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Feature Friday - Understanding is Contagious: the Importance of Diversity and Starting a Conversation

12 Jun 2015


Nithya, a vivacious, intelligent and driven college senior has always known what she has wanted: a successful career in medicine and the love of her family. She's even come to terms with the idea of an arranged marriage, a tradition her conservative Indian family has held up for thousands of years.

When a night of partying puts her on a collision course with danger, Nithya's entire life changes.

Enter James St. Clair, the smart, challenging and heartbreakingly handsome American.

As Nithya and James fall in love, she questions the future she and her parents have always planned. Now, Nithya has a choice to make: become a doctor and a good Indian bride, or step away from her family and centuries of culture to forge her own path.

The decision she comes to takes her on a journey that transforms how she sees her future, her relationships with loved ones, and how she learns to put herself back together when even her best-laid plans fall apart.

Goodreads | Amazon | Amazon UK

Understanding is Contagious: the Importance of Diversity and Starting a Conversation

A writer friend and I had a really honest, enlightening conversation the other day about diversity. She is white. I am Indian-American. I was telling her how one of my biggest fears was that I would get my first book “wrong”…even though the character is just like me. Like I’ve posted about before, putting my positive and negative experiences with my Indianness on paper is like pulling the skin off a burn. Sometimes it forces you to face things about yourself that you didn’t want to admit. Other times, it gives you glimpses of beauty you never appreciated.

Before I wax poetic, let me backtrack. My first novel, The Rearranged Life, released on May 15th. Woohoo! It’s a story that I have lived, both directly and peripherally. An Indian-American college student named Nithya falls for an American and challenges everything her traditional family hopes for: medical school and a semi-arranged marriage. I wrote what I knew—about an identity crisis that many first-generation children of immigrants face when deciding where they are coming from and where they are going. My character treads the line between American and Indian cultures, often setting foot in one or the other as needed. It’s been an incredible experience debuting—all of my insecurities that made it onto the page were quelled by the immense positivity of those who read the story and commented that Nithya was, even in her Indianness, similar to them. Like I said before, being Indian has, on the rare but poignant occasion, been cause for attention, like that time I got called a sand ni--er or the time I was well-meaningly told that I must be smart because I’m Asian (for the record, please don’t ever put my math grades in a public domain).

And while my experience has been refreshing and party-worthy, judging by the reading I’ve been doing lately on Twitter and otherwise, we still have a long way to go with diversity in the book world. I follow a number of authors who are heavily involved in social justice and I am learning new things every single day. It’s very easy to ask myself, “What voice do I have? If I’m still learning, I’m bound to make rookie mistakes, right?” My friend told me she was afraid to start because since she was white, she felt she would offend everyone and her deepest fear was to hurt the very people she wanted to represent accurately. Clearly, despite being a person of colour, my fears and the fears of people who want to support me are the same.

Let me digress for a second. My main character, Nithya, comes from a state called Andhra Pradesh. Being from different states comes with some big differences in Indian culture. Each state speaks a different language. Each region has a different dialect. Last names can tell you where a person is from geographically, what language they speak, what caste they’re from (which can lead to social cues, occupations, and tradition differences) and sometimes the kind of life they live. I had to think about some of these nuances when figuring out my characters.

I know these things about Nithya because I’ve lived a similar life. But how would anyone else, say, who isn’t Indian, know that?

Simply by asking questions.

I’m going to illustrate the point here. I grew up in central Pennsylvania. I’ve discussed in other blog posts that the ratio of farm animals to humans is about ten to one. I also grew up in a college town. That meant there were two populations: one, a highly educated and diverse population and the other, not so diverse but with curiosity and kindness to boot. A friend who had never travelled more than 100 miles away from home once asked me, “Annika, is it true Indians drink cow’s blood?” For the record, I’m a vegetarian. Even most of the non-vegetarian Indians I know avoid beef. But I can unequivocally say I’ve never seen an Indian Bella Swan a cup of cow’s blood at a meal. Rather than bug out, I ended up laughing. I answered her innocent question with the offer to clear up any more that she may have, accompanied by the promise that I wouldn’t be offended. Holy cow (I’m beginning to understand that phrase more and more…), did she ever take me up on it! Question after question, all with the intention to learn, came in the days following. It was amazing. We got to unite over our differences because she took the time to ask about places she’d never been to and customs she had never seen. We found similarities as I broke down certain misconceptions for her. We grew even closer, considering our backgrounds were polar opposites.

What’s that quote Hermione Granger says in Harry Potter? “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” I think the same concept can be applied here. Fear of diversity or getting it wrong only increases the fear further. The only way to combat it is to ask questions. Whether that’s through Twitter followers or utilizing Google, it’s important to get the details right. It will take more time. But it builds a cleaner representation of your character if you don’t treat them all with the same detergent. We are not all the same. You know how I mentioned Nithya comes from Andhra and speaks Telugu? There are 29 states in India and over 150 languages spoken. And that’s just one country on earth. One set of cultures to break down. Imagine how different the rest of the world looks…and that’s just considering ethnicity!

At the end of the day, to foster the discussions necessary to paint the world as it really looks, there are two things required: the people who want to represent diversity must ask every question imaginable, and the people who want to be represented must be willing to answer them. It could prevent another ally from feeling as though they’ll get it wrong and in turn, turning them into a bystander. It could prevent another person with a diverse background from feeling as though no one understands. There are so many grey areas to work with—neurodiversity, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, and more—that it’s important to get the whole picture: that we are all the same and very, very different. Recognizing both sides is vital to appreciating and conveying our differences accurately. It’s important that the people asking the questions remain non-judgmental and truly listen—you are getting the answers from people who have likely been pinpointed as “wrong” for their entire lives. For those receiving the questions, assume the best in the asker and answer honestly. People do want to know and be better.

The Rearranged Life was a cathartic way to represent my life…but there will come a time in the near future where I will write another diverse character, one whose life my own doesn’t mirror. And when the time comes, I hope I have the courage to ask questions of people willing to answer. I’ve already seen the difference it makes in a story, let alone in a life.

And if we ask and answer these questions together, we can finally tell all the stories the world needs to hear.


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