Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Process Talk: Veera Hiranandani on The Whole Story of Half a Girl

Sonia Nadhamuni is half Indian and half Jewish American. When her father loses his job, she’s yanked out of her comfortable private school and sent to public school, where, for the first time, her mixed heritage prompts questions, comments, and even teasing. Then Dad takes a turn for the worse. I asked Veera Hiranandani to talk about the creation of her middle grade novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl.

[Uma] You have some things in common with Sonia, your young protagonist and narrator in The Whole Story of Half a Girl. Talk about why writing this book was important for you.

[Veera] When I started the book, I felt like I was brushing the dust off a story I had been carrying inside me since I was Sonia's age. Even though many of the events and characters are fictional, Sonia's multi-cultural background and emotional experiences connected to that are very close to my own. I felt somewhat alone during those years and I wanted to write this book for kids going through similar challenges. I also wanted to create an awareness about these issues for kids who don't feel "other," but who might know kids who do. And no matter what your background is, who doesn't have to face questions about feeling different and fitting in? I hope this book can give young people a little company during those times.

[Uma] The novel is all about borders--internal ones, as well as those in the real world--that have to do with race, religion, politics, economics, privilege, power, and of course the borders one crosses socially in adolescence. How did all these disparate threads come together for you in the writing of this book?

[Veera] Well put. Borders so often are what define us to others and many times we want to draw them as clearly as we can in an effort to claim our identities. But the truth is we really get to know ourselves when we're forced to cross those borders and spend some time in the blurry middle areas. When you're part of two cultures, many times you find yourself living in between borders. From the beginning I knew Sonia would have to come up against borders around her cultural and ethnic identity and that was the problem I centered the story around. As she interacted with her parents and Kate and Alisha, more borders kept popping up like fences that she had to figure out how to jump over. They just sort of appeared as I fleshed out the plot. I try to look closely at boundaries of race, economics, class, politics and the like and how people choose to claim these identities. I find that very interesting and revealing in books and in real life.  

[Uma] Sonia's struggles are often moral ones, in the choices facing her--choices related to friendship and kindness, family and community. It's the rich supporting cast of characters--Alisha in particular, but also Kate, Mom, and Grandma--whose actions and words lead Sonia in the end to think for herself. Tell me how you went about crafting those secondary characters.

[Veera] Well, some of the characters like Mom, were very formed for me from the beginning, but Kate and Alisha were more challenging. In an earlier draft, I originally included an additional friend character, but she seemed to crowd the book and I decided to omit her. When I did that, Kate and Alisha became much clearer to me. I tried to craft supporting characters that would force Sonia outside her comfort zone. I wanted them to surprise her, not be what she might have expected or what the reader expected. I didn't want them to be opposites, yet I wanted them to represent different sides of Sonia. Grandma's role became more apparent the deeper I went into the book. She represents someone from an older generation who also had to push herself across borders to make the right decision. With Grandma, I could show what Mom had to go through to be who she wanted to be and now it was Sonia's turn to decide who she was with the wisdom of previous generations to help her along. 

[Uma] Sonia's dad is struggling with job loss and depression as she herself struggles with the fallout of those in her life. Still, you don't opt for easy or tidy resolutions. Do you have any thoughts that may be helpful to writers who struggle with plotting in general and resolutions in particular?

[Veera] It's not an easy task by any means. Again, this book went through many drafts, but the ending I have is actually my original ending. In an earlier draft I changed the ending which did ultimately felt too neat and tidy, so I went back to my first ending and changed the material leading up to the ending. I learned that sometimes if you like an ending, but it doesn't feel quite right, it might be how you lead the reader there that needs work, instead of the final ending itself. Dad was the biggest surprise for me in the book. I honestly didn't know he would be as large a part of the book as he was, or would struggle as much as he did. In my earliest drafts, he was much murkier, his struggles sort of burried. I realized there was an undercurrent of pain to the character there that I hadn't fully understood. Only as I fleshed him out in later drafts, did I realize how much was there.  

And here's the starred review from Kirkus. Snippet:
Four decades separate Sonia Nadhamuni and Judy Blume’s Margaret Simon, but these feisty, funny offspring of Jewish interfaith marriages are sisters under the skin.
Congratulations, Veera!

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