Hi guys! I have a really special interview for you today, and today’s guest is Supriya Kelkar, author of her MG historical fiction debut Ahimsa. It is an amazing novel, and if you haven’t read it, you are missing out! Check out my review of Ahimsa here, and I hope you enjoy this interview and read this beautiful book!
About the Book
In 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi asks Indians to give one family member to the freedom movement, ten-year-old Anjali is devastated to think of her father risking his life for the freedom struggle.
But it turns out he isn’t the one joining. Anjali’s mother is. And with this change comes many more adjustments designed to improve their country and use “ahimsa”—non-violent resistance—to stand up to the British government. First the family must trade in their fine foreign-made clothes for homespun cotton, so Anjali has to give up her prettiest belongings. Then her mother decides to reach out to the Dalit community, the “untouchables” of society. Anjali is forced to get over her past prejudices as her family becomes increasingly involved in the movement.
When Anjali’s mother is jailed, Anjali must step out of her comfort zone to take over her mother’s work, ensuring that her little part of the independence movement is completed.
Inspired by her great-grandmother’s experience working with Gandhi, New Visions Award winner Supriya Kelkar shines a light on the Indian freedom movement in this poignant debut.
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1. Your MG debut novel Ahimsa, which follows Anjali as she and her mother join the nonviolent Indian Freedom Movement, was inspired by your great-grandmother who worked with Gandhi and other political leaders as a Freedom Fighter. Could you share with us a bit about your great-grandmother and how her life of perseverance and activism led to the creation of Ahimsa?
My great-grandmother’s background is very similar to Ma’s in Ahimsa. When Gandhi asked each family to give one member to the nonviolent freedom movement, my great-grandfather was running a business and couldn’t go because they needed the income to survive. So my great-grandmother decided she would join. She fought for women’s rights and for the impoverished communities in her region. She was arrested by the British for leading a protest and remained imprisoned until Gandhi negotiated the Gandhi-Irwin pact, which allowed non-violent political prisoners to be released from jail. After India’s independence, she went on to become a two-term congresswoman.
In 2003, when I learned more about her, I really wanted to write a screenplay about her story, a biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to work. Then I thought it should be a fictional story and tried to tell it from the point of view of a freedom fighter’s daughter. That still wasn’t working. That’s when I decided to give the story a try as a novel. Ahimsa was the first novel I ever wrote and it didn’t get published until fourteen years after the first draft was written!
2. What attracted you to historical fiction as an author and a reader? Why do you believe it is important to shed light on events such as the Indian Freedom Movement to young readers?
It’s so interesting to me how much there is to learn from historical fiction, and how relevant the genre can be. I didn’t even realize the social justice parallels in my book until more than a decade into revisions on it. I think it is important to shed light on events such as the Indian Freedom Movement so young readers can not only learn a little about historical events that are often lightly touched upon in a school curriculum, but also so young readers can learn from them and apply the lessons of the time period to today’s time.
3. How have your personal experiences dealing with racism as you grew up shaped Ahimsa? What do you want readers to take away from your debut novel?
A few years ago, a childhood friend on Facebook was talking about how differently some people were treated by the police, based on the color of their skin. And almost everyone who responded from our high school said this wasn’t true. We grew up in a town that was all about being “color blind.” Race was not discussed (unless you were being bullied because of it), and everyone liked to talk about how they didn’t see color and everyone was equal. I was stunned. I finally wrote a long comment on his post to the other people about everything I went through, all the racist incidents that happened, all the racist comments from teachers, peers, kids younger than me, words written in permanent marker on my locker, and a brick thrown through our window. And none of the people I grew up with could believe any of this happened, even though it happened almost daily and in front of their eyes. This realization that I could walk the same halls of high school as other people but my experience could be so totally different, led to the scene where Mohan tells Anjali that although they walk on the same street, their experiences are totally different.
I want readers to understand from Ahimsa that if someone tells them something is hurtful or racist, they should believe it, even if they haven’t experienced it or seen it. I want them to be aware of their own prejudices and their own privileges and see where they can grow. I also want readers to know that they are powerful and can make a difference in this world with their voice. And most of all, I want them to take away empathy from Ahimsa, and realize how much there is to respect and value in each person, from every background.
4. What were some of the challenges you faced during your research for Ahimsa? How has writing your debut helped you embrace and understand more about your Indian heritage and ancestry?
Anjali’s house is my father’s childhood home in India. But when I was describing things in it, I was describing how I remembered them in the 1980s and 1990s. Although most of it was accurate, since the house was around in the 1940s, there were small details I got wrong. I had only seen kitchen cabinets with a stove on top of them. But back in the 1940s, the cooking was done on the floor in that house. Luckily, my parents read the drafts several times and were able to point out any inaccuracies.
Another mistake was I had used my favorite Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world” in the book. But it wasn’t until almost the very last edit, when I was triple checking every little detail, that I realized there is no proof Gandhi ever said that line. I had to remove it and find a quote that was actually documented as being said by Gandhi to replace it with.
Debuting with a story about Indian characters really did help me embrace my background more. For years I had written stories about characters that were not from my cultural background, because those stories were the ones that sold. It meant so much to me that now, a story like this could be published.
5. Which character in Ahimsa do you identify most with, and why?
I relate a lot to Anjali in that I can be stubborn at times and it takes me a while to learn from my mistakes. I also relate to Ma’s optimism and wish I were as brave as she was.
6. As a screenwriter for multiple Hindi films, how has your profession in the film industry impacted you as a writer? Would you like to describe to us some of your experiences working on your productions?
I had the great privilege of working with one of the biggest production houses in India, and one that knows the value of a solid screenplay. We would spend years on one script, revising it and having it get torn apart and then revising it again. As an impatient person, I learned a lot about how important it is to keep revising and not become attached to your words. You have to be able to throw out entire scenes and storylines and sometimes characters when you’re revising. I also learned a lot about the importance of plot and the importance of being entertaining while serving the plot thanks to the incredible directors and writers I got to work with.
7. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I have always been someone who loved to tell a story, and probably embellished my stories quite a bit as a child, so writing was a natural way for me to record those stories when I was younger. I first remember really loving writing in third grade, when our class wrote our own books, which our teacher bound into hardcover books. That’s when I first felt this huge sense of accomplishment for writing a story and the joy of being able to share it. It was also when I first heard some constructive criticism too. I couldn’t figure out how to get the characters out of trouble so right when things were at their worst, I had the main character wake up with a start and realize it was all just a bad dream. A family member told me she loved the story except for the ending. 🙂
8. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
I don’t really have a favorite genre. As a child, I really enjoyed the Babysitters Club series and scaring myself with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I was also really into this Indian comic book series called Amar Chitra Katha. Since there weren’t any books about Indian or Indian-American characters when I was growing up, I really enjoyed learning Indian history, folk tales and mythology from those comic books. In my late teens and twenties, I loved the Harry Potter books. And currently, I really adore picture books. I love how much can be said in so few words in them and think you’re never too old to read them. I was really floored by DU IZ TAK? by Carson Ellis. It is a book told totally in a made-up bug language and yet the reader is able to understand.
I don’t think any of the books in particular impacted my writing style. But I do think I learned about story and plot and character arcs from each and every one of them.
9. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
When I’m not writing, I have my hands full with my three young kids. Writing is my only job outside of being a mother. I come from a screenwriting background, having studied it in college and then later going on to become a Bollywood screenwriter. I enjoy that I can make my own hours as an author, versus being a screenwriter. I actually write late at night after the kids have slept. It leads to groggy mornings and strange dreams but it’s worth it!
10. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you ever surprise yourself as you drafted and revised your book?
I am 100% a plotter thanks to my screenwriting background. I start with general story beats. Then I expand them into bullet points. And then I write paragraphs below each bullet point about the moments I want to have happen in each chapter. I do surprise myself as I draft each chapter when the writing leads to a new idea that has repercussions later in the book though. Those are fun moments that I always look forward to when writing.
11. Your upcoming children’s picture book The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh is set to release in 2019! What is it like making this transition from a Middle Grade novel to a picture book? What can we expect in your latest story?
Yes! I am so excited for it! I always wanted to be a picture book author and I still can’t believe it is actually happening next year. I learned the hard way that it isn’t easy to write a picture book, even though the word count is the equivalent of a page or two in a novel. The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh is about an Indian-American boy who expresses himself through colors. When he moves to a new town across the country, he uses his colors to navigate the various emotions he feels, from nervous, to shy, to finally feeling at home again. Alea Marley did the illustrations and they are stunning and adorable and I can’t wait to be able to share the book with everyone next year!
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
I would say to keep learning, keep revising, and never give up. Ahimsa took 14 years to be published, and the first draft was awful. It can be hard to not get attached to your words and be receptive to constructive criticism, but once you’re able to delete stuff with abandon and really take in constructive criticism, you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. I know I was.
Thanks so much, Supriya, for joining us today! It was so great to get to know more about you and your wonderful debut novel!
About the Author
Born and raised in the Midwest, Supriya learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the 2015 New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (October 2, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films, including Lage Raho Munnabhai and Eklavya: The Royal Guard, India’s entry into the 2007 Academy Awards. She was an associate producer on the Hollywood feature, Broken Horses. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), and THE SANDALWOOD PYRE (Tu Books, 2020). Supriya is represented by Kathleen Rushall at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
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