After writing and publishing several connected short stories about first- and second-generation South Asian Americans, Tanuja Desai Hidier, a Brown graduate who has been involved with filmmaking, music and editing as well as writing fiction, felt that her material was growing “too big” for a short story format. She wanted to create a novel about an “ABCD,” an American-born confused Desai, or, more specifically, a South Asian teen caught between two cultures. She also wanted to capture the “exciting multicultural scene occurring in New York City, where she lived after college.
The opportunity to start working on Born Confused (Scholastic) came “accidentally” in 2000—at a time, ironically, Hidier was preparing to move from New York to London. “I thought it would be a good idea to get some editing work to do abroad,” says the author. “I went to Scholastic to see David Levithan [whose name she got from the violinist in her punk-pop band], but David misunderstood my intent. He thought I’d come to pitch a book.”
Realizing this was not the moment to set him straight, Hidier laid out her ideas for a novel. Coincidentally, Levithan had recently created the new imprint Push and was looking for innovative novels fittin in that “fuzzy area” between children’s books and adult fiction. He responded enthusiastically to Hidier’s ideas, recognizing that an Indian-American coming-of-age novel was something brand new. After settling into London, Hidier submitted her plans for Born Confused in the form of a proposal and 25-page outline. The novel was immediately accepted by Scholastic.
Accustomed to writing stories in “short, intense spurts,” Hidier had to shift gears to write a full-length novel, but in five months’ time she completed a 900-page manuscript (which Levithan trimmed to a more manageable size). “Writing Born Confused was a thrill.” Hidier recalls. “It was like having my cake and eating it too. I was getting to inhabit my two favorite cities at the same time. I was living in London and writing about New York. On one level, the book is a love song to New York. When I lived there in the ’90s, it was exciting to witness how, almost overnight, Indian culture moved from underground to above ground and became trendy.”
On another level, Born Confused encapsulates the universal insecurities and identity crises experienced by young adults. “It was refreshing to write from a teen’s perspective,” says the author. “It was fun to go back and experience the shock and surprise of new discoveries. Teens aren’t as jaded as adults.”
Although Born Confused is not autobiographical, Hidier feels “connected” to her heroine, the “confused” Dimple Lala. Hidier grew up in a town similar to Dimple’s and shared her heroine’s exhilaration in witnessing the multicultural boom in New York City. “I’m not quite as introverted as Dimple,” she admits. “I do have a shy side, but over the years, I’ve become more extroverted like Dimple’s friend, Gwyn.” Gwyn, a blond, All-American popular girl, who seemingly “has it all, surprises Dimple by adopting Indian culture, and going after the Indian-American boy Dimple secretly admires.
From her book, Hidier hopes that her readers will realize that “issues of identity are human issues not unique to one culture. It’s like the nightclub scene,” she states, referring to Dimple’s experiences in city dance clubs. “There are all these people of different ages and backgrounds, expressing their individuality through art. But they’re all dancing to the same beat.”