By Danielle Wilkinson
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to the WNDB blog to discuss young adult novel Debating Darcy, out today, April 5, 2022!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two types of people in the hypercompetitive world of high school forensics competitions: speakers and debaters. Nobody knows this better than Leela Bose, a life-long speech competitor. When she meets Firoze Darcy, an incorrigible debater, Leela has no choice but to try and tolerate him. His elitist private school is included in the state league she’s competing in and their paths will inevitably cross.
But why simply tolerate Firoze when Leela can one-up him? She decides to switch into the debate category of the competition to prove that women are just as capable as men. But the situation is more complicated than Leela anticipated, and her participation in the tournament reveals that she might have tragically misjudged the debaters in the forensics league—including Firoze Darcy.
Leela will have to confront her assumptions, not only about other people, but about herself, if she’s to have any hope of deciphering her complicated feelings for Darcy or succeeding in the forensics competition.
Debating Darcy is your YA debut! How does that feel?
It feels amazing. This was the novel that I wished I could have read during the pandemic. I had other things on contract that I should have been working on but instead of doing my normal procrastination, which was cleaning my house, I just wrote an entirely different book that wasn’t on contract. I started writing it last winter when the vaccines weren’t out yet. It just felt like a scary time and I found myself seeking something familiar. I wanted to make something that I loved and that was very familiar to me, but also something I could call my own.
You have mainly written middle grade and non-fiction in the past so did it feel different writing YA for the first time? What was that transition like for you?
It was such a joy to write this novel. Even though my protagonist is 16 instead of 12, and the voice is different, and it’s contemporary versus fantasy, it did not feel that different because I think the things that drive me are the same. What drives me are the questions: how do I write an empowered girl, at the center of a story but still give her room to make mistakes, find community and try to change the world? And whether that theme manifests in a 12-year-old demon-slaying princess from New Jersey or as a speech and debater in high school who lives in a world that looks more like our own, I think those questions are the same.
Can you tell me a little bit about the main character Leela and her growth during Debating Darcy?
My character Leela has figured out some things about herself and she’s found her voice in some ways. She’s a theater nerd and has a great community of speech and debate people, but she’s a work in progress. She’s still working on herself and she’s figuring it out, but if you have a good community of friends and family members who believe in you can keep growing.
That’s why I think Firoze and Leela’s relationship works because by falling in love with each other, by becoming attracted to each other, they each become a better version of themselves. They discover more things about themselves and they can admit what they’re still working on. I really enjoyed portraying that. You don’t have to have it all together, just find people who can help you be a better version of yourself every day.
There was a little scuffle between the lead characters in the first chapter which brought up an important conversation about beauty. I wanted to know how you learned to be comfortable in your own skin and what you hope to pass on to your readers about self-worth?
In the original Pride and Prejudice, this rich, snotty guy Darcy shows up at a local dance and his friend is trying to convince him to dance with Elizabeth and he says, “she’s not handsome enough to tempt me.” Elizabeth’s pride gets hurt in the original novel but as I was thinking about how to adapt that text to include people of color in a high school setting, I had to look back on my own childhood.
I’m an immigrant daughter, I was born and grew up in the U.S. while my parents are from India and I was getting negative messaging about beauty from two sides.
I was getting it from the mainstream, mostly white community that I lived in and the country that I lived in. There was nobody like me on billboards or featured in magazines or movies or in the books that I was reading. I was getting messages from the mainstream saying, “Hey, you’re not worthy. You’re not attractive.” Then there were the micro- and macro aggressions, just racist aggressions growing up. From tar in the mailbox to name-calling at school, to people rubbing my skin to see if the “tan” would come off, that kind of thing. Then on the other side, there’s colorism from within my own community. As a darker-skinned member of my community, I was getting a different sort of messaging, which is colorism. This sounded like “You’re really attractive for a darker skin girl” or “Oh, it’s too bad. You couldn’t have inherited so-and-so’s skin tone.” I think when those messages come at us, they pile on top of each other.
It took me a long time to unpack all of that and tell myself, you know what, not only am I beautiful but I think it’s really important to empower the next generations coming up behind me to recognize the beauty of their bodies and their hearts and their minds and their souls.
If I can do that for one young person reading this novel, I will feel like I’ve been blessed and I did a good thing in this world.
I want to know why Pride and Prejudice really spoke to you and why you thought this story would fit well with this sort of re-imagining?
I’m a huge Jane Austen nerd! I’ve read all the books, I’ve watched every film adaptation, TV adaptation, even live theater adaptations. I’ve always loved Pride and Prejudice. I think a lot of people love Jane Austen’s work for the romance and that’s great and valid and absolutely true, but the reason I really love her work is for the wit and humor. She is so good at poking fun of, and critiquing, and addressing social mores such as classism or gender roles or the way social hierarchies function, with just a subtle line or some beautiful back and forth dialogue.
Also, Lizzie and Darcy, the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice, are the original enemies-to-lovers couple. Words are their love language, wit is the way that they romance each other, even when they think they don’t like each other, they kind of spar with intellect, wit, and humor. And that was what really appeals to me both Jane Austen’s wordplay and the characters in Pride and Prejudice’s ability to let wit itself, the words themselves to be a sort of love language.
What was the most challenging part of writing a YA story for the first time?
Cell phones! I didn’t have cell phones in high school. I didn’t text in high school.
So, I needed to write scenes where people are texting each other without seeming like I’m somebody’s mom. The thing about being a parent to teenagers is that they do not let you get away with anything. They would read what I wrote and they would just be like, “yeah, that doesn’t sound right, Mom.” They kept me humble. They kept me real.
The other thing is there’s not a lot of kissing in Middle Grade, for understandable reasons they are way too young. So, I wrote a draft of Debating Darcy and sent it to my teenagers, and they were like, “Where is the kissing? Where is the kiss?” So, they made me rewrite the last chapter to include a kissing scene.
Has your writing changed or have you seen storytelling in a new light during these past two years living in a pandemic?
There’s nothing about the pandemic in either of these books, but I think making room for joy and making room for love whether it be sisterly love or friendship love or romantic love is a radical act. I think both in pandemic times and then as a person of color, to write a story about joy, to write a story about love in all its myriad forms is a beautiful, radical act. These past couple of years have taught me just how much I need stories like that. So, I’m really grateful to other creators who are writing stories like that and putting them out into the world. I hope to return the favor by putting my own out into the world.
What’s next for you?
I am writing a loose retelling of Sense and Sensibility with a lot of Shakespeare thrown in there.
I like to describe it as Sense and Sensibility meets Austenland meets High School Musical. It’s about a regency camp that is set up by the creators of a popular multiculturally cast television program that’s looking for young actors. Two sisters set off to go to this regency camp and hi-jinks ensue.
Sayantani DasGupta is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed, Bengali folktale and string theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, the first of which—The Serpent’s Secret—was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Best Middle Grade Novel of the 21st Century, and an EB White Read Aloud Honor Book. She is also the author of She Persisted: Virginia Apgar, a part of Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted series from Penguin/Philomel, and Force of Fire, an anticolonial and Bengali folktale inspired fantasy set in the Kingdom Beyond multiverse from Scholastic. Her YA debut, Debating Darcy, a multicultural speech and debate feminist reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, comes out in 2022, also from Scholastic. Sayantani is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches at Columbia University. When she’s not writing or reading, Sayantani spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at sayantanidasgupta.com and on Twitter at @sayantani16.
Danielle Wilkinson is a 20-something aspiring author from Atlanta who has always loved the feeling of getting lost in a good story. In 2021, her blog Danielle The Writer was selected as The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites For Writers. She also started her first business the same year, where she teaches new and aspiring authors how to dominate on Instagram so they can grow a community of loyal fans. When she’s not working or writing, you can find her reading with a cup of tea, listening to podcasts, trying to take the perfect photo for her Instagram, or fangirling over K-Pop videos.