Fashion designer, activist, and philanthropist Rachel Roy has teamed up with her daughter, Ava Dash, for a different kind of creative endeavor: a YA novel entitled 96 Words for Love. Due out from Little, Brown’s Jimmy Patterson Books on January 15, this contemporary retelling of the romantic Indian legend of Shakuntala and Dushyanta centers on Raya, a California teen on a quest to find her center and true path while visiting the ashram in India where her grandparents met and fell in love. The novel’s title, in fact, reflects the number of ways one can say the word “love” in Sanskrit.
The publisher has a 75,000-copy first printing on order for the novel, proceeds from which will benefit children in India through World of Children, a global funding program that focuses on a broad range of children’s issues, including health, education, safety, and human rights.
Roy and Dash brought varied, and complementary, perspectives to the book. The daughter of an Indian immigrant father and a Dutch mother, Roy is the founder and creative director of her eponymous clothing and accessories brand. She also founded Kindness Is Always Fashionable, an entrepreneurial philanthropic platform to help women artisans worldwide create sustainable incomes for their families and communities. The designer, who also wrote Design Your Life: Creating Success Through Personal Style (HarperCollins/Dey Street, 2016), was named a United Nations Women Champion for Innovation in 2018, and works for the UN advocating gender equality and other critical women’s issues.
Currently attending college in Los Angeles, Dash works with the Teen Project to help young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. She also assists former victims of sex trafficking in India through her work with organizations such as World of Children and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. Inspired by her travels with her mother, the 19-year-old hopes to start an organization to provide critical resources to educate and empower girls she has met in India.
The roots of 96 Words for Love run deep, said Roy, noting, “My father—Ava’s grandfather—was very familiar with hundreds of Indian myths and legends, and the myth of Shakuntala and Dushyanta was a very prominent one. When Ava and I began talking about the possibility of retelling a legend as a novel, we brainstormed options, and this legend was one that especially resonated with her. I explained to her the amount of work that writing a book entails and how long it takes, and I wanted to give her some time to think about it, but she said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ ”
Though Dash said she’d “never really thought about writing a novel,” once she and her mother settled on the concept for 96 Words for Love she said she “was very excited and couldn’t wait to get to work.” The two, both self-described “visual people,” initially created a mood board and then, Roy recalled, “We jumped right in. We collaborated on story ideas, and I typed as Ava dictated. She was my inspiration and muse. It was such an enjoyable process that it didn’t feel at all like work.”
For Dash (who posed as heroine Raya for the photo on the book’s cover), cowriting the novel was rewarding in multiple ways. “I learned a lot throughout this whole project, including what the process of writing a book involves,” she observed. “I was able to research my Indian heritage and discover more about where my family came from, and I had the chance to visit India to meet some of the girls who will benefit from the book. I’m very thankful for my mother’s guidance about how easy it is to help others and to give back while doing something you enjoy. And I am proud that 96 Words for Love will be helping so many people. This novel is a project very close to my heart.”
Editor Aubrey Poole, who acquired and edited the novel, was immediately drawn to the project for a variety of reasons. “I’m a sucker for retellings of fairytales and myths, and this was a Hindu myth I wasn’t familiar with,” she said. “I was curious to see how it would play out in the setting of a contemporary ashram in India, and Rachel and Ava did a wonderful job telling the story in a fun and relatable way for modern teens. It’s very cool to see a mother-daughter team come to a project with such love of their heritage and culture. It was helpful that Ava could provide authentic teen details and dialogue, and they were both able to tap into their own life experiences to tell the story and to let their passion for helping others shine through.”
Noting that there is a rich cache of Indian myths to rediscover, Poole expressed hope that Roy and Dash might consider another retelling in the future. That’s a sentiment echoed by Roy, who added, “I really like the idea of Ava learning more about her heritage, and retelling Indian love stories is a very nice way to do that. And it’s also a wonderful way for the two of us to connect with each other.”
96 Words for Love by Rachel Roy and Ava Dash. Little, Brown/Patterson, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-316-47778-9