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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Sajni Patel, author of My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Sajni Patel is an award-winning author of women’s fiction and young adult books, drawing on her experiences growing up in Texas, an inexplicable knack for romance and comedy, and the recently resurfaced dark side of fantastical things.
Her works have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year and must-read lists from Cosmo, Oprah Magazine, Teen Vogue, Apple Books, Audiofile, Tribeza, Austin Women’s Magazine, NBC, The Insider, PopSugar, Buzzfeed, and many others. My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding is available now from Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams.
MAGGIE REAGAN: Sajni, thank you so much for joining me today.
SAJNI PATEL: Thank you so much for having me.
Well, can you kick things off by telling us a little bit about how you captured the mood of this book? How did you just go about distilling all the events and the energy of an Indian wedding into a single novel?
This book was actually inspired by my brother’s big fat Indian wedding. The entire event was just so cinematic and just so full of love and all these things.
First of all, my family doesn’t actually usually have these big weddings, so it was a bit of a culture shock for even myself. I was so in love with everything that was going on with this Indian wedding, which was five events long. It was three days.
Everything was fresh in my mind, and obviously, I experienced it, so I just wanted to capture those moments, more for myself, and then it just ended up being a book. I had all the traditions, and the moments, and the feel, and the colors, and the cinematic aspects of it, as well as the Bollywood choreographed dance numbers. Everything was in my head. It was very fresh in my head, so it was easy to capture it all and to put it down on paper.
I actually had to cut back a bit, because there’s so many traditions, things from different customs and emblems and sayings, and things that you can and can’t do, and things to wear. There had to be a plot. There had to be an actual storyline, not just images from my brother’s wedding.
You’ve written for adults and for young adults. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write this particular novel for teenagers?
This book could’ve easily been an adult romance, I think, but I went with the YA route because I felt like the voice was a bit younger, and there was more room to be a little immature and chaotic, and to also have my main character pursuing something that she wants to do with the rest of her life, which is music, but still being pressured to go into pre-law, which is what her parents want and what her sisters are. They’re all lawyers. So I just felt like, in the end, that was what came more natural, was for her to be a young adult.
I loved reading this book through Zuri’s eyes, because she’s such a tough heroine, but she comes up against both traditional Indian and contemporary Western beauty standards throughout the course of the novel. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how intentional you were in addressing these as you began writing.
I was pretty deliberate about including these things, because they’re things that come up in a wedding, like how you should do your makeup and your hair, and how to dress.
Indian clothing, it’s a little bit revealing, I guess, to some standards, because you show your midriff a lot. Zuri is not exactly the slimmest person, but she’s comfortable in her body. With Indian clothes, the nice thing about Indian clothes is that you have saris and lehengas; they show the midriff, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re skinny or not. Everyone rocks it. My grandma was wearing a sari until the day that she passed, showing her midriff and her little slouch. So those things are comfortable.
But then you add the Western idea of what beauty is and beauty standards, and need to be slim. There is, of course, colorism and hair texture that I’ve also brought out. Those are things that I grew up with, and things that I hear still a lot in the community, just with girls in general, guys too, actually. I just wanted to bring that out.
I just remember being younger, and picking out foundation or powder, and having someone somewhere telling me, “Go a shade lighter because you want to be light skinned,” or, “Do something with your hair.” My hair is frizzy. For the longest time I thought I should have sleek hair and no frizz. Zuri has these gorgeous curls. I wish I could explain the curls a little bit better, but that was actually inspired by a South Asian influencer that I’ve seen on Instagram who has these great spirals. I was just like wow, there’s just beauty in everything. No matter how you look, you possess beauty in one way or another. It shouldn’t be standard.
Music plays such a huge role as you started to mention earlier. Why did you choose the violin as Zuri’s instrument? What more can you tell us about her musical influences?
Zuri has the violin as her superpower. I was trying to find something that was portable and small. She couldn’t play the cello or the violin, because she needs to practice anywhere that she can practice. The violin is very portable and small enough.
My brother’s actually the musician in the family. He’s self-taught in about five instruments. Violin is one of them. I would just ask him to play theme songs like to the old X-Men cartoon show, or Game of Thrones or whatever. He can do it. So I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.”
Then as I thought more about what kind of instrument she should play and why, I came across hip hop violin. Zuri’s influences in the book are actual, real musicians.It’s just so amazing to be able to take a instrument that’s usually a classical instrument, but to change it up into more modern tempos, and to just combine styles. It’s beautiful and moving, and it amazes me.
There are so many different, threads in this book. What was your favorite part about writing it?
I think one of the themes that I really enjoyed writing about was touching on female friendships, because I grew up with just my brother and not a lot of female cousins my age. When my brother got married, I saw my sister-in-law’s family, and they’re all girls. They’re all rambunctious and independent, but also very strong women. They have a very close knit family. I just thought that was so special and touching that I wanted to put that into the book.
So that was really fun to write, to have a lot of female influences in Zuri’s life, like her cousins and her sisters and including, yeah, her mom and her aunties too. That was fun.
Zooming out a little bit, if you were to see My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding in a bookstore, or included in a library display, what are some other books that you’d love to see it shelved with?
When Dimple Met Rishi. I think that’s a given, not just because of the South Asian representation, but you have these two characters that butt heads, and they’re competitive in their own way, and they have their own thing going on. Debating Darcy is a newer book. I just think that’s also a bit of a competitiveness with each other, because Zuri and Naveen, who ends up being her crush, is also her competitor. The Upside of Falling was something that I read recently that I feel like that has a very similar tone as well. So those are some books that I think would be great comps.
In your life, is there a particular library or bookstore that you like to go to? How have some of these reading places played a role in your reading and writing life, now or as a kid?
Growing up, we didn’t really explore libraries and bookstores that much. Bookstores were very fancy. That’s where you go to buy books. We only borrowed them from libraries. I was really only exposed to my school libraries, but they were great. They were big libraries. And of course the Scholastic Book Fair. That was the only time where I asked for money from my parents because I wanted to buy books. As a kid, $1 or $2 a book was a great thing.
But now, as an adult, I try to visit a lot of bookstores. I will say that I really enjoy my hometown bookstore in Austin, Texas, Book People. They’ve just been very supportive of me, but they’re also very supportive of all of their local authors. It’s a place for the community to come together. You can just go in there and browse books, not just local books, but all kinds of books and little trinkets. They have Austin artists as well who have posters or earrings or pins or bookmarks, things like that.
They have, of course, a cafe. But the cool thing is that they have this barista who, you show her a book that you’re reading or want to buy, and they, I guess, come up with a type of coffee or drink to match a book, which is really fun. I’ve seen that a few times, someone posting an image of what they got. I’m like, “Ooh, what is it?” It’s very cool. I’ve never seen a bookstore do that. I’m sure there’s bookstore that do that, but I never seen one. I thought that was pretty cool.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read or do?
Gosh. Not a lot of time between not writing and edits, and me working on books. But I do enjoy just going out for hikes, and just seeing nature a little bit. I’m not an outdoorsy person. I don’t like bugs. Bugs is the main thing. But yeah, I like to go outdoors. Just this morning, I took my dogs on a walk around the little lake over here. I like to watch TV. In between writing books, I just relax by binge watching streaming videos, streaming shows, which is great, because you can just get it all in one place, and just binge watch, and get it out of your system, and then get back to work.
Amazing. Well, Sajni, thank you so much for chatting with me. And thank you, everyone, for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.
Thank you so much for having me.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Abrams, publisher of My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding, on shelves today. Happy reading!
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