Hey, welcome back! Daniela here! For today’s interview, I’m joined by the incredible Tanaz Bhathena, lover of Bollywood movies and slapstick comedies. Her debut novel, A Girl Like That, is beautifully written story that you’re guaranteed to love once it hits bookstores this Tuesday! You may have already heard of Tanaz as her stories have been featured on journals such as Blackbird, Witness, and Room. Alright, I don’t want to keep you waiting. Let’s get to the interview!
Daniela: Hey Tanaz! Thank you for joining me today and welcome to #BeyondTheBio! Your debut novel, A Girl Like That, comes out in just two days! Can you tell our readers little a bit about what they should expect?
Tanaz: Thanks, Daniela! Delighted to be here! A Girl Like That is about a girl named Zarin Wadia. She’s sixteen years old, an orphan, a troublemaker known for her romantic entanglements among her classmates. You don't want to get involved with a girl like that, people often say. But when Zarin is found dead in a car crash with a boy named Porus on a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the religious police arrive on the scene and everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is brought into question. As the story is pieced together through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that there was more to Zarin than what met the eye.
Daniela: I have to admit, my heart broke quite a few times while I was reading. This is not a very happy story, but it is a very important one. What inspired you to write about Zarin Wadia and heavy topics such as mental illness, rape culture, bullying, physical abuse, and gender roles?
Tanaz: There are two things which might surprise you:
1) I wanted this to be a short story.
2) I wanted it to be funny. (In a dark sort of way.)
Clearly, I failed on both counts, but the truth is that when I started writing Zarin’s story I had no idea about what themes or issues I’d be exploring. All I knew back then were these things: Zarin Wadia had some of my own religious background; she was very different from me in personality; she lived in Saudi Arabia; and she was already dead.
I also knew I wanted to write in a way I wouldn’t have been able to while living in the Kingdom: without censoring myself yet without pandering to the image Westerners have of that region.
The deeper I dug into Zarin’s story and the stories of various other characters, many issues began to surface. Some of these were very personal and there were many others that I wouldn’t have had the courage to openly discuss with a friend when I was sixteen, let alone write about. So, naturally, I had to put them in my first book.
Daniela: This book has parts with words and phrases in Arabic, Avestan, Hindi, and Gujarati. Are you fluent in all of those languages?
Tanaz: I wish! I’m fluent in Hindi and spoken Gujarati. I also have a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and can read and write the script. Avestan is the language of the Avesta, which is the Zoroastrian holy text, and unfortunately, I have very little knowledge of that.
Daniela: Girl Like That features four different perspectives. Personally, I loved reading Porus’ kind and thoughtful words. What was your favorite perspective to write?
Tanaz: For me, it has to be Zarin because it was her voice that started this book and eventually propelled me into what became a ten year journey into publication. For some reason, it was easiest for me to slip into Zarin’s perspective whenever I was writing, even though we’re so dissimilar in real life. I also loved writing scenes that involved Zarin and Porus bantering.
Daniela: In one of the chapters, Porus writes about the importance of stories: “Stories, My father used to say, would always change the course of our lives, the greatest ones being retold over and over again, not to simply convey morals, or life lessons, but to bring other people together.” I believe Zarin’s story is one of the great ones that has the power to bring people together. How did you decide to become a writer of such stories?
Tanaz: Wow! That’s a massive compliment and I’m flattered! I think all I really wanted to do was create a story that resonated with readers, regardless of their cultural and religious backgrounds, and if I succeeded in doing that, I’m grateful.
Daniela: Do you see yourself in Zarin?
Tanaz: I do. There are bits of me in every character that I’ve written, even the villainous ones.
Daniela: What advice would you give to all the girls who, like Zarin and Mishal, feel trapped by expectations of what it means to be female?
Tanaz: When I was very young, my mother told me that girls belonged in the kitchen. The first thing I said was “Why?” followed shortly by: “No.”
I didn’t know back then that being female meant that I would have to say these two words quite often and in different situations throughout the years. Or that I would have every right to.
Never be afraid of challenging people with difficult questions. And never be afraid of saying no, if you don’t like the answer. Zarin and Mishal inspire me because they never stop fighting even in the face of all odds. I hope they will inspire you as well.
Daniela: Most of the book takes place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There were so many great locations, but I especially loved the Corniche. What's your favorite place to visit in Jeddah?
Tanaz: The Corniche is my favorite, too! I especially love the Jeddah Fountain and the north end of the Corniche where a small Island Mosque juts out into the water by a coastline of gleaming black rocks. In fact, you can see the same mosque reflected in Zarin’s sunglasses on the book’s cover.
Daniela: Your novel is beautifully written, inspiring, and, most importantly, honest. What other books would you recommend for people looking for more of the same?
Tanaz: The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter, Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, milk and honey by Rupi Kaur, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
Daniela: Lastly, is there anything you can tell us about your next novel, Last Days, First Days, which will be coming out 2019?
Tanaz: This is a sort of sequel to A Girl Like That, but it can be easily read as a stand-alone as it’s very different in terms of the topics and themes it deals with. The protagonist, Susan, who also went to Qala Academy (Zarin’s school in Jeddah), moves to Canada where she faces all sorts of new challenges and discovers new love.
That’s it for today’s interview, but we’ll have another one next week so be sure to come back then! Also, we’ve got some pretty exciting things in the works for March. Join hundreds of your fellow YA lovers and sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss any of the awesomeness!