Women’s History Month Spotlight: Tanuja Desai Hidier











Today we welcome Tanuja Desai Hidier to the blog to share about her writing and music.

Tell us a bit about your life as a writer. What drew you to writing and what has kept you writing?

Reading! I’ve turned to the pen since as far back as I could hold it, and savor, seep into, fall into, flip a page. I was around five when I wrote my first poems: “The Secret” (spoiler alert: it’s a feather) and “Nelly & Shelly” (the fascination with supertwins commenced early). I wrote mostly poems till my teens; I have boxloads of three-ring binders of them in my childhood home. Some of these poems had melodies too–were first songs, in a sense. As a child I also invented bands and singers: designed their album covers, wrote and recorded songs for them on my tape recorder, and had a whole index card system where I’d draw them on one side, and write their bios on the other.

Funnily, none of my singers were ever women of color (always women, though). In fact, I only realized in my 30s, maybe even 40s, that this was the same of my short story characters (and I was writing those from about six years old onwards too—a long time!).

Most likely because I’d never seen such heroes and heroines on bookshelves, TV screens, magazine pages (and street: my family was the first of our particular ‘brown’ in our town, and the first to immigrate from both sides of the family in the 60s).

Many years later—after eons of procrastination, distraction, and, mainly, self-doubt in terms of not only my ability to write a novel, but whether I even had a story to tell—one of the reasons I wrote Born Confused and protagonist Dimple Lala was to fill this hole on my childhood bookshelf with a South Asian American coming of age story. To create heroes and heroines who more closely resembled those  in my own life. My own home.

Born Confused is considered to be the first South Asian American YA novel, and recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. The sequel,  Bombay Blues, received the 2015 South Asia Book Award. Can you tell us more about them?

All those years ago, when I was writing Born Confused, I didn’t realize so consciously that it was the first South Asian American YA novel. I was just trying to tell my truth. Truths. But funny how when you do that you often stumble across the truths of others.

Born Confused is a book about a teen girl, her heart, her home, her camera, her cultures…and how they all ultimately harmonize when she stops seeing things as black and white, or even shades of grey, but rather as magnificently multidimensioned and (it’s true!)…rich in color.  Set largely in the context of New York City’s bhangra / Asian Underground club scene, the story follows Indian-American heroine Dimple Lala through a summer that turns her world on its head as she tries to bring together her cultures without falling apart in the process. The book takes its title from ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi, a term used to describe these second and third generation South Asians
who are supposedly “confused” about where their roots lie—and on one level is a journey towards clarity, turning that C for Confused into a C for Creative…which feels like it better describes the desis in my own life.

Born Confused is my exploration of ‘brown.’ And, many years after that, one of the reasons I wrote Bombay Blues—an exploration of ‘blue’—was to move beyond the skin. Set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s contemporary indie music and arts scene, this crossover/adult novel/sequel sees Dimple journey from New York to Bombay, and adolescence to adulthood, in a now globalized India…where she bumps against and blurs the boundaries between tradition and the modern, East and West, in a whole new way. It’s Dimple’s first experience of being brown among the brown, and her personal and artistic journey leads her to follow blue—the color, the mood, the music, on into the
wild blue yonder (that of her heart as well).

In the decade between novels—during which time I also became a mother to two daughters—I explored a few other book ideas. But in the end, I suppose I missed Dimple too much; I was wondering how and where she was, what she was up to… and knew the only answer to that question would be to write it. And Bombay, it became compellingly clear, was where I could find her.

Becoming a parent myself certainly crystallized my desire to learn this part of my own parents’ history better: the city of their courtship, of my mother and brother’s birth—yet a place American-born me barely knew. I longed to write my way towards this metropolis of myth and memory—and, hopefully, into it.

In the 15 years since you wrote Born Confused, have you seen change in the YA community?

Enormous changes! Some pretty wonderful happy beginnings are happening in the world today…which is heartening, given the difficulties of our time. For example, in the world of books…well, Dimple and I didn’t have a lot of on-page company back then. Today, the literary landscape is so different—wonderfully. Far more windows and mirrors (I look at my daughters’ bookshelves and—wow! On the desi front alone: Uma Krishnaswami, Marina Budhos, Mitali Perkins, Vivek Shraya, Padma Venkatraman, Nidhi Chanani. Nisha Sharma, SJ Sindu, Samira Ahmed, Sona Charaipotra, Pooja Makhijani, Sharbari Ahmed. To name a few!)

Back when I wrote Dimple, there was no #WeNeedDiverseBooks. No #OwnVoices. (No Twitter, either.) No community for this kind of amplification and fortification. (Thank gods we have access to it now.)

Until the readers. And then…FROCK! what a blessing. Thank you to the readers, the librarians, the teachers who have nurtured Dimple (and me! and us!) through all these years. For opening your own hearts and giving us a home. For letting us choose—and write— our heroes.

And, what a revelation: WE can be heroes!

And you know, during these fraught times, we also MUST be. Our diverse, universal stories are more important than ever. Stories can be such powerful peacemakers: slipping you into the shoes of another and showing you how to walk.



And: We can write things into being, too. Show the world not only as it is but how it could be. And show yourself how you can be, too.

Are you writing any YA right now or in the near future that you may talk about?

Born Confused is set in NYC and sequel Bombay Blues in Bombay/Mumbai…and I’ve often felt there should be a third part to Dimple
Lala’s story: the London book (my base for yeeears, and the beloved city from where where I wrote NYC and Bombay: a Portobello Road flat and Muswell Hill/SoHo cafs respectively). A sister city where every inch every moment you can have a multisensory experience of all the ways race, culture, art, music, diaspora, motherlands intersect. And where Asian culture is such a part of the main and sub cultures.

Funny I’ve never written about a place while in it…so maybe I’ll have to pitch home base elsewhere for that London book (and album!) to emerge…?

How are your books and music connected?

I write songs as well as fiction, and have made albums of original music connected to both my novels (‘booktracks’). When We Were Twins: songs based on Born Confused. And Bombay Spleen—songs connected to Bombay Blues. It was a natural progression for me to explore the stories in music (I was in a playing /gigging London band while writing Born Confused and had just been in one in NYC, too).

Bookwriting, songwriting: They are very much part of the same creative process for me: shining a light on the same story from different angles, and —sometimes more audibly, sometimes more visibly, sometimes in that deep humming writing silence–exploring the same questions.

And finally: What are you doing to celebrate Dimple Lala’s 15th anniversary?

Celebrating The We! Our communities, our storytellers, our culture-makers-and-shapers. With the DEEP BLUE SHE #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo #WeMix music video project—a year in the making (massive shoutout to editor Atom Fellows)—featuring 100+ artist/activists (including authors Marina Budhos; Gemma Weekes; Kat Beyer; Uma Krishnaswami; Elizabeth Acevedo; Cynthia Leitich-Smith; Paula Yoo; Sharbari Ahmed; Mitali Desai; Eliot Schrefer; Mira Kamdar; Nico Medina; Billy Merrell; Bill Konigsberg). In a way, Deep Blue She is my birthday promise to Dimple Lala: To keep celebrating the ‘skins’ we’re in, honoring our collective and individual voices. And it’s a thank you as well, to the communities I’m blessed to know and call home, for their dedication and determination to fight the good fight. To tell our stories. And be heard.

(And hopefully to offer support and concrete help so others can do so: all artist proceeds from sales of the remix at Bandcamp to charity.)

Please watch, share, and join the #MergrrrlMovement!

With thanks and love from me and Dimple.

Tanuja Desai Hidier is an author, singer-songwriter, and innovator of the ‘booktrack’ (albums of original songs to accompany her novels). Her first novel, Born Confused—considered to be the first ever South Asian American YA novel—recently turned 15. Born Confused has been hailed by Rolling Stone Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Paste Magazine as one of the greatest YA novels of all time (on lists including such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Women). Tanuja is the recipient of the 2015 South Asia Book Award (for her second novel, Bombay Blues), the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the London Writers/Waterstones Award, and her short stories have been included in numerous anthologies. Her most recent project— the DEEP BLUE SHE #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo #WeMix music video/PSA, based on a track from her second album, and featuring 100+ artist/activists (mostly women of color)—is now live. Outlook India calls it “The We Are The World of our times.” All artist proceeds from sales of the remix to charity. More info at: www.thisistanuja.com/DeepBlueShe

Photo credit: Alicali Photo

Interview with Adam Garnet Jones

We’re happy to welcome Adam Garnet Jones to Rich in Color today. Fire Song is out in the world now and he answered a few questions about the novel, the film, and his writing.

Fire Song Synopsis: Shane is still reeling from the suicide of his kid sister, Destiny. How could he have missed the fact that she was so sad? He tries to share his grief with his girlfriend, Tara, but she’s too concerned with her own needs to offer him much comfort. What he really wants is to be able to turn to the one person on the rez whom he loves—his friend, David.

Things go from bad to worse as Shane’s dream of going to university is shattered and his grieving mother withdraws from the world. Worst of all, he and David have to hide their relationship from everyone. Shane feels that his only chance of a better life is moving to Toronto, but David refuses to join him. When yet another tragedy strikes, the two boys have to make difficult choices about their future together.

With deep insight into the life of Indigenous people on the reserve, this book masterfully portrays how a community looks to the past for guidance and comfort while fearing a future of poverty and shame. Shane’s rocky road to finding himself takes many twists and turns, but while his path doesn’t always offer easy answers, it does leave the reader optimistic about his fate.

Crystal’s Review

How did Fire Song come into being?

I started writing Fire Song as a feature film. I was looking for a story that was rooted in my own seminal experiences with isolation, suicide, and depression, but I also wanted to talk about the epidemic of suicide in Indigenous communities. I heard so many non-Indigenous people asking why, as though Indigenous youth suicide was an impossible riddle. The reasons why our young people are in so much pain could not be more clear to me. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone who is paying the remotest attention to Indigenous people in Canada being confused by why our young people are taking their lives. I wanted to write a story that could touch on the multitude of intersecting systemic issues at play in Indigenous communities – issues that make some communities particularly vulnerable to the spiritual hopelessness that we call suicidality.

Readers often wonder how much of the author’s own story is on the page. Can you share a bit about some of the similarities between you and Shane?

Shane’s story isn’t my story, but he and I have some similarities. Shane grew up in a community where there is a war between Christians and traditionalists. I grew up in a lot of different places, but I’ve never had a real community except the ones that have welcomed me in; I’ve always been a guest. I’ve always been an outsider;Shane has always been home. We’re both Queer and Indigenous. Neither of us are comfortable with labels. I’m Cree/Metis and Shane is Anishinaabe. Shane found love when he was very young, but I never did. He and I are both bookworms and high-achievers – the kind of kids that teachers liked. We both stayed with people we didn’t love for too long because we were afraid of hurting them. We’re both hungry to see everything the world has to offer, but we crave community and connection most of all. We have both wanted to die over and over throughout the course of our young lives. It’s easier for us to see a path to the spirit world than it is to see our path to the future.

If you could step back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

So many things: Stop running and try to enjoy the climb. Go to therapy. Now. You are someone worth taking care of. No affirmation from the outside world will ever touch the sadness inside, so stop looking for others to give you permission to live. Try to love yourself. Try and fail. Never stop trying.

For Tara, writing is an essential part of her life. She seems to find her voice through poetry. “But I keep thinking that a really good one–the right magic combination of words–might save your life.” Do you believe the same? Have any poems or specific pieces of writing had a big impact in your life?

Reading has been incredibly important to me. Certain books have come along at different points in my life and changed me, not because they were about anything close to my own experience, but because the aching humanity, the search for connection, and the fight for survival at the core of great writing has a clearer resolution and meaning than the yearnings and tragedies of my own life. Hard things in books are always beautiful, and packed with lessons about how to live. Hard things in my own life leave me dizzy and confused. The act of reading (and writing) brings clarity to that experience. I remember once, after moving in with a boyfriend, being hit by a wave of serious depression. I wanted to die (for good reason, for no reason) as I had many times before. I went out to walk alone and I wrote down a conversation between myself and my depression in a little notebook. Through writing that conversation, I realized that the sadness would always be with me, no matter what happened in my life. It was a kind of companion that I had to learn to live with. I’ll always remember that night, because the writing allowed by to separate that sadness from my own identity. I came to a kind of peace with my depression as with a sibling that I’ve fought with my whole life. If I hadn’t been able to work through that on the page, I would have tempted that darkness by putting my body in danger.

Creating a film and writing a novel are both storytelling, but what were some of the distinct challenges of each?

One of the most difficult things about making a film is trying to maintain your vision for the story while under the pressure of time and budget, and while a hundred other artists are making thousands of tiny alterations to the image you have in your head. The inverse problem with writing the novel is that it is just you and the page. No other voices. No one to tell you when you’re doing well or when you’re lost.

Do you see yourself writing more novels in the future or will you keep your focus on film?

I would love to write more novels. I have a couple of other books in mind, but it’s difficult to know exactly how to begin.

Who are the storytellers who have been inspirational in your life?

So many! James Baldwin, Eden Robinson, Toni Morrison, Richard Van Camp, Louise Erdrich, Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Tommy Pico, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Halfe, Larry Kramer, Toy Kushner, Thomas King, Edward Albee…

Thanks for your time and for sharing so much with us!

Review: The Poet X

Title: The Poet X
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Contemporary, Poetry
Pages: 368
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: ARC received via publisher
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

Review: Note: The Poet X includes physical and religious abuse, sexual harassment, and references to homophobia.

One of the best things about a novel in verse is how immediate the character’s voice can feel. Xiomara is an outstanding character who is trying to figure out how to express herself and coming to terms with the fact that what her church teaches (and her mother staunchly believes) does not reflect the world as she sees it or the way she wants to live. She is sharp, witty, and always bracing for a fight, and some of my favorite poems are the contrasts between what she wants to say and what she actually feels she can say (e.g., her homework assignments).

The Poet X is a great coming of age story. Xiomara pretty much does it all—falling in love, questioning religion, clashing with family, finding an outlet for her passion, calling out rape culture and sexism—and good times and the bad help her discover who she truly is and what she believes. Xiomara discovering and falling in love with slam poetry while we’re reading her poetry is a beautiful experience. It made me want to pull up some of my favorite Sarah Kay videos (yes, I had a slam poetry phase in my 20s) and just put them on repeat.

Even without knowing author Elizabeth Acevedo’s impressive and extensive body of slam poetry work, her love for the form was clear throughout the book. And so was Xiomara’s. I loved every time Xiomara made it to the poetry club or interacted with the other members, especially Ms. Galiano. Women mentoring other women is one of my favorite things, and having this teacher repeatedly reach out to Xiomara and encourage her talents was honestly inspiring.

But Xiomara’s story isn’t just a steady upward climb of honing her poetic talents; it touches on several more difficult topics. She is keenly aware of how much rape culture permeates her life and how much her mother buys into it and into the church’s sexism. There are some awful, painful scenes where Xiomara is punished (or insulted) for her budding sexuality and religious doubt. While there is a mostly hopeful conclusion to some of this, it left me concerned that Xiomara had only really bought herself some breathing space with her mother. (But that’s my pessimistic self.)

The romantic relationship between Xiomara and Aman is very well done, and Aman is one of the many interesting supporting characters in the book. One of the best traits a romantic lead can have, in my opinion, is consistently demonstrating a desire to listen. When Xiomara felt like she had to be silent, Aman was there, encouraging her with her poetry. (Another excellent trait is knowing when to apologize and how to make up for doing wrong.) I was also very fond of Twin (Xiomara’s twin brother, Xavier) and Caridad, as well as Ms. Galiano.

Overall, The Poet X is an important, moving novel in verse about growing up and finding your voice in a world that can be very hostile to your existence. Acevedo’s writing made me pause, more than once, to wonder at the beauty and cleverness of particular phrases or imagery. I’m definitely going to spend the weekend watching some of her videos (link below).

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love poetry. The Poet X is a great coming of age story about discovering your voice in a world that is hostile to your existence. Acevedo’s debut novel features a memorable heroine and gorgeous poetry, and your life would be richer for reading it.


Elizabeth Acevedo – Books, Poems & Videos

Elizabeth Acevedo and Sarah Kay on Their New Books, Latinx Representation, and Why Poetry Is Political

Q & A with Elizabeth Acevedo

Review: Fire Song

Title: Fire Song
Author: Adam Garnet Jones
Publisher: Annick Press
Pages: 232
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Availability: Release date is March 13, 2018
Review copy: ARC provided by publisher

Summary: How can Shane reconcile his feelings for David with his desire for a better life?

Shane is still reeling from the suicide of his kid sister, Destiny. How could he have missed the fact that she was so sad? He tries to share his grief with his girlfriend, Tara, but she’s too concerned with her own needs to offer him much comfort. What he really wants is to be able to turn to the one person on the rez whom he loves—his friend, David.

Things go from bad to worse as Shane’s dream of going to university is shattered and his grieving mother withdraws from the world. Worst of all, he and David have to hide their relationship from everyone. Shane feels that his only chance of a better life is moving to Toronto, but David refuses to join him. When yet another tragedy strikes, the two boys have to make difficult choices about their future together.

With deep insight into the life of Indigenous people on the reserve, this book masterfully portrays how a community looks to the past for guidance and comfort while fearing a future of poverty and shame. Shane’s rocky road to finding himself takes many twists and turns, but ultimately ends with him on a path that doesn’t always offer easy answers, but one that leaves the reader optimistic about his fate.

Review: Shane is tired. So many, many things are wearing him down. His sister’s death and the grief he’s feeling is obvious and painful, but there are many other things in his life that are overwhelming. He and his mother don’t have money for a new roof and college, but the roof cannot wait. His mother is debilitated by her grief and is no help in decision making or even with day to day care of herself. He is also agonizing about his relationships. He has a girlfriend with issues of her own, but he is also secretly seeing David. Shane is willing to talk about their relationship publicly, but David wants no part of that. Shane has heard of two-spirited people being welcomed, but even he can’t really picture it. He’s eager to be open in spite of the fears though. With all of this swirling around in his life, Shane is trying to hang on and make a path to get away before he gives up on his dreams.

The format of the book is somewhat unique. There are two perspectives. Shane’s point of view is told in third person and is the bulk of the storytelling, but his girlfriend’s point of view is also shown here and there. Her story is in first person as if in a journal and includes her poetry which is often quite moving. I enjoyed Tara’s portion of the story and actually wished for more from her. She’s trying to write herself into existence and be someone “worth seeing, worth being, worth taking care of.”

Grief and how individuals and the community deal with it is a major part of the story. There is a mix of tradition and individuality in the responses. Shane respects traditions, but is also open to doing things in different and new ways. One thing Shane craves is smudging. He loved seeing the smoke curl up over his mother’s shoulders in the mornings. His mother lit the smudge every morning of his life until his sister’s death. The medicine and ceremony are another loss for him as his mother pulls into herself.

The reserve is a big part of the story. The people and their daily life is important, but Shane’s relationship to the place itself is also significant. He feels his ancestors around him there. He isn’t sure he believes in the spirits and doesn’t always understand the teachings of the elders, but he definitely feels a spiritual connection to this place that is his home. “The elders may not be right about everything, but there is something in this place that can’t be explained with language.”

Shane is grappling with his grief, what he believes about his place in the world, his sexuality, and a variety of other things. This is a coming-of-age book with a young man trying to untangle the knots in his life. The end of the book is a bit rushed with many things happening at once, but it was satisfying overall. Fire Song is not easy to read, especially if you have lost a loved one by suicide, but it’s ultimately a hopeful story.

Recommendation: Fire Song is a look into the lives of teens trying to find themselves in the midst of tragedy and pain. Get it soon if you enjoy realistic fiction. It’s a powerful book.

Book Trailer

Movie Trailer

Group Discussion: Love, Hate & Other Filters

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape–perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Jacqueline Woodson, and Adam Silvera.

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

Review copy: ARC via publisher

Welcome to the Rich in Color discussion of Love, Hate & Other Filters.
**Beware, there are some spoilers ahead.**

Crystal: There are so many reasons for me to love this book. Maya’s voice had me from the very beginning with the words, “Destiny sucks.” Her wry humor had me smiling so many times. Her passion for creating movies is also awesome.

Jessica: Seriously, what an opening line. Maya’s voice definitely grabs you from the get-go. I didn’t think of this until you brought it up, but the way Maya’s passion for filmmaking provides yet another lens for her life is fascinating. I’m looking at the cover (what a great cover), and what the title means is finally registering. I know, I’m a little slow on the uptake. Maya see her life through the filters of love, hate, and the narrative bent of filmmaking. And, on a meta level, the reader sees Maya’s life through her romance, the Islamophobia that harms her, and the snapshot moments of other people’s lives leading up to the terror attack and its aftermath. It really paints a complete picture.

Audrey: I agree, I really enjoyed Maya’s voice and the frequent camera/filmmaking references. Her little asides about how things would go if this were x sort of movie were fun. I really enjoy reading about characters who have passions that seep into many corners of their lives, and Maya’s habit of filming things was a great way to establish her character (and plot-relevant). Sometimes the best way to get to know a person is to dive deep into the things they geek out about, and Maya’s passion for filmmaking was a great way to get to know her.

Karimah: I liked Maya’s voice as well and agree with you Audrey that her “teen movie” asides were great. It gave us a great insight into who she is and how she sees the world, and I truly connected with her. I giggled a couple of times at some of her comments and loved that she had a great sense of who she truly at such a young age.

Crystal: Maya is facing several challenges because of family expectations. Her dreams do not exactly match up with their dreams for her. The love in the family is easy to see, but that doesn’t mean there is smooth sailing. In some ways it makes it even more difficult. It’s hard to go against the wishes of people who love you and want the best for you. I adored Maya’s aunt. If we all had a Hina in our lives, what a wonderful world it would be.

Jessica: I think what really grabbed my heart early on is Maya’s introduction of Hina, where she says that despite being so different, Hina and Maya’s mother are actually best friends. This really set the tone for me of how much love Maya had in her family. Her parents may have had very specific ideas and goals for Maya, but you knew that in the end, they would come to accept what made Maya happy — just like how Hina and Maya’s mother are best friends.

And of course, on the surface, Maya’s parents seem unreasonably strict, and Maya struggles against those restrictions. But when her parents shut down and rule out Maya’s dreams, not out of a desire to control her, but a desire to keep her safe in the aftermath of a terrible event, you can again tell that they do it out of love, even if they aren’t necessarily right. I think anyone – especially anyone from an immigrant background – can recognize that parental instinct, those warnings to keep your head down, do the safe thing, don’t stand out, stay safe. That really hit home for me.

Audrey: As an adult, when I’m reading YA, I often find myself torn between the parents and the teens. On the one hand, I totally get why Maya’s parents have those expectations for her and why they’re so upset when she springs her own desires on them; on the other hand, I sympathize with Maya wanting to forge a life outside of those expectations. Hina was a great character, not only because she often took Maya’s side, but because she established a model for Maya to follow. Hina is living proof that Maya can build a life that suits her while–someday–forging a more equal relationship with her parents.

I really empathized with Maya’s parents’ fears after the terrorist attack and how immediate the backlash was for their family. They remembered the Islamophbic outbursts of violence after the September 11, 2001, attacks, so of course their first instincts were to protect their daughter. While I wish they would have listened to Maya more, I can’t entirely fault them for their reaction.

Audrey: Were there any other characters you particularly liked besides Maya? I was very fond of Violet. She was close to everything I want my YA heroines to have in a best friend. She didn’t have as much screen time as I’d hoped, but I appreciate her support for Maya and how she cheered her on all the time.

Crystal: I totally loved Hina. Like Audrey said earlier, Hina proved that it was possible to carve out a life that fits your own dreams. She knew what she wanted and worked on maintaining relationships in spite of the hurdles.

Karimah: I liked Violet as well. I’m glad that she knew how to best support Maya in her budding relationship with Phil and was completely supportive of her after the terrorist attack. She was a great best friend for Maya and I love that she was written in such a manner. I also liked Phil as he was much deeper than the typical romantic lead. Usually the romantic lead is this idealized version the “popular hot guy” but he was actually the total opposite. I mean, the way Maya described him he seem attractive, but he had a secret himself and had the same family tension as Maya. He was also so sweet to Maya and supportive of her as well.

Crystal: The format of the book is a little unusual. Maya’s story is sequential, but it is interrupted with brief moments from another perspective. These interstitials (a new word for me) definitely add mystery and suspense. Some of them are also very unsettling. What did you think of this choice in the storytelling?

Jessica: At first, I was a little on the fence about it, because I knew where the story was going. I didn’t know how I felt about portraying someone about to commit a terrible crime. It was haunting and beautifully written, and definitely added a layer of suspense. It was, ahem, a great filter for the book. At the same time, I still am not sure how I feel about the portrayal of the terrorist in the aftermath (spoilers ahead, stop reading if you haven’t finished the book) — I guess, I’m always a little leery of narratives that show an abused child becoming a criminal when all too often, people who commit hate crimes are the privileged and angry, not the people who are most vulnerable in society. The terrorist had a mix of privilege and resentment, along with a terrible upbringing, so it’s certainly not a black-and-white narrative that I’d condemn. But it does unsettle me.

Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying, I think it added a lot to the book, while also shaking up my preconceptions about a lot of things.

Karimah: Since my WIP has interstitials (didn’t know that is what they were called) has them, I really enjoyed them. I felt like it gave us an insight into the terrorist’s mind as he leads up to the act. I like how they allowed us to connect to different people who were affected by the act as well. It brought the terror of the act, aside from how Maya’s family is affected, to life. However, like Jessica, I was a bit annoyed by the narrative of the abused child becoming a criminal. I felt like it was an “easy out” for the terrorist instead of being real with that he just had hate in his heart and a desire to cause destruction. I get it was trying to humanize him, but with so many terrorists of his ilk called “lone wolf” and humanized when Black and Brown victims of police are demonized, it hurt.

Audrey: The interstitials felt very cinematic for me. Maya’s the main character of this movie, if you will, so the camera mostly sticks with her, but the interstitials were brief cuts to the danger that had been building unbeknownst to her. That ramped up the tension for us as a viewer/reader, and then afterwards we got to see the truth unfold on the periphery while we stayed with Maya (because her story was the emotional center of the story). I think it was a fitting narrative device for this book.

But like you said, I was really disappointed that the abused child backstory showed up. Maybe I’m just bitter and angry and frustrated (hi, all of last year), but I’m entirely uninterested in any story trying to mitigate angry white men’s hateful actions, especially when we saw how much Maya and her family were hurt because of it.

Crystal: One last note about the romances. I had to smile with her first love interest. The actions were fairly innocent, but the descriptions were still quite sensual. The second romance was filled many roadblocks, but was a unique set of circumstances. It was complex and I also appreciated the ending that seemed very realistic. (Trying not to spoil too much here, but it’s not a fairy tale.)

Audrey: I thought it was great that Maya had two love interests and how both of those stories came to different conclusions. It was nice to see how messy feelings could get and how Maya tried to navigate both romantic options. (As a side bonus, I really liked the fact that the guys didn’t know about each other, so we didn’t have to endure any jealous posturing.) I’m really happy we got to see Maya exploring her feelings and sorting out what her heart really wanted.

Karimah: I really, really loved both romances because they were just so real and I feel that Maya handled both of them so well. She was honest with herself and her feelings and rightfully made the right call with her first romance and I loved the slow burn that was the second. It was refreshing that all of them were honest with each other and were able to talk through their issues. It’s so healthy and teens need to see what healthy relationships can look like. And I like that the end was more about Maya being in love with herself, standing up for herself, instead of a “happily ever after” with a significant other (sorry for the spoiler).

If you’ve already read Love, Hate & Other Filters, we’d love to hear your thoughts! If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, we recommend you get it soon.

Author Interview with Tanaz Bhathena

Today we welcome Tanaz Bhathena to the blog. We’re excited to hear more about her new book, A Girl Like That, and learn more about her writing life.

Summary: A timeless exploration of high-stakes romance, self-discovery, and the lengths we go to love and be loved. 

Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.

This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about your work. What was the most difficult aspect of writing A Girl Like That?

The multiple perspectives! Some voices came a lot easier than others.

Where is your favorite place to write? Do you like to have any specific foods or drinks to encourage the process?

I love writing next to a big window. Even while travelling, I’ll always look for a place that has tons of natural light. I’m not much of a snacker, but during breaks I’ll have tea, medjool dates, fruit, sometimes cheese and nuts.

Who are the authors you’ve learned from and been inspired by in your reading and writing life?

There are many, but I’ll list the few whose books I’ve consistently read and loved over the past decade. Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Khaled Hosseini and JK Rowling.

Where have you lived and how has that shaped you?

I was born in Mumbai, India. My parents moved us to Saudi Arabia when I was about a year old and I lived in Riyadh and Jeddah for the first fifteen years of my life. Living in a country as an expat can make you an outsider—in that country and your own—but it also allows you to observe things more closely than other people. (I guess that’s what drew me to writing!). In a strange way, though, I’m also now able to navigate different cultures with more ease; I know different words from a variety of languages; like many Third Culture Kids, I enjoy travelling.

On your FAQ page, you list watching Bollywood movies as something you do for fun. Could you share some favorite titles?

Warning: my tastes run into slapstick comedy. Favorites include: Satte pe Satta, Padosan, Hera Pheri (the one with Paresh Rawal), Deewana Mastana, 3 Idiots, Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munnabhai, and Queen.

I’m currently really looking forward to Padmaavat. (Wait, you said only favourites. Okay, I’ll shut up now…)

What would tell your teen self if you could send a letter back through time?

It won’t get any easier, but you’ll be a lot stronger.

Are you able to tell us anything about The Beauty of the Moment (coming in 2019)?

The Beauty of the Moment begins a year after A Girl Like That. Though it isn’t a true sequel (you can read it as a stand-alone), it follows a girl from Zarin Wadia’s school (Qala Academy in Jeddah) to Mississauga, Canada, where she comes across new challenges and finds new love.  

A Girl Like That will be released on February 27th, so we’ll all be able to read it soon. Thanks again Tanaz!