In Navdeep Singh Dhillon’s debut, Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions, Sunny, who is reeling from his brother’s tragic death, ditches his prom and joins his mysterious classmate Mindii Vang for a night full of adventure and impulsive decisions. The one-night romance is reminiscent of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which Dhillon cites as an inspiration. “That novel had these huge passages on Judaism and existential stuff,” he said. Sunny G’s also touches on weighty topics, like bullying, alcoholism, and grief. “I really liked that element [in Nick and Norah]—those heavy components—and romance as essential to the story.” PW spoke with Dhillon about fandoms, toxic masculinity, and writing stories that center working class teens.
Sunny loves to crochet and he has an Etsy shop. He plays in a band. He’s very into a fandom. He has a stutter. What were the inspirations for this character?
I was watching Master of None and I was interested in [Aziz Ansari’s] performance of masculinity. I started imagining a Brown kid in high school having all this bravado and trying to date. The more I started integrating my own experiences, the richer the character and the story became. Sunny’s fandom was inspired by my kids who are really into their fandoms. Growing up, I was also into fandoms: Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles. We go to Comic Con, and we cosplay for that. Crochet was a thing with my grandmother, my mom, and my sisters. Any time there was an event, there would always be crocheting and gossiping. It was a way to pass down stories and culture. I have a stutter. I’ve never seen a positive representation of that. It’s the butt of the joke or it’s so severe that it becomes an Afterschool Special. I wanted to wrap it in a fun story.
In this book, you created a fandom from whole cloth—a story within a story. How did you integrate these threads?
Originally, the fandom was Harry Potter. Then She Who Shall Not Be Named went off the rails. It got harder to write. I stopped enjoying my jokes. I felt uncomfortable: Why was I doing this to poor Sunny? It was out of character as well, because I had to ignore the reality of how toxic the creator was. I was in copyedits when I asked my editor if I could completely deconstruct the entire story, so I created the whole fandom based in Sikh history, South Asian history, and religious doctrine.
What fandoms and books influenced this book?
There are many of my own influences in the book, and influences from my kids: Airbender, Star Wars, anime. One of the most influential books was Meera Syal’s Anita and Me. A lot of the Desi representation that I was offered by teachers and librarians in the United States was very strange—things like having college as a default or not having to work part-time jobs—because I grew up working class. Or the idea of going to Harvard or that your parents wanted you to go to Harvard. My parents would be like, “Why are you going to go to Harvard? There’s a university right over here.” I went to community college. Anita and Me was one of the first depictions of Desi working-class life that I saw myself in. I liked the diversity of the British Asian experience, which I didn’t find in a lot of other writing.
Do you think that’s changing?
I don’t. Not from the Desi American perspective. There are a good number of stories that are coming out, but the class issues are very one-dimensional still. The field is changing for the better, but the class thing is a difficult one because to get to the level of writing something, you have to have a certain level of privilege within the industry as well.
It was important for me to add the bit about Sunny not knowing what he’s going to do after high school. Part of the reason that I joined the Navy is because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have enough money to go to a university, but even if I had the money, I wasn’t prepared for it. Other students had their mom and dad who knew if you want to get into a [University of California school], you have to have two years of a foreign language or whatever. I had a C average. I took home economics because it was an easy class. I took three languages. I wanted to play around with the idea of somebody not knowing exactly what their next step is after high school was, whether that was community college or working somewhere.
How does the book challenge a sort of toxic masculinity that is often present in South Asian culture and in representations of South Asian men?
It’s an interesting dance with masculinity, especially in the Punjabi community where, on one hand, we hold hands and hug especially when men are drinking. At the same time, we have to put on this front: you’re not supposed to cry and be in touch with your feelings. I wanted to play around with that a little bit with Sunny. He crochets and he’s comfortable with it and everybody accepts it. Sometimes he parrots things, like “friend zone,” but Mindii calls him out on it. Whatever he says, it doesn’t go unchecked. He has strong female friends who are there to put him in his place.
The book is set in California’s Central Valley, which has a long South Asian history. How does the setting intersect with characters in the book?
There’s a tremendous history of Punjabis, predominantly Sikhs, in the Central Valley. They came to the United States for various reasons. The Ghadar Party, which supported a violent overthrow of British rule in India, started in this area. There’s also a community of Mexican Hindus—“Hindu” being the overarching term for anyone that was from South Asia. The Punjabi men weren’t allowed to marry white women, so they married Brown women. There was overlap with the Mexican community because a lot of the food was similar. These communities are dwindling now, but I liked the idea of people connecting in that way. They were forced into these situations, but they had these connections.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a story set in the Central Valley about a tractor competition and drag racing. In India particularly, they have these tractor competitions. In Fresno, drag racing is really big. The farmers in this are rich because they’ve got hundreds of acres. They have these tractors, and they supe them up. They hot rod them. They will put engines and blacklights in them and they’ll start racing them because there are these huge, wide open spaces.
Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions by Navdeep Singh Dhillon. Dial, $17.99 Feb. 8 ISBN 978-0-593-10997-7