The Flicker of a Smile, a guest post by Anuradha D. Rajurkar
“You wrote a whole book?” she asked. Eight-year-old Mia* and I were at our customary spot at the little round table in my math support classroom where we worked together three times a week. We had recently begun meeting one-on-one rather than in a small group with Mia’s peers, and it was working: instead of timidly twisting a tissue under the table with her delicate brown hands and hanging back, on her own she was happy, focused, engaged. She was making huge gains.
On that particular day, Mia and I had been talking about grit and perseverance, and she’d just learned that my debut novel, American Betiya, was going to be published. Her excitement was palpable; she bounced in her seat. “Is your book funny?”
“Yes. I made sure to make it funny.”
Her deep brown eyes sparkled impishly. Rolling a couple dice we’d been using in her hands, she asked, “What’s it about?”
Ah, the dreaded question. How to explain the heart of my #ownvoices upper YA book about first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship to a third grader? Or to anyone, for that matter?
“It’s about love, friendship, and family,” I say finally. “And how when people don’t see each other’s points of view, there can be a lot of hurt feelings.” I stop, suddenly uncertain. This went dark fast.
But she sat forward. “Oh, so there is, like, fighting in your book?”
“Some,” I admit. “Mainly it shows how even with people you love, sometimes you have to fight for who you are.”
She gazed at me a moment, this wise-beyond-her-years girl who has gone from skulking uncertainly to bounding happily into my classroom, brightening my day every time. “What if you don’t know who you are yet?”
“That’s a big part of the book,” I said. “Figuring out who you are.”
She considered this. “And you said it’s also funny.”
“Yep. There’s a lot of silliness with friends,” I said, watching a slow smile spread across her face. “A book can be funny and serious, happy and sad, right?”
“Yeah.” She studied me. “Those are actually my favorite kinds of books.” She set down the dice and grabbed a handful of rubber teddy bear counters. “You know The Watsons Go to Birmingham?”
I looked at her, genuinely stunned. “How did you know that’s one of my favorite books of all time?”
“What?! Mine too!” she crows happily. “It’s got everything in it.” She begins arranging the bears into a circle. “Like yours.”
Working with students, especially those from underrepresented communities, reminds me of why I wrote American Betiya. On its surface, it’s a story about breaking from social and family expectations, first love, and learning to embrace the beauty of your cultural identity amid your search for love and belonging. But it’s also a story about feminist allyship, and learning to become an upstander for yourself in the face of specific kinds of microaggressions—the kinds that arise in places we least expect. As my main character Rani hurtles headfirst into her quest for love while her often charming boyfriend behaves in questionable ways, the story reveals how true first love is your own sense of dignity—one that is sculpted messily over time.
Amid the widespread “love conquers all” narrative so common in young adult literature, I hoped instead to explore the way our cultural identities intersect with love, personal boundaries, and respect.
Usually, when we think of racism, we imagine hate crimes, strangers yelling slurs, and perhaps the reality of systemic racism. But managing racism and patriarchy in our closest relationships are nuances that are just beginning to arise in our cultural conversation. Working with Mia both in a small group versus individually reminded me that microaggressions in our daily relationships—sometimes even our closest relationships—are so challenging because of the faith you have placed in them. The trust you have in them. Having watched Mia navigate her complicated surroundings reminded me of what I had always wished I had had more of growing up: More allies in the face of microaggressions. A stronger sense of myself as I learned to embrace my own sense of identity. And stories about the same that told me I wasn’t alone.
I was late joining the small group of students in my room that included Mia. The students were already at the table, eating their snacks, and I overheard one student—a girl who presented at times as being a friend of Mia’s— mocking the snack Mia had brought, one that was specific to her culture. On the spot, we discussed how that kind of a comment makes people feel, how foods from different cultures are actually really cool, and I shared my personal favorite snack foods—samosas and chaklis. As we moved on to the math lesson, Mia was quiet, but I noticed that she participated more than usual. I even saw the flicker of a smile.
At eight, Mia already knew a lot about fielding microaggressions, bias, and stereotyping. She already knew what it was like to try to seek belonging in a predominantly white learning community that didn’t always value the ways she was different. She knew the stress and exhaustion of self-advocacy. She’s experienced how racism can come from anywhere, even those close to you. She recognizes that sometimes, staying silent is self-preservation, and yet how an ally stepping in can turn everything on its head.
When we were together—both BIPOC females in a predominantly white institution—my classroom became a newfound safe space for both of us. Over the months I got to work with her, I admired her resilience, her quiet tenacity, her grit. Her teacher eventually shared that Mia was slowly coming into her own in class, opening herself up to her peers in a way that felt like small progress. She taught me, in her quiet way, all about grace.
Mia and I shared a love for stories about characters from diverse cultures who experience the joys and challenges of growing up nonwhite in America. We both love characters that embrace their identity while discovering spaces that are imbued with a warm sense of belonging, of laughter. That genuine feeling of love.
I hope that when she’s old enough to read it, she finds all of that and more in American Betiya.
I hope it makes her proud.
*All names and personal details have been changed for privacy.
Meet the author
Anuradha D. Rajurkar is the recipient of the nationwide SCBWI Emerging Voices Award for her YA contemporary debut, American Betiya (Knopf). Born and raised in the Chicago area to South Asian immigrant parents, Anuradha earned two degrees from Northwestern University, and for many years had the joy of being a public school teacher by day, writer by night. Nowadays, when she’s not writing or reading, Anuradha spends her time hiking through forests with her husband, obsessing over her garden, watching old horror flicks with her sons, eating too many baked yummies, or roguishly knitting sweaters without their patterns. She hopes her stories will inspire teens to embrace their unique identities and inner badass despite outside pressures and cultural expectations. American Betiya is her first novel.
About American Betiya
A luminous story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship. Perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson.
Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in—his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art—make him her mother’s worst nightmare.
They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver’s troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself—and what’s really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.
Winner of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices award, Anuradha D. Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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