Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Sheela Chari on Vanished

Please welcome Sheela Chari, debut novelist and author of the middle grade mystery Vanished just out from Hyperion. From Kirkus Reviews: Chari, in her debut novel, strikes the right note with this engaging, intricate story that spans generations and two countries.
[Uma] I was thrilled when I first heard about Vanished, because I've long been calling for South Asian American fiction for young readers in which culture and social issues do not in themselves constitute the story. Here you have mystery, music, school friendships, honesty and self-awareness all converging in a most engaging novel. What made you pull together these particular elements? 

[Sheela] Uma, thanks so much for having me on your blog! Vanished started off as a birthday present to my niece, whose name is Neela, just like the heroine. I had forgotten to mail her a present, so I started writing a story about her. The real Neela also played the veena, so I wrote about her and her instrument. I wanted to make the whole thing a fun mystery for her to read, so I asked myself, what would happen if Neela’s veena disappeared? How would she get it back?
That was how the book started, but as I continued, I began to seriously imagine the story not just as a birthday present for Neela, but as a real, legitimate novel for kids. At first I wondered, could I really write about an ancient, stringed instrument from India? 

No one knew what a veena was, or what it sounded like. More importantly, could I write about Neela and her instrument in a way that would interest kids? But once I started asking these questions, I found that they became easy to answer. I began to see that Vanished was not just a writing challenge, but that it became the kind of book that was important for me to write. 

Master veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh and
veena. Source:

[Uma] It's true that few people in the US are familiar with the instrument. (Note: Here on Jayanthi Kumaresh's web site you can listen to samples of the veena's evocative voice.) By that same token I'll bet you didn't see much of yourself and your background reflected in books you read as a child. Care to comment on that?

[Sheela] Throughout my childhood, I had grown up on mystery and adventure novels. My favorites were books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Secret Garden. But as an Indian child living in the United States, I had never read a book about a person like me. By the time I was an adult, there were several good books out there about self-identity and the challenges of living between two cultures, or else there were books set in India. But what I wanted to see were mysteries and adventure stories about Indian Americans who were out there experiencing life and solving mysteries, similar to their American peers. I wanted to write something fun and exciting that the real-life Neela could read and still say yes, this could happen to me.

That’s how Vanished came into being: partly through happy circumstance, partly through deliberate contemplation. As for the other elements – music has always been a very important part of my life. I was trained as a violinist from an early age, and I still play. It seemed only natural to write about something I felt deeply about. And if you think about it, music is truly the universal language that people can converge upon, regardless of their social or cultural backgrounds.

[Uma] For the purpose of this blog, I define an insider narrative as one set within a cultural group or geographical setting of which the writer has personal experience. One of the things I love about Vanished is how you draw those links between Boston and India, mirroring aspects of both realities, but in ways that blur the boundaries. Thus we have an American veena player, dragon motifs that cross many cultural boundaries, classical south Indian music tradition, and an Indian-American protagonist trying to be herself. What were the delights and the challenges of writing from such perspectives of hybridity and flux?

[Sheela] I’m not sure I set out to write with these hybridizations in mind. I do think I was concerned with balance, so as I wrote, I thought about the people the fictional Neela might interact with in her life – and then I tried to make them interesting! I wanted to make sure different types of people came into her life – young and old, male and female, Indian and not, and from different cultural backgrounds and cities around the world. I wanted anyone reading the book to find some part of the story relatable to them.

Church door, model for interior art. Arlington MA

Beyond that, I think a lot of the composites were a result of me being both Indian and American, and having a “dual insider perspective,” if I can play a little off your term! I was born in Bangalore, India, but grew up mostly in America. I was raised in a fairly traditional household. My parents brought up my brother and me vegetarian, we observed religious festivals regularly, and we spoke a mixture of Tamil, Kannada, and English in the home. But outside the home, my school friends were all American. I listened to rock music, then later to Western classical music. I dressed and spoke like everyone I knew in school, and never thought of myself as being different. It was only after I went to college and met other Indians, as well as people from all around the world, that I began to get a sense of my own heritage and background – when I saw it reflected in others! So I guess that’s a lengthy explanation of why my personality and upbringing have made me a blend of East and West, and why it would be inevitable that these two halves would appear in my writing.

[Uma] You use images of objects with delicacy, so that their occurrence and recurrence not only create visual echoes, but convey to the reader a sense of Neela's growth over the course of the book--the snapping string, the dragons of course, and others. Were you aware of these as you wrote or was their placement intuitive, or a bit of both? Tell me about the importance of physical objects to you in this story.

[Sheela] Objects are important in that they carry meaning with them, both as the writer might intend, as well as what the reader associates with them. If you look more closely at the veena and wyvern for example, you will find that they carry interesting dichotomies. In the Author Notes section of my book, I talk about how in Indian Hindu mythology, the veena is both the instrument of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, as well as Ravana, the arch-villain in The Ramayana (a religious text). Likewise, the wyvern (the dragon that appears in Vanished) is also a symbol of valor and strength in medieval history, as well as one of pestilence and revenge. I didn’t go looking for these qualities. But interestingly, as I dug deeper into my story and did more research, I discovered that these objects “resonated” in unexpected, meaningful ways.

It’s interesting how you observed the appearances of the objects throughout --– I would say it was intuitive to the writing of the story. However, the veena was the most important object of all, not just because the mystery was constructed around its disappearance, but because the instrument represents the desire to own and covet it. At the heart of the novel is the issue of wanting what you can’t have, and how different characters deal with it.

[Uma] Vanished contains moral ambiguity in the person of good people who make poor decisions, past and present. Without giving anything away, I want to comment in particular on the wonderful turning point in which Neela herself makes a single decision that seems to right everyone else's mistakes as well as her own. Can you talk about how you arrived at the very interesting ethical through-line of this novel?

[Sheela] I know exactly which scene you’re talking about! And I must say that this scene, which takes place towards the end of the novel, is one of the earliest ones I saw in my mind. It was the scene that I was working towards as I wrote the novel.

[Uma] That's interesting. It shows, I think. Sometimes those ideas that first grab us have great tensile strength, and can pull a whole story toward them.

[Sheela] I think for many writers, we have such a scene on our horizon – it might be at the very end, or somewhere in the middle, it might be the scene where something important is revealed, or by which the main character undergoes a crucial moment of change. Whatever it is, it’s the reason we’re writing the book. This scene where Neela makes her decision was important to me because that was how I saw her becoming a better person, and the chance to be a real musician at last. Her quest throughout isn’t just to find the lost veena, but to find her reason for playing music, that would sustain her in the long run, and help her overcome her fear of performing.

[Uma] And finally, you catch the vulnerability of preteens deftly and with humor: Neela's stage fright, Matt's hesitation when he talks about his music, Pavi and her swimming, and other instances. How did you go about tapping the emotional lives of your characters?

[Sheela] Good question! I can only say that I had a lovely stroke of luck in having so many kids in my life – my own two daughters, as well as my nieces and nephew. Neela was also someone I knew from the time she was a baby, and I have watched her grow, talked to her at length, and know her like my own child.

But I think the truth is that like many children’s writers, I write from the memory of being a young person. One of the reasons I write middle grade is that its age group is the part of my childhood I so distinctly remember… it’s the voice that comes most naturally to me.

[Uma] And it speaks naturally in this very interesting first novel. Congratulations, Sheela.

The Kidlitosphere Interview Wednesday portal this week is Anastasia Suen's Chapter Book of the Day. Scroll down to the end of Anastasia's post to see the roundup.


  1. Thanks for this interview, Uma, and for your post from yesterday. I'm thinking a lot about cultural authenticity right now and what constitutes an "outsider" or an "insider." The main man in my childhood was Puerto Rican, and for many reasons I've usually felt like an outsider in the places I've found myself.

    So do I have a right to write from the POV of an angry Puerta Rican foster girl? I was never that, but the voice sprang so naturally to my mind from the mixed spanish and english I heard in my childhood and my feelings of being outside and other.


  2. Pam, that's a great question: do I have a right to write from the POV of an angry Puerta Rican foster girl?

    Ten years ago I would have argued against it, but I think things have changed.

    I think that you could, if you did the work you needed to do to make that voice credible on the page, and if you approached the work with humility but resisted exoticizing the character. That's a hard combination to pull off but it can be done. I guess my sense is that if fiction writing anyway is all smoke and mirrors, then the writer makes choices. When we're writing in a cultural context we just need to be keenly aware of the effects of those choices.

  3. That's a great point. Sometimes even people who obviously mean well exoticize or romanticize some aspect of a character outside of their personal experience. Anyway, great things to put in the pipe. Thanks!


  4. Exactly, and that's the thing that always rings so false to the insider reader. That's always my concern. For centuries the assumption, to be plain about it, was that stories about brown and black kids were written by white writers, to be read by white kids. Today that's a false assumption and yet its traces can be found in texts published even now, in our time.

  5. Great interview! Can't wait to read VANISHED!

  6. Thank you for having me, Uma. This was a fun and thought-provoking interview to do.