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Questions, a guest post by Supriya Kelkar

Like many people over thirty, after a month of sheltering in place, I finally took the leap and joined TikTok to make videos for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE. I am lucky to be safe and healthy and have a place to shelter in. But after feeling consumed by stress and worry and sadness with some family members and friends either immunocompromised or sick, and several more employed as healthcare workers risking exposure to care for patients in the hospitals, I needed to take a minute to regroup, and this app was the place for me. Somehow minutes turned to hours, as I found myself laughing louder than I had in weeks at the most ridiculous fifteen-second antics courtesy of other TikTok users.

There were heroic healthcare workers doing the most hilarious dances in between shifts to get a break from their stress, hysterical challenges at home that irritated pets were just not into, and spouses dressing in their Halloween-best to make their significant other laugh during their work calls. It was the perfect distraction.

But within a couple days, TikTok figured out I was Indian-American, and I suddenly found my homepage full of videos from other South-Asian Americans. Many were really funny, full of Bollywood references and entertaining songs and dances, but there were also several TikToks by high schoolers or undergrads that were like short films exploring hyphenated identities, belonging, and microaggressions, and several of them actually listed the hurtful questions the kids and young adults heard all the time.

Surpiya’s book with some yummy paratha

I was intrigued because in my book, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster), the main character Lekha, the only Indian-American middle-schooler in a small town in Michigan that doesn’t value diversity, also lists the questions she hears every day. Questions like “where’s your dot? Where are you from? Where are you really from?” and many more. Questions that aren’t coming from a good place. Questions that are meant to make the recipient feel less-than.

I had based these questions on the questions I had heard all the time growing up as one of the few South Asian-Americans in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity. And now, decades after I’d last been in middle school or high school, desis on TikTok were grappling with those same questions, just like other kids across the country have been, like nothing had changed since I was their age.

I was dismayed that things really hadn’t improved much in all those years but I wasn’t surprised. I had written AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017, when the hate I knew had never gone away was suddenly emboldened and encouraged by people in positions of power. I was full of fear and worry that in a few years, my young children would be facing the same things I did; they would be forced to answer othering or racist questions every day, as if their existence needed an explanation to be permitted.

I was hopeful maybe things would be better when they got older but the TikTok videos were proving that might not be the case. I started to feel down, remembering how years of those questions had rendered me silent. Remembering how, unlike Lekha, who finds her voice over the course of the story in AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, I didn’t find my voice until years later, in college.

But then, somewhere in between watching the TikTok videos of South Asian-Americans defiantly answering the questions if they wanted to, or literally brushing them aside, swiping the text off-screen, not giving the ignorance their time if that’s what they chose to do, I realized that things had changed. Because unlike the way I dealt with the questions as a kid, shutting down, getting embarrassed or humiliated, these kids and young adults were calling out hypocrisy and appropriation and othering and microaggressions, while speaking up for themselves and speaking out against hate for the whole world to see.

It’s my hope that readers of AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, who haven’t yet found their way to deal with these questions, are inspired by Lekha’s story to speak out against hate as defiantly as that. I hope it empowers readers everywhere to be proud of who they are and to not let the questions get them down. I hope they are no longer made to feel like they owe anyone answers for who they are. And I hope the pages of this book help them find the answers they are looking for, silence the questions, and stir readers to proudly speak up for themselves and others, be it through art, writing, music, song, dance, poetry, their words, and yes, even through TikTok.

Meet Supriya Kelkar

Photo credit: S. Malde

Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, June 9, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  Learn more at www.supriyakelkar.com

Follow Supriya on Twitter @supriyakelkar_ and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar

Supriya’s local indies are:

Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.nicolasbooks.com/

Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI. https://www.bookbugkalamazoo.com/

The Book Beat in Oak Park, MI. https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/

Literati in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.literatibookstore.com/

About American as Paneer Pie

An Indian American girl navigates prejudice in her small town and learns the power of her own voice in this brilliant gem of a middle grade novel full of humor and heart, perfect for fans of Front Desk and Amina’s Voice.

As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

ISBN-13: 9781534439382
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Microaggressions and Sexual Violence, a guest post by Marieke Nijkamp

by Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeyn)

 

Several years ago, as a LGBTQIA+ youth group leader, I was part of a national research campaign that tracked how straight teens and young adults responded to questions of gay rights and acceptance. The way the campaign was set up, it was meant to be a mirror for the participants. One of the primary questions: what would you do if a friend told you they weren’t hetero?[1]

 

As it turned out, over the course of the night, answers to that question ranged across three possibilities:

  1. I would support them / they would still be my friend.
  2. I would terminate the friendship.
  3. I would be okay with it, provided…

 

And therein lies the rub. “I would be okay with it, provided they aren’t too obvious about it.” “I would be okay with it, provided they don’t start acting too gay.” “I would be okay with it, provided they don’t hit on me.” That comment was made frequently in the case of same sex friendships, but especially among guys. When talking to guys with girl friends, the popular option seemed to be: “I would be okay with it, provided I can watch.”

 

It’s an all too common example of how, for many queer people, the microaggressions we deal with are often unintentionally or intentionally sexual. Even something as deceptively simple as introducing ourselves or discussing our identity can turn into an unwanted sexual discussion. “You’re queer? That’s so hot.” “So how do you, you know, do it?” “You’re asexual? You just haven’t met the right person yet.”

 

(If fact, there seems to be a common belief that just the mere fact that someone is part of a marginalized group means they’re fair game to asking the most invasive personal questions.)

 

(Hint: no.)

 

That doesn’t place microaggressions side to side with sexual violence, but they are closely related. They are a both symptoms of a culture that both sexualizes teens’ experiences and others or even fetishizes experiences that deviate from a supposed norm. A culture where the mere presence of queer characters means a YA book isn’t “clean” and where queer characters making out is still too often perceived as “having an agenda” while a cishet couple is simply romantic.

 

 

MARIEKE

 

And that starts with microaggressions. (Of course that is a chicken and egg comment, because that cishetnormativity also results in microaggressions.) The idea that someone’s sexual integrity—let alone their very identity—exists only for the benefit or the perusal or the curiosity or the scorn of the majority starts with carefully building them up as lesser than. It marginalizes, ostracizes, and it puts queer people at a (in some cases, far) higher risk of sexual assault.

 

As Professor Kevin Nadal of CUNY states, “All of these microaggressions have a significant impact on people’s lives. While some of these experiences may seem brief and harmless, many studies have found that the more that people experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, psychological distress, and even physical health issues.”

 

And, although increasingly inclusive, in YA literature too we can see those same microaggressions at work on various levels. In a hundred small ways that may mean nothing to a hetero reader, but will mean everything to a queer one. In a hundred small ways to remind that queer reader that they are other and other than the book’s target audience too.

 

It’s there with every “no homo” or every “that’s so gay.”

 

It’s there every time a queer couple are denied the same on-page romance a hetero couple of has, because their romantic experiences are not seen as the same.

 

It’s there with every erasure of identity.

 

It’s there and we should challenge it. Because inclusiveness is not merely a matter of representation, but of the words we choose. If we want to be able to discuss sexual violence, we have to create a safe, sex-positive environment. If we want to be able to discuss sexual violence, we have to level the playing field.

 

It starts with carefully building up queerness as no longer different but as equal to.

 

It starts with reclaiming, subverting, or exploring problematic language.

I stand and he full on hugs me, none of this one-arm hug with a pat-on-the-back nonsense.

 

Reasons Why I’m Feeling Warm Right Now:

  1. I downed my drink pretty quickly on a fairly empty stomach.
  2. Everyone on the roof is staring at us.
  3. My unspeakable truth.

 

“No homo.”

“No homo,” I say back. (Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not, p.120)

 

It starts with going all the way (responsibly, consensually).

And then she wraps her other arm around my neck and kisses me so deeply that everything else on my shoulders—on earth—falls away. And then I’m walking backward toward my bedroom, pulling her as our lip meet over and over, taking care to make sure I’m using only enough force to guide and none to pressure.

We slip onto my bed easily, like it’d been waiting for us, like this had always been the plan. (Dahlia Adler, Under the Lights, p. 236)

 

It starts with speaking the words.

“Bisexual, Rachel, I’m bisexual, it’s a fucking word.” (Hannah Moskowitz, Not Otherwise Specified, p. 68)

 

It starts with dismantling microaggressions and understanding that identities are not to be feared nor fetishized, that acceptance is not provisional. Both in life and the stories we tell.

 

(Next step: dismantling the cishetnormative system completely.)

 

Meet Marieke Nijkamp

marieke picMarieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler.

In the midnight hours of the day she writes young adult stories as well as the occasional middle grade adventure. Her debut young adult novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS will be out from Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016.

Website | Twitter

 

[1] The campaign focused primarily on sexual and romantic orientation and, unfortunately, less so on questions of gender identity. Given that focus and my own limited range of experience, I will be focusing most strongly on microaggressions and sexual violence related to romantic and sexual orientation in this post.