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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Bijal Shah was born in India and moved to the United States at the age of eleven. Being raised as Indian American came with its own set of challenges, one of them being her encounters with desi stereotypes and biases. She often witnessed or was a target of stray comments by adult friends and family. This left a strong imprint on her as a child, impacting her psyche in more ways than one. She also saw others like her struggling to navigate similar life experiences.
For the Love of Laxmi: Everyday Desi Biases and the Imprints They Leave (Mascot Books) is a light-hearted picture book for adults that “explores this dichotomy of being raised in two cultures,” where, according to the author’s publicist, Shah “balances a little bit of holding on, a little bit of letting go and everything in-between.”
IC: Tell us about your love for writing. How did you get started?
BS: I always find this a difficult question because it always leads me to look for some sort of source. I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I remember; writing is how I’ve always conveyed any emotions. I’m the girl with the long notes on the greeting cards, the girl that wrote poems in middle/high school, and the girl that, at the age of 6-7, would tell her paternal grandparents to write letters for her in Gujarati and Hindi because I couldn’t write well myself at the age. But I had a vivid imagination, so I’d narrate stories and letters and have them write them, and I would then drop them off at random neighbors’ homes.
And then there is my maternal grandfather. He owned Gujarati Times, and some of my fondest memories are with him, and him taking us to his office. I remember this bookshelf in front of the desk that I would look at every time to see what new book was added to it. I think about my career, and my favorite moments and highlights in it were always related to storytelling.
So I guess I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.
I always thought I’d start with a memoir/short essays type of book. Initially, I thought it would be about being a 26-year-old Indian Divorcee in NYC, and then as I started writing pieces of that, a lot of childhood stories came up, and experiences in NYC that changed me so I realized the story was bigger, so I’m still writing that one—we haven’t figured out the title or the theme fully yet, but it’s in the making.
And as for For the Love of Laxmi, for me, it was a coming-of-age moment. As I grew older, I found similar anecdotes that friends and I talked about. While in theory, they were tiny comments, they left huge imprints on my mind about the limitations we created for ourselves.
We would all be at drinks or brunch, and talk about similar moments, and almost everyone at the table would have a very very similar story to share. And that’s what this book is about—it’s about everyday South Asian moments, and the impact it leaves.
IC: Do you have a creative process or a ritual before working on a project?
BS: I sometimes will read an old piece I’ve written, or start in the middle of the story to get inspired. The middle is where the meat is, I mean, I am a vegetarian, so I don’t know if that analogy even makes sense, but to me, the middle is what we really want to convey, so sometimes I’ll just start there and then build it out from there.
IC: Is your book autobiographical? Talk to us about the personal experiences that shaped this book.
BS: Not autobiographical entirely. It’s about relatability. I think the important thing is to remember these are just anecdotes, and the conversation may be different, but the idea with the illustrative book for grownups was to take you back to your moment that left an imprint.
It’s as simple as a “you run like a girl” comment or “since you are Gujarati, you should be in business.” The hope with the book is for this to be a conversation starter about things we say nonchalantly to people and the impact they can have.
IC: Did you struggle to develop any parts of this book?
BS: In the beginning, finding the right illustrator was difficult. I interviewed so many, but the minute I found Alexa, it was wonderful! Alexa really understood Laxmi, her family, and who she is and who she will be.
IC: Your book has been a conversation starter among many of your readers. What kind of experience has that been for you?
BS: It’s been amazing and I truly think the best example of this is on Goodreads – a lot of the reviews talk about how it resonated.
IC: You have often said that this is a children’s book for adults as well. Can you elaborate on that?
BS: It’s absolutely not a children’s book! This book is about relatability, a conversation starter among generations about moments that really stayed with them, and how we can be better going forward.
My mom and I had a similar moment in our life at a very young age, by two different people, and it impacted both of us very very similarly. We talked about this as I was writing the book.
I was about 14, at an Indian party, and I was dancing, and some aunty came up to me and said, “you always do the same type of moves, you should change it up a bit, or it looks boring,” and since then, I’ve become so incredibly cautious of my dance—that I still tell people, “I don’t know how to dance.”
I recognize this was a tiny comment with no ill intent, but this was a stranger who felt the need to tell me to be better. This stranger didn’t feel the need to have a conversation. It wasn’t a, “Hey, Where did you learn it? You want to see mine?” That would have been a growth opportunity but instead, it just left a mark and me questioning myself.
IC: You have talked about sequels to this book.
BS: Part Two is seeing Laxmi in her college years and navigating identity crisis, and cultural dualities. Part Three is about coming of age, acceptance, and boundaries.
Surabhi Kaushik is a writer from the heart and finds joy and comfort in her words. You can find all her published work on her blog https://surabhiwritersmind.blogspot.com