Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Delacorte, 2012), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist. Her forthcoming historical middle-grade novel, The Night Diary, which will be released in March from Dial, takes place in 1947 as India, gaining independence from Britain, is partitioned into two nations along religious lines: with India designated for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. Through journal entries addressed to her deceased mother, who was Muslim, 12-year-old Nisha documents her experience when her Hindu family is violently uprooted from its home in Pakistan. We spoke with Hiranandani about delving into her family history, which inspired Nisha’s story, and forging cross-cultural connections through food.
In your author’s note, you explain that Nisha’s story was inspired in part by your father’s journey from Pakistan to India in 1947, during “the largest mass migration in history.” When did you first become aware of the history of the Partition and its impact on your family?
I think it was a bit by bit progression. I got a little kernel when I was really young, and a little more when I was older. That was partly because of my sensitivity or my sense of my father not wanting to share something that was difficult about the world and about his world. As I got older, I heard more family talk at gatherings and I’d ask more questions. My father minimized it at first, possibly out of a protective reaction, but later he started to feel more comfortable talking about it. I remember seeing the movie Gandhi when I was 11. It was the first time I’d heard about it outside my family—I realized what a large global event it was. Then I started to look into it on my own.
As a writer, I’m always looking back at my own history and my family’s history. I was circling around this for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to approach it.
Why did now feel like an important time to share your father’s story and that of other refugees?
It was probably five, maybe six years ago that I first attempted to write about it. I had wanted to tell the story for a while, and was finally feeling brave enough to attempt to do it justice.
As I was writing and revising, I started to realize that there were themes that were resonating with the present day—certainly the refugee crisis and the experience of being a refugee. Also, the politically divisive feelings in our country and in the world. I was thinking about how quickly things can become so angry and divided, and how useful it can be to look at mistakes made in the past, in different parts of the world—how it can be a cautionary tale. It’s sad, but it also felt really useful to explore that history and put it on top of what was happening right now. I think we forget history so quickly, especially if it happens in another part of the world.
Have you shared the novel with your father?
He’s read many drafts. That was exciting. He has an engineering background, and worked in business for a long time. He’s a very “2 + 2 = 4” kind of guy. He usually reads more nonfiction and history. This was probably his first experience talking about a work of fiction in progress. It was really interesting for both of us. And it was nice to be able to invite him into that space. He was great as far as pointing out when things didn’t feel authentic, in terms of place or history. He didn’t get too much into, “I don’t know if you’re revealing the character here.” That wasn’t what I was looking for from him.
In addition to exploring your family’s experience, what other sources did you pull from? Did you travel to India as part of your research?
I did travel to India. I wasn’t able to do the exact journey [that Nisha makes in the book], starting in Pakistan to Jodhpur and eventually Bombay. But I recently visited Bombay with my father. And the internet is an amazing place. I was looking at the political entities and how the transition happened. I read many nonfiction books, outlining different views as far as who was responsible [for Partition] in the larger political realm—the leaders, including the British, and Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, and the last Viceroy.
I was also very interested in what was a regular person’s experience. And there’s an enormous amount of personal testimonies. I read hundreds describing what it was like to leave India and travel to Pakistan, and to go from Pakistan to India. I was always struck by how similar the accounts were, and how quickly things changed in communities—certainly in my father’s community—that had lived together for so long, and had respected each other’s differences in religion. It really did change overnight: a spreading distrust and fear that everybody experienced. A lot of it still sort of lingers today, which makes me sad. And that’s part of why I wanted to write this book—seeing the wound that is left in my family and in so many other families.
Throughout The Night Diary, Nisha questions which side of the new border, if any, will welcome her as the child of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. And in your previous book, The Whole Story of Half a Girl, Sonia navigates middle school life and both her Indian and Jewish-American heritage. How much of your own experience do you see in your characters’ stories?
A lot. Sonia is much closer to my direct experience growing up. My mom is Jewish-American, and my dad, of course, is Hindu from India. I grew up feeling not quite enough of one or the other. I would spend time with the Jewish side of my family, with cousins who had two Jewish parents, who went to Hebrew school, and had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And I spent time with the Indian side, who knew Hindi and went to India more often.
My parents, in their getting together, let go of some of the religious and cultural traditions. I think they felt it would be less confusing. But I did feel a constant search for where I belonged and who would consider me authentic, in a sense. I was always looking for that clear identity, and I never really found it. I’m still looking, but I’m enjoying the search.
I’m fascinated by how people identify themselves and why. It will probably always be a theme that I’ll be working with. So it was natural in a sense for Nisha to also be trying to understand her identity. And, of course, the stakes are really high for her. It gave me a window to explore the landscape of Partition in a way that I personally would want to look at it. How would you feel if you had this identity? What if you had both? Where would you belong? Because I would hear stories from my Hindu side of the family, and that was one perspective. But I’m always interested in the other side, too.
Food is vitally important to Nisha, almost like a language connecting her to her friend Kazi [the family cook], and later to her uncle. Do you enjoy cooking?
I do enjoy cooking. That was one way for me to connect to both sides of my family, both by cooking and eating. I felt that on the Indian side of my family I could speak the language of food, of Indian food. That’s where I felt really comfortable expressing myself. And also on the Jewish side of my family, taking part in the Passover meal or making latkes—those are the places I strongly connect to my background.
I also really enjoy reading about food and writing about it. The sensory experience helps me connect with a setting and a character. I felt like for Nisha it was such an important way for her to express herself, because she had trouble speaking outside of her family.
How did your editor, Namrata Tripathi, help shape The Night Diary?
It was such a satisfying editorial experience. She’s really nuanced in the way that she looks at writing. She can look at something with such depth, which any writer really hopes for in an editor—and I found that. Also her background—her grandmother’s connection to Partition—gave her a personal connection to the manuscript. That was just luck, really. That was part of the reason she was drawn to the manuscript, and part of the reason I was drawn to her as an editor. It gave a depth to the collaboration that I was really grateful for.
She would also notice things that my father and I didn’t catch—because I didn’t grow up in India. At one point, she said, “I don’t know if Nisha would be eating naan. Does she have a tandoor oven in her house?” Because naan is really hard to make. I don’t know if another editor would’ve noticed that.
You previously worked as a children’s book editor at Simon & Schuster. When did you decide you wanted to tell your own stories?
I always wanted to be a writer. I was one of those people who got into publishing because I love books and felt working in publishing was in my wheelhouse. I went to grad school before that and always had the dream of wanting to write fiction. And working in publishing was like another graduate school. I learned so much about the practical side of the business, in thinking realistically about what it meant to write a book.
Do you ever find it difficult to turn off your inner editor while writing?
I’m able to pretty easily go into a free space and just get it out and see what happens. I feel lucky that, once I get to the computer—which is not always easy!—I can just write and I don’t second guess myself. And then all the editorial stuff and self-doubt, I wait for that. I reread and go into rewrite mode, where I can be much harder on myself.
You also teach creative writing at Sarah Lawrence. What are some of the discussions that come up in your classes?
I teach at the Writing Institute, which is a non-credit writing program. I did my MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence, so it’s been nice to come back after all these years. Some of the classrooms are where I first felt serious about writing, 20 years ago.
I learn so much when I teach. It’s an endless space of learning. When I’m figuring out writing prompts, I’m always looking at elements of craft. And students are always noticing things. During the workshop process, I can really see in other people’s writing where they’re successful where they may need work, in a way I can’t see in my own writing. That’s why we need editors.
Do you share your own work with students?
I talk about it, but I don’t usually share my own work with students in workshop format. I feel [the class] is for them; it’s their space. But I always need that feedback and I’m grateful I have a writing group with three other women. We meet monthly. It keeps us writing and keeps us on deadline. It’s so helpful to have other eyes on one’s work.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. Dial, $16.99 Mar. 6 ISBN 978-0-7352-2851-1