I’m thrilled to get the chance to talk to Supriya Kelkar about her upcoming book AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE. Get your pre-orders and library requests in now because you are going to want to read this novel as soon as you possibly can. 🙂
As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.
When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.
To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.
When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.
You tackle a lot of big issues in this novel, including racism, micro and macro aggression, and allyship, as well as dilemmas such as friendship pressures, team expectations, and discovering your own way of expressing yourself. How did you balance it all – both in the early stages and editing stages of writing this novel?
This was one of those rare writer moments for me where strangely a lot of things fell into place very neatly while drafting this book, like a puzzle I could solve, even though normally I’m really awful at puzzles! I think because I felt these issues so profoundly, and because so much of Lekha’s experience comes from my life, it somehow came together after I forced myself to really dig deep and go back to memories I had buried. During the editing stages, I was really lucky to have super smart notes from my brilliant editor at Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, Jennifer Ung, that pushed me to look even further into all of these issues and create even more connections to those themes.
One of the things I really loved about this book was the parents. All of them were so engaged, involved, and accessible (even when the kids would prefer them not to be). Would you talk a little about how you created the parents to be so three dimensional, believable, and key to the story and why you thought that was important?
Thank you! I am so glad you found them to be that way! I thought it was really important for the parents to be realistic, caring, flawed people because when I was a kid, I didn’t really realize my parents were individuals who had their own hopes, dreams, and fears. I wanted Lekha to come to that realization a lot earlier than I did so I made sure to try to make them as real as possible. I also thought it was important because racism affects people of all ages and we are constantly evolving and growing and challenging our own prejudices, even as adults.
One of the things that really stood out to me was how you managed to give the reader many entry points into the immigrant experience. As the daughter of an immigrant, I could relate to a number of Lekha’s struggles (Halloween! Sleepovers! Dress!). Are there some aspects of that experience you feel are universal? If readers could come away from this novel with one realization about the immigrant experience, what would you like it to be?
Yes! And now I’m having a flashback to a fight with my mom about a sleepover at a new friend’s house, ha! I think that struggle of wanting to carve out your own identity and independence as a middle schooler while occasionally butting heads with your parents who may want you to do things differently is definitely universal.
I also think sometimes some people overlook immigrants and the immigrant experience, discounting them and othering them, when only one type of story is told about them by nationalistic people and racist, influential people in power. I would hope readers would come away from this novel realizing nobody should be treated as less than.
Oh my gosh, the food! You describe so many amazing dishes in the novel. How much fun was it to write with such attention and care about food? Which of the dishes you mention in the book are your favorites?
It was so fun! I think it was the first time I had ever described so much food in a book. As someone who was teased any time I brought Indian food to school until I no longer brought it, it felt really great and almost powerful to be able to take such pride in describing the Indian dishes in great detail when decades earlier, I would have been mortified to even say their names at school. Samosas with chincha chutney, and mattar paneer are some of my favorite dishes mentioned in the book.
In the acknowledgements you mention that this is the “book of [your] heart. Would you be willing to talk a little bit about that?
This was the most personal book I have ever written. Like Lekha, I grew up in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity. We were taught to not talk about race and to not see color, all while racist incidents were going on all around us. Like Lekha, the words used in the racist incident that rocks her small town were words that have been shouted at me. Like Lekha, I was also guilty of othering Indian-Americans who had recently immigrated here. And like Lekha, I had a deep pride and love for my culture at home and in spaces within the Indian-American community, and an overwhelming sense of shame about it when I was being bullied or othered for it at school.
Writing the book helped me fully embrace who I was as a child and who I am now. It also helped me have a really deep appreciation for everything my parents and our family friends went through when they first arrived in this country. The lines Maya’s grandfather mentions at Thanksgiving that were said to him when he arrived from India in the 1960s and knocked on someone’s door were words that were actually said to my dad when he came here for his Ph.D. in the 1960s.
It felt therapeutic to let out a lot of the microaggressions, othering, and racist incidents that had hurt me as a child but I didn’t really talk about back then because talking about it meant acknowledging I was different or less than. And it felt empowering to say what I wanted to say about these incidents as a kid through Lekha, and to help her find her voice earlier than I had found mine, to speak out against hatred and speak up for what is right.
It’s a book that comes from my heart, one that I would have loved to have had as a kid, and I hope it becomes a beacon of hope for kids who need it.
You write screenplays and picture books in addition to Middle Grade. Can you tell us how your writing process changes depending on the project (if it does) and how you balance so many different forms?
I actually plot novels the same way I write screenplays. I start with character journals, getting to know each character while writing a journal entry from their point of view. I then use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet to get my important beats down. And then I work on a detailed outline using the three-act structure I was taught to use in my college screenwriting classes. For picture books, I usually just write the story, without trying to outline or do character journals. I find I get the characters’ personalities while writing the actual manuscript for picture books.
One thing I did struggle with when I first made the change from screenwriting to writing novels, (and I probably still have issues with it today), is that in screenwriting, you’re taught to not waste time describing the set or clothing or physical reactions unless they help the plot or are needed for the flow of the script because the script isn’t the final product, a movie is. And a set designer and costume designer and actors and director will be handling the way the set looks, or the clothing, or the physical reactions. So when I had to actually pause to describe all of these things in a novel, it took/(takes) me a while to get it right. I enjoy switching between the forms. It helps keep the creativity flowing. Sometimes I even write a script version of a novel I’m drafting and I’m able to get ideas for the novel from it.
You are also a talented visual artist. (I’m a huge fan of your mixed media/collages). Would you like to talk about how you started doing your art and how it helps or informs your writing?
Thank you so much! I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember but I started making mixed media/collage art about ten years ago. I started feeling bad about recycling the gorgeous wedding invitations from India that I had been saving over the years any time we would get one in the mail. That’s when I decided instead of getting rid of them, I’d start making mixed media and cut paper collages with them. Lately, whenever I’ve been really stuck with writer’s block, I’ve been making a collage at night. I work on them from about 9pm to midnight and then by the morning, or maybe after another day if it is a more involved collage, I’m able to come up with a solution for what I’m stuck on oftentimes. I think switching up your creative outlet can be really helpful when you feel stuck.
Is there a question you wished I asked, but didn’t?
Does paneer pie taste good? (The answer is a huge yes!)
Can you tell us what’s next for you?
Up next is STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME, (Tu Books, fall 2020), historical fiction set in 1857 India that challenges who we center in stories and “classics.” In spring 2021 I have a picture book called BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling) about a young girl who loves to match the shape of her bindis to her grandmother’s. And after that comes THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021) about a Bollywood-loving girl who isn’t good at expressing herself, who suddenly gets a magical condition after her parents announce their separation, that causes her to break out into Bollywood song-and-dance numbers to express herself in the most obvious way possible.
Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films, including Lage Raho Munnabhai and Eklavya: The Royal Guard, India’s entry into the 2007 Academy Awards. She was an associate producer on the Hollywood feature, Broken Horses. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling, 2021), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021). Supriya is represented by Kathleen Rushall at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Kim Yau at Paradigm for film/TV rights.
You can learn more about Supriya and her work (including some of her art) at her website. AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE releases May 12, 2020 and is available for pre-order now. Just follow the link. (Shop your local indie bookstore)