When Sandhya Menon moved to America at age 15, she imagined the transition would be easy. She had, after all, spent her childhood bouncing between her home country of India and various other Middle Eastern countries.
“Boy, was I wrong!” she said. “It was a huge culture shock…I had a hard time understanding American turns of phrase, especially while I was in high school. But once I acclimated, I really began to love being part of the diaspora here in the US.”
I’ve been a fan of Sandhya’s since her upcoming debut, WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, first crossed my Twitter feed last fall. The book, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading, is an adorable story about first love, pursuing your passions, and what happens when generations get their signals crossed. It’s cute; it’s funny; and it showcases character growth through pretty much every single person in the pages. It’s a great work of young adult literature, and I highly encourage everyone to go, NOW, and pre-order it.
(In the meantime, look at the beautiful cover!)
Did you buy it? Good. Now let’s talk some more about Sandhya.
In true adorable-human fashion, she cited as her greatest accomplishment her family before her work (although both made the cut).
“My very happy fifteen-year marriage, the fact that I have two healthy, happy kids, and my books all come to mind!” she said.
As for the hardest thing about writing, “I never wish I could quit,” she answered. “That probably sounds so saccharine and idiotic, but it’s true! I love this gig and the freedom/honor/privilege of making stories for others to read.”
She did acquiesce that there is one technical aspect that’s difficult: the first revision she has to work on after a draft is completed, the one she has to do on her own before the book is ready to be seen by anyone else.
“It always feels slightly overwhelming,” she said. But she loves “losing myself in the universe of the characters.” She quoted Stephen King and added, “I love that feeling of having to remind myself that I belong in this world rather than the one I was just romping around in!”
During the childhood years she spent in India, Sandhya said she remembers “throwing rocks up at mangoes so we could eat them once they fell!” She lived in Mumbai, also known as Bombay, where her neighborhood was full of trees and parks.
And once she learned the art of writing as a kindergarten student, well, she was hooked.
“I began to write stories and poems,” she said. “It’s all I ever knew!”
Although she doesn’t remember a particular “first story” that spurred her writing, she does remember one incident of taking a real-life event and fictionalizing it.
“The possibility that life itself was full of stories totally fired me up,” she said, “and led to a lot more stories.”
One such story is that of Dimple and Rishi. It’s a young adult contemporary novel about two Indian-American teenagers whose parents want to arrange their marriage. Rishi, traditional and family-oriented, is all about it. He wants to please his parents. Dimple, passionate about coding and fiercely independent, is less enthused. When they meet at a summer coding camp, well…let’s just say things don’t go over as well as Rishi would have dreamed.
But WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI is a romance. That’s all I’ll say about what happens next, other than…guys, this book is so good. It’s one you want on your shelves, believe me. Not only is it physically beautiful, it’s full of heart, laughter, fun…and some uncomfortable scenes.
“Something that I struggled with was acknowledging casual racism in the story,” Sandhya said. There’s one scene where the two protagonists are at a restaurant and are faced with some really terrible, tone-deaf, racist comments. “Once I wrote [that] scene…I sent my editor an email asking if she thought some people would have a hard time buying it. All of those comments are things I have personally experienced, but to someone who isn’t a child of immigrant parents or living in the diaspora, they might seem completely overblown.”
Fortunately, Sandhya’s editor, also the child of immigrants, encouraged her to leave the scene as-is. “Since then,” she said, “I’ve gotten quite a few messages about that scene resonating with readers…so I’m glad she did!”
I asked Sandhya if she thinks her work is groundbreaking. If you tap, for just a few minutes, into the discussions online about the YA book community, you’ll find a ton of talk about diversity and representation in literature, and how hard it can be for people of color (or any other marginalization) to get their work published.
And here is Sandhya, Indian, immigrant, writing a book about two brown children of immigrants that’s getting a ton of buzz and is being published by Simon & Schuster, one of the “Big 5.” She’s doing huge things. So I wanted to know if she recognizes the huge things she’s doing.
First off, she clarified that this book isn’t just “hers.” It’s her story, yes, the one she wrote, but she credits the Simon & Schuster team as well as her agent and beta readers, as well.
“I think of “my work”…as groundbreaking in that it’s a book about two brown teens just living their best lives, falling in love, chasing their dreams, and having a happy ending,” she said. “The media is full of the “bad” or “brave” brown/black/gay/disabled/trans person narrative, and I feel like there are so many other stories we have to tell.
“We are not just villains or tragic characters,” she added. “We have just as much depth and breadth as anyone else.”
To me, that’s a powerful, important sentiment. Sandhya is such a sweet, fun person, and it was a pleasure to get to know her a little bit through this piece. If you’re not satisfied and want to hear more from her, follow her on Twitter or Instagram (which is full of cute pictures of her puppy!) and sign up for her newsletter.