Fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson will identify with this powerful story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship. Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in--his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art--make him her mother's worst nightmare. They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver's troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself--and what's really brewing beneath the surface of her first love. Winner of the SCBWI Emerging Voices award, Anuradha Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
About the Author
Anuradha D. Rajurkar was born and raised in the Chicago area and holds two degrees from Northwestern University. Her debut has been honored with the nationwide Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Emerging Voices Award. She lives in Milwaukee with her family. AMERICAN BETIYA is her first novel.
Interview by Joan F. Smith
Hi, Anuradha! I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy of American Betiya, which publishes tomorrow, and I’m so thrilled to interview you. I am such a fan of your protagonist. How did you come up with Rani's story?
Thank you so much, Joan! American Betiya (betiya=a term of endearment for daughter) is the story I really needed and would have loved as a teen. I feel we are conditioned, in a sense, to believe desperately in love-conquers-all—a concept of which I’m actually a huge fan! :) But in reality, many first romantic relationships are fraught, and can lead us to make concessions that lead us to question our own best judgment. I wanted to write a story about cross-cultural first love filled with both excitement and also honest elements of confusion and conflict. When we’re still discovering who we are in relation to our cultural identity, aspirations, and values, it’s complicated to love another so deeply, especially if the things they need don’t align with yours. I was compelled by the idea that sometimes our relationships—with family members, romantic partners, and friends—force us to take a stand on who we are, whether we’re ready to do that or not.
Can you tell me a little bit about how long it took this book to go from idea to becoming book-shaped?
This story began taking shape in my mind back when I was in high school. I didn’t have the courage to write this story at that time, though the germ of the idea didn’t let me go.
Years later, I became a teacher, and it wasn’t until I took time off from teaching to raise my two young sons that I began writing in earnest. I wrote a short story titled simply “Beginnings.” At that time, I made a friend named Lauren Fox, a fellow writer who invited me to her writing group. Upon reading my short story, she believed it would make a great novel. It was such a relief hearing an author who I admired and trusted give me that kind of permission. It took that many years, between juggling teaching and raising my family for me to turn that short story into the novel that is now known as AMERICAN BETIYA! I sent it off to be considered for the SCBWI Emerging Voices Award, not expecting too much.
When I got the phone call that my manuscript was the YA winner of the award (Lakita Wilson was the MG winner), wonderful things happened fast: I got offers of representation from three amazing agents, and within two months of signing with Alex Slater from Trident Media, my dream editor Katherine Harrison at Knopf acquired the book. Then began two and a half years of editing. So the short answer is: my writing journey for AMERICAN BETIYA clocks in at around fourteen years, not including the years of dreaming about it beforehand. JJ
I tend to gravitate to books with a strong sense of setting, and I had the double pleasure of two of those in your book—Evanston and India. What was your experience writing both?
I was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, and have great memories of my childhood there; American Betiya was, in a sense, a love letter to my hometown. Evanston is the suburb along Lake Michigan that is nestled right up next to the city of Chicago, boasts a lot of natural beauty (it’s known as “Tree City”), and is very diverse. I thought it would be interesting to show the ways ethnic and class differences become sources of conflict even in towns that pride themselves on their progressivism. And with regards to India: most of my extended family live there, and I grew up visiting about every other summer. Having the book take place there helped me recall details I’d forgotten. It also kept me feeling close to my family there, including those members who have passed away.
And on top of that, it seems like both settings are an awesome metaphor for how Rani feels: stuck in between. (Side note: The theme of duality in this book is a well-crafted motif.) Was the dual-setting choice an intentional one to represent that, especially given the microaggressions and aggressions Rani experiences in this story?
Duality is definitely a theme in the story, and yes, the dual setting is a reflection of that. I don’t know how intentional it was on my part, but it’s true that while there were two aspects to Rani’s identity—the Indian and the American—she didn’t fit in entirely in either culture. So there was always this outside looking in aspect to her that I hoped to explore in the story.
Can you tell us about what you're working on next?
I can’t share too much about my next story, other than I am deep in love with it and that it’s stretching me creatively. Can’t wait until I can share more! :)
Thank you, Anuradha! It was a pleasure.
Thank you, Joan! American Betiya is the raw, evocative, swoony, soulful, empowering book of my heart, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
Pick up a copy of American Betiya at your favorite indie bookstore or at the following retailers:
Joan F. Smith lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she works as an associate dean, a creative writing professor, and a dance instructor. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, and has written articles for The Washington Post and Thought Catalog on destigmatizing discussions around mental health and suicide prevention. The Half-Orphan's Handbook is her first novel.