In Rani Patel in Full Effect, out this month from Cinco Puntos Press, debut YA novelist Sonia Patel introduces a teenager living in Hawaii with her Gujarati Indian immigrant parents, struggling to find her identity and discover where she belongs. Sexually abused by her father and feeling isolated from her introverted mother, Rani takes solace in writing rap songs and performing in the early 1990s underground hip-hop milieu, where she makes risky choices that, ultimately, enable her to uncover her strengths and reconnect with her mother. The author, a psychiatrist of Gujarati descent who lives and practices in Hawaii and is an accomplished writer of rap verse, spoke with PW about creating the character of Rani – whose identical surname is hardly a coincidence – and relaying her story.
The autobiographical strains of your novel sound loud and clear. What led you to share some gritty pieces of your life with teen readers?
In my role as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I do not reveal my personal life to my patients. I make occasional exceptions if I think divulging bits of my experiences will be therapeutic for the patient. There are many times I want to interrupt my teen patients and blurt, “Hey, listen, I’ve been there, done that. Don’t waste your time making those kinds of mistakes. Don’t learn the hard way like I did! Listen to me!” Of course, that’s not how psychotherapy works, and it’s rarely useful to lecture. Over the years, I got to reflecting on what additional tools I might use in therapy to help guide teens away from destructive behaviors. I kept coming back to self-disclosure. It just seemed logical that my patients and their families would be more likely to consider making behavior changes if they knew I’d practiced what we were discussing.
Why is fiction an effective medium for communicating that message?
One day in the fall of 2014, when I was working on a new rap, I took a break and skimmed over the binder of rap I’d written over the years. I read it in a certain order, and to my surprise, that order told a story of a girl overcoming adversity. Aha! It hit me. The story could be a blend of struggles and triumphs – mine, those of some of my patients, and my imagination. This type of mix would hopefully produce a troubled but relatable protagonist. By writing a realistic YA novel, I was confident I could help teens in a way that, for some of them, might be more powerful than psychotherapy.
Did the key role that hip hop and rap played in your teenage life inspire its importance to Rani?
It was never really a decision to incorporate hip hop and rap into Rani’s story. Rather, her story was born out of the rap I’d written over the years. I’d been hooked to hip hop – especially rap – since I was 11, from the first time I heard Run DMC rap to a dope beat on my boom box. Later in my teens, I put my pen to my pad and words flowed into rhymes. The rhymes gelled into rap. The rap expressed my hurt, frustration, and rebellion against my family’s dysfunction. My father’s manipulative, controlling, and abusive actions isolated my mother and me, not only from our Gujarati Indian culture but also from American culture.
So listening to and writing in this musical genre reduced your sense of isolation?
The bottom line was that, though my genetic ancestry is Gujarati Indian, I’ve never felt Gujarati Indian enough. Though I am the first person in my immigrant family to be born in America, I’ve never felt American enough. And though I was raised on the island of Moloka’i, I’ve never felt Hawaiian enough. I picked up positive bits and pieces of my surrounding cultures – Gujarati Indian, Native Hawaiian, and American – but these positives couldn’t balance out the worthlessness I increasingly felt as my father rejected my mother and made me into his intimate companion. Fortunately, hip hop threw me a lifeline – the music soothed my soul, and rap gave me a voice for my feelings of inadequacy and rage. All the things hip hop gifted me with kept me afloat while my family’s ship capsized – like it did for Rani. Hip hop saved her life, yo! And mine, too.
Fast-forwarding to your adult life, how did your experience working with teenagers in your psychiatric practice help shape Rani Patel in Full Effect?
My experiences treating teens from all walks of life definitely fueled the novel and offered a helpful counterpart to my personal experiences. Each teen I’ve treated has his or her own story and challenges. The insight they gain from therapy helps them change their behavior and tolerate a spectrum of thoughts and feelings until their self-worth improves. I try to instill them with the desire to keep striving to overcome and thrive. Through my YA fiction, I hope I can impact more teens than in my office alone. I’m looking to entertain, but also to inspire, to help, and to guide. Rani doesn’t get it right away, and that’s why her story is a realistic response to trauma. Rani repeats old, bad behaviors for a long time – that’s all she knows.
So you’re hopeful that Rani’s circuitous path to recovery will encourage readers dealing with trauma to persevere on their own healing journeys?
It’s one thing for me in my capacity as a psychiatrist to discuss not giving up with my teen patients. It’s another, maybe more potent, thing for them to think about the real, relatable experiences of another person. And perhaps it’s even more compelling for them to read a YA novel about a young protagonist whose world they can climb into and live in for a while. Perhaps in this vicarious manner they can gain empathy for their own situation and be inspired to keep trying to make positive change.
Was it difficult, or cathartic, to revisit painful parts of your past to relay Rani’s story?
It was both – and also therapeutic. “Physician heal thyself” most certainly applied when writing Rani’s story. I never had a psychiatrist growing up, when I was in the thick of my family turmoil. Deep down, I knew there was a problem, but I buried all my feelings because no one else seemed to think there was anything wrong. I figured it was just the way things were, and that I was way better off than kids who were starving or being beaten or growing up in war-torn countries.
It was only in the process of writing Rani’s story that I found true healing. However, I also found grief – the grief I’d avoided my entire life. Grief about the reality of my family’s problems and the long-term consequences my mother and I suffered. Grief about the terribly hurtful choices I’d made. Ultimately, through the process of writing Rani’s story, I gained tremendous insight into my past and how it connects to my present. I’ve solidified my identity, self-worth, and ability to make good interpersonal decisions – something I’ve been encouraging my patients to strive for all along.
Your novel was selected as a YA Editors’ Buzz book at BEA, and has received multiple starred reviews. As a first-time novelist, this enthusiastic reception must be very gratifying.
Yes – it’s been such an honor! I am new to the YA world and feel grateful for this buzz. I consider myself an outlier in terms of authors, because my focus is on emotional and interpersonal realism as opposed to shock value, world building, or epic storytelling. So while Rani Patel in Full Effect may not make the New York Times bestseller list, I am already well on my way to achieving my goals as an author – to help and inspire teens.
What is next up for you as a novelist? Any chance you will continue Rani’s story in a sequel?
I often fantasize about writing a sequel with Rani in college in New York City. I’ve imagined her there kicking up her rap skills, and developing a strong network of female friends. Maybe someday I’ll get to that. Currently, though, I’m working on a tragic teen love story set on Oahu – a trans Gujarati boy and a girl from Hauula meet by chance. And though their lives are filled with chaos of all kinds, their love grows. They start to solidify their true identities, but then... you’ll have to wait and see!
Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel. Cinco Puntos, $16.95 Oct. 978-1-941026-49-6; trade paper, $11.95 ISBN 978-1-941026-50-2