By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Navdeep Singh Dhillon to the WNDB blog to discuss Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions, which came out on February 8, 2022!
Sunny G’s brother left him one thing when he died: His notebook, which Sunny is determined to fill up with a series of rash decisions. Decision number one was a big one: He stopped wearing his turban, cut off his hair, and shaved his beard. He doesn’t look like a Sikh anymore. He doesn’t look like himself anymore. Even his cosplay doesn’t look right without his beard.
Sunny debuts his new look at prom, which he’s stuck going to alone. He’s skipping the big fandom party—the one where he’d normally be in full cosplay, up on stage playing bass with his band and his best friend, Ngozi—in favor of the Very Important Prom Experience. An experience that’s starting to look like a bust.
Enter Mindii Vang, a girl with a penchant for making rash decisions of her own, starting with stealing Sunny’s notebook. When Sunny chases after her, prom turns into an all-night adventure—a night full of rash, wonderful, romantic, stupid, life-changing decisions.
Hi Navdeep, thanks so much for talking to We Need Diverse Books and congratulations on your debut! So, who is Sunny Gill and where did the idea for Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions come from?
Sunny G is the star of my YA contemporary, Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions. He is a super nerdy, cosplaying, crochet and Bollywood-obsessed Punjabi Sikh teen, who is trying to figure himself out while dealing with grief and an uncertain post-high school future.
Growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me doing exciting things in books, and I didn’t realize the effect it had on me until the same thing started happening to my own kids. The lack of representation is partly why I stopped reading for pleasure during high school, and it wasn’t until I picked up a relatively old British-Asian novel before leaving for bootcamp (Anita and Me, by Meera Syal) that I rediscovered my love for reading. It’s also why I have enormous empathy for my community college students, who break my heart every semester when they tell me they don’t enjoy reading, like this is a decision they came up with on their own.
The genesis of the idea stemmed from me wanting to write a novel that centered on a brown teen doing all the quintessential “fun things” during his last year of high school, things such as prom, parties, dating, general shenanigans. But what began as a lighthearted story became much more nuanced and richer as I started integrating my own experiences.
It doesn’t take spending much time on your social media accounts to see that so much of your own life has seemingly spilled over into this book, whether it’s heavier music, cosplay, fandom, or just being creative in general. How much of Sunny is a reflection of yourself?
I wish I were as cool as Sunny! There are of course flashes of me throughout Sunny’s story, as I used some very pivotal moments from my own life and recast them. Like me, Sunny also stutters, but he’s a lot more confident with it and doesn’t let it stop him from being the nerdy dude he is. My grandmother and many of the women in my family crochet and knit—and “spill the tea” as they do it. I suck at crochet, but I definitely enjoy stories and culture being passed down through art.
Unlike Sunny, I didn’t grow up going to a religious school or knowing very much about my own religion beyond the surface. So, I wanted Sunny to be more rooted in religion and be able to access this when it came time to dealing with his grief. He is way better at speaking Punjabi, quoting Hindi films, and understanding Sikh theology than I was at his age. I’m almost at his stage now, though! Music also plays a pretty significant role in the book. I chose heavy metal because it has a vast range of emotions that Sunny connects with, especially helplessness, anger, and sadness.
Funnily enough, a lot of people think the fandoms and nerdiness in Sunny are things I grew up doing, but it’s actually my kids, Kavya and Shaiyar, who introduced me to it. Cosplay became a natural extension of our love of fandoms, and when they were young, they would be down to go to the dollar store and we’d glue-gun everything together. Now they’re much more sophisticated! Those early days of cosplay were very liberating, being able to move freely between fandoms and add our own spin on character designs with the most basic of skills. The creative individuality that comes with being part of a fandom community is what Sunny really connects with.
Sunny is very much at odds with himself as he struggles to forge a new path while also grieving the loss of his brother. Some of this manifests itself externally, shaving his beard, doffing his turban, things like this, but internally is where he feels the most conflicted. I’m wondering if you have experience, as a Punjabi, with either identity and/or loss? With the understanding that different cultures have different traditions when it comes to dealing with grief.
I grew up all over the world, and because I speak several languages and still have a recognizable British accent, identity has always been a peculiar thing for me. And like a typical Third Culture Kid, when someone asks me where I’m from, I tend to give overly complex, customized answers depending on who I’m speaking with. Sunny’s internal struggle reflects the storm raging in my teenage years as I attempted to come to terms with my own identity. Grief looms large in Sunny and a lot of things he does are in response to this loss, even when he doesn’t realize it. I have experienced loss, but not as profound or as close as the loss Sunny goes through with a sibling. As an adult, when I lost someone whose death I still feel in my bones, I tried to make sense of it, retracing steps, seeking solace in religion and spirituality, and the crying didn’t come when I thought it would. Ultimately, it was and still is a wild rollercoaster of emotions. For Sunny this becomes even messier, because he is still figuring out his identity in the midst of processing all of this.
Through the course of the evening, we learn several things about Sunny and his family, but also about Mindii (Hmong), Ngozi (Nigerian/Ghanian), and others who are all windows to other cultures and experiences. As a Punjabi yourself, and a well-travelled one at that, you’ve been in the unique position of seeing the world for what it can be, a culturally rich and diverse place. How important was it to use this book to open the door to so many other traditions and histories?
It was a very natural part of the writing process for me because I don’t consider diversity an extra effort. I’m thankful I grew up in environments where this mix of experiences and cultures and languages was seen not necessarily as a good or bad thing; it was just a normal thing. Even books I would read, from Dostoevsky to Kafka to Cheever, I saw them as an extension of that diversity because I didn’t grow up with white people. So, I viewed all of this literature as windows, even though I realized much later in life how problematic these fully white reading lists were! Luckily, the idea of learning, empathizing, connecting with people from other communities was instilled in me from a young age. In Sunny, I included a lot of windows, partly inspired by cosplay communities, which are incredibly diverse even when the original fandom is not, and of course my own upbringing.
One of my first connections to other communities in all the places I’ve lived and books I read was through food. I would be so intrigued by books that mentioned different delicacies! Food is an incredibly important reflection of identity and culture and individuality, which plays out in Sunny with things like a friendly argument between Nigerian and Ghanaian aunties over the “best” jollof, or when Sunny and Mindii dig into each other’s cultures with Hmong sausage and purple rice, and cha and chaat. There’s also the needlework and rich history of stories being told through the Hmong Paj Ntaub and Punjabi phulkari. In an earlier draft, I had a section on the history of quilting parceled in too!
It was important for me to include these different cultures interacting with each other because despite our superficial differences, there are so many things that connect us.
You’re a father and a teacher, and as it turns out, representation is VERY important in all walks of life. Talk about the first time you felt represented in something that you loved, and the importance of representation on the Desi youth of today?
Representation is absolutely necessary for kids and adults to develop not just their self-worth through stories, but to see themselves as more than just teachable moments or foils for white characters.
It took me becoming a parent to realize how early the psychological toll of not being represented in stories can start. My daughter was all of four when she understood she didn’t look like the adventurous white Disney princesses we were lazily indulging her with through books and movies. And even though she didn’t have the vocabulary to express the anguish of white supremacy, me and my wife, Sona, knew exactly what was happening because we’d felt it all our lives and it was heartbreaking. Thankfully, through incredibly exciting middle grade books featuring brown kids, as well as manga, and anime, and the natural default to subvert everything in cosplay, her self-esteem is just fine now.
Through her experience, I also realized why I suddenly stopped reading for pleasure in high school. And why many of my male-identifying students of color overwhelmingly say they don’t like to read, or why my creative writing students of color initially submit stories populated only with white people. The thing my daughter recognized at age 4 took me a long time to come to terms with. It’s not just the lack of representation or harmful rep that takes a toll, it’s also not relating to the kind of rep we’re seeing, the whole single-story issue.
Desi rep in books that were recommended to me by earnest teachers and librarians were of the strict parents, academic pressure, and Ivy League-bound variety, which I’m sure many Desis can relate to. But as a working-class kid, I just couldn’t relate to stories where teens didn’t have to work, or parents were super involved in their academics and a university education was a given. Like any other community, this single narrative is way too limiting and while the landscape is changing with a lot of specificity, there is always room for more.
When I started adding more nuances to Sunny, I unknowingly began writing a story for teenaged “Navdeep,” who struggled with stuttering, his Sikh faith, and being a working-class kid without any real literary representation to connect with. My first real taste of real representation was from a British TV skit comedy show from the late 90s called Goodness, Gracious Me featuring an all-brown cast, which I loved. I didn’t even care when the jokes didn’t work, just the fact they existed and spoke to my brown working-class ethos filled me with such joy.
In the book you wrote, “There’s something in our brains that makes us alcoholics. We literally cannot drink two glasses and then be like all right, peace out.” For the majority of Punjabi men, it is the social norm to drink, usually to excess. But most won’t get help should they develop a severe drinking problem because of the social stigma or fear of dishonoring their family name. Talk about that a little bit, from your perspective or experience.
There is a very universal and dangerous dance around the idea of manhood linked to drinking as a badge of honor from cultures around the world. The Punjabi community is not unique in our toxic relationship to alcohol in this regard, so I don’t think Punjabi men are any more socialized to drink to excess than men the world over.
Pop culture universally valorizes alcohol consumption through songs and movies and rarely shows alcoholism for the disease it actually is. When I was in the U.S. Navy, I developed a drinking problem for very unoriginal reasons: impressing people that didn’t matter by buying into the notion drinking like a sailor is a sign of manliness, like there was some prize for destroying our bodies by regularly getting blackout drunk and still showing up for work the next morning. I thankfully had a support system at home to keep me on track, which is where Goldy and many in the Punjabi community are failed. Because even when they get help and maybe even go to rehab, the tools are moot when they return to the same environment and the genetics of an alcoholic will betray them.
The social stigma that happens within the various Punjabi communities really depends on the kind of community we’re talking about in terms of geographic location, education, class, religion, amongst other factors. Working class Punjabi Sikh diasporic communities, for example, will require a different approach than a more liberal, metropolitan area with working professionals. A lot of the time the blanket approach to alcoholism is also not helpful because diversity in this field is not where it should be, and cultural nuances are needed to equip people with proper tools.
Things are definitely changing for the better, and I really hope people empathize with Goldy, so we can start the conversation around the basic idea that we can hold people accountable at the same time as recognizing alcoholism is an illness, not a personal failure, and proper resources and family/community support are essential to living with it.
Referring to Sunny’s stammering, you write, “It was reassuring to see there were people everywhere like me, and that I’m not broken,” which is an incredibly important lesson for anyone who feels alone and/or broken. As a former linguist and ESL teacher, you of course understand the power of language. Talk about the unfair stigma people who stutter (or have other disabilities) face.
In theory, it is a disability.
As far as I know, the wording the ADA uses to quantify stuttering as a disability is that it needs to be “substantially” limiting. The result is that unless the stuttering is severe, it often goes undiagnosed because severe stuttering is what many people associate stuttering with. Most rep of stuttering in film and books is that of a very pronounced stutter that prevents people from getting much of their thoughts out, like a Porky Pig for example.
As a kid I was very self-conscious of my stutter and I would either not say anything at all or change what I was going to say, so teachers assumed I was quiet, or shy, or not very bright. I simply developed a coping mechanism to limit the bullying and mocking and ridicule, which probably caused all kinds of other undiagnosed things. In Dubai, I was put into ESL because teachers thought my lack of communication was the result of not being able to speak English properly. In the U.S. it was a surprise to all my teachers and my counselor when I demanded to be seen by a speech therapist. When the therapist left mid-semester, it became too much trouble to keep convincing people I had an actual disability. That was the only time in my life that I ever saw a speech therapist.
Recognizing stuttering as a disability is a great first step, but there are way too many kids (and adults!) who are not diagnosed properly and then don’t receive the proper treatment. It is exhausting. Unlike Sunny, I am still not comfortable with my stutter, but through him I hope to normalize the complexity of this disability.
In the book, you present a very fun world within a world. Tell me about the inspiration behind Jamie Snollygoster and this Snollygoster series, which is a huge part of Sunny’s life, creatively and socially.
Originally in the book the fandom was Harry Potter, complete with a fabulous Hari Puttar joke. I loved the series, as did my editor, and of course my kids. As someone who has an enormous respect for the cosplay and fandom community, where a lot of problematic messages are subverted simply by the fans existing, I attempted to rationalize this with Harry Potter. Then I got on Twitter to see more and more terrible takes and it finally reached a point where I wanted to apologize to Sunny for doing this to him! It was just a huge leap to think that he or any of the characters in this book would ever be okay with it. Thankfully, I have a very supportive team, who were also not feeling it.
But it wasn’t as simple as just replacing those sections because there were references and one-liners throughout. I could have created a much simpler replacement, but me being me, I overcomplicated it by getting into research mode, making maps and characters inspired from South Asian history, peppered with Welsh names and mythology. All for tiny references throughout the book!
How does Sunny’s prom experience compare to yours?
I never went to my prom. I was mildly enticed by the idea based on teen movies, but my instinct whenever too many people tell me to do something is to adamantly refuse. Also, it was way too much money and a big production with getting a limo and a suit, and I already knew the food was going to suck. I did go to another random dance during my junior year though—Valentine’s or something, which cost $20. I’m still furious about it because I had a miserable time, and the décor was awful. That’s kind of what I based the prom scene on. And yes, I did hang around the punch bowl. But unfortunately, I did not meet anyone interesting there!
Talk about the Desi writing community, which authors do you believe should be getting more attention?
I am part of the Desi KidLit community, which I have found to be lovely and supportive. I also love the surge of Desi Booktokkers and bookstagrammers, who have put even more books on my TBR. So yeah, the Desi writing and reading community is going strong! There are so many wonderful books that have come out over the years, and I’m especially excited for ones coming out this year by my fellow debuts. It’s so great that some Desi books are getting well deserved press, but there are of course plenty that should be getting more attention.
Here are just a few of them everyone should read:
How Maya Got Fierce by Sona Charaipotra
Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha
If I Tell You the Truth by Jasmine Kaur
Unbelonging by Gayatri Sethi
Loophole by Naz Kutub
The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah
American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar
My all-time favorites:
Bombay Talkie by. Ameena Meer.
Anita and Me by Meera Syal
For readers who enjoyed Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions, are there any other books you would recommend?
All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachael Cohn
Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentnor
You Can go Your Own Way by Eric Smith
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Thanks so much, Navdeep!
Navdeep Singh Dhillon is the author of Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions, an adjunct professor of creative writing and English at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and co-founder of IshqInABackpack, a narrative travel blog. He holds an MFA in creative writing from California State University, Fresno and is a graduate of Voices of Our Nation and the CUNY Writers’ Institute. Born in England, raised in Tanzania, Nigeria, Dubai, and Fresno, California, he is a Punjabi boy at heart. He was a former linguist in the U.S. Navy, ESL teacher in China, and door-to-door knife salesman (yes, with this face!). When he isn’t reading, writing or grading, he is cosplaying across the fandoms with his two nerdy kiddos, while his wife looks on helplessly. He is also a very delicate purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.