YA Literature finds its first Parsi heroine among the locales of the Cama Parsi Colony and the halls of Qala Academy, set in the expat life in Saudi Arabia.
When was the last time you came across a female Parsi protagonist in a Young Adult (YA) novel? Or representation of and a cast of characters belonging to the Zoroastrian faith? Well, take these two and couple them with a life spent in India and Saudi Arabia, growing up, growing apart and finding oneself, and somewhere in between you’ll find the story of 16-year-old Zarin Wadia. The locales of the Cama Parsi Colony and the Souk come alive as a past in the Mumbai underworld and the expatriate life in Jeddah collide, with teenage alienation and ambition, through powerful and emotive characters in this YA novel of coming of age. SheThePeople.TV converses with Tanaz Bhathena about her debut novel on a girl alive in both death and life - A Girl Like That.
Tanaz Bhathena wanted to write a book about Saudi Arabia — set in the world outside of the royal palaces and gated compounds — with a focus on middle-class Indian expats. It may not come as a surprise to readers of Bhathena’s work but A Girl Like That did find its beginnings in a short story. Lucky for us, Tanaz found Zarin’s voice to be incredible, drawing her to convert the 5000-word story into an 80,000-word novel. And ergo, over the period of a year and a half, A Girl Like That came to be.
Lucky for us, Tanaz found Zarin’s voice to be incredible, drawing her to convert the 5000-word story into an 80,000-word novel. And ergo, over the period of a year and a half, A Girl Like That came to be.
“When you live in a particular place, you absorb a lot of things by just being there, by watching and listening,” says Bhathena. Many cultures do converge in A Girl Like That - Indian, Pakistani, Arabic, Syrian, and Palestinian. So naturally, when she began writing the novel, Tanaz Bhathena felt the need to research extensively. She read books, blogs and articles by Saudi and expat authors in the Kingdom, exploring in minutiae the country’s history and culture. “There is a lot that you can discover when you live in a country, but even more when you move away from it and look at things from a distance,” reflects the author.
The narrative voice in A Girl Like That shifts between the past and the present, and the dead and the living. Every name has a backstory and Bhathena found it interesting to explore the characters’ backgrounds in their own voices. It was easier to write that way - if Tanaz got bored with one character, she would then switch over to another, weaving the chapters through different perceptions and experiences.
Image Credit: Penguin Random House India
A Girl Like That poignantly relates the effects of patriarchy, restricted mobility and cyberbullying to the violence faced by teenage girls and women.
These issues further aggravate the culture of rape and victim-blaming in this all too real fictional world. But this violence cannot solely be aggravated by only three factors. Tanaz Bhathena thinks that we are battling something a lot more ancient when it comes to these issues - a prejudice against women and how they should behave.
Zarin Wadia, Asfiya and Nadia Durrani are significant characters in the book as they are constantly subjected to the moral police. Their characters are ascribed labels and called terrible names, simply for doing the sort of things that boys too do. The author questions this double standard - “Would you treat a boy like this?” she asks - hoping that the book encourages readers to stop defining girls as a girl like this or like that.
Tanaz finds there to be a lot of parallels for women between life in India and life in Saudi Arabia. They are either policed by others or are expected to police themselves. If they want safety, they are expected to dress in a certain way and to stay at home after dark - or expect danger and consequences. Instead of delivering a message in A Girl Like That, Tanaz Bhathena wanted to scrutinise the patriarchy that preaches double standards for women and to challenge the idea of a woman ‘asking for it’.
Growing up, the author saw a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness - not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in India. No one would talk about it even though they had spent ages talking about other illnesses. Khorshed Wadia, Zarin’s aunt in the book, has an undiagnosed mental illness. Living in Jeddah makes things even more challenging for the character because of how isolated she is. Her family represents the impact that one’s mental illness can have on loved ones and vice versa. Rustom Wadia - Zarin’s uncle - was an interesting character for the author to write. Although he seems positive when compared to Khorshed, Bhathena personally found his character to be troubling for his passivity and sporadic interventions.
With more and more fantastic books being written and released by authors of marginalised backgrounds, the author thinks that the scope of contemporary YA Literature is immense - especially for books set outside of North America.
Living in Canada, Bhathena has seen the We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices movements gain momentum in the North American book market. With more and more fantastic books being written and released by authors of marginalised backgrounds, the author thinks that the scope of contemporary YA Literature is immense - especially for books set outside of North America. A Parsi reader recently told the author how much it had meant to her that Tanaz had written A Girl Like That with Zoroastrian characters and that she had gifted her family members copies of the book as well. “It made me incredibly happy and reminded me again how much accurate representation matters,” says Tanaz.
A Girl Like That doesn’t shy away from talking about pertinent issues - women’s rights and access to public spaces, sexual violence, victim blaming, cyber-bullying, drug abuse, patriarchy, feminism, identity, race, class and religion. These issues, as experienced by the novel’s characters feel all too real and can be drawn powerful parallels to from the lived experiences in the world as we know it. If you love reading about fierce girls battling the patriarchy, then A Girl Like That is the book for you.
Feature Image Credit: Penguin Random House India
A Girl Like That, written by Tanaz Bhathena, has been published by Penguin Random House India. It’s priced at Rs. 399, and is available online and in bookstores.
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