In the late 1990s and early aughts, a generation of South Asians came into adulthood—I was one of many looking for others like me. As novelist Chaitali Sen writes in Literary Hub, “In our twenties, we started to seek each other out and congregate…. [We] formed our own progressive groups hoping to create a new culture of inclusion, debate and solidarity. New York in the ’90s suddenly bloomed with these formations of South Asian activists and bohemians…. [We] all saw each other everywhere, at meetings, marches, late night hangouts and parties…. Everything happened through word-of-mouth, through flyers and newsletters and banners and conversation.”
It was a moment, this critical mass of Brownness. “There was this awakening desire for community in the diaspora,” said Anna John, writer and founding blogger at Sepia Mutiny, which chronicled much of the era. “Everything that came out at that time—every film, every album, every book—contributed to that.”
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier hit bookshelves in this moment. I stumbled upon it in the young adult section of Barnes & Noble Union Square; that cover—the color, the eyes—caught my attention. I flipped open the book to read the first chapter and couldn’t stop. Desai Hidier had written my life—in all its technicolor glory—into the pages of a book: the New Jersey childhood; the coming-of-age in New York City’s creative communities, and identifying as South Asian and artist in those spaces; the neither-here-nor-there-ness of being an immigrant child. Her exuberant linguistic riffs transfixed me; her maximalist prose was loud, lyrical, textural, sensual.
Finally—in my 20s!—discovering a book that mirrored my specific hyphenated American experience was life-changing, and I learned how powerful seeing one’s own story reflected in the pages of a book can be. I felt valued and validated, things I had never felt reading books with white characters. Until then, the books I had read hadn’t represented my reality, and the messages I received were that my experiences didn’t matter.
Born Confused was the first of its kind—a YA novel about the contemporary South Asian American experience. “I wrote Dimple Lala’s story to fill that hole in my childhood bookshelf I hadn’t even realized had been there until I was writing,” said Desai Hidier. “I wrote the story to choose my own heroes. To honor my family and celebrate my communities. To have us be seen, and for others to feel seen, loved and proud of who they are, in all the messiness that being a hyphenated identity human—or, just human—involves.”
Desai Hidier’s book, which was published by Scholastic Press, was well-received. A PW starred review called it “absorbing and intoxicating,” and lauded the author’s “sparkling prose.” It was named to the 2003 Best Books for Young Adults list by the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association. And it soon became a cultural touchstone: it was hailed by Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone Magazine, and Paste Magazine as one of the best young adult novels of all time.
Born Confused threw open the proverbial door to contemporary South Asian representation in young adult and children’s literature.
“For writers of color, especially for South Asian writers, [Desai Hidier’s success] told us that we could also do it,” said Sona Charaipotra, author of, most recently, How Maya Got Fierce (Feiwel and Friends, 2022) and senior editor at Parents.com. “Tanuja, as an author herself, has always been so open and welcoming and keen on community. She was the perfect person to be the first one out the door because she pulled us along with her.”
“I was taking a gap year before law school, and I was writing these characters that I didn’t connect with because they weren’t Desi [South Asian], but that’s what I thought people wanted,” said Nisha Sharma, author of several adult and YA romances, including, most recently, Radha and Jai’s Recipe for Romance (Crown, 2021). “I read Born Confused and, for the first time, I truly reconciled those complicated feelings. It helped shape me as an author, this idea that Brown girls can be messy and complicated. This [book] was now out in the world. There was no closing the door now.”
Desai Hidier blurbed Sharma’s debut YA rom-com, My So-Called Bollywood Life (Crown, 2018). “From the beginning, Tanuja has been one of my best cheerleaders, and that has been so special, to have her be part of my journey like that,” said Sharma.
Amar Shah, whose novel Play the Game, first in a middle-grade trilogy to be published by Scholastic in 2023, said: “Without reading that book, I would not have the career that I have now. It showed me to write using my background, using my cultural heritage. They say, ‘write what you know,’ and Tanuja encouraged me to double down on it to say, ‘I don’t need someone else to tell my story. I can tell my own story.’ ”
“I always like to say, ‘She created a beat,’” he added. A character in his trilogy is named “Tanuja,” in honor of Desai Hidier. “In a sense, she was the DJ. We’re all dancing from the music that she created.”
I’m in my 40s now, the parent to a 10-year-old who is a voracious reader. She doesn’t have to look far for books with characters like her. I can list dozens of books that have been published in her lifetime that feature South Asian American protagonists in contemporary situations and settings—this is the legacy of Born Confused. (I wonder if, one day, she might “discover” Born Confused as a historical read: a document of that moment her mother came into her own.)
As a reader, writer, mother, I revel in today’s relative abundance; I also reflect on how much further we have to go. “The relationship between writers and readers is so intimate and precious—a kind of flowing directly into each other’s brains and veins,” she said. “I’m honored that they’ve given space to Dimple in their own lives in this way.”
I asked Desai Hidier if she ever thinks about her legacy: the influence she has had on readers, writers, the so-called canon. “Perhaps a legacy is also a kind of beautiful borderless collaboration over time and space—like we’re all parts of a seas-and-centuries-spanning storytelling tapestry,” she said. “one including newer and future writers, and stretching back to Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. An ever-interweaving encompassing of other diaspora artistic spaces and places, too—full-circle to the motherlands. We each tell our story, and together, tell the story of we.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.