The Why by Veera Hiranandani
Whenever I visit schools to talk about my books, I answer the very popular question, “how do you get your ideas?” Even though it’s a common question for writers, each writer has an answer personal to them. I tell students that I write about things I’m both interested in and confused by. Then I explain.
First, I say I need to be passionately interested in the subject matter. If I’m not, then I won’t be able to keep writing about it for the years it takes to create a novel length manuscript. But I also want to be confused by my subject. I want to start out with more questions than answers. I want it to be layered and messy. I find the story in these questions. I find the story in the what, the how, but especially in the why.
I seem to have the most “why’s” about the past and how I’m connected to it. This intersection of where a larger historical moment and my own personal lens overlaps interests me the most. I often refer to this quote from Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children which explains it so well, “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
Even my first novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl, though not labeled as historical fiction, was inspired by my own childhood. I had questions about a time when I changed elementary schools and why my biracial and interfaith background was treated differently, and so other, at my new school when it wasn’t at my old school.
In an essay I wrote for The Nerdy Book Club in 2018 called The Accidental Historian, I discussed what drew me towards writing my first (official) historical novel, The Night Diary. I was personally connected to the Partition of 1947 because my father is a partition survivor. I spent many years thinking about what happened and how it happened, but mostly why it happened. I explored these questions by creating a fictional narrative, using my family’s history as an entry point.
This brings me to my forthcoming novel, How to Find What You’re Not Looking For. It’s a story inspired by my own parent’s marriage. In 1968, my Jewish American mother from Brooklyn married my father, a recent Indian immigrant from Bombay. My mother’s parents, my grandparents, were not supportive of the marriage. At first, my grandfather felt it was his duty to reject my mother and her choice. He was devastated by what he felt was a rejection of her Jewish identity and his–an identity deeply important to him. My father had lost his parents by then, but his brothers and sisters had hoped he would marry an Indian Hindu woman and were also disappointed by the choice my parents made.
My parents, however, followed their hearts, eloped, and have been married for 53 years. It wasn’t an easy journey, however. By the time my sister and I were born, we had close relationships with both sides of my family, but these complex issues remained in different forms over the years. I also grew up in community where there were very few Jewish or Indian American families, let alone both, and I continue to process and embrace the layers of my own biracial and interfaith identity.
Now as a married adult with children, I’ve thought about what this time was like for my parents and my grandparents. When my parents married in 1968 in Connecticut, this was only a year after the Supreme Court ruled, in the famous 1967 Loving vs. Virginia case, that any state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Before the Supreme Court ruling, sixteen states still had laws against interracial marriage. Though Connecticut did not have anti-miscegenation laws at the time, I wondered what would have happened if my parents had wanted to get married before the ruling in a state that banned interracial marriage?
In the mid to late 1960s, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing. Protests against racism and the war swept the country. Along with other important pieces of civil rights legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, The Immigration Act was passed in 1965, which abolished the current immigration quotas and allowed for more immigration opportunities for people all over the world. This changed and further diversified the racial and ethnic make-up of the United States and a large number of Asian immigrants, including my father, began to enter the country during this time.
In order to explore both my parents’ experience and this moment in history, I pursued writing a story about a twelve-year old Jewish girl named Ariel, living in Connecticut, whose older sister elopes with an Indian-American college student. My decision to make my point of view center around a Jewish girl in Connecticut in 1967 was for a few reasons.
First, I wanted to enter the story through a younger person’s eyes. I also chose a second-person point of view to pull the reader inside the character of Ariel in perhaps a way they might not be used to. The “I” of Ariel is also the “you” of the reader.
I wasn’t trying to tell my parents’ exact story, but explore the questions their story made me think about. What would Ariel’s awareness be of the many changes going on around her–both in her country, in her family, and how would they affect her identity as both a Jewish girl in a mostly non-Jewish community and as a white girl? Anti-miscegenation laws were in place to maintain white supremacy, that was obvious, but many marginalized communities support marrying within their racial or religious (or both) identities. I wanted Ariel to wonder why about all of it, so I could sort through my own opinions and feelings.
Finally, because of my biracial identity, I’ve wondered what it feels like to have two parents within the same racial and religious community, how that would feel different, and why it would. I wrote How to Find What You’re Not Looking For to explore the Jewish and white side of my family.
To me the word “why”gets to the most personal beating heart of any question. So after I’ve lined up all those “why’s”, I take a leap of faith, write the story, and hope the reader enjoys riding along with me on this very personal journey. Not only do I invite the reader to explore these “why’s” with me, but I hope it leads them to some of their own.
Veera Hiranandani, author of the Newbery Honor-winning The Night Diary, earned her MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of The Whole Story of Half a Girl, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asia Book Award finalist. A former editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute.
About the book:
Twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s life feels like the moment after the final guest leaves the party. Her family’s Jewish bakery runs into financial trouble, and her older sister has eloped with a young man from India following the Supreme Court decision that strikes down laws banning interracial marriage. As change becomes Ariel’s only constant, she’s left to hone something that will be with her always–her own voice.
On sale September 14, 2021.