Nidhi Chanani Talks with Roger

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By the way of searching for her missing father, Shaheen and her cousin Tannaz find a mysterious Jukebox that sets them spinning into the past to hear whatever record is playing in back-in-the-day time, like Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” sending them back to a lindy hop at the Savoy in 1929. Where (and when) is Dad?

Roger Sutton: How did you choose the records that you were going to focus on?

Nidhi Chanani: It was definitely a challenge. I did a lot of research — that’s what took me the longest. There’s so much music to choose from! I went about it in a somewhat methodical way. I first figured out which decades I wanted the characters to visit. Then within those decades, I tried to think about which albums people were familiar with, and that was also pivotal. I wanted to highlight musicians whose work changed music or encapsulated a point in American history. I could have made the book two or three times as long if I’d put in everything I’d originally started with. I had to pare it down. It was so hard to say goodbye to some of the musicians and albums. At one point, there was going to be a ton of Bill Withers, throughout the whole book. I love Bill Withers — he’s one of these musicians whose songs people know, but they don’t necessarily know much about him. It wasn’t necessarily a super-linear process, but I did whittle the list down based on what I thought was pertinent and influential in terms of impact on music and history.

RS: Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” coincided with my sweet spot for Top 40 radio, eighth grade or ninth grade. What were you listening to then, in your youth?

NC: In my youth, in the 1980s and ’90s, I was listening mostly to records. At first, it was pop. Later on, I was definitely a product of grunge — a lot of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins. Then at a certain point in high school, I ended up with the “weird kids.” We hung out in the back of the school — we called it the Bat Cave. They introduced me to a whole slew of music that I had never heard before, a lot of indie rock. I was listening to Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Belle and Sebastian, Yo La Tengo; and that all ended up directing my musical tastes. And then when I met my husband, it kind of exploded.

RS: Your husband sounds like somebody out of High Fidelity.

NC: He absolutely is like that. He’s just this wealth of knowledge when it comes to music, but you have to get him going on it — he doesn’t want to bore anybody. For us, the discussion of music, musicians, bands, producers becomes this undercurrent of conversation. It’s like with a lot of long relationships, where you just pick up where you left off — we might’ve been talking about some musician two weeks ago, and then start up again like we were just talking about them. It’s an amazing thing to live with somebody who has that much knowledge of something and is so passionate about it.

RS: One of the conflicts in your book is the communication between Shaheen and her dad — he loves music, and he loves Shaheen, but she gets frustrated because she tries to tell him about the book she’s reading, and he’s off in his own world. Is that a problem for you or your husband?

NC: Yes, it’s very much modeled after that. Not anymore, but definitely in the early part of our relationship. He was in a band for eight or nine years. Not only was music this all-consuming thing, as somebody who was a listener and a fan and curious about both the production and artistic sides of it, but then he was also very much a creator. He was doing the work and trying to get people to pay attention to this art he was creating — just like where I’m at now as an author. It ends up consuming a lot of your life. I definitely drew upon our own history of conflict around: what’s more important to you, music or me?

RS: I can see your hands on your hips as you ask that question.

NC: For somebody who loves music that much — and I’m the same; I’m not at the same level with music, but I love art, and that’s a really good comparison — it’s an unfair question. But when you’re early in your relationship, trying to understand your place in the world and in this person’s life, to a certain extent it makes sense.

RS: I thought, too, there was an interesting dynamic between the cousins, Shaheen and Tannaz, who are three years apart. Was that relationship based on people in your life?

NC: The Shaheen character is based on a very good friend of mine. With Tannaz — my dad’s side of the family all immigrated to the U.S., and I grew up with twelve cousins. We hung out constantly — we basically see each other as brothers and sisters. That kind of cousin relationship is something that is precious to me. Tannaz isn’t necessarily based on any specific cousin of mine, but more that feeling of closeness and almost sisterly affection. But I also really wanted to show a familial relationship that is complicated but not combative. I often find that when you include an age difference and female relationships, there’s a cattiness that tends to be the point of conflict. I wanted the point of conflict between them to not be that, but more a lack of understanding of each other.

RS: Cousins are an interesting mix of friends and family. Naz has kind of a caretaker aspect of her relationship with Shahi, at the same time as they’re friends.

NC: Right. That’s an important thing that happens within a supportive family. But then there’s that switch in the book’s trajectory, so Naz isn’t always in the older sister role. At a certain point, Shahi has to make this bold move and be the one who takes care of Naz.

RS: What was it like, in terms of your comfort level, to move from Pashmina, which had a very strong connection to your own ancestral culture, to something that was way more “American”?

NC: I was very intentional in that because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. Pashmina was definitely an “identity book,” an exploration of what it means to be Indian American, and I didn’t want this one to be a repeat. I have this wealth of music and music knowledge in my life, which I’m fascinated by. I didn’t really get introduced to the Beatles until I met my husband. Growing up Indian American, we were listening to Indian music all the time, forever. It was Bollywood all the time. My exposure to American and global music came much later in life, in early adolescence, and then college, so it made sense to explore that here. After working on Pashmina and talking about Pashmina — I still love talking about it — I started thinking about how “diverse” titles ended up tracking in a certain way. Nowadays, it seems like there is more freedom with what you’re “allowed” to explore as a topic. With this story, I just wanted to create a thing where two brown girls go on a time-traveling adventure. And all the points in history were places where people of color were very visible. So much of historical fiction, film, and TV end up getting very whitewashed, as if we didn’t exist then. I had many different objectives with this story, but primarily I wanted to make a fun book. Of course there are themes, and it’s not just a lighthearted comedy, but I very much wanted to give myself permission to not make something that’s so heavy.

RS: And the girls are definitely attached to their culture, like in the family names that they use for each other. They’re not brown-faced stereotypical “all-American girls.”

NC: No, not at all. But at the same time, it’s one of these things that maybe we don’t talk about as much. I don’t spend my days thinking about how I’m Indian. I move through the world the way I move through the world. Something external happens that makes me think about it — that’s fine. I wanted my characters to have that be part of who they are and not the focal point. They are two girls who have to find their father and uncle who are missing.

RS: There’s that scene where they go to the Bud Billiken parade in Chicago, but they realize that because Shaheen’s father is white, he’s not going to be there — they don’t see any white people. So there is racial consciousness.

NC: Yes. That’s the thing. It’s not something you’re not aware of. But does it need to be constantly called out? In this title specifically, identity is not the main point, but at the same time, it’s not something that people should be afraid of talking about either.

RS: I liked all the appended sections about the process of the work. That was interesting to me, because I’m a little old for graphic novels, I think. To learn more about the kinds of decisions that an author-artist goes through in the process was fascinating. Why did you decide to include that?

NC: I have noticed this trend in some graphic novels, to include process, and it can be very valuable. There are so many kids who read graphic novels, and it demystifies the process to see the work behind it. Even for me, as somebody who creates them — there’s a part of the process when I’m done with the book, I’ve turned it in, and then I see the final copy, and I have almost an out-of-body experience. Like, “Did I actually make this? This is so much work!” There’s so much involved — I can’t believe I studied what it looks like to crouch down on the ground, where your foot turns, all those nuanced things. I know a lot of cartoonists, and when I look at their books, and then I hang out with them, I have that same dissonance — this is a person who makes this thing. So I think there’s an inherent value to showing that work and unpacking it because, especially for people who might be interested in making comics, there’s a lot of value in showing how it doesn’t just come together magically, looking like final art from the get-go. There are steps to the process. And there is a process.

RS: And that is something that many people start to do very young. Even when I was a kid, there were funny pages in the daily news and in color on Sundays. One of the first things kids try to do is make their own comics. I can only guess that’s done even more today.

NC: Yes. And it’s wonderful. It’s only going to increase as comics are becoming more and more popular, there are more adaptations of classics, and even now, there are modern classics. That drive is there, and it’s quite exciting.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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