By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Veera Hiranandani to the WNDB blog to discuss How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, out September 14, 2021.
Hi Veera! Thanks so much for chatting with We Need Diverse Books. Personally, I enjoyed the book very much, but I can’t imagine I was your target audience.
This is my first real interview for this book so I’m excited to be here! I definitely had a target audience in mind, but for me, ultimately, I write books for all people, ages 9 to 99, so it makes me really happy to have people from multiple ages and perspectives responding to the book.
It’s clear looking at your bio where a good portion of the inspiration for this book came from — it mirrors aspects of your own life in some ways — but talk about how this particular story came together.
I knew that I wanted to write about the fact that when my parents got married in Connecticut in 1968, how that decision not only shaped our family, but also how I’ve related to the world. But now, as an adult, looking back at these large historical moments, zoning in on an ordinary family who is going through something extraordinary that connects them to a larger moment in history. I wanted to explore, in the context of history, their decision to get married and the choices they were making.
My heart is really with, and I love writing Middle Grade, seeing the world through an 11- or 12-year old’s eyes. I really remembered that time in my life so clearly, so I’m very much writing to myself as a young person in some ways and wanting to connect with that age in particular.
And I knew I couldn’t tell my parent’s story, that’s really an adult story. So, what lens can I use, how can I use their story to inspire another story, that could bring in a lot of the issues that they were dealing with back then?
So much of your own life is reflected in this story: raised in a small town in Connecticut, mother is Jewish-American, father is from a Hindu family in India, and you didn’t know any kids like you where you lived. Was there anything that played into the story when it came to writing it that maybe isn’t so obvious?
I started thinking about the Loving ruling happening a year before my parents got married and I started thinking about the fact that if they wanted to get married in another state, a year prior, what would have happened? Would they have just not gotten married? Would they have moved? What choices would they have had to make? And it was hard enough, their decision.
Thinking about how their marriage would’ve been considered illegal in certain places just kind of blew my mind, so I sort of just put it all in this big mix, along with wanting also to explore the Jewish side of family and that perspective. With The Night Diary I was sort of exploring the Indian side of my family more, so creating a character with two Jewish parents, which was moving outside of my own experience, but was at the same time connecting deeply to a lot of my family.
Ariel came into focus as a young Jewish girl living in Connecticut, where I grew up inter-faith and biracial but also Jewish, where there weren’t a lot of Jewish people around me. I could very much relate to Ariel’s experience of feeling like one of the only Jewish kids in her class, with very few Jewish kids in her community.
It hangs over much of the book and is the real-life allegory for the relationship between Leah and Raj. When did you first become familiar with Loving vs Virginia, 1967, the case involving Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter? My first experience sadly wasn’t until the 2016 film Loving, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
Our base knowledge is the history we learn in schools most often, and so it’s very important how we teach history in schools, and every country handles it differently. I might have read a line about it at some point in school and had a vague understanding, but I would say 6 or 7 years ago I decided to learn more about that case. And around that time starting to think about my parents who got married in 1968, a year after the ruling was made, and figuring out what kind of story I could tell that was inspired by both things.
My parents weren’t directly inspired by the ruling the way Leah and Raj are in the book, who get married in 1967 and who were directly inspired by the decision. My parents were more so responding to the world around them and were very much feeling like a modern couple who could make their own decisions, who were also living in Connecticut and didn’t have the same issues at the time. They were in love, and that was what was really driving them. I don’t think they fully understood maybe what they were risking in their decision.
Talk about your decision to write How to Find What You’re Not Looking For in the second person, which isn’t a point of view we see very often, hardly ever in fact in Young Adult or Middle Grade books.
I’ve always been fascinated by that point of view, and I’ve tried to do it many times. I wrote a draft of my first novel, actually, in second person but was dissuaded by an editor friend at the time and ended up going another way, because I was trying to get published. Looking back, I don’t know if it was working or not, but I always responded to books that had a second person POV and realized that no MG/YA that I had read have a second person, not that I know of, unless you count Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, or Lorrie Moore the short story writer, she writes a lot in second person.
The way it kind of forces you the reader to be the character, at the same time allowing for separation between the character and you the reader. Suddenly the main character just kind of links arms with the reader, and you can’t unlink your arm, you kind of have to be that main character whether you want to or not. And I thought that might have a really interesting effect on a younger reader who is maybe very different from Ariel. But Ariel is Ariel, and Ariel is also you.
Like Ariel, you were pretty shy, spending a lot of time quietly watching other people. When you spend a considerable amount of time observing human behavior you inevitably learn a thing or two. What have you learned most about human behavior either through your own experiences or through the writing of human behavior? Has that affected your ability to tell a story?
I was always a writer in the sense that I had a very imaginative inner life, part of that is because I had to. I changed schools between 4th and 5th grade, going from a very small arts-based private school that my parent’s friends had started to public school. It was kind of like camp all year long with a small number of students and we just went from year to year together, so it was sort of like an extended family.
But my parents started to worry that my base of knowledge was being neglected so I was switched to a public school, which was shocking. I wasn’t shy in the private school, the first school, but when I went to the public school it was so much different. It was quite a bit bigger, and it was really the first time my background came into focus, and I was asked questions about my name, and asked about my parents’ backgrounds, where they were from. Sometimes it was just curiosity, it wasn’t necessarily completely malicious all the time. But then there were instances of teasing, mean things, racism, anti-Semitism, and all these things because the community I grew up in Connecticut had very few Jewish kids, and I don’t remember any Indian American kids in my class. I think there was maybe one or two kids in the younger grades, but certainly nobody like me. So, I suddenly felt very othered, and so different, and was kind of shocked really at the big deal they were making.
That really kind of shaped me and I was very quiet for several years. It took me a long time to make friends and that’s when I developed my inner life, so I was quiet, I was observing all the dynamics around me. I was forced to think about religious identity and racial identity at a very young age, living in a very white town.
My family was always very open about race and identity, and we talked about issues as a family. About how my sister and I would feel different, how my father felt about coming here, about how my mom felt about the decision they made.
Your handling of Ariel’s learning disability, dysgraphia, was a focus for much of Ariel’s part of the story. It’s not something we hear a lot about; dyslexia seems to be the more common learning difference. What’s your experience with that disability and did you have to do any research? Maybe start with a bit of a definition.
Sure, dysgraphia is a learning difference where you have trouble handwriting, forming letters, where that fine motor brain to hand connection is different. It’s also hard to organize what you’re saying because the act of writing out words is hard. You have to work very hard to do both things at the same time, so it affects the planning of writing, the planning of written expression.
My son, who’s 15 now, has dysgraphia, that’s really where my base of knowledge comes from. Being a parent of a kid who has some learning differences and how they navigate the world, and how at times the way he’s been supported or not supported in the school system. When I grew up, I was a very uneven student although I was never diagnosed with anything specifically. But I also know that typing, like Ariel in the book, has given me so much freedom to write. I started typing on an electric typewriter in high school, and I just remember it feeling freeing.
So, I’ve been writing and drafting on a typewriter ever since college, and for my son, learning how to type has been really helpful for him.
In this book, Ariel has a true champion in her teacher, Miss Field, who is the one who encourages Ariel to write poetry and places her in front of a typewriter. When you were younger, did you have someone who inspired you and saw the best in you before you yourself did?
For me Miss Field is sort of a fantasy, I have to say. I certainly had good moments with teachers but she’s kind of a compilation. I did feel misunderstood for so long in my new school, I was very frustrated with the cookie cutter type of education, and I was always questioning things. And I wished someone could just see me.
It wasn’t until graduate school, when I did my MFA that I felt seen in an educational situation, and I had one wonderful professor in my undergrad experience. But no, not in middle or high school.
In the book you wrote, “The difference between having one friend and having no friends is a lot bigger than you thought. It’s the difference between never feeling alone and always feeling alone.” This was Ariel speaking about her best friend Jane, her only friend. Speak to the readers out there who are maybe feeling small or alone right now, about hope, and the power of friendship.
Yes, and I also could connect to that because when I did switch schools, I didn’t have any friends at the new school, having left behind some wonderful friends at the old one. And because we weren’t independent, being so young, we couldn’t just see each other whenever we wanted, my old friends, so it took me a long time to connect with new people.
I remember making my first close friend at the new school about a year later and it did make such a big difference, and you realize you don’t need a million friends, you just need a few good ones. As a bit of an introvert, I’m not somebody who has a million friends all around me anyways, and as an adult it’s become more of a choice, but I’ve always felt that if I have a few people in my corner, that’s really all you need.
And in this social media age, I try to remind people of what they do have, not what they don’t, and to just really focus on a couple of good connections. And if you don’t have that yet, you will find your people at some point. If you look for the people who are also feeling a little lonely, gravitate towards them and you can be quiet and shy together!
One of the biggest themes you explore is outward prejudice from within the community, towards other races. Talk about the importance of having an open dialogue concerning inter-faith relationships, should someone out there be facing a similar situation.
As much as we would like to think that, even though we are all connected and we are all human, the truth is we’re raised differently in different cultures, and through very different experiences. So I think inter-faith and inter-racial couples will face challenges; there’s just no way around it. I’m often reminded of the children’s story “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” which has a line: “You can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you have to go through it.” These relationships are messy, and they’re complicated, but kind of in the best way because it forces you to deal with it.
My Jewish grandparents were upset about my mom’s choice to marry my dad. My grandfather came from an orthodox family, he went to shul every week, it was just such an important part of his life. He was brokenhearted at my mom’s decision, he felt like he had failed at his duty of being a Jewish father.
It had nothing to do with who my dad was, it was just that he wasn’t Jewish. And then there was the added element that my dad was brown. It wasn’t necessarily the focus of the conversation but as I show in the book, he’s (Raj) from another country and he has brown skin, so of course that plays into it, but the focus was more on the fact that he wasn’t Jewish.
So, my grandfather felt that as a good Jewish father he had no choice but to disown my mom, that’s what he was supposed to do. And that was a really hard thing for my mom, who actually went to Israel for six weeks, before she made her decision to marry my dad. And then right at the last minute, my grandfather spoke with a Rabbi who counseled him, helping him understand that he was going to lose his daughter over this sense of duty. And so, my grandfather finally gave himself permission to follow what he felt in his heart, separate from religion.
So, just before my parents eloped, my grandfather reconnected with my mom and slowly began to rebuild their relationship, so that by the time my sister and I were born, my grandparents were very much involved in my life. But I do think my grandparents always felt disappointed that we weren’t raised more Jewish, and there was always this tension simmering under everything.
As for my father, he had lost his parents when he was young, so I never knew my Indian grandparents, but his older sister in particular was disappointed in his choice to marry a non-Indian woman. But at the same time, he was more independently minded because his parents weren’t living so it wasn’t as heavy a decision for him to make. Early on, there was still tension between the families at gatherings and things like that, but they’ve lessened over time. But it wasn’t easy, it was never easy.
Post-World War 2, once they emigrated to the United States and began to put down roots, many Jews believed they were immune from racism because of their experience with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. This is something that comes up in the book from Ariel’s parents and I was wondering if your own family provided the impetus for this.
In a way it’s connected to a certain kind of survival instinct. If you’re Jewish, you just can never sort of let go of the past, that no matter how you feel about things that are happening now, it is just part of the legacy and the identity. We’re not supposed to separate it, but it’s very complicated to be sure.
This of course isn’t your first book. Was there anything about writing How to Find What You’re Not Looking For that made it stand apart from the others?
I’ve always chosen to put a bit of myself in all my stories, just in very different ways. At the very least inspired by so that it’s never exactly mirroring, or it’s not an autobiography in that sense; it very much becomes its own thing. So, using different parts of who I am and my background and my family history in different ways, my first book was more about my experiences growing up, whereas The Night Diary was about my father’s side of the family during the partition. This book was more about my parents’ marriage and exploring my own Jewish identity and what it means to me, and what it meant to my mom, and what it meant to my grandparents.
I married a Jewish man so I’m raising my kids with a Jewish identity, at the same time we’re very secular. I’m very fluid when it comes to religion, I don’t regularly practice any one particular religion, but I’m very connected to both my Jewish and Hindu identities.
But also writing The Night Diary and thinking about inter-faith relationships, feeling connected to the Muslim community in the sense of how close people were. And also, where my father grew up in India, Hindus and Sikhs sort of really overlapped a lot of their practice, so I read a lot about the Sikh religion. I really find so much more in common by studying different religions than finding things that divide us, separate from people that use religion for power or political purposes.
Thematically, what books would you recommend to readers that are perhaps looking for more of the same?
Certainly, one book that I read along the way, while I was writing this book, was One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, and that is one of my favorite books of all time. It takes place during a very similar time but explores more of the Black Panther movement, and I did a lot of research in that area because I wanted that foundation of the civil rights movement. Looking at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the way people have sort of absorbed that history, and the way that I learned about it, the way we’re taught this history, is wrong.
And how they were both perceived as pretty radical for their time, but if you read a lot of what they both wrote, you agree with so much of it — but instead I was taught about how different they were.
Also, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, I really like that book. But I also went back to a classic, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, to look at the Indian immigrant experience. When I read that book it blew me away because I had never seen a story depict what my father and his brothers went through coming to this country, and what Raj goes through in the book. And just what that meant to leave your home to conquer a dream but how it doesn’t end up that way, how you lose a part of yourself to the myth of the American dream.
Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary (Kokila), which has received many awards including the 2019 Newbery Honor Award, the 2019 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award, and the 2018 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature. The Night Diary has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, and was chosen as a 2018 Best Children’s Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Amazon, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. She is also the author of The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asia Book Award Highly Commended selection, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her forthcoming novel, How To Find What You’re Not Looking For (September 2021, Kokila).