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Variety at the Bay Area Book Festival

Various Indian-origin artists and authors took the stage to share their work at the 2023 Bay Area Book Festival on the weekend of May 6th. They presented genres ranging from science fiction and AI, to autobiographies, young adult novels, and children’s books.

Meera Sriram and Sandhya Prabhat explored the mother-daughter bond in their children’s book – A Garden in One’s Hands. In the story, an Indian mother, in her traditional wear, paints henna on her daughter’s hands. Prabhat created beautiful illustrations for the story written by Meera Sriram.

Author Meera Sriram reads to children at the Berkeley Public Library at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, Calif. on May, 6, 2023. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

This tale “evokes nostalgia and sentiment easily even in children, and makes the reading experience memorable for them,” Prabhat said. She added that the book has received “heartwarming responses” from all communities. Her challenge was developing a traditional henna design at the end. “Meera’s lyrical writing describes a pattern being drawn on the child’s hand as the book progresses, each part of which stands for a story much deeper than what the pattern shows,” Prabhat said. 

Illustrator Sandhya Prabhat shows kids what mehendi or henna is at the Berkeley Public Library at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, Calif. on May 6, 2023. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Children listened to the story which was read aloud during the Story Time: Family and Heritage panel at the Berkeley Public Library. Sandhya Prabhat showed an eager group of toddlers a heart-shaped henna on her hands. The kids were excited, and the Indian kids in the audience exclaimed that the characters in the book looked like them.

Prabhat and Sriram were among the several Indian-origin authors and illustrators featured at this year’s Book Festival.

Lively panel discussions

The Society for Art & Cultural Heritage of India (SACHI) co-sponsored several lively panel discussions. At the panel on AI, Akil Kumarasamy, an award-winning fiction writer discussed her new novel Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, and various other topics related to ChatGPT.  Kumarasamy is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark MFA program.

Author Akil Kumarasamy reads aloud at the Brower Center at the Bay Area Book Festival at in Berkeley, Calif. on May 6, 2023. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

In her novel, her female coder character set in the future grieves her mother’s death by translating a manuscript from the past about a group of female medical students. Through it, she explores what compassion, ethics, and morality mean in an age of AI.

“The big question is what compassion looks like in this world. And the manuscript starts impacting her real life…,” said Kumarasamy. She added that her experience working in the tech industry gave her a unique insight into the tech and AI world before ChatGPT. It sparked her interest in exploring its ramifications on ethics and morality. 

Young adult fiction

According to the Bay Area book festival brochure, young adult fiction genre is the highest-selling genre today in book publishing. It was easy to understand why. Young adult romance writer Alisha Rai said on the YA: Falling for Love panel, “one of the great things about the rom coms is that you can examine serious and difficult topics in a way where you are in a sort of nice and safe bubble to examine these topics and explore them via the characters.” 

Author Alisha Rai (center) speaks at the Bay Area Book Festival at the Residence Inn Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. on May 6, 2023. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Rai has been an adult romance author for more than a decade. Her new young adult novel While You Were Dreaming “ a girl with undocumented family members goes viral after saving her crush’s life in disguise.” It is her first foray into young adult romance fiction. 

Rai wrote this novel for her younger siblings (Rai was 16 when her first brother was born). She spoke about the taboos of writing spicy romance novels, describing an experience when she discovered her computer screen at her home office with the manuscript on display – when her mother was in the house.

“I did not write for two weeks after that. I was so freaked out by what she had read,” Rai said. With time, however, her mother became one of her biggest cheerleaders. People can respond in heartwarmingly surprising ways, added Rai. “My last adult book got picked up for a TV series for Warner Bros. And my mom said, oh, maybe I should read it. And I was like, wait till it comes out and I’ll give you a carefully edited version,” Rai said.