Middle-Grade Fantasy story featuring strong South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Payal Doshi
Today, we are delighted to have with us, Payal Doshi, author of Rea And The Blood Of The Nectar (Mango & Marigold Press, 2021) with us.
Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Payal!
Thank you so much for having me!
Tell us about Rea and the Blood of the Nectar. What was your inspiration for the story?
Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the story aboutRea Chettri, an introverted but curious girl from Darjeeling, India, whose life gets turned on its head on the night of her twelfth birthday. After a fight with her twin brother Rohan, Rea discovers that he has gone missing. Her Amma is distraught and blames Rea for his disappearance. So, Rea along with her neighbor Leela visit the village fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling quest to find Rohan where they must solve riddles to portal into an enchanted realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy! There, Rea must battle evil creatures, confront a ruthless villain, and find out why Rohan has been captured. But the heart of this adventure story lies in Rea’s relationships with the people in her life. Her brother who she was once inseparable from is now the popular kid in school and spends most of his time with his friends. Rea, on the other hand, has always struggled socially, but in her mission to find Rohan she must learn to trust others, find the courage within her, and understand the meaning of friendship and family.
I was inspired to write this story because as a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes! It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself. This book has all the elements I loved reading about as a kid—there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!
Could you share your publishing journey with us?
My road to publication was long and winding! I began querying in November 2018. At first, it was great. Most of my queries turned into full manuscript requests. But by mid-December, the rejections started to come in. One of the criticisms I kept hearing was that my book was too long for middle grade. Typically, the word count for middle grade novels is between 50,000-70,000 words while mine was 91,000. I was heartbroken. I had a choice to make: continue querying or pull my book out, edit it down by 20,000 words, and then give it another shot. If I chose to edit the book, I would have to significantly rewrite parts of it since I had to remove one of three POVs. Adding to the daunting prospect of a massive revision, I was pregnant!
As hard as it seemed, I knew it was the right thing to do. During the last two months of my pregnancy, I cut down 23,000 words and rewrote large sections of the book. Once my baby arrived, I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers to see if the new revisions maintained plot, pace, and character growth. After I emerged from that newborn haze of hormones, sleepless nights, and baby cuddles, I dove back into my beta readers’ feedback and by September 2019, I began querying again. Long story short, I signed with my publisher on January 2nd, 2020! My publishing journey ends with the ever-important lesson: No matter how hard it gets, don’t give up.
What was your research process when you set the story in the foothills of the Himalayas and when you created the fantastical world of Astranthia?
When I was thinking about where to set the ‘India’ part of the story, I knew right away that I wanted to portray a region of India that was beautiful and underrated with respect to its landscape and people. The city of Darjeeling is a stunning hill station in the northeast part of the country ensconced within hills, the view of the majestic Himalayas, and rolling tea plantations. There was just so much beauty to be inspired by in terms of its landscape and culture. Since I had never been Darjeeling, I relied on online research especially the official government website for Darjeeling to get details about which trees, birds and animals could be found as well as tourist accounts on blogs and reputed travel websites. I bought books on Darjeeling to get an idea of the local cuisine and day-to-day life, I peered over every aspect of Google Maps to understand the topography of the land and keep it authentic to the story. After double and triple checking the details from my research, I felt pretty confident that everything I had included about Darjeeling was factual. However, it turns out it wasn’t all accurate! I’m so glad I decided to visit Darjeeling before sending my manuscript to agents because I found several inaccuracies in my descriptions and details and it was only after seeing the city, talking to the locals, and driving around that I was able to correct the inaccuracies and record factual details. So, my top tip for any writer who is writing about a place they have not themselves visited is to visit that place before submitting their work for publication!
Simultaneously, as I was inventing the realm of Astranthia, I wanted to capture that same lushness that Darjeeling exuded. When researching Astranthia, I drew inspiration from nature, the changing seasons, online research from fantasy illustrations and Indian and Celtic mythology. I love reading books in which the world feels like a character in itself and I wanted both settings of Darjeeling as well as the fantastical land of Astranthia to feel immersive, verdant, and magical. I find that descriptions of plants, leaves, trees, flowers, and animal life add greatly to the atmosphere of a place and make the reader feel like they are right there with the characters.
About Rea’s family and sibling relationships …
It was important for me to show Rea coming from a small, nuclear, and broken family – it’s just her mother, her grandmother, her brother, and herself. Stereotypically, Indian families are known to be big, joint families and rarely do we hear about divorce or unconventional family units. I wanted to change because the reality is that there are all kinds of family units and structures in India and as we have begun to talk more openly about it, we are seeing that there are so many kids who come from family structures that are different from that ‘one big, happy family’ narrative. Similarly, I wanted to shake the stereotype of the Indian mother as one who is always selfless, always generous, always making you and your friends eat, and just being wonderful and gregarious. Rea’s Amma is not that at all! She is aloof, cold, and battling her own demons, which Rea does not know about or can fully understand yet. Her relationship with her mother is strained and Rea craves the love and attention from her which she does not get. With respect to Rea and Rohan’s relationship, I based a lot of it on mine and my sister’s dynamic! It amazes me how siblings can be so different from each other, and I loved exploring those opposite qualities in Rea and Rohan. Rea has her insecurities but is a fierce girl who is on the hunt for answers to questions that plague her while Rohan is extroverted and the popular kid in school. They get compared all the time (as so many of us have experienced with our siblings!), much to Rea’s disdain. And as they’re growing into their own people, Rea and Rohan who used to be close as children, are now going their separate ways. I wanted to capture that sibling dynamic of rivalry, jealousy, envy but also fierce love, loyalty, and pride for each other.
Why was it important for you to write Rea’s story?
It was important for me to write Rea’s story because I wanted South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in books and know that they are worthy of going on exciting and joyful adventures as well as being heroes.My first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside. It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me. This is why representation is important. Underrepresented kids should see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears.
What are some things you hope children will takeaway from Rea’s story?
South Asian representation is incredibly important to me and it has been my mission and passion in writing this book. What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture.
Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, Payal Doshi noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar is the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit her website, www.payaldoshiauthor.com, or follow her on Instagram @payaldoshiauthor and on Twitter @payaldwrites.
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You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on July 16, 2021 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive a signed, personalized book.