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2017 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Sonia Patel

Sonia Patel is a finalist for the 2017 William C. Morris YA Debut Award for her novel Rani Patel in Full Effect. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.

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Rani Patel in Full Effect grabs the mic to tell a story of hip hop, healing, and the path to self-understanding. Set in the 1990s, Rani, a 16-year-old Gujarati Indian teenager, is growing up on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i and is isolated from her peers. She also has a very complicated relationship with her parents to say the least. Her mother doesn’t seem to see her, and when her father gets a new girlfriend, things come out for Rani about her relationship with him that she hasn’t been to admit to herself. Her father’s betrayal has her feeling like widow, in a bold stroke, and like widows in India are often made to do, she shaves off her hair. Rani finds solace and power in writing slam poetry taking on the patriarchy in the island’s underground hip-hop scene as MC Sutra. She soon attracts the attention of the swoony Mark, who is much older than Rani. Even though there is plenty to warn her against him, she falls head over heels. This could easily be the undoing of Rani, but through pain and art, Rani is able to connect with parts of herself lost and unknown.

Sonia Patel is a Gujarati American and the daughter of immigrant parents. She lives in Hawaii where she works as a psychiatrist working mainly with teens and their families. You can follow her on her website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

Congratulations on your first novel and being selected as a Finalist for the William C. Morris Award for debut authors!

Thank you so much for reaching out! I am honored and grateful for being a Morris Award finalist and for the opportunity to be interviewed for the YALSA Hub!

You are a psychiatrist with a busy career as a therapist working predominately with teen girls and families, what drew you to writing books for teens?

When I provide psychotherapy to a teen in my child & adolescent psychiatry practice, the teen is often not the only patient. It is not uncommon for the teen’s family to have dynamics that are dysfunctional. And it is this unbalanced family system that is many times my real “patient.” In cases like this I provide family psychotherapy. This can be a hard sell if the family does not accept that the system is flawed and needs work. I try to help them understand that treating the teen alone will not entirely address the problems. Knowing this from my medical training as well as from my own dysfunctional family experiences growing up, I am always thinking about ways to facilitate positive family system change. During many family therapy sessions I want to tell the families about my own experiences in hopes of giving a real life example of why my recommendations might be helpful. But there are reasons psychiatrists generally steer clear of self-revelation in direct patient care. So of course I mostly bite my tongue.

Meanwhile I had a binder full of rap I’d written over the years. My own therapy for my personal struggles. One day flipping through the binder, it hit me. I could write a teen novel highlighting family dysfunction and how it can affect a teen. I could base it on a combination of my real life family experiences and those of some of patients and my imagination. That was how Rani Patel In Full Effect was born.

Once I started writing I knew I was onto something unique, especially given my perspective as a psychiatrist. A perspective that isn’t represented in the YA world as far as I’ve seen. I think of it as diversity in diversity. In Rani I can best describe it as this: Rani is a POC. She’s growing up disconnected from two diverse cultures, Gujarati Indian and Native Hawaiian. She doesn’t have the luxury to cope only with normal teen developmental issues. She’s been her father’s object her entire life. She has to gain insight into the impact of the abuse on how she thinks, feels, and acts before she can even begin to make positive changes in her life and get back to normal teen developmental issues.

There seems to be some similarities with you and Rani, you are both first generation Gujarati American that spent their youth in Connecticut and Hawaii. What was the transition like for you to move to Hawaii as child? What drew you back to Hawaii after leaving to attend college at Stanford?

The transition to Hawaii was difficult. First, it was a decision my father unilaterally made without input from my mother or I. Second, I had to watch my mother cope with being torn away from the Gujarati immigrant family and friends with whom she was so close. Third, the island my father picked wasn’t Oahu. That island might have been a bit easier for my mother since there were other Indians there. But my father picked Moloka’i. It’s a beautiful island with a strong Native Hawaiian activist movement. But it was difficult for my mother to fit in there since she was completely cut off from her Indian roots. For me, it wasn’t as bad because I did whatever my dad wanted anyway. For a number of reasons similar to Rani, I didn’t have my own identity separate from him. Looking back, it’s clear that the move destroyed our already dysfunctional family.

I grew to love Hawaii. Especially the cultural diversity, weather, and chill vibe. For my own reasons, I always knew I’d return to live and work in Hawaii.  That wasn’t a questions for me even when I was at Stanford. I’d made my own connections to the islands, apart from my father’s influence. And this time when I moved to Hawaii it would be on my terms. I chose to live on Oahu. For a number of years I also flew over to Moloka’i to provide child & adolescent psychiatry services at the public schools. Today, I count my blessings that I get to wake up everyday in such a lovely place.

One of the most rewarding transformations of the book is Rani’s relationship with her mother. As a reader we see Rani’s mother through Rani’s eyes, and we are allowed to see the shifts as Rani starts to see her differently. Are there similarities to your relationship with to your mother?

Absolutely. In fact, I modeled Rani’s relationship with her mother on my own relationship with my mother. My mother is my rock. She always has been. And I have an amazing relationship with her now. But it took years to get there. With time I’ve come to understand why it took so long. It wasn’t that I was a bad daughter, which I used to think. Or that she was a cold mother. She was reacting to her circumstances. Though she’d immigrated to America with my father after their arranged marriage, she never fully acculturated. She loved India and her connections to India (Gujarati family & friends in America). She was raised with a confusing blend of progressive “don’t get married-be a doctor instead” and “get married-do what your husband says.” My mother really was told that “husband is god.” So unlike some of her Gujarati female friends and family, she couldn’t stand up to her husband. Like Rani, I watched her do my father’s bidding while suffering inside and growing increasingly emotionally distant from me. Like Rani, my distant relationship with my mother and my observations with how she handled her life unconsciously affected my own life—I couldn’t be assertive with my thoughts and feelings, I hated myself, and I had a difficult time in female friendships. The one major difference between Rani’s relationship with her mother and mine is that it took years for my mother and I to heal our relationship. And it started with insight. Insight usually takes a long time, rarely does it occur over the course of a school year. I talk about this in my author’s note. But in the novel I wanted to show the progression within a shorter timespan that teens could perhaps relate more to. I wanted to show teens what a healed relationship can look like. I wanted to show teens that it’s worth it to work towards healing relationships that will ultimately be a source of strength, nurturance and love.

Much of Rani’s experience and coming of age has a timelessness about it. What drew you setting her story in the early 1990’s?

That was the time of my own coming of age. It seemed perfect because it was the golden age of hip hop (late 80s-early 90s). It was a time of tremendous innovation, diversity, and quality in the hip hop culture. It was kind of like hip hop formed its true identity, just like Rani formed hers. Also, it was a time before cell phones and social media dominated teen life. Without the distraction of all that I was hoping to show that Rani was alone in her head most of the time. And this reinforced her one sided perspective on and expectations of relationships. She wasn’t getting much input from outside sources so it was difficult for her to see that it was a problem that she only had guy friends and no female friendships. I intentionally tried to present the other characters in the book with not as much change or depth as perhaps people want to see in novels. This is realistic in terms of how an incest survivor might view relationships—only from the point of view of how the relationship can serve them. So all the characters are from Rani’s one sided, narrow perspective. Until she gains insight into how her trauma affected her, she can only relate to people in her life in terms of how they “serve” her needs. That’s how she learned to have relationships being her father’s “object.”

Rani finds an outlet through hip hop and poetry. What is your relationship to both, and why did you choose that medium for Rani? (Also, you have great videos posted of you doing some of the poems from the book, is there one we can share on the blog?)

Rani Patel In Full Effect was a product of my love of hip hop and rap. The way hip hop and rap gave Rani a positive way to cope with her family’s dysfunction is also what it did for me. By writing rap Rani could fake her self-worth until it became real.  Something I did as well. Hip hop was Rani’s culture when she couldn’t find solace in her own Gujarati culture. Same for me. Once I found hip hop and rap as a child there was no going back. Nothing else could give me that same healthy comfort. The lyrics and beat of rap let me express my thoughts and feelings in a way I couldn’t in real life. Later I also found the same healing quality in poetry.

(Thanks for the props on the videos! Please feel free to share one on the blog.)

I appreciated the authenticity of Rani’s struggle to work through the issues surrounding her abuse. Often times in young adult literature the path presented to healing is more linear.  Reading this book I felt that readers got a more realistic perspective of how hard it is to work through the issues, how it is anything but linear, and how humans are more complex and can be a lot of things at once. Have you read a lot of other YA that look at issues of incest and abuse, and are their some authors you think do it well?

I am glad you took that away from the book. It was my intention to show how difficult, repetitive, and frustrating healing from sexual trauma can be. I’ve read other YA novels that look at issues of rape. I really like Christa Desir’s Fault Line. I think she does an amazing job of discussing the complexities of the aftermath of sexual assault. In terms of books with incest themes, I like Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, and Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma. Each of these books offers interesting, unique ways to tell such stories.

Layered into this book are some environmental and social issues around water rights and Native sovereignty on Moloka’i during the early 1990s. This brings in the setting of the island and the community into focus and also is a place where Rani intersects with her father. How have things progressed in regards to these issues since that time?

The EPA designation of Moloka’i as a sole source aquifer was huge for the island. In the end, Moloka’i Ranch did not get the access to the water they wanted for their west end condo and golf course. Also in the 2000s the Ranch wanted more water to build a luxury development on some sacred land on the dry west end, La’au Point. Moloka’i people resisted and the Ranch lost their bid on the development project.  Moloka’i continues to resist unnecessary development to this day. The high percentage of Native Hawaiians on the island continue to work towards preserving their culture and traditions. Current issues on Moloka’i include water access for Hawaiian Homestead lands, farming, and unemployment. There is conflict in terms of GMO vs. non-GMO farming. Many islanders prefer non-GMO farming because it is more in line with ancient Hawaiian ways. But there are also many islanders who fear job loss if GMO farming is restricted.

Can you talk a little about your upcoming project The Calamitous Love of Jaya and Rasa?

I am very excited about this YA novel (the title will be shorter)! I present the lives of two teens from opposite sides of the track—a transgender Gujarati boy from a wealthy family and a mixed ethnicity girl from a poor, broken family. The characters and their stories are based on a blend of real patients I’ve worked with over the years. I try to present various themes, including depression, sex trafficking, LGBTQ issues, alcoholism, and bulimia in a way that patients I’ve treated experienced. I also try to present some of the social issues on Oahu as I’ve experienced and as described to me by patients. Things like wealth, elitism, privilege, private vs. public school differences. Then there’s the sweet love story. That’s where I hope readers will see Jaya and Rasa’s true colors. Away from the challenges that life throws them. I’m working on edits now and it’s so much fun. I love Jaya and Rasa and I hope teens will too!

— Danielle Jone currently reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead