex trafficking, depression, alcoholism, bulimia, and complex family issues. The story is based on my work with my teen patients. It’s a tribute to my patients who struggle with so many things I wish they didn’t have to…
I wish you had asked me….
If in the past I’d shaved my head like Rani.
If in the past I’d dyed the stubble blond like Rani.
We’re always on the lookout for great books to read. Have you read anything lately that moved you to laughter or tears?
My kids are into graphic novels and I recently read the Barefoot Gen series again. My son actually introduced me to it. He devoured that series in a couple of weeks and was so moved he wrote to the author in Japan. The author passed away but his wife wrote a nice letter back. I also mentioned the series in Rani and so I decided to read it again. Laughter and tears fo’ shua!