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I wanted to challenge the “West is best” narrative: Interview with bestselling author Mansi Shah

BY VEENA RAO*

Los Angeles based Mansi Shah is the author of two novels, The Taste of Ginger and the newly released The Direction of the Wind. In this wide-ranging Q&A with NRI Pulse, the former entertainment attorney turned full-time writer talks about her literary journey, South Asian representation in publishing, and her new book, which is an Amazon bestseller, just days after its February 1 release.

The Direction of the Wind is a poignant, page-turning story about a young Gujarati woman who travels to Paris in search of a mother she barely remembers.

Tell us about your literary journey. How did the Taste of Ginger and The Direction of the Wind happen?
For many Indian authors, the path to publication can feel long and arduous, and mine was no exception. I began writing my debut novel The Taste of Ginger in 2009 and faced many years of rejections before eventually landing my first book deal. Agents would say they’d “just signed an Indian author” or editors would say they recently had “a book like this” on their list, and that type of rejection was one of the hardest parts of the journey for me because it was completely out of my control. I wasn’t being told that there was a problem with my writing, or voice, or story. If I had been told any of those things, I could have worked harder, spent more time revising, or come up with another story. But that there wasn’t room on the shelves for what I had written was both demoralizing and motivating.

I wrestled with knowing that these comments would never be said to a white author because there’s room for multiple stories from that point of view. I’d not yet read a single book that reflected my Gujarati immigrant experience, and very few existed featuring characters from other parts of India, but the message from the publishing industry seemed to be that the 1.4 billion people of Indian descent with their varying cuisines, languages, dress, and customs were interchangeable, and the handful of books that existed were enough to satisfy that readership.

My most memorable rejection was in 2011, when an agency meant to send an internal email but instead replied to me (that dreaded act we all fear), so I saw their true unfiltered thoughts: “Solid voice. Great title. Though I’m worried because you said the India wave has passed…”

I spent a long time thinking about my culture as a passing “wave.” What kept me motivated from that response and others like it was that none questioned my writing abilities. I knew my culture’s stories were worth telling, so it was the fuel to keep going until I found the right agent and editor who wanted to join me in my efforts to disrupt the publishing industry.

In 2020, amid a complicated backdrop of a global pandemic, a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and too many others, and rampant acts of Asian hate, I got my chance. Voices that had often been disregarded were calling out for change more than I could remember at any other point in my life, and people seemed to be listening.

The Taste of Ginger, a story about an authentic Indian immigrant experience and the search for identity and belonging when straddling two cultures without fully being accepted in either, was the type of story that it seemed like people were ready to hear. When I received the offer, I was stunned because it was from an editor who had reviewed the manuscript eighteen months earlier but had declined to make an offer at that time.
I wrestled with what had happened in the world to lead to this point, and it was a complicated mix of emotions. I could not divorce the publishing industry welcoming content like my novel from the many lives that had been tragically cut short to lead to this pivotal moment in my life. My childhood dream had come true against the backdrop of so much pain. I questioned if I was getting an offer because it was the current “wave” to sign authors of color—I didn’t want to be seen as a token or quota metric. I wondered whether I’d have to change elements that a white audience might find uncomfortable or controversial. While my manuscript hadn’t changed, it felt like everything around it had.

I’d decided that this offer was a foot in the door, and then I’d let my writing and characters do the talking. And I’m so glad I did. I’ve had nothing but support and encouragement from my fabulous editor and publishing team at Lake Union, who want to put authentic stories into the world as much as I do. As a result, The Taste of Ginger and The Direction of the Wind have found their audiences and I’m proud that I am able to help expand Gujarati representation in literature.

You were born in Canada and raised in the US. What inspired you to set The Direction of the Wind in Ahmedabad and Paris?
While never having lived in Ahmedabad or Paris, both cities have felt like home to me, each for different reasons. As a child, my family moved to different states in America every few years, but we spent several summers with family in Ahmedabad when I was off from school. Our family home in Ahmedabad was my only constant home during my childhood and I have fond memories from that time of home being an actual physical place. I’d never read a story that took place in Ahmedabad, so centering it in my books was an important way for me to honor those memories.

While Ahmedabad was a place that was deeply rooted in family for me, Paris is one of the places where I found myself. In my mid-twenties, I had lived in London, and traveled to France as often as I could. From my first visit, I felt at ease in Paris and was drawn to the culture and lifestyle there. After moving back to America, I’ve visited France at least once each year to maintain that bond and keep up my language skills. I’ve seen many sides of Paris, in many seasons, over many years, and with experiences ranging from visits with family and friends to many solo adventures, it’s a place that has seeped into my bones. Tackling one of the most famous cities in the world was daunting, but I wanted to share a different perspective of it that I had not seen written before.

What were the challenges of setting your book in places you have not lived in?
Because I had spent significant time in both places and knew people who were living in both of them, I had friends and family to help me maintain authenticity. The hardest part of writing in Paris was that Nita’s story begins in 1998. I did not have personal experience with Paris during those years, so I relied heavily on research and anecdotes and memories from people in my life. Fortunately, Paris is one of the best documented cities in the world, and there is a wealth of photos, videos, and literature depicting it throughout history.

The Direction of the Wind is about a daughter who sets out to find her mother who abandoned her when she was a child. We meet Sophie who has lived a sheltered life, and whose future has been defined for her by her family. And then, we are taken back in time to Sophie’s mother’s story. Nita is a free spirit who breaks free from societal conventions and expectations when she leaves her young daughter to follow her artistic aspirations in Paris, the land of her dreams. Can you take us through your process of fleshing out these two very different characters who live in two different times?
In creating Sophie and Nita, I wanted to challenge the “West is best” narrative we often see by having characters with comfortable lives in India learning about the harsh realities of the world by going to the Western hemisphere. Nita is someone who always wanted to stand out but felt that the culture and society into which she had been born wouldn’t allowed that. In her story, I wanted to address the expectations of motherhood placed on women and how that could impact a woman’s mental health, especially as we are moving into a time when more and more women are choosing childfree paths. I also wanted to portray how individual choices can affect an entire family.

Sophie is someone who has always wanted to blend in, but with a name that is not common in India and growing up without a mother, she never could. Her journey is one of understanding her privileges, learning who she is without them, and then finding the courage to choose her own path. I think the similarities and differences between Nita and Sophie make clear they are family even though they spent most of their lives apart and show that while we each have a history that we cannot change, we all have the power to guide our futures in a different direction.

Nita’s story is told with a lot of sensitivity. Even though we know at the onset that she has abandoned Sophie, we empathize with her through her journey in Paris. Without giving away too much, can you talk about how and why you decided that her story ought to take the turn it did in the end?
Empathy is exactly what I hope the audience feels when reading Nita’s story because I believe many people can relate to feeling trapped without seeing a way out. She was raised in a generation that didn’t give voice to mental health the way that we now are starting to see, and so it left her with a lot of confusion, isolation, and inability to understand what was happening within her. Portraying her struggles authentically was important to me. As for the turns in Nita’s story, while difficult, I like to ensure that my stories have an underlying current of hope, and Sophie’s journey becomes more poignant and interesting with the events unfolding as they do in the novel.

Are you planning on a sequel to The Direction of the Wind?
There’s nothing planned yet, but never say never when it comes to writing! If I ever did a sequel, I think it would be interesting to follow Vijay’s story.

I read on social media that you are now planning to write full-time. What does a day in Mansi Shah’s writing life look like?
After twenty years as a full-time lawyer with writing as my side hustle, I knew I needed to slow down and take some moments to breathe and recenter myself. I try to start each day with an outdoor walk while listening to an audiobook. I’m most productive and creative in the mornings, so I aim to hit my word counts before lunch, although it has been spilling into the afternoon thus far. Once I finish working for the day, I try to focus on my health and wellness and find time to meditate, practice yoga, or unwind with a new show. Because writing is so solitary, I also make sure I have quality time booked with friends and family throughout the week. I must admit that I’m enjoying this newfound freedom to develop my own schedule and modify it based on my needs.

What advice would you give young brown authors who want to make a living writing books?
That writing for personal joy and fulfillment has to be the priority over financial success, because it is extremely hard to earn a living through writing, especially as an author of color. My ability to transition to full-time writing was based on my success as an entertainment lawyer rather than my writing, and that is even with The Taste of Ginger and The Direction of the Wind having already reached significant numbers of readers that I could never have anticipated. Given my immigrant upbringing and need for financial stability, I would have had too much anxiety to write if I were constantly worried about how I would pay my bills. Each writer needs to find the financial balance at which they are comfortable so they can unleash their best creativity. Once I found that for myself, there’s been nothing more rewarding than writing and hearing from readers who have connected with my books. Despite being such a pragmatist, I do believe that when you follow your passions and live in alignment, unanticipated doors open up for you, so there has to be some faith thrown in as well.

The Taste of Ginger took ten years to sell. Do you think it is easier for us brown female authors to get published in 2023?
I certainly hope so! When I was growing up in America, I could count on one hand the books that had to do with Indian protagonists during my entire childhood. Now, there are so many more books being published in a variety of genres, with Indian American authors breaking out of the immigrant identity storylines and publishing fresh, exciting novels that my younger self could not have imagined. We still have a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field when it comes to representation, but it’s also important to mark how far we have come. I have long believed in the sentiment that a rising tide lifts all ships, and I hope that those of us brown authors who want to share our voices with the world will continue to help bolster and encourage each other to fill the shelves so there are truly stories for everyone.

*Veena Rao is the Editor-in-Chief of NRI Pulse and the author of Purple Lotus.

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