Of their many early influences, friends and authors Sheela Chari, Veera Hiranandani and Sayantani DasGupta cited Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” as one of their favorite childhood reads. Other titles that topped the list included western classics like “Nancy Drew” and “Little Women.”
Still, the trio — all of South Asian descent — longed to see themselves represented in the pages of their favorite books — characters that looked, talked and felt like them. Today, they are bridging that gap, penning stories spanning fantasy to historical fiction to mystery.
The authors will participate in a RiverArts talk on Feb. 10 at the Dobbs Ferry Public Library. The discussion, which kicks off at 2 p.m., will be moderated by fellow author Jimin Han, a Seoul, Korea native who teaches at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.
Five years ago, the trio formed a writers’ group with Young Adult author Heather Tomlinson, who now participates via Skype. The group convenes monthly to share working manuscripts and exchange notes.
“Writing can be lonely and pretty solitary,” Hiranandani, 47, said. “It’s really important to connect with other writers and have company in that sense.”
DasGupta, 48, said the group considers questions about particular scenes in each text, the publishing industry at large and writing for cultural beats. “We’re able to nourish each other’s visions and get to really the … kernel of what each of us is trying to convey,” she said.
Chari, 46, a resident of Scarsdale, teaches fiction writing at Mercy College, and Hiranandani teaches creative writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.
Chari’s books delve into the world of mystery, bringing Indian-American characters to the forefront of a genre in which they’re normally marginalized.
Her first novel “Vanished,” (2011) was an Al’s Book Club Pick on The Today Show and an Edgar Award finalist. Her follow-up “Finding Mighty” (2017) picked up several honors, including a Junior Library Guild selection and an Amazon Best Book of the Month pick. The novel revolves around 12-year-old neighbors Myla and Peter as they investigate the disappearance of Peter’s brother, Randall, and uncover long-held family secrets. Chari is currently adapting the Peabody Award-winning podcast “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel” into a novelized series.
Fusing a traditional mystery with cultural elements is “a lot to juggle without weighing the story down,” she said, adding that “each book is in some way about me trying to figure out how I fit into the larger community.”
Early on, the three RiverArts speakers bonded over their zest for literature and similar childhood experiences. Each grew up in a predominantly white environment in which they often felt “othered.”
DasGupta, who lives in Palisades, New York, recalled schooldays in Ohio and later New Jersey as “the only brown girl” in her class. She was also one of few first-generation immigrants; her parents had moved to the U.S. from Kolkata, India and her grandparents were from a territory now part of Bangladesh.
Sometimes students rubbed DasGupta’s skin to see if her “tan” would rub off. After the second film installment of “Indiana Jones” — set in pre-partition India in 1935 — debuted in 1984, they asked her if she ate monkey brains.
DasGupta wrestled with feeling both underrepresented and “represented terribly,” she said. It was a cycle she saw recurring when she had children of her own, now 16 and 14.
Inspired by the Bengali folktales told by her grandmother on sticky summer nights in India, DasGupta penned her first book “Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond: The Serpent’s Secret” as a gift to her children. The novel, the first in a three-part series, reframes familiar Indian stories of rakkhosh demons and brave princesses in contemporary New Jersey, making Kiranmala the young daughter of immigrants who is suddenly plunged into a world of fantastical creatures and adventure.
Published last February by Scholastic, the book has since been translated into German, French and Bengali. The second installment in the series, “Game of Stars,” will launch Feb. 26, and the third book is expected in February 2020.
In addition to writing, DasGupta, who was a practicing pediatrician up until 10 years ago, teaches narrative medicine at Columbia University. She said her three careers “come from the same place — stories and power and representation.”
Hiranandani has tackled both realistic and historical fiction. Her newest book “The Night Diary” narrates the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 through the diary of 12-year-old Nisha, who is half-Muslim and half-Hindu. The book, which was published last March, received a 2019 Newbery Honor from the American Library Association.
As a person of mixed heritage (Hiranandani’s father is from India and her mother is Jewish), Hiranandani said she is excited to discuss the intersections of identity and writing in the RiverArts talk.
“We think and talk about these things all the time,” she said, “so to do it for other people who are interested in writing and identity and craft ... is great.”