When we ask fantasy author Roshani Chokshi to tell us something about herself, she says, “I am less funny than I think I am, but my hair looks better in person.” That humor, warmth, and self-deprecation sums up Chokshi in a nutshell. She’s got two books under her belt already: The Star-Touched Queen and The Crown of Wishes are both gorgeous, immersive young adult fantasy novels based on Hindu mythology. But now Chokshi is embarking on something new: her forthcoming book, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is the debut novel of Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint.
Growing up half-Filipina and half-Indian, Chokshi was raised on Hindu mythology in her home. Because her parents didn’t have the same mother tongue — they spoke Tagalong and Gujurati — the language at home ended up being English. The way Chokshi connected with her parents’ cultures was through stories, but it wasn’t just limited to the cultures they were a part of.
“The way that my parents actively bridged those cultural gaps was through fairy tales, and through buying us tons and tons of books on mythology: Greek mythology, Celtic, Hindu, Filipino, etc.,” explains Chokshi. “And just to kind of show us that all of these stories were the same, they were just repetitions of themselves. And it made us feel seen in those stories when you see every version of Cinderella, every version of Beauty and the Beast. And when I was younger, and I was such an active reader, it was really strange to not see anybody in these books that looks like me or my family, when I knew that we all have the same stories anyway.”
Why draw from Hindu mythology specifically, though? That’s been the seed of all Chokshi’s novels so far. The answer is simpler than you’d think: documentation. “Hindu mythology is just far more documented [than Filipino mythology]. And it has allowed a lot of nuance. We see how different tales, or episodes from the [Hindu epics] Ramayana or the Mahabharata take on new flavors depending on what region of India they're told in.”
This decision hasn’t been without its criticism. Some South Asian readers believe that drawing on Hinduism for fantasy stories makes it seem like an archaic set of legends, rather than a living, breathing religion. Chokshi is certainly aware of the criticism and takes it into account. The problem is the number of stories; one South Asian author doesn’t represent the entire diaspora.
“We still see this culture of tokenizing PoC authors,” she explains. “And it falls into this dangerous trap of believing that one PoC author speaks for all of them. I really, really hope that as the years go by, and we start to get more and more voices, that nuance is explored more.” If there are more stories with multiple portrayals of Hinduism, this wouldn’t be an issue. “But we are on the right track and we're just hitting some bumps along the way,” Chokshi says confidently.
Many authors of color feel a burden to represent as many members of their race and culture as they can. Chokshi feels it as well. “It's not like from a publisher, or anything else, but just an internal pressure, not wanting to let anybody down. And I get called out on things that I think are really important.” While representation and inclusivity is crucial to Chokshi, she recognizes she can’t be everything to everyone. “I think there's a danger in thinking too much about [representing everyone] because then things fall through the cracks. It feels sloppy. What I'd much rather do, is just tell the best story that I can, and hope that it piques enough readers' interest that it paves the way for other voices to come in and do it better.”
Chokshi’s upcoming book, selected by Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson fame), is a bit of a departure from her previous novels; while The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes were young adult fantasy novels, Aru Shah and the End of Time is aimed at slightly younger audiences. It centers on young Aru Shah, whose mother is a curator at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture. She doesn’t fit in at school, so she uses her imagination to escape to new worlds. But when, in an effort to impress some friends, Aru unleashes a demon that freezes her mother and classmates in time, she must do everything to save them. It’s the first in a planned series.
“It was so different writing Aru because it was so much more emotionally indulgent for me, in a lot of ways,” explains Chokshi. “I think Aru is the first time I've ever really put myself in a character, and talked about all the things that had happened to me when I was in middle school, the weird . . . insecurities that I had.” She’s had nothing but support from Riordan and his team at Disney Books. “No one's trying to say, ‘Change this because it sounds too out-there or maybe confusing.’ They're both just like, ‘Go, embrace it. Run forward, run with it!’ And it's awesome. I don't think that I would have had the confidence to write Aru if I hadn't had the positive experiences that I did with The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes.”
Working closely with Riordan has been an amazing experience for Chokshi. “It just makes me feel so comfortable that the story is in the hands of someone who wants to use his platform and raise up other voices, and does that with such a strong sense of altruism and caring.” She appreciates that he feels so strongly about representation, and that it comes through in the work he does. “And what I see there, is the heart of a consummate educator. Someone who just really wants all of his students to feel seen, and who believes that every child deserves to be seen. And it's just so powerful, and very, very humbling to work with him.”
Chokshi calls her readers “the best people ever” and are so excited for them to read her new novel, which releases on March 27, 2018. I'm just glad that we are at a point in time where . . . readers are hungry for these tales,” she concludes. “And I'm glad that I got to help contribute to them. That's all.”