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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward


Order Tanuja's new CD
'When We Were Twins, released Feb 2004...
Three sample mp3 tracks:
B&T
Born Two
Dancing By Myself

I thought I detected the cadences of Kerouac from time to time in Born Confused. Would I be right? (The book's got the atmosphere as well as the style: for Kerouac's bop jazz, you have the bhangra disco scene.)

Actually, I haven’t yet read Kerouac, but am now even more inspired to do so! It’s difficult to pinpoint where your own style comes from, but I’d be tempted to say the cadence of many of the passages in BORN CONFUSED comes in strong part from many a night on the dance floor, and from music—the music you put on your record player, but also just the musicality of the market, the way people speak, the way you dream. Plus one part espresso.

It's a lush and verbally playful style. Was there any pressure – not necessarily from your 'dream editor' David Levithan -- to 'normalise' it?

Fortunately not. Scholastic was very supportive of the writing style. My editor in fact ‘uncorrected’ the copyeditor’s markup where she’d noted to change all dashes to quotes for dialogue, which was a relief, as that was a conscious style choice on my part (I’m not so into quote marks, especially end quotes as they make it look like some kind of closure has been achieved, and conversations are rarely that tidy; beginning and end quotes also break the flow for me). I’d asked that none of the words of Indian origin be ital’ed, as the book is so completely from Dimple’s POV (and these words are as naturally a part of her vocabulary as the English ones she uses on a day to day basis) and I didn’t want a glossary, and they were fine with that, too, which was great. And there are lots of made-up words, cartoon-bubble type words, and also hybrid terms/phrases that sort of mix up the Indian and American—which they let fly as well. Language is so much a part of how we define ourselves--the act of naming and being named and so on-- and it makes sense to me that a character who is coming into her own for really the first time, learning a mode of self-expression, and trying to bring together what she initially sees as disparate worlds should be allowed this: a new culture should have a new vocabulary with which to express itself.

Whose photo is at the front of the book?

That’s a photograph of my mother in her early 20s. I’ve always loved this photo, and didn’t in fact realize it was a self-portrait until I’d begun writing BORN CONFUSED. In many ways the book is a sort of a birthday gift to my family (who’d been asking me for years to stop getting them presents and just write something for frock’s sake), a thank you for their unfaltering support and for just being who they are, and I really wanted the photo included because of this; it also ties in so well with the theme of the book, and Chica Tikka. When Scholastic agreed to include it in the book, I went back and changed a description of a photograph in one of the later chapters to match this picture of my mother. By coincidence BORN CONFUSED launched in the USA the same week as my mother, father, and brother’s birthdays (all three born within days of each other in September). You should have seen the expression on their faces when they opened up the finished copy for the first time! It’s funny, because my mother expressed a joyful sense of disorientation of place and time that’s very much like what Dimple describes in the book.

Is Dimple's obsession with photography one that you share?

I do now! I’d written and directed two short films a few years before writing BORN CONFUSED, and am a big cinema-phile, but I’d never really gotten into photography, and still haven’t in terms of taking pictures, though I love to look at them and to think about taking pictures, funnily enough. When it came time to develop Dimple’s character I knew that I wanted her to have an art form, a mode of self expression through which she’d learn to rethink her conceptions and preconceptions and come into her own, and I was attracted to the idea of photography because it seemed it would be such a joy to write long descriptive passages of beloved New York, and people and places through the eyes of a photographer. Also, the art form suited Dimple, who at the outset of the book uses the camera as a sort of tool to hide behind and spy on the worlds she feels she can never truly be a part of; by the end of the book this same hiding place turns out to be her very window into her own life, in shaping her own story.

While writing, I began to live my day to day life looking at the world through Dimple’s eyes—if she took a photograph of this street, this café, this face what part would she pay attention to, what would be in the frame, what would be left out? How would she see things, and how would that change over time?

The idea of having her progress from black and white to color and then to a new understanding of even black and white as being made up of shades of grey also seemed a good visual counterpart to her own journey towards embracing her multicultured self. As far as the technical details went, I hung out in camera stores and did little experiments (would your reflection in the lens be convex or concave?), went to lots of films and photo exhibitions (the former which I do anyways), drew a little on my own filmmaking experience, read how-to books and pestered a couple generous photographer friends with fact-check questions.

It’s funny, but it wasn’t until I was well into the book that I realized the camera should be named—we always name objects of affection, or rename them with nicknames and such, and it seemed so strange to keep saying ‘the camera’ when Chica Tikka is so close to Dimple’s heart and soul.

To flush or not to flush? That was the question. (p58) Would you like to comment on this scene?

To flush.

Books about two (girl)friends, in which the narrator is the more reflective, while the friend is the more brash and outgoing, is a classic narrative set-up. Think of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls, or Kerouac's Duluoz and Cody Pomeray. Did you write the book like this because of that, or was it based on a genuine friendship?

Initially I wanted to have two of the lead characters embody the two forces at work in the cultural context I was drawing from, from my years in New York (the experience of which was one of the inspirations for this story): the South Asian American-culture-coming-into-its own force (Dimple and others) and the mainstream-culture-becoming-obsessed-with–desiness one. This is where the idea of Gwyn initially came in: Gwyn as an embodiment of blonde rock stars wearing bindis on MTV, of Starbucks selling chai, of Bollywoodmania—of the sudden fascination with all things Indian. But on another level, and probably a more important one, I also wanted to have a non-South Asian heroine in the book, someone to show that though some issues a person deals with can be race-specific, there are many others that are just human issues, that are simply about growing up and finding your place in the world, coming to terms with yourself and learning to really see the people around you.

As the character of Gwyn evolved from that idea, she became a personality that is part amalgam, part imagination. There’s also quite a bit of me in Gwyn, though people often think I must completely equal Dimple.

Plainly, a book like this can't be written without there being some kind of autobiographical basis. Yet, just as clearly, you are not Dimple Lala. But in the act of writing you must have felt you were, because this book reads like a real narrative confession, whereas so much first-person teenage fiction has a sense of distance or of light-weightedness which immediately reduces its impact. Did Dimple become your alter ego while you were writing the novel, and if so how did this affect your day-to-day life?

Absolutely. I’d say all the issues Dimple is wrestling with/exploring during this summer are things that I struggled with in my own way, mostly through my writing—and if I hadn’t thought about them before, I certainly began to as soon as she did! It was a real joy seeing the world through Dimple Lala’s eyes. Not only in terms of the eyes-of-a-photographer experience I mentioned above, but also to be privy to this sense of newness and freshness, this capacity to be shocked and stunned and have daily revelations as she does. There was a point after I’d been living in NYC for a few years when I wondered whether I’d lost some of that capacity for amazement—you don’t blink twice when you see a naked cowboy strumming on a guitar in the middle of Times Square, and so on. Stepping into Dimple’s shoes was like getting to see New York again for the first time, to feel mad infatuation, confusion, envy, ecstasy, love for the first time. And it paralleled what was actually going on in my own life—the move to London, where I wrote the book and where I still live, allowed me fresh eyes to cast on New York, and certain other things going on in my life had given me a plethora of fabulous firsts all over again.

I haven't read your other fiction, the short stories 'The Border' and 'Tiger, Tiger'. I'm keen to look them out. Are they very different?

The themes—displacement, diaspora, and storytelling as a means to find your way home—are the same, but the treatment of them is rather different. “The Border” and “Tiger, Tiger” are quite a bit darker than much of BORN CONFUSED, though I would still say they are hopeful stories.

You're a filmmaker and a singer-songwriter in a band. Does that mean that writing has to take its place alongside these other creative outlets?

To me, they all feel very much like part of the same desire and deed—storytelling, self-expression, a way to walk in other people’s shoes. It all feels like writing to me, whether it’s visual or aural or actually written; exploring your story with all of the senses makes sense to me. With your ears, eyes, nose, tongue, hands, and intuition. I think these art forms really feed each other as well. On a very basic level, after hours sitting scrunched up over a computer keyboard, talking to no one (or talking to yourself), throwing your whole body into a gig, collaborating with a group of people in noisy, strumming harmony is sheer relief. And then it’s a pleasure to go back to some solitude again; and so the cycle goes. Sometimes lyrics-writing has helped me clarify an image in my fiction and vice versa. And music can really bring a sense of rhythm, cadence, joy to a writing style, fiction can bring narrative and care to lyrics, and film can give you a whole other type of palette with which to paint a room, or person, or mood, or dynamic.

Is there a big difference between being a second-generation Indian-American and a second generation Indian-Brit - would you say, now that you're living in the UK?

I have far less experience of British Asian culture than I did of South Asian American culture -–in part because, well, I’m South Asian American, and in part because I haven’t been here so long, and have spent much of my time here writing about the American experience. When I first came to the UK I was amazed at the extent to which Asian culture is assimilated into popular culture—Bollywood films in mainstream theaters, spices in chain supermarkets that my mother had to drive two hours to find when I was growing up in Massachusetts, and, yes, amazingly enough as a sign to which the culture has been, er, integrated: the existence of curry-flavored condoms. I thought at first that perhaps London would give me a time-machine glimpse of what might be happening in South Asian America in the future. But of course that was too tidy an assumption. There is, yes, much in common between the two big city experiences of desi arts culture, and though the origins of much of the music in the NYC desi club scene are in the UK, there now seems to be much more of a give and take between the two cities. But one striking difference I’ve seen is that in the US, desis who are part of this scene are usually proud to define themselves as ‘desi’, and as ‘South Asian American.’ Though ‘desi’ is an actual word meaning ‘from my country’ it has taken on the slang use of ‘homegirl’ or ‘homeboy’ and is in a way a political term. Here in the UK it seems that there isn’t such a ‘desi pride’ movement going on, it seems that there is on the one hand much more of a desire to be viewed as part of the mainstream, and on the other, the culture is much more subdivided: universities have Jain and Hindu and Sikh student groups; in the US, they have South Asian or Asian American student groups. Even the selection of ethnic media in both countries reflects this difference: in the UK you have the Sikh Times, Garavi Gujarat and so on. In the States you are much more likely to find Little India, India Abroad, India West and so on. There is a more universal grouping of politically minded desis under umbrella/unifying terms, and here it seems to be less the case. At the same time that the culture is so much a part of the fabric of British life today, and is in this way modern, it seems to me as well, from people I’ve met and spoken too, that there is a stronger conservative element among many of the families here, expectations parents have of their children that are sometimes more traditional than many of their counterparts in South Asia or America may have. But perhaps this is a first impression. I look forward to exploring this question, and the story of South Asian London, much more deeply in the future.

The sense of cultural confusion is obviously important in the book, but what came across more powerfully to me was the sense of family - as you put it on your website, the family you are born into and the one you choose, and the moment when these two become one.

Absolutely—finding your home in people, and finding your home in yourself. On a personal level, I really wanted to pay homage to my own family by writing about a deeply loving household. The relationship with Dadaji is very much like the one I had with my grandfather as well. And I wanted to give thanks to my family of friends. In the end, that’s where the epiphanies come, that’s how the soul-searching holds on to an undercurrent of joy and sense of adventure: from your relationships with people as well as your own sense of self. It takes two to be one.

You're a Madonna fan. Will you be reading her children's book?

Will check it out. Hope there’s a soundtrack.

On the website you list artists that 'get you giddy'. Enid Blyton is about the only children's author. Who else did you read when you were child?

Enid Blyton was probably my favorite author growing up. Off the top of my head, I remember digging the Great Brain books, the Nancy Drews, Harriet the Spy, the Phantom Tollbooth, Judy Blume. I also devoured mysteries, ghost stories, fiction and nonfiction books on witchcraft and the supernatural. I had a real thing for witches.

How's the 'psychic soundtrack' to Born Confused that you and your band are working on coming along?

We’re chugging along, thanks, aiming to release it hopefully sometime this fall. Have got about three tracks nearly recorded with my band in London, and we’ve another five or six written. I’ve been songwriting for the soundtrack with my old bandmate from the punk pop group I was in in New York via email as well, and we’ll be spending an intensive few days in the studio in New York when I’m there later this month on another leg of the book tour. Am also working out a track with a cowriter in Los Angeles. The band here in London, San Transisto, will be performing at several of the Born Confused events in the London area, where readings will be intertwined with the book-based songs. We already incorporated one, “Visionary,” the Chica Tikka theme song, in an acoustic performance with tablas and guitar at the UK book launch this month; coming up next, on July 30, will be a Bollywood Nights/Born Confused event at the Cobden Club with Raj and Pablo: a salon-style discussion of the book, an acoustic set of songs based on the book with guest tabla and dhol players—and then it will go all out Bollywood disco with the house DJ spinning much of the music described in the book! Should be good and sweaty. More info at www.ThisIsTanuja.com.






Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
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