Indian-American Sonia Patel was recently nominated for the William C. Morris award for her book Rani Patel in Full Effect. An annual award given to first-time authors writing for teens. Administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
Novelist, active-trekker, songwriter, hip-hop artist and a practising psychiatrist Sonia is a resident of Oahu, third largest Hawaiian island in the US. She is deeply committed towards helping teens who have experienced emotional, sexual, physical, and mental abuse. Connected to India spoke to Sonia about her journey as a psychiatrist and an author.
CtoI: What inspired you to write Rani's story? You have mentioned in your author's note that it is a very personal book for you?
Sonia Patel: My main motivation in writing Rani was to provide inspiration to teens, especially survivors of misogyny and sexual abuse. There are other young adult novels that address issues of rape and incest. However, I bring a unique perspective and a particular authority on the issues. Unfortunately, as a person who has lived through some of these issues and as a psychiatrist who has spent over 10,000 hours talking with and helping teens recover from trauma, complex mental illness, and dysfunctional family dynamics emerging out of these issues.
I was working on a new rap song one day in the fall of 2014. While skimming through the binder of rap songs I'd written over the years it dawned on me that it told a story of a girl overcoming adversity. Of course, the girl was me. That's when it hit me. I should write a novel for young adults that could be a blend of my experiences, those of some of my patients, and my imagination. I hoped to create a troubled but relatable main character. I hoped that her story might help teens who might not have access to counselling.
CtoI: It's not an easy to talk about your rough experiences even if it is through fictional characters. What motivated or inspired you to reflect the traces of your own childhood in Rani Patel in Full Effect?
Sonia Patel: I wanted to give a perspective which was different from the stereotypical experience of a first-generation Patel in America.
My parents were born in India and had a traditional Gujarati Indian arranged marriage there. They immigrated to the East Coast and nine months later I was born. I was the first person on both sides to be born in America. We moved to the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka'i and I finished high school there. There were no other Indians there at the time. The Gujarati culture I present in the book is the way I experienced (and didn't experience) it as a teenager. Rani and her parents are based on me and my parents. And the family dysfunction is based on the ordeals my mother and I went through.
CtoI: Do you feel that the barriers of sharing personal life detail and stories have gone down with the current generation of writers?
Sonia Patel: Not necessarily. Many authors chose to base their writing on their own experiences, especially in their debut work. It's what they know best and it's what they may feel that they want to convey first and foremost.
CtoI: Please tell us about the research process you have gone through for the characters?
Sonia Patel: Basically, the research was a reflection on my own teenage years. I grew up on Moloka'i, so I knew the places described in the book. I have an outsider's understanding of the Native Hawaiian culture and I wanted to present that as respectfully as possible. Of course, I am Gujarati and so I presented my own experiences with the culture and my family as I mentioned before. In terms of hip-hop culture, I've been immersed in all its forms (dance, rap, fashion, and appreciation of graffiti and DJing) since I was a kid. I've been writing rap as a way to cope with my family's dysfunction for as long as I can remember. Then there are the nine years I spent studying family dynamics, various mental illnesses, and trauma in medical school and psychiatric residency, in addition to the 10-plus years of guiding patients in recovery.
CtoI: There are lots of music references in the book, and music empowers and brings healing to Rani. What is it about hip-hop specifically that can create such change?
Sonia Patel: Hip-hop is a form of creative expression but also a form of peaceful resistance. From Rani's perspective, hip-hop in the form of rap saved her life. The powerful beats and poetry allowed her to express the misogyny and abuse she lived through in a way that wasn't encouraged in her life otherwise. She didn't have a psychiatrist. Hip-hop and rap resonated with her and gave her a sense of self-worth she still didn't have on her own.
CtoI: How did your knowledge and experience as a psychiatrist influence the book?
Sonia Patel: I have worked with teens from all walks of life and with all kinds of individual, familial, and societal difficulties. Each teen I've treated has his or her own story and challenges. The insight they gain from therapy about why they think, feel, and act the way they do helps them make positive changes to their behaviour and helps them tolerate a spectrum of thoughts and feelings without engaging in self-destructive behaviour. But this does not happen overnight. This type of insight and change can take years, and just because a teen can talk about things intellectually, it does not mean they will always behave in the most positive, self-nurturing way.
I created Rani based on my work with teens. She is realistic. She is a survivor of covert and overt incest and her story is a realistic response to sexual trauma. Rani doesn't get it right away, and that's why her story is a realistic response to trauma. Rani repeats old, bad behaviours for a long time - that's all she knows.
I am hopeful my book will have a positive impact on teens who've lived through difficult circumstances. I'm looking to entertain, but also to inspire, to help, and to guide.
CtoI: We have seen you mentioning words like misogyny, feminism, a lot of times. How does that influence Rani in the book?
Sonia Patel: Rani knows what the words mean. Much of her rap is based on those themes. But throughout her story, she doesn't quite understand how her father's controlling and abusive behaviour has affected her and her mother. And how she essentially repeats her relationship with her father with Mark. She doesn't understand that her father's abuse has wired her brain to feel good only when she's in the role being an object for an older man. She doesn't understand that her mother's distance has reinforced this. As she starts to gain some insight into why she thinks, feels, and act the way she does she makes connections with what those words really mean and that, for her, empowerment will come when she is free from her relationship with her father and Mark and has rebuilt positive relationships with her mother and girlfriends.
CtoI: Did the key role that hip-hop and rap played in your teenage life inspire its importance to Rani?
Sonia Patel: Absolutely! I've been hooked to hip-hop, especially rap, since I was 11, from the first time I heard Run DMC rap to a dope beat on my boom box. Later in my teens, I put my pen to my pad and the words flowed into rhymes. The rhymes gelled into rap. The rap expressed my hurt, frustration, and rebellion against my father's manipulative, controlling, and abusive actions that isolated my mother and I, not only from our Gujarati Indian culture but also from American culture.
The hip-hop and rap music references in Rani are all that I grew up with and loved in the late 80's and 90's, and still today. Like Rani, positive and socially conscious rap lyrics and dope beats uplifted me, pulling me out of the negativity in my head. I was especially influenced by Queen Latifah, Run-DMC, KRS-One, Gang Starr, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, MC Lyte, Eric B. & Rakim, and Paris, and so it felt natural for Rani to be inspired by the same rappers.
CtoI: Your novel was selected as a YA Editors' Buzz book at BookExpo America (BEA) and has received multiple starred reviews. As a first-time novelist, this enthusiastic reception must be very pleasant.
Sonia Patel: I am grateful beyond word! I consider myself an outlier in terms of YA authors because my focus is on emotional and interpersonal realism as opposed to world building or traditional character building. An abused teen doesn't view others in shades of grey but rather as black and white. Only when they gain insight and make behaviour change (which may take years) can they see people for all that they are. So, while my book may not make the New York Times bestseller list, I am already well on my way to achieving my goals as an author- to help and inspire teens.
CtoI: In your author's note and on your website, you have mentioned some of the experiences of Rani in the book have carried expressions of your past. Can you tell us about growing up as a first-generation Indian American in Hawaii?
Sonia Patel: Isolation is the first word that comes to my mind. As I mentioned before, my Gujarati parents, like Rani's parents, had a traditional Hindu arranged marriage in India. They immigrated to New York and that's where I was born. My early years were spent there and in Connecticut. Both places had a large Gujarati immigrant community and we spent practically every weekend with other Gujarati immigrant family or friends. This was quite important for my mother who clung tightly to her Gujarati social network and culture. So, it came as quite a shock to her when my father decided to move to Moloka'i. Like Rani's family, we were the only Indian family on the island (compared to the other Hawaiian islands, Moloka'i is the island with the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians) at the time. It was very difficult for my mother to be cut off from her Gujarati connections, especially because my parent's marriage was rocky. Once on Moloka'i, I basically lost all connection with my Gujarati culture because our family fell apart. Though from the outside, no one could tell. All I knew was that I was glad I was brown because at least I fit in with most of the kids at school, even though when I opened my mouth I couldn't speak pidgin at first and sounded totally haole (foreign with my mainland accent). The only thing that reminded me that I was Gujarati was the food my mother cooked and the Bollywood films she would watch. Other than that, I felt basically culture-less. Unless you count my father as a culture.
CtoI: Talking about sexual abuse through Rani's individual journey is a courageous move. What kind of feedback have you been receiving from readers after sharing the novel?
Sonia Patel: It seems that most adults and teens have understood the themes of abuse. They understand that Rani's father abused her and that the abuse wired Rani's brain to think, feel, and act in negative ways that set her up for recreating the abuse with other men. They understand that Rani isn't dumb and though they feel mad at her at times, they have empathy that it's a part of her process in being a trauma survivor. Rani doesn't have the words to describe the incest and family problems so she speaks through her negative thoughts, feelings and actions. Most people seem to get that. It takes a while for her to gain insight into this and so it'll take time before she can begin to make positive changes in her life.
There are the few readers who think Rani is dumb and too naive. They can't understand why she drinks, hangs out with an older man who sweet talks her, and basically, to them, seems to set herself up for being raped. They get mad at her and then seem to forget empathy for the trauma induced brain changes that cause her to repeat negative behaviours. A couple of them have said that she's a tease. It was almost like they were blaming the victim. All I can say to that is perhaps those readers did not truly understand my author's note at the end of the book.
CtoI: You have mentioned about your passion for hip-hop music and writing poetry. There is also some attention to the sound and impact of the words. Do you have plans to publish a volume of poetry?
Sonia Patel: I don't have any plans to publish a book of poetry at this time. For now, I enjoy writing rap and poems for my own pleasure and therapeutic purposes. Sometimes my patients inspire me to write poems and perform poems. Recently, I performed one at a local slam called Stop Visually Assaulting Me (&Yourself)! It's based on the issues of how many of my teenage girl patients are being lured into a false sense of self-worth by posting revealing body shots on social media. Body reveal in social media seems to be turning into a horrible epidemic that's hurting the youth I treat. Of course, I discuss these issues with my teen patients, but it's so troubling to me that I had to write about it in a poetic manner.
CtoI: How are your profession as a psychiatrist and a novelist taken by your family?
Sonia Patel: On my father's side, there are some family members who have made fun of my profession and told me to just stay home and have children. I'm not sure what those family members think about me writing young adult novels.
On my mother's side, my family members have been extremely encouraging and supportive of my work as a psychiatrist and novelist.
My husband (not Indian and we met during medical training) is also a child & adolescent psychiatrist and he and my two children are ecstatic that I've found a way to combine my passion for helping youth.
CtoI: What is next up for you as a novelist? Any chance you will continue Rani's story in a sequel?
Sonia Patel: I am working on edits for my next young adult novel. It's a love story set on Oahu about a transgender Gujarati Indian boy and a mixed ethnicity girl from a small town. There are themes of depression, alcoholism, bulimia, sex trafficking, and LGBTQ issues woven into the story. It will be published in fall/winter 2017/2018.
I've thought about a sequel to Rani. The college years, maybe. But that's on hold for now.