Jyoti Rajan Gopal is a kindergarten teacher and the debut author of the picture book American Desi, a poetic celebration of the many facets of South Asian American cultures. She grew up in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, and China, and now lives in New York City. Supriya Kelkar is a screenwriter and the author of the picture book Bindu’s Bindis and the middle grade novels American as Paneer Pie and Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame, among other books for young readers. American Desi is the first picture book she has illustrated. Raised in the Midwest, she currently lives in Michigan. We asked Gopal and Kelkar to interview each other about their collaboration and their early experiences growing into their identities as American desis.
Jyoti Rajan Gopal: Supriya, I’m thrilled to chat with you about our book, American Desi, and its journey into creation. When I found out that you were going to be the illustrator, I did a lot of jumping up and down and shrieking. I felt so honored that this text was going to be your very first illustrated picture book!
Supriya Kelkar: Thanks, Jyoti! That is so kind of you to say. It is so great to be here with you to chat all things American Desi. I am so excited for this book of debuts, your picture book debut, my illustrator debut, to be out in the world! American Desi is going to be a book that makes so many kids feel seen. What was your inspiration for it?
Gopal: So for our readers, we should explain what the word desi means! Desi loosely means “of the homeland” and is derived from the Sanskrit word "desh". Its use has a complicated history but it has recently emerged as a broad umbrella term for people from the South Asian diaspora. I think it’s important to point out that not all South Asian Americans identify as desi, or even as South Asian, so it’s really a personal choice. I love identifying as an American desi, but I am aware that not everyone feels that way. Identity is complicated, isn’t it?
Growing up as a child in Thailand and Indonesia, attending international schools, I straddled multiple cultures in my daily life. My South Indian home, my American international school, and my local community each brought different languages, different traditions, a different way of being. I was code-switching before I even knew what that meant! I was deeply connected to each of these communities and yet within each, there were many times I felt like a phirangi, a foreigner.
In America, where I have lived for the past 28 years, that sense of belonging and not belonging continued as a constant presence in my life. I learned to accept and embrace it but it took me a long time. Even now, I am sometimes overcome by that feeling, of belonging everywhere and not belonging anywhere. And yet, I love that I am also able to slip between my different worlds with such ease. That’s where the idea for American Desi came from, that embracing of the possibilities that come with being bicultural and even multicultural.
Supriya, when did you start thinking of yourself as an American desi?
Kelkar: I always thought of myself as Indian-American, and later as an adult, came to like the term Desi as well, because to me, it felt inclusive of the diverse South Asian diaspora around the world, although, like you said, not everyone in the diaspora identifies themselves as desi. But because I grew up in a town that wasn’t diverse or inclusive, and saw no representation of any South Asian or South Asian Americans in TV shows, movies, commercials, books, junk mail, or anywhere else in American media, my Indian side and my American side were oftentimes separated. I’d get made fun of for bindis even though I never wore them in school. I’d get made fun of for my religion, the coconut oil in my hair, my languages, accents, food, music, culture, all the things that made me who I was. I’d often feel embarrassed of that side of myself in school, and yet at home, my Indian side was everything to me. The food, dancing, Bollywood movies, music, going to the temple, the festivals and holidays, the clothing, they were all an integral part of me, a part missing at school. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Michigan, just 20 minutes from my hometown, in an environment that felt so diverse and inclusive compared to my hometown, that I was able to fully embrace all sides of myself and be my whole self in public, at home, and in all spaces.
Gopal: It’s so hard to feel like you cannot bring your whole self to your classroom or school! I’m so glad you finally found a community where you felt whole. I worked really hard as a mom to help my daughters navigate that too, because there were no picture books like American Desi when they were little, but even so, I saw the impact on them of being “other”—the loss of their first language, Tamil, the inevitable “where are you from?,” the Anglicizing of their names. I hope that American Desi can create a space for young children to bring their whole selves to their communities sooner than we could!
Could you share why you decided to take this on as your first illustrated book?
Kelkar: I know that experience well and I’m so sorry your daughters went through that. When I first read your text, I realized that my story, your story, our story, was reflected on every page of it. That’s what really drew me to your book. It was an homage to our journey and such an uplifting story of embracing your whole self. I loved it.
I wanted to follow that same format that you did with your stanzas, that we both did in our own journeys, of questioning who we are, realizing we don’t have to choose, and finally embracing and proudly showing the world all sides of us, in the art too.
To do so, I used different fabrics on opposite pages, Indian fabrics on one side, non-Indian fabrics on the other. Those colors and textures look different side by side, until eventually, they’re brought together in a literal storm of jeans and chiffon scarves, and end up working together, blending and merging and swirling together in harmony.
It was also important to me to put pieces of people who are integral to my life and my journey toward self-acceptance in the art. I used pieces of clothing from family members including my grandparents, who I only got to see for a few days every couple years when we’d go to India or they’d visit us in Michigan, and pieces of my children’s Indian clothes and sweatpants and pajamas and sweaters as well.
Were you able to do that with the text as well? How much of that has pieces of you and your family in it?
Gopal: I love that the text spoke to your own journey of straddling your Indian and American selves. I feel like we were perfectly matched to make this book together!
Every line in American Desi comes from something deeply personal to me. It actually started out as a poem for adults, one that spoke to my feelings about being Indian and American. I don’t know what I was thinking about that led me to it, but I felt compelled to write it that evening. It was not a great poem, in fact I think it was a terrible poem, but for some reason, I decided to share it on social media (why did I do that?!) and then I let it go. Or at least I thought I had. I ended up going back to that poem and reading it over and over again, mulling about it. And finally, I rewrote it from the perspective of a girl—thinking of my younger self and my daughters when they were little—and that’s when American Desi began to flow.
Your illustrations for this book match my experiences so closely. It’s eerie because we never spoke or talked about it during the process! I love the spread with the grandmother rubbing coconut oil on the girl’s hair—that scene was such an essential part of Sundays growing up for me, and continued with my mom doing the same for my girls. And the spread with the dad making the dosas—that’s a common sight in my home!
I love your use of fabrics and mixed media in American Desi. The way that I experience the world—languages, music, movement, colors, textures, and smells—is a Venn diagram of my overlapping cultures, intertwined, and your blending of fabrics and collage materials capture that tension and fusion beautifully.
Supriya, you are known as a super talented writer of middle grade novels and picture books, as well as screenplays. When did illustrating become part of your life?
Kelkar: Thank you so much for your kind words! I have been making art for as long as I can remember, although when I was younger and illustrating books, because I never got to see myself in a book, I never thought someone who looked like me, an American desi, could be the main character. So as a kid, I usually only wrote books about white girls illustrated with yellow Crayola hair, and touched that brown crayon only for things like drawing trees and homes and dogs. It was really freeing as an adult to be able to center brown kids in my art. I had told my wonderful agent, Kathleen Rushall, that I also wanted to be an illustrator when I first started working with her as an author. She encouraged me to follow that passion and learn as much as I could about illustrating. I started putting what I learned into practice and began posting the art in my online portfolio on my website, but also decided to put myself out there and post the art on social media as well.
Gopal: That’s how I found you—on Twitter!
Kelkar: Yes! The power of social media! It brought us together on this project, all because you spotted my art on Twitter! I was posting a lot of different styles of art on Twitter and Instagram but the one I felt would be best suited for American Desi, which talks so much about colors and fabrics and threads that weave all sides of us together, was a mixed-media collage art style that used paper and bangles and a dandiya stick but also heavily used fabrics for the book’s theme.
I had so much fun figuring out how to bring vastly different textures and patterns together to work in harmony. And I got to use a sari from my paternal grandmother that’s almost 100 years old (you’ll spot it in the tablecloth illustrations, in Dad’s outfit, and in the Bharatanatyam dancer’s outfit as well), and sweaters my maternal grandmother had knitted for me when I was a baby. I even got to throw in the sleeves of a red velvet dress I wore to my first birthday party. (Look for them when our main character is on stage. The sleeves are the curtains!) I’d assemble the paper and fabrics and other materials into the positions I needed them in for the spreads, take pictures, and then work on them digitally.
It was an incredibly time-consuming process that required so many stages, but in the end, I’m so proud of what I was able to create alongside the incredible team at Little, Brown, including editors Esther Cajahuaringa and Sam Gentry, art director Véronique Sweet, designer Patrick Collins, production supervisor Kimberly Stella, and production editor Annie McDonnell.
Can you tell us about your writing process for American Desi? Did you always want to be an author?
Gopal: I want to echo your thanks to the LBYR team. Creating a picture book is such a team effort and American Desi would not be here without their creative input. Did I always want to be an author? Not at all! I never had any such thought growing up, not even into my adulthood. I’ve always been a teacher first and foremost, and that’s what I thought I would be doing for the rest of my life. Writing for children sort of crept up on me. As a teacher and a mom, picture books were a constant part of my life, but as I read to my daughters and my students, I began to realize the many stories that were missing.
I started in the nonfiction space because those were the stories I thought I wanted to tell, stories about unsung heroes, female voices from history that I thought young children should know about. The first story I wrote was actually when my daughters were still in elementary school. It sat on my computer for years because the publishing world seemed so intimidating. I finally decided four years ago to go for it and sent that manuscript to an author for a paid critique. That author, Lola Schaefer, gave me great feedback and advice. I wrote two more nonfiction manuscripts and started querying editors and agents, still thinking that that was going to be my niche. When I wrote American Desi, it was a complete departure from anything that I had tried before, or had even aspired to. I had no idea that I could write in rhyme or that this story was in my heart and needed to get out! My agent, Wendi Gu, has also encouraged me to stretch my writing in ways that I never envisioned.
Supriya, I think of American Desi as a love letter to desi kids but it’s also a love letter to anyone who straddles cultures and identities. I know you feel that way too.
Kelkar: Yes, I love how this book is for desis but also for anyone who has multiple sides to their identity. Maybe you love baseball, art, poetry, and running track; this book is such a beautiful celebration of all sides of us and is so relatable for anyone who reads it. Has that been your experience as you’re starting school visits for American Desi? What has it been like reading the book out loud to classes and seeing kids of all backgrounds connecting to it and sharing their experiences?
Gopal: Storytime was one of my favorite parts of the kindergarten day! And it’s one of my favorite parts of being an author. Even though American Desi isn’t officially out till June 21, I’ve had the pleasure of reading it to classes around the world. Thank you, Zoom! There’s such magic in a read-aloud, seeing and hearing how children respond to a book. Recently, I read American Desi to a group of first and second graders, in-person, and when two children excitedly raised their hands and said that they were like the girl in the story, my heart melted! They shared that they were Korean American and Brazilian American. They saw themselves in our book—that was the most uplifting feeling!
What’s also been a lovely gift is hearing how tweens and adults connect with it too, which reinforces my belief in the power of picture books for all ages. An Indian teacher in an international school in India shared with me how, as a child, she moved from state to state because her father was in the army. Our book resonated with her own experience of having to straddle languages and cultures within India itself. Her story reminded me again how much our identities are tied to our lived experiences and how important affirmations are.
Kelkar: That’s amazing. I loved watching my own kids connect to the story and love how readers of all backgrounds can see this book as a mirror book, a concept Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop introduced, where they get to see their story reflected in the pages of a book and get to know just how much their story matters and they matter. I am so excited for American Desi to be out in the world. I think it’s going to make so many readers, kids and adults alike, feel seen.
Gopal: That is my dream! I hope this book will serve as a springboard for teachers, families, and librarians to invite conversations about identity and belonging, and to find strength and joy in being fully who you are.
American Desi by Jyoti Rajan Gopal, illus. by Supriya Kelkar. Little, Brown, $18.99 June 21 ISBN 978-0-316-70530-1