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Author Preeti Chhibber on representation and how she stays positive in today's world

Contributed by
Jun 22, 2018

Preeti Chhibber really needs no introduction, and yet I’m going to introduce her to you all. You all probably know her as a writer for FANGRRLS and Strong Female Characters co-host, as well as my co-host on the podcast Desi Geek Girls. She’s irrepressible; her enthusiasm for what she loves is contagious. I’ve been lucky enough to count Preeti among my closest friends for a few years now, and in that time, I’ve been astonished by her dedication to her work: helping kids from marginalized backgrounds see themselves in the books they read.

Even when things are at their darkest, Preeti shines a light through her love and enthusiasm for children’s literature. I cannot put into words how much she inspires me with her dedication to representation. How she finds the energy to fight this constant battle is beyond me, but I’m so grateful that she does it.

But Preeti doesn’t just work in children’s books. She’s also a writer, and she’s making her authorial debut in a new collection called A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman. This anthology of short stories features 15 different authors, including Roshani Chokshi, Renne Ahdieh, Melissa de la Cruz, Cindy Pon, Alyssa Wong, and more, with the theme of reimagining the myths and folk tales of East and South Asia.

Preeti’s story is called “Girls Who Twirl (and Other Dangers),” and it follows a teenager named Jaya as she celebrates the Hindu holiday of Navratri. While they’re dancing the night away, Jaya crosses paths with a cute but selfish guy and she decides it’s time to teach him a lesson. In this interview, I ask Preeti some very difficult questions about representation, becoming an author, and Spider-Man.

Where’s the first place in American media you remember seeing yourself represented, whether in a book or on TV or in a movie?

The first time I can remember seeing an Indian-American kid in any sort of western media was in the movie The Indian in the Cupboard. I don’t really remember anything about the plot, but the best friend to the white main character was an Indian kid. It came out when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I’d literally never seen anything that had an Indian kid in it where they sounded like me. There was no stereotypical Indian accent. That was the only thing I can remember, because up until that point, the only representation I had was in Bollywood.

And as a hyphenate (someone who has an hyphenated identity, in my case Indian hyphen American) Bollywood wasn’t actual representation. TIitC was a small piece of societal proof that I existed. Up to that point, the only frame of reference my peers had for Indian people was ... one of the Indiana Jones movies. “Monkey brains!” haunts me to this day, and I hate that franchise.

Now, on to a more important question. If you had to choose between Miles Morales and Peter Parker, WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE, PREETI?

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What’s your favorite K-Drama? (This is like Highlander, THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.)

Oh, dang. I love a good Korean Drama, because I know what to expect from it. Similar to Bollywood, you can get drama, comedy, romance, all in the package of one series! I think one of my favorites is in the flower-boy series, Shut Up, Flower Boy Band! It’s about this rock band that has an enigmatic, creative front man and his best friend who is the back-up bassist or guitarist who has to suddenly step up and fill in on the leadership role when something goes horribly wrong. And of course there’s a romantic interest. And of course it’s cute and angsty, and I love it so much.

Who is, in fact, the best Chris? Please provide a ranking.

  1. Chris Hemsworth
  2. Chris Evans
  3. Tom Holland
  4. Chris Pine
  5. Chris Pratt

 

Part of the reason I’m asking you all these silly questions is because we all know you love what you love so enthusiastically and purely. How do you manage that level of positivity when things are so difficult?

It can be difficult. I like liking things, and I like being excited about things, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of “how can I be happy when there is so much awfulness happening every single day.” And managing that guilt has been the most important thing. Very few people have the mental capability to be an activist all the time. Without pacing yourself, you’ll burn out before you can affect change. I’ve found that allowing myself to be positive and participate in things I enjoy actually helps me be able to think clearly about how I can best impact the negatives of this world, and helps me maintain the mental energy I need to engage. The positivity that comes out of loving what I love goes a long way in helping me manage the consistent anxiety I’ve felt over the last few years.

You’ve worked in children’s publishing your entire professional career and you’ve done quite a bit of freelance writing. What’s it like to transition from publishing professional and freelance writer to published author extraordinaire?

Ha! I’m going to put “author extraordinaire” on my non-existent LinkedIn. It’s strange to see things from the other side. I had some of my understanding shift, in terms of how I assumed the relationship between author and publisher worked, so that’s been a ride.

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Do you have any feelings about working in publishing for so long and now being a published author?

It’s unreal. When I started working in children’s books ten years ago, I don’t think I would have even imagined a major publisher releasing an anthology of commercial YA stories about Asian mythology. I got to write about Navratri, a religious holiday that was and is one of my favorite things to celebrate, but that most non-Hindus have never heard of. There’s such a limited understanding of Hinduism in America that I feel privileged to be able to share a piece of my culture with the people who choose to read this book. And I am so excited for young Asian kids who read this book to feel seen.

Part of what I love so much about you is your dedication to community. You spend so much time highlighting voices in the South Asian community and use your platform to boost others. What’s it like to be in an anthology with so many South Asian authors, and what can we do to boost one another?

It feels SO GOOD that I can say there are multiple South Asian authors in this anthology! Years ago, there weren’t so many of us! But now, I’m alongside Roshani Chokshi, Shveta Thakrar, Sona Charaipotra, Aisha Saeed, and Rahul Kanakia, all of whom are incredible writers. It’s mind-boggling and amazing.

I think the best way we can support one another is to remember that it’s not like we’re vying for one spot. Lift up your fellow community members, and don’t see them as competition. The more of us who succeed, the better it is for all of us. And when you find yourself to be in a position of success, send the elevator back down! We’re in the unique position of being South Asians who are here for the representation revolution, and we have a responsibility to help people from our community who on the come up.

Paddington Bear or Pooh Bear? YOU MUST CHOOSE.

Look, I love Paddington 2 because it’s the sweetest, happiest movie I’ve seen, but Pooh is POOH. Pooh Bear, all the way. I relate really heavily to Pooh.

Why do you insist you’re a Ravenclaw when really, you are a Hufflepuff?

Rude.

(Hufflepuff is great, but I am a Ravenclaw. I don’t know what you are all talking about.)

What’s the best book you’ve read recently that you want everyone to know about?

I am obsessed with Sara Farizan’s forthcoming Here to Stay. It’s about a teenager named Bijan who just wants to play varsity basketball on his high-school’s team. But when he makes it onto the team, someone anonymously sends a poorly Photoshopped image of him as a terrorist to the entire student body. So now, rather than getting to just be a kid and play basketball, Bijan is forced into the position of being a cause. And that’s what I love about it, it’s not about him being a hero, or a being an inspiration. It’s about this kid who wants to be a kid. It’s out this fall and it’s so good.

What do you hope A Thousand Beginnings and Endings does for readers, especially readers of color?

I hope they feel seen. There’s not a word for what it’s like to grow up knowing that people will never consider your existence as a real, complex human being. But it’s like you’re invisible, or you’re this strange, exotic thing. Every experience you have is measured against some false idea of what is “normal.” I hope this book gives Asian-American readers a sense of validity.