Interview: Supriya Kelkar

Hi, Supriya! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your latest novel, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE!

Thank you so much for having me! I love MG Book Village and am thrilled to be here.

Can you tell us a bit about AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE is about Lekha, the only Indian American kid in her small town in Michigan. Lekha feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too. Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Food is present throughout the book, and is often carefully, even lovingly described. There’s even a recipe section in the back! Would you care to discuss why you chose to weave it throughout the novel (even including it in the title)?

Food plays such an important role in Lekha’s life because she often feels she has to hide her culture’s food because of the looks and comments she got when she did bring it to school when she was younger. A lot of those feelings came from my childhood, when classmates would make fun of the Indian food I brought to school. I finally stopped bringing it and would only eat it at home or in cultural spaces. I wanted to take the time to describe the food with love and show how much it means to Lekha at home so that the readers would feel this sense of loss when she doesn’t bring it to school and feels ashamed of it.

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE tackles some of the toughest, most timely and important topics. Can you talk about the development of Lekha’s story? What drove you to write and share this story now?   

I got the idea for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017. Anyone who has experienced hate knows it hasn’t ever gone away but something about that year felt different to me. I felt hate was being emboldened and encouraged by people with a lot of power and suddenly found myself terrified that my young kids were going to face the same things I did when they went to school, and that nothing had changed despite decades passing since I was their age. I got the idea for the book and began to dig deep and uncover these memories and experiences of othering, microaggressions, and hate from my childhood that I had buried over the years. The words in the racist incident in the book are words that have been shouted at me before. The othering and microaggressions Lekha experiences are from my childhood as one of the few Indian American kids in a small town in Michigan. It became obvious to me how deeply I felt this story when I was able to churn the first draft out in five weeks and everything was just clicking into place. I hope readers really connect to the story and recognize that the issues that are taking place in the book are real life issues that they can make a difference in.

The novel is balanced by numerous moments of warmth, lightness, humor, and beauty – particularly when it comes to the home life and family scenes. It was wonderful to see so much of the adults in Lekha’s life, and to understand them as complex characters in their own right. Were the adult characters always so present in the book? Was it important to you to make sure to include them as you did and as much as you did?

Thank you! The adults were always this present from the very first draft. It was important for me to include them at this level for several reasons. I remember when I was in middle school I didn’t really think of my parents as individuals. They were just my parents. I didn’t really stop to think they had their own goals and wants and fears. So I wanted to make the parents in this book really fleshed out and involved so readers could see that even though they were parents, they all had their own fears, needs, wants, and were all motivated by different things at different times. Since the book is also about empathy, I wanted readers to see that these adults could be flawed, they could make mistakes when it came to really big issues, but they could also grow and learn and change the same way the kids do. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

I hope the book provides hope to those who need it and empowers readers to stand up for what they believe in, speak out against hate, and be allies. I know when I was Lekha’s age, I wasn’t able to speak up for myself or against racial bullying. I hope the book encourages readers to find a way to express themselves through whatever means is best for them. Some people use poetry, or art, or music, or dance, and some, in my case, write. The possibilities are endless and I hope young readers are inspired to find the method best suited for them from this book and realize just how powerful they are.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to their classrooms and libraries?

I’d like to start with a huge thank you! Thank you for everything you’re doing for our kids right now. You are heroes. And thank you for planning to add AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to your classrooms and libraries. It is a story about a Marathi-American, Hindu girl in a small town in Michigan in an election year, and it is also a timely, universal story about belonging and hope that can empower kids and grow empathy. Also, there are puns. Who doesn’t love a good (bad) pun? Thank you for considering it for your classrooms and libraries and I hope you enjoy it!

When can readers get their hands on AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE will be out on June 9th!  

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

You can find me online at www.supriyakelkar.com, on Twitter @supriyakelkar_, and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar 

Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling, 2021), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  

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