Today’s blog features an interview with author Sonia Patel. Her debut novel Rani Patel in Full Effect is slated for publication in October 2016 and has been praised as real, honest, and gritty. Isabel Quintero (author of Gaby, A Girl in Pieces) called it “an open wound,” and praised the idea that “Sonia Patel does not sugar coat or try to weave a fairy tale from heartbreak, sorrow, and patriarchy.”
Ms. Patel is Indian-American and lives in Hawai’i where she is a therapist who specializes in severe emotional trauma in young women. Her book, Rani Patel in Full Effect, in unapologetic in its feature of an Indian-American protagonist coming to terms with sexual/emotional incest, parental abandonment, misogyny and the patriarchy, and finding herself as an individual.
Today, Ms. Patel answers some tough questions about her own background and its influence on her career and writing, advocating for victims of abuse, breaking down stereotypes, and the difficulties of assimilating into new cultures.
AND NOW: Ms. Sonia Patel!
Tell us a little about yourself, including how its influenced you as a writer.
I’m going to give you some facts about me that will shed light on part of the reason I had to write Rani Patel In Full Effect.
My ancestors hail from the Indian states of Gujarat and Punjab. Growing up my extended family was spread out between Gujarat, India and Kenya, Africa. Some of them immigrated to the east coast of the United States of America in the early 70’s. I’m the product of three traditional Gujarati arranged marriages (both sets of grandparents and my parents). Two out of three of which were dysfunctional. I’m an only child and the first person on both sides of my family to be born in the USA.
Now here’s where my experience as a first generation Indian-American takes an unusual turn. My parents and I moved to the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, where I spent my formative years. There were no other Indians on the island at that time. From the outside things were great. Moloka’i, a largely undeveloped island, was gorgeous and the locals, the majority of which are Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), were welcoming. I had the privilege of being involved in activism to protect the island’s water. There weren’t any distractions so I threw myself into school and work at my parents’ small businesses. But behind the closed doors of my family’s house, manipulation, misogyny, and boundary violations were rampant.
Separating myself from those trying family experiences has been difficult and has taken years. But there is a silver lining. The process has given me insight and empathy into how one’s circumstances affect one’s worldview, thoughts, feelings, and choices. Insight and empathy beyond anything I could’ve learned in a psychology textbook or medical school.
Gujarati cultural expectations gave me mixed messages about career. Half the vote went to medicine or engineering as the only career options and the other half went to dedicating myself to being a barefoot, pregnant wife who birthed lots of sons. Neither option was appealing, but I figured since I’d been a therapist to my parents since I was kid, why not make it official? And that’s what I did.
I graduated from Moloka’i High & Intermediate school, then obtained my bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University. I earned a medical degree from the University of Hawaii and then completed five years of residency training in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry at Stanford University and the University of Hawaii. I’ve practiced psychiatry on Oahu and Moloka’i in various settings.
Currently, I have a small private practice on Oahu. My passion is working with teen girls. Especially those who suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, and are survivors of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse. I strive to help them gain self-worth, eliminate self-harm behaviors, and build their identities.
Oh and I had a “love marriage” (what Gujaratis call a non-arranged marriage) to a wonderful man I met in medical school. We have two kids and dog. No white picket fence. No fairy tale. We keep it real.
What inspired you to write Rani Patel In Full Effect?
First goal: to be a witness. A witness to teen girls and women who’ve survived complex dysfunctional family dynamics and incest. Over the years I’ve provided psychiatric treatment to hundreds of them. I’m well aware of how they’re shaped and injured by living through those ordeals. Besides guiding them through the very personal healing process, I want to advocate for them on a more societal level. I want to say, “Hey this stuff really happens in our backyards. Not just overseas.” And this kind of trauma actually damages their brains. In turn the brain damage results in symptoms, such as negative and anxious thoughts, re-experiencing feelings, low moods, and self-destructive behaviors. These symptoms “speak” their trauma instead of them being able to separate themselves from the trauma and say “this abuse happened to me.”
If the abuse happened in their youth, they may have missed out on normal child and adolescent emotional development because they were forced to serve as a sexual object and/or play a sexualized role even without improper physical contact. They were left with clashing feelings of being needed, loved and special but also used and trapped. Ironically, they probably have an innate need to preserve their primary attachment to their parents. They may desperately hold onto their abusive and/or neglectful parent because it is only in the context of the abusive relationship that have learned to function. They have not formed their identity separate from their abuser.
Second goal: to correct the inaccurate assumptions that many people hold regarding patients that have survived family dysfunction and incest.
“Can’t they just get over it?” Not usually.
“Can’t they just make better choices since they know what it feels like to get hurt?” Not usually.
“Can’t they get pissed at the abuser and cut them out of their life?” Not so easily.
Third goal: to present three diverse cultures that I’ve grown up in—Gujarati, Hawaiian, and hip hop.
I think all writers agree that art in its many forms has great transformational power. What influenced your decision to use hip-hop as the art form that helps to empower Rani?
For sure it’s my longstanding relationship with hip hop.
Like other first generations Indian-American, I had an affinity to hip hop for a variety of reasons. It was a way for me to rebel against Gujarati cultural expectations of career. It was a way for me to reject the racism of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation. It was a way for me to express my own feelings of marginalization in my ambiguous racial status (not Indian enough, not American enough). It helped me on my search for personal and cultural identity. It gave me a way to express my feelings about my complex family issues.
My love for hip hop started when I was a kid. Hip hop’s been with me ever since. It’s been my best friend. My therapist. It still is. Over the years hip hop music, fashion, and dance have become part of my identity and I continue to express it in my daily life. A couple of times I took it step further by performing hip hop dance. I remember how that came about. It was after I saw the 2005 film Rize. I had to krump. I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t not learn more about it. So I signed up for some street dance classes and had the fortune of working with an incredible instructor who fearlessly led several of us to the stage.
A couple of years ago I started to dabble in writing my own rap and slam poetry. I performed these raps for small groups and at slams. What I realized is that writing and performing rap was the most empowering thing I’d ever done. So it made sense to have this be the way Rani found empowerment. Rapping became the way she expressed her feelings about her family’s dysfunction and a way for her to build her own identity separate from her father.
And the truth is, I created and wrote Rani’s story around many of the rap and poems I’d already written. The rap and poems came first!
This book deals with many gritty issues, including incest, domestic violence, and psychological abuse, in a very raw way. How did you decide the balance of making Rani’s story true-to-life without becoming overly graphic or obscene?
I wanted to present Rani’s story the way real survivors of family dysfunction and incest present their stories to me in my office. They don’t have an in depth understanding of how they were abused because it’s all they know. They often minimize the worst of the abuse and focus on other details in their life.
So that’s how I depicted Rani. She doesn’t think about how her father sexually and emotionally abused her because it’s all she knew and it was to painful to reconcile the abuse with other aspects of her life. All she can do is focus on how she loses her father’s attention and doesn’t get attention from her mother. This narrow focus leads her to pursue behaviors that make her feel good, but are actually self-destructive. Rani, like many of my patients, doesn’t dwell on how harmful the abuse was but rather on doing whatever it takes to keep getting the good feelings in the relationship with her father. Incorrectly, she thinks this is the only thing she can control.
Most people like happy endings and characters who, though they may struggle, make strong decisions. Rani seems to have a difficult time sticking to her decisions, which could be frustrating to readers but showcases important topics related to trauma-based behaviors. Why did you feel it was important to include this theme as part of Rani’s narrative?
Simply put, it’s realistic.
It starts with the brain damage that likely happens as a result of the chronic sexual abuse. At a neuroanatomical level, survivors are not able to make decisions the same way as people who don’t go through that type of trauma. Survivors often engage in what’s called repetition compulsion—they can’t help but repeat their experiences and recreate abusive relationships over and over again.
When Rani’s father abandons her, she ends up thinking way too much about how to get her father back. She can’t help it. Then Mark comes along and elicits the same feelings she had in her relationship with her father. Rani can’t help but to recreate the same relationship with Mark. Intellectually, she realizes both her father and Mark hurt her, but the trauma’s effects don’t allow her emotion and intellect to connect. So she can’t help but overthink everything yet repeatedly make unhealthy decisions.
And since abusers manipulate youth into keeping secrets about wrongdoing, the cycle is perpetuated. So these youth continue to make poor choices unchecked. Rani’s doesn’t tell anyone about her father’s abuse and her mother doesn’t protect her. So the abuse continued. The same thing happens with Mark.
Survivors typically do not display crystal clear girl power. Chronic sexual abuse and incest takes away a girl’s power. She may appear to have it all together on the surface but underneath she’s sad, anxious, confused not confident, dependent on male attention, and not able to socially connect with females. Her thoughts, feelings, choices and tendency to recreate abusive relationships will not change until she develops some level of insight that something is wrong. She has to find the words to both separate herself from her symptoms and to verbalize her experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This allows empowerment because she can then realize she is not what her thoughts and feelings tell her. She can recognize that she is experiencing a biologic trauma response.
One of the most beautiful and refreshing themes of this book deals with the repairing of Rani’s relationship with her mother, especially when so much YA lit focuses on teens independent of their parents. Why did you include this in the book, and what message do you want it to send?
Besides working through individual recovery issues (gaining insight into the abuse’s harmful effects and recognizing their biologic trauma response), to fully recover from sexual trauma, youth have to learn about and experience normal, healthy relationships. They also have to learn how to be assertive and set boundaries in relationships.
For Rani, she begins to learn about normal, healthy relationships with her friends, Pono and Omar, but most importantly with her mother. Because with her mother, the relationship was quite dysfunctional for years. But Rani goes through what’s called a corrective emotional experience with her mother. Rani learns that even though her mother emotionally ignored her, didn’t protect her from her father’s abuse, and exposed her to suicidal behavior, she can be assertive with her mother about how all of that damaged her. Then her mother takes responsibility, apologizes, and changes her behavior. Her mother begins to act more like a mother and Rani no longer has to walk on eggshells or be her mother’s emotional caretaker.
Being assertive in relationships and setting boundaries is very difficult for survivors. It is the exact opposite of everything they’ve learned in their relationship with their controlling abusers. In the story, Rani isn’t advanced enough in her healing to tell her mother straight up about all her thoughts and feelings. Rather her mother discovers it in Rani’s rap and slam poem. This begins the process of healing their relationship. A process that will continue for months, perhaps years, to come. A process that will allow Rani to learn how normal, healthy relationships should be—safe, loving, unselfish, two-way, communicative, etc.
What are your thoughts on the importance of accurate and diverse representation in literature? What do you want your readers to gain from this perspective?
Accurate and diverse representation in literature is essential for the expansion and preservation of knowledge and perspective. It can foster empathy and tolerance. This is of course important for a variety of societal issues. But what is particularly crucial to me is what accurate and diverse representation can do for individual self-worth and interpersonal relationships. In my line of work, I see it everyday.
In writing Rani Patel In Full Effect, I wanted to portray Gujarati, Hawaiian, and hip hop culture to the best of my ability. In addition, I wanted to break stereotypes. For instance, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) do not spend their days lounging on the beach, wearing grass skirts, drinking mai tais, or living in grass shacks. They are an indigenous people that have suffered genocide. Hip hop and rap are not all about misogyny and violence. And Gujarati Indians are not all 7-11 and motel owning single dimensional hard workers. They are real people with real problems that can be accentuated by immigration. I wanted to offer readers a different perspective on Patels in the USA.
Speaking of Patels, I bet you know a Patel. Patels are everywhere. Literally. The Patel diaspora from India is such that there are over 500,000 of them living in countries outside of India.1 In the United States alone, there are over 145,066 Patels and according to the 2000 U.S. census, the surname ranks 174th on the list of most common surnames in the country.2 And they’re not all related.
Most Patels are from the Indian state of Gujarat. Their is some debate over the exact origin of the Patel surname, but it’s likely the term Patel first referred to village leaders and/or a caste of landowners or farmers in Gujarat. Nowadays, Patels are involved in many types of professional occupations ranging from doctors to lawyers to engineers, though they are most often associated with small business trades, particularly motels and franchises.
Patels immigrated to America for the many of the same reasons as people from other countries. For economic opportunities. For educational opportunities for their children. For a better life. My parents were no exception- they immigrated in the early 70’s seeking the American dream. Patels often pay a price when they permanently move away from Gujarat. The price could be working two jobs with no days to rest. The price could be difficulty with adjusting to the American culture and language. It could be discrimination. The list is long, and not unique to Patel immigrants.
But, there is something missing from the Patel immigrant story. Something that casts a long, dark shadow. Something that I fear many Patels, including myself, haven’t been able to name. Something we don’t handle because we are so thankful to live in the land of opportunity. It’s something that crept into the suitcases of our parents as they boarded the Air India flight from Mumbai to London to New York City. Something that was easily caged or hidden in the cultural confines of Gujarat, where the close knit homogenous social network allowed for good of the whole and the good of the individual. But, once out of this cultural safety net, the something started it’s slow sabotage. And some Patels suffered. Like fish out of water.
I’m sure many Patel immigrants escaped unscathed, and achieved the American dream shielding themselves from the explosive mixture of old and new. But this wasn’t the experience for a number of the Patels I’ve known. For although they may have secured some financial stability and perhaps even amassed great wealth, their most intimate relationships broke. Couples. Parents and children. Adult siblings. From the outside, no one could see the damage, because there might not have been divorce or CPS involvement. No actual splitting of families.
But I’ve seen the collateral damage. The problem is that Patels don’t talk about it. Even as they whisper about rumors in the Patel community or chit chat over chai, no one speaks of the long term emotional ramifications of malfunctioning interpersonal relationships in families. Maybe in Gujarat, the endless social supports from other Patels provided enough cushion to prevent or diminish these negative emotional outcomes, but in the States, I’m sure it’s a different story. Balancing adjustment to a new culture while trying to hold onto the old culture makes creates interpersonal relationship strains and situations unheard of in Gujarat and some Patels weren’t ready. And perhaps tending to the emotional needs of a spouse or child wasn’t as much of a priority as making it in America. It’s the breakdown of the interpersonal relationships in some Patel families that I think has profoundly affected the succeeding generations. Me included. So much so that I chose the medical speciality of psychiatry, with a focus on children and adolescents, despite being told by several Patels that a psychiatrist is “not a real doctor.”
Since my experience as a Patel was that no one speaks about interpersonal relationship issues, I often wonder how emotionally hurt Patels find healing. I don’t think they go to psychiatrists. Plus, there isn’t much out there in fiction or nonfiction about Patel interpersonal relationship issues, particularly in the young adult genre. Either way, I want to shed light on these interpersonal issues that affect Patels just as much as they affect the families from every culture and nation, immigrant or not.
That’s why I chose the name Rani Patel for the main character in the young adult novel, Rani Patel in Full Effect. Rani Patel, her parents, and their experiences are based on a subtle alchemy of many Patel individuals and families I’ve known and some of the non-Patel teen and family patients I’ve treated. Rani Desai, Rani Shah, or Rani Amin would not have had the same impact.
You probably know a Patel. It is my hope that Rani Patel in Full Effect challenges you to think beyond the Patel stereotypes and truly see their humanity in their family relationship complexities. It might be what’s going on behind the closed doors of the Patel that you know.
- Favorite Color: Black
- The Place You Go to Think: The top of Koko Head Crater
- The Food You Can’t Live Without: Dark chocolate
- Last Book You’ve Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me (a second time)
- Music/Song You’re Listening To RIGHT NOW: “Assata’s Song” – by Paris
- 3 Hobbies: Hiking, baking anything with dark chocolate, watching Korean dramas and Korean hip hop music videos
- Pets: dog – Pax
- Words You Live By: Work hard, play hard.
What advice would you give writers who have full-time careers but aspire to also be authors?
You can do it! Write everyday! Set aside 1-2 hours a day to write. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Finally, what can we watch for in the future? Any other projects on the horizon?
More realistic YA novels. Based on real lives of people I know and teen patients with difficult circumstances. My current project is a YA novel about a trans Gujarati boy and a girl from Hau’ula who meet by chance and fall in love. Their love blooms despite the turmoil in their lives. But tragedy awaits…
1 Global Gujaratis: Now in 129 Nations. The Economic Times. July 4, 2015. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-01-04/news/57663531_1_gujaratis-patels-united-nations
2 Global Gujaratis: Now in 129 Nations. The Economic Times. July 4, 2015. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-01-04/news/57663531_1_gujaratis-patels-united-nations
I want to thank Sonia Patel for her willingness to agree to an interview! It was a lot of fun, and I know I learned A LOT from her responses.
If you know someone or are yourself a victim of sexual abuse go here for resources and help.
For my review of Rani Patel in Full Effect, go here.
Add this book to your to-buy-as-soon-as-its-released! You can pre-order here.