Zibby Owens: Supriya Kelkar is the winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel Ahimsa. She’s a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films. She was an associate producer on the Hollywood feature Broken Horses. Supriya’s books include Ahimsa; The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh; American as Paneer Pie, which just came out and we’re going to talk about that; Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame; Bindu’s Bindis; and That Thing About Bollywood. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Welcome, Supriya. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Supriya Kelkar: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: American as Paneer Pie, I feel like you’ve written so many books at this point, and movies. You’re this amazing creator. You said in a note to me that this is your most personal book yet. I wanted to talk about that. Can you tell everybody what American as Paneer Pie is about? Then tell me a little more about the inspiration behind it.

Supriya: American as Paneer Pie is the story of Lekha who is the only Indian American kid in a small town in Michigan. Lekha feels like she has two versions of herself. There’s home Lekha who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food. Then there’s school Lekha who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when it comes to being teased for her Indian culture. When a racist incident rocks their small town, Lekha must choose whether to continue to remain silent or find her voice and speak out against hate. Like Lekha, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. I wasn’t the only South Asian America kid in town, but it was not a diverse town at all. There were daily incidents of microaggressions and othering. We had a rock thrown through our window. I have the same hair as Lekha, really big, thick, curly hair. Even in the Desi community, which is a South Asian diaspora, there’s really a preference towards silky, wavy hair. Curly hair is not the beauty standard. In my town, that also was not the beauty standard because very few, if any, people had hair like mine. People would walk by and touch my hair, tap it as they walked by. Someone wrote “Put a comb in that rat’s nest” in Sharpie on my locker. A lot of those incidents that are in the book are straight from my life. I adjusted them to Lekha’s story. When I first saw the cover by Abigail Dela Cruz and designer Laura Lyn DiSena, I was so floored. There’s this picture I put up on Instagram that’s me. I was like, that looks exactly like me on the cover. I used to tie my hair back in a bun because people would touch it and people would make fun of it. I didn’t take my hair out, I didn’t wear my curls out until I was thirty-eight, like a year and a half ago.

Zibby: You’re kidding.

Supriya: Yeah. There’s so much from my life. Lekha finds her voice while she’s in middle school. I didn’t find my voice until I went to college at the University of Michigan. It was diverse. They accepted diversity. It was a strength. It wasn’t seen as something that you would get made fun of for. I didn’t find my voice until college. Unlike me, Lekha finds her voice a lot earlier. I hope that this book inspires and empowers kids everywhere to know that their story matters. I hope it empowers them to find their voice.

Zibby: I’m looking at your hair now. I know this will be audio. We’re on Skype. Your hair is absolutely gorgeous. By the way, I’m from the Jewish background. It looks like everybody I know’s hair, curly, wavy hair. I was just giving my daughter a Function of Beauty new product for her curls. I think the things that you feel are your most insecure about end up being — anyway, I think you know what I’m trying to say.

Supriya: Totally, yes.

Zibby: That’s horrible. I can’t believe you had to endure that in your school environment and all the rest. I also couldn’t believe it when Lekha — I don’t want to give anything away by describing what the incident was. Should we keep it secret? Yes? Okay.

Supriya: Yeah, that works.

Zibby: I was also shocked by that. Then even how her peers, how her best friend almost wanted to exploit it for his own gain and how she felt. This is so perfectly middle school, the way you captured some of these things. One, the sleepover incident and having to lie her way out of that because she didn’t want to be excluded from something else and not knowing what to do and how to not be left out without hurting someone else. The politics of middle school, it’s just stunning. You just captured it all so, so well. It’s amazing. Then the added layer, of course, of feeling that sense of otherness. I loved your character who moved across the way very early on. I’m blanking on her name, but I can look it up.

Supriya: Avantika.

Zibby: Avantika. When Avantika comes and it’s almost like a mirror for Lekha, does she want to double down and become good friends, or does she want to push it away because it’s a part of herself that she’s not feeling super comfortable with? Then how their relationship unfolds, so awesome. Also, Avantika has so much confidence. Talk a little more about the way that she talks to the teacher, how even when the teacher’s like, “Wasn’t India under British rule?” and she’s like, “Yeah, just like America,” like, you moron. Tell me a little about forming these characters. If Lekha was sort of the you in this, who was everyone else? How did you come up with them all?

Supriya: I did not have an Avantika at my school. There were maybe two other Indian American kids in elementary school with me. We sort of huddled together a lot on the playground and stuff. I thought back to when my cousin moved in with us when I was in high school. He was just with us for a couple months. All those feelings of, this person has an accent and so do my parents, am I embarrassed of this? Am I proud of this? There’s just so much there for a child of immigrants in a space that doesn’t accept that. I wanted to put that all in there and have a character who was so proud of who she was and who didn’t take the bullying the way Lekha was sort of forced to take it due to her circumstances. I wanted that role model. I also wanted to use Avantika to talk about some of the intracommunity issues in the Desi community about colorism. I think just recently a lot of those fairness creams announced that they are either changing their name or doing something, but the product still exists. I wanted to call attention to that and show that there’s racism and othering within the South Asian American community as well. Avantika was a great character to do that with. Growing up, my next-door neighbor was a white boy. That’s where Noah came from. Then the other characters are pretty fictional, but they are based on a combination of bullies and friends from school from growing up.

Zibby: How did you feel having gotten this story out?

Supriya: I have taken a lot longer to write other books of mine. I wrote this draft in five weeks. I wrote in 2017 at a time when it felt like people in power were really condoning hate. It was being emboldened and encouraged everywhere. I actually live in the same small town I grew up in. It has doubled in size. It’s a lot more diverse, but it still has really bad incidents of racism. I had two young kids and my third was a baby in 2017. I found myself so worried about whether my kids would face the same things I did because they’re going to the same schools I did. From that fear, this story just came. It came to me so quickly. I’ve never written a novel this fast. I write picture books in several months. This was in five weeks. It just sort of poured out of me. It was such a release when I wrote it. I really felt like I had finally spoken up for myself as a child decades later. It felt good to write it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. How great you can give it to your kids to read. That’s awesome. That’s so awesome. The things that happen when you’re young, I remember there was some incident in second grade where I opened my rickety wooden desk when I first got to school and inside there was a script-written note on lined paper that said, “Dear Zibby, I hate you. From, guess who?” I burst into tears. Then I also didn’t want anyone to know. Should I show the teacher? Should I not? Who was it? For whatever reason, I have forgotten most of college, half of high school probably, but this one moment, I could tell you every sense and thing. I feel like some of these moments that happen to us for any reason, just the pain and the knowing that our kids can experience things like that coming up and what to do about them, at least now you’ve written this amazing book.

Supriya: I’m so sorry that happened to you.

Zibby: No, it was just a silly example.

Supriya: But it sticks with you.

Zibby: That’s my point, yeah. Everything becomes magnified, especially at a younger age, whereas maybe now we could brush it off more. Maybe not. I don’t know. How did you get into writing and picture books and screenwriting and all of it? How did you start on this whole trajectory of your life?

Supriya: In third grade, our teacher had us write books. He bound them in hardcover. It’s really silly, but I thought it was so cool to see my name on a hard cover. I was like, this is what I’m going to do. From that moment on, I wanted to be an author. Somewhere in middle school, I decided I wanted to be a Bollywood screenwriter instead. At the University of Michigan, they had brought in a big movie producer, director, and writer. I had written a thesis the summer before. One section was on one of his movies. I handed it to him after he spoke. Then I thought I’d never hear from him again. This was back in the day of answering machine tapes. One day I came back to my college apartment and his voice was on the answering machine. He called me over to meet him. After I graduated, I started writing for him. I joined his screenwriting team. We worked on several movies. I worked for him for a little over a decade.

It was so fun to go to LA or to Mumbai and be just having dinner with the stars whose posters were on my wall as a kid, except I had to play it really cool. I did that. Then when I had kids, I wasn’t able to work those really long hours. We’d be working until two or three AM sometimes. I’d have to fly to India or LA at a moment’s notice sometimes, literally. I just couldn’t commit to that anymore, so I started going back to books. In between screenwriting, anytime I had a break between screenplays I would work on the book that became my first published book, Ahimsa. I wrote that in 2003. That first draft was pretty awful. I would keep going back to it every year for thirteen years until I finally got it to a good place. That book ended up winning the New Visions Award from Lee & Low Books. That’s how I got published. Then from then on, I just switched over to novels and picture books. It’s been a literal dream come true from third grade.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so amazing. Oh, my gosh. How do you decide what type of picture books to write too?

Supriya: Sometimes I just get an idea from my kids. You know what? I don’t really know. Most of my picture books are also about the themes that are in American as Paneer Pie or in Ahimsa. They’re usually about social justice or feeling othered or how to feel like you belong. The themes are consistent even if the books are, one is five hundred words and one is fifty thousand words.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What types of projects do you have in the works? Are you thinking of going back to film? I know you have some exciting things coming up.

Supriya: Thinking a little bit about doing some film stuff, if I can, as the kids get a little older. I have a few books coming out. I have another historical fiction book coming out sometime early next year called Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame. I got that idea when I thought back to the only Indian representation I saw in my entire childhood in school. That was when they showed us a little bit of The Secret Garden movie. I remember feeling so weird about how the Indian characters are backdrops in their own land. They’re just props. They’re servants. They’re in the background. This book takes place in 1857. It really challenges who we center in these kinds of stories and whose story is being told and who is being left out and what we consider classics and sort of rethinking all of that. Then I have a picture book coming in March called Bindu’s Bindis from Sterling. That’s about a girl who loves to match the shape of her bindis to her nani, to her grandmother’s bindis. Then in summer I have another book from Simon & Schuster BFYR called That Thing About Bollywood. That combines a little bit of my Bollywood background. It’s about a girl who is really bad at expressing herself who loves Hindi movies. When her parents announce that they’re separating, she is afflicted with this magical condition that forces her to show her emotions in the most obvious way possible, through Bollywood song and dance numbers. I’m really excited about that one.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Wow, you’re just a fountain of creativity and ideas and output. How are you doing this? You have three kids. I have four kids. Especially with the pandemic and everything, how are you carving out the time? How are you doing this?

Supriya: It’s been really hard in the pandemic. I’ve really not had much time at all time to do it because with homeschooling — my husband’s a healthcare worker, so he’s been at the hospital all the time. It was just me at home with the kids most days. Yeah, not very productive right now. Even normally, I would usually work at night. I would work ten to two AM. Then I was thinking when my youngest got a little older this year and was going to go to school full time, I was going to have more time, but I think we are virtually learning this year, so I guess I’ll have to figure this out.

Zibby: My youngest is supposed to start kindergarten in the fall. For the last few years, I was like, when he gets to kindergarten I’m going to have all kinds of time. Little did I know that his three-hour preschool was the biggest break I would have for years to come or whatever, oh, my gosh. When you work from ten to two, which is insanely impressive and amazing, do the words just flow out? I know you said for this last one it took you just five weeks. Do you outline the whole thing? What’s your process like? Do you have it all set up and then you just write? Tell me a little more about your process.

Supriya: Yeah, I do. I was a film major in college with a concentration on screenwriting. Because of that background, it was really drilled into us that you have to outline, outline, outline all the time. I think about the book for a long time, for several weeks, until I understand the character. I’ll handwrite notes in a notebook. Then I go to the computer to outline. I work on that for a long time, usually. In the case of American as Paneer Pie, it sort of all just fell into place. I will work on the outline for a long time. I use a three-act structure from screenwriting in my books. Then I start writing. Then once I write it, I have several critique partners that I share with. I get their feedback. Then I send it to my agent. I incorporate her feedback. Then if it’s ready to go out, it goes out.

Zibby: Wow. It takes a village, all of it.

Supriya: It really does.

Zibby: Can you go back to what you said earlier in our conversation about not wearing your hair down until you were thirty-eight years old? What changed? What was that moment like? What was the day where you said, I’m wearing it down and I’m wearing it curly? Just tell me about that moment of transition.

Supriya: I was actually in edits on this book. I was like, you know what, I’m being a hypocrite if I’m still ashamed of my hair when Lekha is going through this process to learn to love herself. One day, I just did it. I was like, oh, this is what it feels like to have the breeze go through your hair. I haven’t felt this since I was a little kid. I did it. I have to admit, I was very awkward and nervous doing it because my whole life I had been told this is ugly and this should be brushed and tied back, or you’re not brushing it right if it’s looking like that, even though this my hair. If I brush it, it’s going to be just all knotted. It took a while. I finally got used to it. I’m so happy I finally did this. It took a few decades, but I’m glad I did it.

Zibby: Maybe you already have and I didn’t find it, but you should write an essay about this experience, about this whole thing.

Supriya: I should. I haven’t.

Zibby: You should. You have to write it. It’s the perfect time for it and such a metaphor, this whole letting your hair down.

Supriya: That’s a great idea.

Zibby: So you get right to that.

Supriya: All right, bye.

Zibby: Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Supriya: I would say to read as much as you can because you learn so much from every book you read. Even if you don’t like a book, I think you can understand, what didn’t I like about this? Did I not like the way the character was developed? Did I not like the turns in the plot? I would say read a ton. Don’t be attached to your words. I know it’s a whole process to get to that point where you understand that the first draft is not the perfect draft and that you need other readers to look at it and take their feedback into consideration. Just don’t be attached to your words and be prepared to revise a lot. Like I said with Ahimsa, that was over a decade of revisions. If I had stopped revising, it would never have won this award and I would never have been published. Read and revise.

Zibby: What about to somebody out there who might be going through the type of otherness and hatred and discrimination in any sort and really just needs that encouragement that it’s going to get better? How about some empowering words?

Supriya: I would just say to remember that your story matters. You are important. The world deserves to hear your story. When I was growing up, when I look back at all the books I had written as a kid, every character was white with yellow hair when I illustrated it, which would’ve been great if that was me. That’s not how I looked, but I never saw myself in a book or a TV show or a movie growing up. There was not that representation. Somewhere along the way I got the message that my story didn’t matter. I was erased from our American current history. I would just say to remember that you do matter. The world is a better place because you’re here. We all would love to hear your story.

Zibby: Every character I made up as a kid was usually named Cindy with blonde hair and blue eyes. Often, she was a twin, not always. I don’t know what my fascination was. My Barbie dolls? I don’t know what it was, but that is certainly not what I look like. Although, the highlights are helping, but I’ll never quite get there. In a way, it’s wanting what you can’t have. Although frankly, I wouldn’t really want it because it sounds like a lot of upkeep to be blonde when you get older, so this is a blessing. Anyway, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this great book, American as Paneer Pie. Now I have to go get your children’s books for my little guys. I’m really impressed. You’re so articulate and thoughtful. The messages in your book are really important and great. How amazing to target it to the age group that needs it most to make the biggest impact going forward for the whole world. Thank you for your contributions.

Supriya: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Have a great day.

Supriya: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.