#DesiBooks10QA: Annika Sharma on how to manage being held to higher standards as a writer of color

#DesiBooks10QA Annika Sharma Brown Girl Bookshelf

About the author

Annika Sharma’s debut novel, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, the first in the Chai Masala Club series, earned two starred reviews from the Library Journal and BookList, and was described as a “love letter to both Indian culture and the streets of New York City,” by Publisher’s Weekly. It was named an Amazon Best Book and Annika was named an Apple Books’ Writer to Watch.

Annika is a co-founder and co-host of The Woke Desi podcast, one of the largest independently-run South Asian podcasts in the world, which has led to appearances on the BBC, Forbes, and on a Spotify billboard campaign. She currently lives in New York City and works as a health communications manager by day, while juggling her writing and podcasting careers by night. Annika is a lover of long conversations, superhero movies, reading, empowerment, and travel, and can be found @annikasharma on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

About the book

Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, the first in the Chai Masala Club series, follows Kiran, an Indian transplant with a family heartbreak and Nash, an All-American without a family at all. What unfolds is a story of love, discovery, and the redefinition of home and family, all set against bucket lists and New York City lights.

Annika Sharma’s Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, the first in the Chai Masala Club series, is a story of love, discovery, and the redefinition of home and family. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

This interview has been guest-hosted by Brown Girl Bookshelf (BGB).

Mishika Narula is the lady behind the lens and leads partnership marketing at BGB. She is a champion of physical books over e-readers and finds it unnatural to text without perfect grammar. Outside of BGB content, she expresses her creativity best in the kitchen.

Srisruthi Ramesh is the head of strategy & design for BGB. She is also known to be an amateur philosopher, eye-balling cook and baker, elaborate storyteller, and to move to small remote towns on a whim.

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. I think that’s a common answer for any millennial writer but it is a pivotal book. Set in New York City, with a teenage American-born Indian girl who loves creativity, and her identity being thrown into the mix, the book reached into my heart and pulled out all of the questions I had. It was one of the highlights of my career getting to tell Tanuja about her impact on me when I interviewed her for my podcast. She remains a dear friend, and now I need to pinch myself because I owe her so much.

[Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier] is a pivotal book […] reached into my heart and pulled out all of the questions I had.” ~Annika Sharma on the book that changed her as a writer #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Ooo . . . what a good one. I’m not sure I can answer that accurately because there are so many esteemed books out there and, in my head, I’m too much of a newbie to remotely put myself in the conversation.

I can answer in terms of influences. The people who influenced this book were friends and acquaintances who had such varying degrees of acceptance from their families to marrying people of their choice, even if that person came from the same country or region. Sometimes it was total celebration and acceptance and, other times, the volatile reactions caused many of those people to rethink, challenge themselves, and explore their own identities in relation to love, family, home, commitment, and their own path. On the literary side, the previously-mentioned Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier was formative in recognizing that the reconciliation isn’t always smooth and that the world looks so beautiful and different across experiences. I also love Sonali Dev’s emotionally charged writing and I hope my story captures even an iota of that influence. 

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

A wildly sex-positive, liberating story about a badass woman who does what she wants without feeling guilty for it.

I also love retellings of Hindu mythology that are feminist in nature. I also love historical fiction so I’d love to read more about desi history as well.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti. I’m excited to see culture, secrets, and the depth of relationships play on the page. Writing allows us to weave all the nuances of relationships—like how you could simultaneously love someone and want to avoid them forever—and this one sounds like it’s going to bring so many layers together into one story of a matriarch. I’m sold!

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

ALL OF THEM. My favorites include romances and young adult (Sonali Dev, Nisha Sharma, Tanuja Desai Hidier, Falguni Kothari, Kishan Paul, Sophia Singh Sasson, Suleena Bibra, Mona Shroff, Prerna Pickett, Farah Heron, Namrata Patel’s upcoming, Suleikha Snyder, Sona Charaipotra, Alisha Rai, Swati Teerdhala, Nandini Bajpai, Anuradha Rajurka, Samira Ahmed and so many more), because they are often looked over. But desi books should be more well-known as a whole. Our populations are one-sixth of the globe so the stories should be out there.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

That every story has been told before but that the way you tell it is unique to you. Tropes exist because they’re commonly told and loved, but the spin you put on it is unique each time. Another important thing someone told me: as writers of color, we can’t be everything to everyone. People are still looking for themselves in stories and, because there isn’t enough representation yet, you’ll often find yourself being held to a high standard (that you may never meet) to represent everyone’s experience. Instead of walking in with the hope of making everyone happy, write your story to the best of your ability, pull people into the bubble with you, make the stage bigger so others can speak to their experiences too, and more people can then see themselves in literature within the wider variety of stories they have available.

#WritingTip from Annika Sharma: “. . .as writers of color, we can’t be everything to everyone […] write your story to the best of your ability, pull people into the bubble with you, make the stage bigger . . .” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

So. Many. Setbacks. The first motivating factor is the simple reminder that I have a seat at the table and it’s my privilege to be here. And that, when I’m here, I owe it to myself and to everyone else to do my best. For the record, that little pep talk does not always produce great words! But it does grant some perspective during setbacks that haven’t rattled my world completely. The other side to that is to honor the major setbacks and take a break. Recuperating and giving myself a chance to fill the tank keeps me motivated for longer than pushing through the pain. Ultimately, any writer goes into it because they feel a sense of purpose in putting their words to the page and that’s the biggest motivation of all.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Between the podcast, writing, and my day job (and the pandemic), my definition of success as a whole has transformed a lot. Literary success now is being able to put my books out in a world that accepts them, connects with them, and where readers feel changed whether for a moment or for a lifetime. If it starts a conversation and prompts some thought, I’d say I’ve hit success.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

How haven’t they? The publishing ecosystem—fellow authors, writer groups, publishers, readers, reviewers and more—is so intricate and powerful. I have never had more appreciation for it than through this release.

I’m a member of a South Asian writing group and they are the funniest, silliest, most energetic, supportive crew that never hesitates to offer a suggestion to make one better. I owe them so much. Since 2015, when I joined Twitter, the friendships I’ve made with other writers have been so powerful. Truthfully, the writing community on Twitter—whether it’s friends or strangers, publishing side, writer side or reader side—has never ceased to amaze me because there’s always something to learn or observe.

Reviewers always had my respect but their impact, effort, and their messages of encouragement have been transformative for the success of Love, Chai, and for my writing as well. The ones who have been thoughtful and critical offer so much to consider for improvement. The ones who love the book have boosted confidence. It’s amazing. 

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I hope that they recognize that South Asians aren’t monolithic. I’ll be the first to admit Love, Chai wasn’t a book steeped in a unique plot but it was layered in nuance. I hope readers recognize that and further, are able to see differences in South Asian experiences and appreciate that we aren’t all the same. And I do hope South Asian readers, in particular, see elements of themselves in characters that feel like home.  

“[I hope readers] recognize that South Asians aren’t monolithic […] see differences in South Asian experiences. . .” ~Annika Sharma on takeaways from her novel, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Annika Sharma has a new book out, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words. More at her website.

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