Kavita Daswani

“It’s important for young people today to really try and know themselves” – Kavita Daswani

If I was asked to list my top ten favorite authors, Kavita Daswani would most definitely rank in my top five and call me biased, but it may have something to do with the fact that she too hails from Hong Kong. Her plunge into the world of novels began with the popular ‘For Matrimonial Purposes,’ which although she doesn’t choose to fully accept, received praises galore. This was quickly followed by ‘Salaam, Paris’, ‘The Village Bride of Beverly Hills’ and last but definitely not least, ‘Indie Girl.’ Kavita’s books have been deemed, “A cross-cultural confection” by People Magazine and additionally, USA Today claimed, “Daswani can make readers shriek with laughter.” On a personal note, it was Kavita who guided me through the world of freelancing when I realized my calling for journalism. I was more than thrilled when she agreed to a candid interview for Roshni Magazine about her journey from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, writing now versus then and her valuable, experienced advice to aspiring writers.

From writing for a local Hong Kong newspaper, the SCMP, to a whole range of renowned publications and now then finally an author to many books, how has the journey been?
Mostly, I’m surprised that I made it this far, and stuck it out.  It really began as a hobby for me.  I was 17, living with my family in  Hong Kong, working part-time in my father’s import-export business, and just looking for a way to indulge a love I’ve always had of  writing. I was very lucky in that people gave me a chance, and doors  opened without too much difficulty – although that may have been a function of the city in which I was living, and the time in which I was trying to break in. It’s really been just terrific though: even now, more than 25 years later, I still get excited at a new assignment, meeting a new editor, landing another book deal.  It never gets tired.

You often draw from your own life experiences when writing, how hard or easy is that?
For me, anyway, it’s much easier than making things up – which I suppose doesn’t say much for the breadth and depth of my imagination! I think that’s why I find it easier to write my novels in first person – it puts me right there, in the main character’s shoes, and I think it helps readers connect more emotionally to the material because, at least for some of the time, it comes from an authentic source.

How did you feel when you received great critical acclaim for your first book, “For Matrimonial Purposes?”
I’m not sure that there was ‘great critical acclaim’!  There was buzz though, which is nice, and a fair deal of press coverage. That whole time was such a thrill for me.  I was a new, first-time mother, had just landed this terrific book deal.  I found an agent easily, she sold the book easily, I really loved the people I was working with – and it was all so smooth.  I know that that’s the opposite of what it usually is, and that I was in a very fortunate position to have had that experience.

How do you feel when young girls tell you they have had similar experiences to Anju in the book? What is your advice to them?
That happens a lot.  I like that it does – it shows that young girls see themselves in a character I’ve written about.  And I can fully relate to what it’s like – being young, looking for the right person, having all those societal pressures to contend with as well.  It’s very stressful, and can be so conflicting.  These things, as I’ve discovered, tend to unfold in their own time.  But, at the same time,  I think that it’s important for young people today – girl, boy, it  doesn’t matter – to really try and know themselves, to see what runs  them, what moves them, what they react to and why.  I think that it’s  only when we know ourselves more clearly are we able to recognize  people for who they are when they show up in our lives.  And, even more importantly, I think it’s important for people to let go of the fantasy-scenario they’ve created in their heads of what “right” is.   Sometimes the person we end up with bears no resemblance to that image – yet the end result is infinitely more fulfilling.

How true to real life are the characters in all your books?
I’d like to think that the characters exist in real life, somewhere – and that people can relate to elements of them, to their traits and personalities.

Times are changing. How do you keep up with modern ideas and ensure  that young readers are still interested in what you write about?
That has been the most challenging aspect of writing my last two books – both for the teen-young adult market. I left my teens behind a long time ago.  I have a Facebook page but no idea what to do with it, and just obtained a Twitter account at the behest of a much more tech-savvy friend, but I doubt I’ll ever tweet anything.   Still, the Internet is a phenomenal resource, and I research as much as I can online and also talk endlessly to young people.  That helps enormously.

What is one question many readers ask you after reading your books?
“How much of this is you?”

When writing a book, do you have an audience in mind or is it intended for everyone?
Would you believe, when I started, the audience I had in mind were my parents?  Of course, that’s changed a bit now seeing as I probably need to sell more than two copies to stay in the business!  I used to think it was just women or girls who were into them, but I’ve realized  that’s not the case at all – I get letters from men in Europe, India,  Israel, who say they’ve loved the stories.

How do you stay in touch with your roots despite being in America?
Not easy.  Perhaps because of where in America I live – in a very quiet little enclave 25 miles away from Los Angeles – I do feel a little cut off from the Indian community.  But we do what we can: I have a small temple at home, observe most of the festivals/rituals, watch the odd Bollywood film, and, of course, keep in touch with home all the time.

Who are some of your favorite writers?
It all depends on who I’m reading at the moment.  I’ve always enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri.  And right now, I’m really enjoying Elinor Lipman, who’s a wonderful contemporary women’s fiction writer.  Truthfully, I’m so busy with everything that the only books I read are the ones designated by my book club!

How do you deal when hit with a case of writers block?
A couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio usually do the trick.

Where do you draw inspiration to write from?
Usually what’s going on in my own life, or something I’ve read, or someone I’ve met – or a combination of all those things.  Sometimes it’s as bare-bones as an editor saying, ‘hey, this might be a fun idea.’  Other times, I’ll just think of something and bang out a few chapters and see what happens.

What is your next book about?
It’s finished, and will be out next year through Harper Collins. It’s formally supposed to be a young adult book, but it’s not really – I think it covers lots of different age ranges.  It’s about a teenage girl from Bangalore who comes from a big, involved family and was engaged when she was three, who ends up moving with her parents and sister to Los Angeles – about the culture clash, the loneliness, the letting go of an old love and the starting of something new.

If you weren’t a writer what do you think you would be doing?
Given that I’ve been doing this most of my adult life, I can’t even imagine.  There were a few things I explored before the writing took off - becoming a social worker or psychologist, or studying languages.  Lately, I’ve been cooking a lot – so that might have eventually become something.  But I hope I never stop writing.

Your advice to any aspiring young writers?
The same advice my instructor gave me when I was 17, attending a class in freelance journalism: everywhere you look there is a story.  Just learn to ask the right questions, and learn to listen.

~ Roshni M.
(August 2009)

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