Many debut authors don’t end up selling the first novel they ever wrote. Was this your first manuscript or do you have others stashed in your desk drawer?
This actually was the first book I’ve ever written. It was the story I had in mind ever since I was a high schooler. Of course, it wasn’t completely fleshed out in my mind, but I kind of knew loosely some of the topics that would be explored in the book. It took 10 to 15 years of just thinking about it and dreaming, and then finally starting to write it as a short story.
I was very overwhelmed at the time because I had two young boys who are just 17 months apart. I was in the thick of being a mom and trying survive that, plus we had just moved to a new city. But I showed the story to my friend, Laura Fox (now a New York Times best-selling author) and she invited me to join her writing group. She suggested I flesh it out into a novel, and it was sort of the permission I needed to overcome my imposter syndrome. I wrote a 165,000 word story, which I had to cut to about half that length.
When did you realize that it was meant to be a YA novel rather than a literary short story?
I think there was a part of me that knew all along. Ever since I was young, that’s what I wanted to write. Young adult books meant so much to me–they were friends to me. They helped me work through so many things, and that became part of my fabric. And yet I didn’t feel like I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had a story in mind, and I was reading a lot of Alice Munro and James Baldwin—adult literary fiction. It was actually my writing group that said the voice felt more YA. Again, it was almost like permission that I was being given by my writing group, who I trusted, to go forth and try it as YA.
What were some of those influential books you read as a teen?
Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting, and anything by Judy Blume. Forever was a book that really stayed with me. Especially the exploration of sexuality and the fact that high school relationships don’t always end in happily ever after.
How did you channel the voice of your teen protagonist Rani?
It was a little bit of a trial and error. You know, there were times I would bring a scene to my writing group and immediately somebody in the group would say, The voice feels off. Sometimes I would practice creating character sketches or writing a throwaway scene to get the voice right. I think it helps that I have such a close connection with the things Rani goes through. Even though this is very much a work of fiction, I understand the emotions and the themes that she struggles with–not just me, but people that I knew in high school and even into adulthood, people who really dealt with some of the things she deals with.
What themes were you trying to explore with American Betiya?
I was really longing for story that explores the balancing of two or more cultures that so many teens of the diaspora navigate, especially the nuances of cross-culture relationships and the role that race plays in our everyday experiences. There’s a sense that racism is about hate crimes, strangers yelling racial slurs, and being overtly cruel. But often, especially in some of our liberal cities, it is actually much more subtle than that. It takes the form of microaggressions, cultural gaslighting, and cultural fetishization, which is a form of objectification. I feel like that’s a nuance that’s so important to detail in YA, whether it’s with friendships or romantic relationships.
It’s so easy to question yourself because of the nature of microaggressions. It can feel mild sometimes, so you tell yourself They’re just joking or That person doesn’t know any better. I think that was the one thing I really wanted to do in the story, which is to create an understanding of those red flags. When Rani meets [her love interest in the book], she’s very taken with him because he’s charming, even when he says things that make her feel like something isn’t quite right.
I think as women from a young age, we’re conditioned to want to be the best. That’s the significance of the title, American Betiya. ‘Betiya’ is a term of endearment, often for a daughter. So to be the best girlfriend or significant other, best friend, best grandchild—there’s a lot of pressure to fulfill those expectations society puts on you. And maybe that happens with men and boys as well, but from my perspective as a woman, I think it’s really widespread. In an effort to try to be everything to everybody, it’s so easy to lose yourself.
And you don’t have to be of South Asian descent to understand that element in the story–I think that many of us can relate to that. How far are we willing to go to make compromises for the ones we love?
What’s the story behind the gorgeous cover for American Betiya?
It’s just beyond my wildest dreams. And honestly, it came from me perusing Instagram and looking at all these beautiful, amazing artists that are posting their work there. That’s how I found Saqiba Suleman, who created the work of art on the cover. It’s actually a piece of art that is hanging in a gallery in Pakistan. I reached out saying, Gosh, this really reminds me of my main character, Rani, and I attached a little blurb about what reminded me of her. And my editor saw that post. We actually had a different cover in mind at the time–I thought it was set in stone, and I wasn’t 100% feeling like the cover reflected the story that well, though I had accepted it. But after the Instagram post, my editor reached out to me and said, What do you think about us trying to change the cover to this one?
My agent was actually made sure there was a clause in my contract saying that I, as an Own Voices author, should have input on the cover. I was really grateful that he did that because I was consulted from the beginning, and while the first cover wasn’t perfect for me, I still had a lot of input in terms of making small changes. So when my editor emailed me about changing the cover, I thought how amazing it was to have an editor who’s so sensitive to my vision. It was a really special and exciting moment to realize that.
Do you have any suggestions for writers who want to be traditionally published?
The very beginning of everything for me was SCBWI. When I first joined, had just moved to Milwaukee, my kids were really young, and I didn’t know anybody. I attended some regional conferences and the classes were really eye opening. It was such a supportive vibe, especially knowing there was something in my state. It started to feel like this was something I could actually do. So that’s the baseline.
Secondly, find critique partners who are supportive but who also give constructive feedback. I know everybody’s process is different, but I feel that for myself, there is no way I would send things to my agent until many, many people have read those pages. Then, I would say it’s important to research agents carefully through Publishers Marketplace and Manuscript Wishlist.
Finally, how are you going to be promoting your book–especially considering the lack of in-person author visits because of the pandemic?
Lots of social media. Twitter and Instagram is where I feel I get the most engagement, and where it feels the most comfortable for me. I’d like to get more into TikTok, because it’s fun and silly. I recently made my first TikTok, which is of me struggling to open my box of books—a little reflection of who I am.
I did my official book launch party through Boswell Books online with my dear friend and best-selling author, Lauren Fox on March 9. The rest of my events are on IG Live: On March 11, I’ll be in conversation with Kathleen Glasgow at 8 pm EST, March 14th with Dr Gayatri Sethi, aka Desi Book Aunty, and the 16th will be with Adiba Jaigirdar, author of The Henna Wars. I’d love to see all my SCBWI friends there!