Veera Hiranandani is the author of our May middle grade book club pick, The Night Diary, which takes place during the turbulent partition of India and Pakistan. Her first story The Whole Story of Half a Girl was inspired by her personal experience as a young girl navigating two separate cultural identities. It was a pleasure getting to Skype with Veera and learn more about these novels as well as her early chapter book series Phoebe G. Green.
The main character in your first novel The Whole Story of Half a Girl, has one parent who is Jewish American and one parent who is Indian. That is also your background. Was it important to you to give a voice to this experience?
Yes, because growing up I felt like I was the only one like me. Of course it wasn’t true, but it certainly felt like that growing up in a small town in Connecticut. I didn’t know a lot of Jewish kids. I didn’t know a lot of Indian kids. And I didn’t know any half Indian Jewish kids. I love that since I’ve written the book a lot of people have contacted me and said I’m an Indian parent and I married a Jewish man or woman and our kids are like you were or they are the child of those parents and grew up feeling the same way. So it has been nice to connect to people who are experiencing similar things. I think anytime you are navigating multiple racial or religious identities, it can be really direct and obvious from how you interact with the world. But I also feel like people are navigating multiple identities in ways you don’t always realize. Maybe they just simply feel different than the culture of their family. Let’s say they are really artsy and their parents are accountants. Or they like a different style of music than their friends like. Even though these feel like small, insignificant things, I think we’re always wondering where we fit in and how we bridge together all the pieces of ourselves. I just had to do it in a more direct way.
Your second novel, The Night Diary, takes place in 1947 as India is gaining independence from Britain and India and Pakistan are being partitioned along religious lines. Muslims will live in Pakistan and Hindus will live in India. 12-year-old Nisha documents her experience when her Hindu family is violently uprooted from their home in Pakistan. This story was inspired in part by your father’s experience during that time. Can you tell us a little more about his experiences?
Partition happened at the exact same moment India gained independence from the British between August 14 and 15 at midnight in 1947. It arose out of conflict between Hindus and Muslims over having equal power in the government. There was concern that Hindus already held a lot of government positions and Muslims wouldn’t have an equal say. It was a legitimate concern, but there were so many ideas of different ways of handling it. The leaders made those decisions very quickly, because the British wanted to wipe their hands of it all on a very fast timeline. Just drawing that line between communities suddenly created all of this fear and confusion and mistrust. Suddenly people who were living peacefully started fighting. That started a cycle of violence and revenge. People like my father’s family got caught in the middle of all of it.
My father was nine when he had to leave his home several weeks after partition. Until that time my father lived in Mirpur Khas, the same city Nisha is growing up in. My father’s family, at first, like many other families, just hoped they could stay. They heard about unrest and violence, but they weren’t quite in the center of things. Then the stories were getting closer and closer to them. My father’s family was Hindu and there were several Hindu families that did stay in that area, but, ultimately, my father’s family felt it was too dangerous. They packed a few bags, got on a train, and left. They left a community they were connected to. My grandfather was a doctor at the Mirpur Khas City Hospital. They had this beautiful compound and a really nice life. And they had to leave it all behind and start over in a very small apartment in Jodhpur, India.
They arrived safely so they were lucky. During this time so many people didn’t survive or if they did it was only after encountering unimaginable violence. There are so many different kinds of stories during that time of people going in both directions. A lot of people got on trains going in both directions and their trains were attacked. Trains would arrive at stations on both sides filled with dead people. I mean it is unimaginable the violence at that time.
One thing that really struck me was how Nisha’s community was living happily together and then everything changed over night. It is scary to think things can change that quickly.
Exactly. I think someone like my father really understands how quickly things can change. For people who have never experienced anything like that, like myself, we have this false sense of safety. So studying something like partition is really useful to see how quickly people can change. How fear can really ignite that violence. How separating people and drawing lines between communities in an effort to make it more peaceful, actually creates the opposite effect.
I read that it is estimated that 14 million people migrated during this time and it was the largest migration in history. Yet this is a story that is often left out of or glossed over in at least American history books.
I grew up feeling the same way. I remember when I saw the movie Gandhi with my family when I was 11 and that was the first time I had seen partition and India’s independence depicted anywhere else other than hearing about it from my family. So I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what happened until I saw that movie. Then I realized, no this happened to millions of people. It was really eye opening. I wrote this book certainly for young people who have this connection and want to see themselves and their family in a story. And then certainly for all those that don’t know about it.
I read that you shared drafts of your novel with your father as it progressed. Was he helpful in providing his experience to shape your novel?
Certainly hearing his story over and over was helpful. I would ask him several times leading up to writing it and while I was writing it, because he would remember new things from one conversation to the next. Memory is funny that way. Then when he would read early drafts he would say, “our house wasn’t quite like that or we didn’t walk that way to town.” Or “we got water this way.” Just all the little details of ordinary life were incredibly helpful.
Of course, I did outside research as well because my father was nine and had his childlike perspective. I wanted to understand all the political forces at work and the foundation and history. I also read hundreds of personal testimonies of people going in both directions to better understand this character and what she might have felt during this time. Nisha is unusual because she has a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. She has to directly question where she belongs because her country is being split in half. Nisha is connected to both sides so where does she belong? I could certainly connect to that based on my own background, but not with the stakes Nisha is dealing with.
Was it important to you to give Nisha that dual background so she could empathize with both sides?
Exactly. I was trying to break through some of the bias because people going in both directions experienced tension and violence against them. That stays with them and they fear the other side. A lot of people held onto that for their entire lives. So I really wanted to try to create a character that wasn’t so clear. Because that is how it felt to me when I would hear my father’s stories. How did this happen? How can you be in a peaceful, accepting, diverse community and have it all change literally overnight. And what do we need to do to prevent that? I don’t know the answers. I do think it is staying hopeful and open minded and having the courage to point out what doesn’t feel right and accepting.
Nisha tells her story by writing letters to her deceased mother in her journal. What inspired you to use that journal devise to convey the story?
I felt because Nisha is very shy, she would have trouble speaking to people outside of her family. I was a very shy kid, and she is a more extreme version. So I felt the way Nisha was really going to come alive and discover this new voice in the most powerful way would be a diary. Originally, I had this idea Nisha lost her mother and never knew her and she would be writing a diary, but I hadn’t put the two together. I had her writing in a diary to herself. But something wasn’t moving the story forward, and when I figured out she was writing to her mother it brought everything together for me.
Nisha also expresses herself through food. The person she is closest to, besides her brother, is the family cook. Why did you make food such a large focus of the story?
I remember everything I’ve ever eaten. I also remember every story I’ve ever read with specific food scenes. I always really liked reading about what people ate, what they liked to eat, and what they didn’t like to eat. It can express so much. With this character, food was definitely a way for her to express herself without having to talk. Kazi, the family cook, gives her this empowering way to express herself as he teaches her about food and how to cook.
Food has also been important for me identity wise. I always felt like my cousins with two Indian parents went to India every year and I didn’t or they knew Hindi and I didn’t. Then on the Jewish side of my family, my cousins with two Jewish parents would have bar and bat mitzvahs and I didn’t. So I always felt not enough of one or the other. But with food, I felt like I really know the food on both sides of my family and that was a place that felt very clear to me. I felt very comfortable in those spaces.
Speaking about food allows me to transition to your early chapter book series Phoebe G Green The main character there is a foodie and the series has titles like Passport to Pastries and Farm Fresh Fun. What inspired you to write that series?
Food will always play a role in my fiction because I just can’t help it. But the Phoebe G Green series was definitely coming out of being a parent with younger kids, and watching how different they were. My daughter was always someone who would eat anything and everything. She just came into the world that way. Then my son had a tendency to be pickier. He would be happy eating pasta and sugary yogurt all the time. But he stepped outside of that more. I kept thinking about the expectations we put on our kids in this country with children’s menus. This is what you are supposed to eat: hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and mac & cheese. I really wanted to play with that message and give kids an inspiring food book. I feel there are lots of books for young kids about the picky eater and yucky green food and the kid sort of overcomes that, but I felt there weren’t enough books that celebrated a kid who really enjoyed food.
Are you currently working on any other novels?
I am working on a new middle grade and a new YA, but they are so rough it is hard for me to talk about story lines. But there will be food in them, I promise.
Remember to subscribe by May 5 and choose middle grade book club at checkout to receive your copy of The Night Diary.