When I was a kid growing up in India, I read constantly—when I was sick, when I was healthy, when I was supposed to be sleeping, when I was hungry or tired or bored or moody. Reading was like eating in my family; it was understood that you would need to do it regularly and often.
Most writers are readers, so this isn’t too much of a surprising thing. What was interesting, looking back, is that I read books exclusively about white people. While I was surrounded by a billion other Indians.
Even though race or ethnicity were hardly ever part of the discussion when I was growing up (except for obligatory lessons about the British Raj and Gandhi around Independence Day), it now seems pretty crazy to me that I never questioned why everyone I knew was reading books about white Britons or Americans when we, clearly, were neither.
When I turned fifteen, my family and I moved to the US, the melting pot of the world. People here seemed to enjoy talking about race and ethnicity. I was excited that my mind was being opened up to so many different aspects of culture and privilege that I had never considered before. And yet, at the bookstore, books about white teenagers and adults dominated. I bought them because my thirst for fiction would not be quenched, but I remember feeling restless, twitchy, and dissatisfied without really knowing why I was dissatisfied. My friends—of various nationalities and cultures—were also reading books about people who looked nothing like them, and more importantly, whose experience in this world was nothing like theirs.
I still remember when one of my distant relatives pressed into my hands Arundhati Roy’s book, The God of Small Things. I tried to read it, but every message in the book sailed right past. It was way too deep, way too literary, for fifteen-year-old me. And yet what I remember most about the experience was being insanely, out-of-this-world excited. I was so ridiculously happy to see an Indian woman’s name on the cover. I remember gazing at her author photograph on the back; her nut-brown skin, her curly black hair that was so much like my own. The book had won a prize—a very prestigious prize. Everyone was reading it, not just Indian people, even though the story was about Indians. Everyone thought Arundhati Roy’s story was important. And somehow, because everyone thought that, I began to think that maybe my story was important, too.
Seeing the recent push for diverse books, especially in children’s literature, has been incredible. It’s so, so important that every child—no matter what her ethnicity, sexual identity, or socioeconomic status—sees that her story is important, too. It’s vital that every child sees that there are writers just like him weaving stories that the world wants and needs to hear.
And why do I think writing diverse YA romance is important? Because the diverse stories we give teens should be accessible, fun, and non-intimidating. They should feature characters just like them in situations they might actually face. These diverse books should be on the shelf alongside the books with white, heterosexual characters, not relegated to a multicultural corner. This is how we can tell our adolescents that being non-white, or non-straight, or non-majority-anything is completely okay. And more than that—that it’s accepted.
That’s why working with Jennifer Ung and Simon Pulse on this book (whose working title is Dimple and Rishi), has been such a wonderful, thrilling experience. Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel’s story is not just about their story. It’s about claiming a small corner of the world of fiction, a tiny piece of the empire of teen romance. It’s about saying, We’re here. Just listen, and we’ll blow you away.