Sonali Dev’s upcoming release, A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR, was the inspiration for this panel discussion. The seven featured authors blog together at SarisandStories.com . Their publishers are as far-ranging as Harlequin-India, Amazon-India, Samhain and Entangled (just as a few examples). I wondered what it’s like to be a South Asian author in today’s incredibly competitive marketplace.
Thanks so much for having us, Becke! After years of discussing it on social media, the seven of us finally decided to come together and start a group blog where we could share the experience of being South Asian romance writers in America with each other and with our readers. We call ourselves the Sari Sisters and our blog Saris and Stories , and for the past week we’ve used our relationship with the sari to introduce ourselves. While we’re all South Asian Americans, some of us were born and raised here, some of us moved here as children and some of us moved here as adults.
Consequently, the ways in which we identify with our culture varies. What does not vary is our love for writing and reading and our passion for the Romance genre. So we’re thrilled to be here on RU to answer your questions and those of your readers. Seriously, ask us anything. We’re here all day. And we’ll be at Saris and Stories after that if you can’t get to all your questions today.
- What were the first romances you read?
Mina: Growing up I went to a Catholic school in Bangladesh. The curriculum was rigorous and the nuns were strict, so to blow off steam and as a personal bit of rebellion I would read Mills & Boons romances (the U.K. version of Harlequin) whenever I could sneak one. I remember a lot of nurse-doctor and boss-secretary couplings, the women would swoon and simper and the men were bossy jerks, and the characters were mostly Caucasians and the setting Western. They were quick, racy reads that were easily forgotten because they didn’t really speak to me or my world. By the time I graduated high school, I remember being dissatisfied and disappointed.
Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu, a paranormal romance, was life changing for me in terms of reading and writing. It’s partially set in China and the hero, Hari, is Indian and a tiger shifter. I not only loved the story (still do), but it also opened my mind to the reality that yes, you can have stories set in Asia, with Asian heroes and Asian foundations. Of course, since then I have sought out and read about characters with Hispanic, Native American, African American, Chinese, and many more backgrounds.
Tara: The first romances I read were of course, Mills and Boons…I would bike to this library that was about 3 miles to borrow them and then put them in my little cousin’s bag so that when my mom checked mine, she wouldn’t find them in my bag. I would put them in these huge mathematics textbooks and sneak some reading time.
- What books inspired you to write romance?
Falguni: I grew up reading a library’s worth of Mills and Boon, so I guess romance always appealed to me. But the very first book that made an impression on me was Pride and Prejudice, which I read as part of my English class in fourth grade. I remember writing an assignment about motivation and choices and how I’d loved dissecting the various characters to their basic essences and thinking that everything that Darcy did, he did out of love and how powerful that emotion was–be it for Lizzie or Georgina or Bingley. Other books at other times have impressed me, but what I search for in any book, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is a great love story or simply love.
Tara: I have to say Mills and Boons again. I know that a lot of people look down on category romance, call it formulaic, but to me it was always a story not about a woman falling in love with a powerful man, but a woman finding herself and having the courage to invite love into her life.
- There is a movement to get more diversity in books of all kinds. Do you think this will provide opportunities for writers from diverse backgrounds (or lifestyles), or do you think this will lead to authors forcing the issue, writing about diversity when they have no personal knowledge of the topics they’re writing about?
Mina: I think diversity, and the push for having more diversity in books of all kinds, is a plus because imagination and experience have no limits. Not only will it provide authors from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles encouragement to share their stories, but also provide readers (who come from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles) stories that resonate on a personal level with them. I know this because as a reader I was disenchanted with those cookie-cutter Mills & Boons romances, but reading Tiger Eye was a mind opening, life changing experience.
Suleikha: I think more diversity in books is a good thing no matter how it occurs and in what form. We already have a lot of authors who aren’t familiar with minority narratives writing those stories; what we need now is more authors of color putting forward our own perspective. There needs to be diversity not only on the page but of voices. Then, and only then, can we achieve a truly level playing field in publishing. Let’s get to the point where spelling my name or Sonali’s name comes as easily to readers as “Daenerys” or “Tyrion.” That’s the issue we really have to force.
Ayesha: I’ve heard a lot about this movement, and yet I’ve been rejected for my multicultural aspects being too niche. It’s an interesting, and frustrating, response. I’m very happy that a change in coming. There’s so much more to add to stories when culture plays a key role. I hope this opens doors for authors with diverse backgrounds. I think those authors have an emotional connection to their story that, if written well, can create a moving novel that most can relate to. I also believe, and know this to be true, that authors who have no clue about what they’re writing are writing stories based on diversity. I just hope those authors, as with any other topic, do their research. This can be a touchy subject and will offend some if the author gets something wrong or comes across as stereotyping.
Sonali: I’m waiting for there to be so much diversity in books, on television, in movies that diversity ceases to be a topic of conversation. I know we are years away from that. But until we get there I say, bring it on. Anyone and everyone who feels like writing in color should do it. Do it authentically, inauthentically, do it any which way you can, but do it until it becomes part of the fabric of publishing. When I migrated to America almost twenty years ago people used to ask me where India was (for real). There was not one single Indian character on TV except for Apu on The Simpsons. That’s it.
I remember thinking to myself that seeing more Indian characters on TV would be the first step to the Indian minority becoming mainstream. I didn’t really believe that would happen so soon, but it has. My children complain about the blatant stereotyping on TV, but I see it as a beginning and the fact that my children have the opportunity to be disdainful of stereotypes means that they are one step closer to there not being a stereotype. Presence is the first step up from absence. Our first hurdle is absence.
And now slowly we are seeing the beginnings of ‘presence’ in romance and women’s fiction too. And I’m personally vested in growing it. Of course I cringe when writers get something about the Indian culture wrong. But the thing about Indian culture, more so than any other culture, is that it is insanely diverse. Based on your home state, your religion, your caste and your family, your perception of what being Indian means changes drastically. It’s almost impossible to define what ‘authentic’ even is.
- I discovered Bollywood movies some years ago, and I’m a fan of the genre. When you sent out queries for A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR, did you have to explain what the title meant?
Nisha: When I queried ‘My So-Called Bollywood Life,’ I assumed that agents understood what Bollywood was so I didn’t explain the title at all. I was hoping the success of crossover movies like ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ familiarized non-Indian audiences with the concept. My gamble completely paid off because I received responses like ‘I love Bollywood movies! I’ve watched ‘Bride and Prejudice’ a gazillion times.’
Suliekha: When I pitched my first Bollywood novella to publishers, I kind of went in with the educational guns a-blazin’, and there’s certainly a bit of explanation required in the stories themselves. I’ve found that more and more people are familiar with the term, if not what it actually means. i.e. “Bollywood” isn’t a catch-all for all-things Indian. It just means the Hindi-language movie industry and the films. So, I think making *that* clear is a challenge for sure, but once you’re past the hurdle people seem pretty accepting of the term and the tropes.
Sonali: I’ve never done any explaining. But I submitted only to agents and editors who were specifically asking for multicultural stories. I figured an agent or editor who needed an explanation of the word ‘Bollywood’ would not be interested in my stories anyway. This isn’t true of readers, though. I think readers who have no idea what Bollywood is could pick these books up and get drawn into them. I should also mention that I have family and friends who work in the Mumbai film industry aka Bollywood and mentioning this to agents and editors did make them more interested in my stories since my protagonists usually work in Bollywood. I guess it gave me authenticity.
- Do you find agents and editors are receptive to “exotic” settings, or have you been asked to move your story to someplace familiar to North American readers?
Nisha: I think agents and editors are receptive to a really good story that connects readers across cultures. Whether in the deserts of India or Main Street, USA, the important point to remember is that we’re trying to reach readers from all over. Therefore, whatever the setting may be, it shouldn’t take away from the core story.
Falguni: I haven’t experienced any such reception from US agents or editors, nor from any UK and/or Indian agents or editors. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m the right person to answer this question as both my publishers are based in India, so is my agent, while one of my editors is from the UK. Also, my settings are never completely exotic as my usually South Asian characters are globetrotters. I believe agents and editors just want a good, satisfying and authentic story as much as any reader.
Ayesha: My settings have never been an issue, at least that’s what I’ve been told. My upcoming contemporary romance, Priya in Heels, is set primarily in Texas with a chapter in India. However, there’s a lot of Indian culture in the way of festivals, weddings, and temples brought out in those Texas scenes. I have been told, by those who’ve rejected my work, that my stories are a too niche. Which is ironic when editors and agents want more diversity.
For more information about the Sari Sisters please visit www.sarisandstories.com . We will be giving away books and all sorts of goodies for commenting here and on Saris and Stories. Really, ask us anything. We’ve made the journey to being published authors with work that is in no way traditional, and we’re happy to share our experiences. We might look demure in our saris but we aren’t shy. So ask away.
Wednesday, July 16th – First-time RITA™ nominee Nancy Herkness on the benefits and drawbacks of entering contests.
Ayesha Patel was born in the rich and colorful state of Gujarat in western India before moving to Texas. She quickly found her footing in languages and creative writing and weaves her diverse background into her stories. She currently lives in the beautiful, though rainy, state of Washington with her husband. With a splendid view of Mt. Ranier behind her, a cup of coffee in her hand, and a ridiculously fast laptop at her fingertips, Ayesha is thrilled to explore the literary world.
Falguni Kothari is a non-traditional homemaker who accidently tripped on a soccer ball and fell down the writer’s rabbit hole. Having no more experience with the whole writing/publishing shebang than being a voracious reader and movie buff, it more than amazes her that she can and has—applause, please—written a full-length novel.
These days, when she’s not trying to get out of her Domestic Goddess/Soccer Mom/Canine Companion duties, she’s found embroiled in some or other scandal—oops, creating stories on her ever-faithful laptop. She spends part of her day lurking about a whole smorgasbord of social media, purely as a restorative.
Mina Khan is a Texas-based writer and food enthusiast. She writes about djinns (genies), dragons, hunks and whatever else sparks her fancy. She also writes a weekly food column for her local newspaper. Originally from Bangladesh, she is now a proud West Texan.
Her first published work, The Djinn’s Dilemma, won the novella category of the 2012 Romance Through The Ages (published) contest. A Tale of Two Djinns won the 2013 Readers’ Crown for best paranormal romance.
Award-winning author Nisha Sharma was raised in the countryside of Northeast, Pennsylvania. With very little to do in a small town, Nisha filled her spare time with eighties music, Bollywood movies, and lots of romance novels. When she ran out of romances to read at her local library, she started writing sequels to her favorites and she’s been writing ever since. Nisha graduated from Muhlenberg College with a B.A. in English, Hofstra Law with a J.D., and Wilkes University with an M.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing. When she’s not nerding out with even more school work as an adjunct, she is watching Bollywood movies at her local theater in central Jersey.
Sonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and writing, and migrating across the globe. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned, and she now conjures up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler.
Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog.
Editor, writer, American desi and lifelong geek Suleikha Snyder published her first romantic short in 2011. Subsequent releases have included Bollywood romances Spice and Secrets and Bollywood and the Beast from Samhain Publishing and a short in Cleis Press’ Suite Encounters. Suleikha lives in New York City, finding inspiration in Bollywood films, daytime and primetime soaps, and anything that involves chocolate or bacon.
Tara Pammi can’t remember a moment when she wasn’t lost in a book, especially a romance which, for her, was much more exciting than the workings of an internal combustion engine. Toiling away as a grad student in a basement lab, Tara started typing the beginning of a story instead of her thesis. But it wasn’t until a Masters degree and two jobs later, encouraged by her real life hero, she realized what she truly wanted to do- Write!
When she isn’t writing or reading, Tara can be found failing in the kitchen, watching TV or making resolutions to exercise more, or even a little.
- The Culture of Your Story, Not Just for Multiculturals by Sonali Dev 
- Weekly Lecture Schedule May 4-8 
- Making Marketing Choices That Work For You by Sonali Dev 
- Sonali Dev: Why Backstory is the Spine of Your Story And How to Use it to Make Your Story Stand Tall 
- Inspiration Hunting in the Publishing World with Sonali Dev