Sandya Menon is the author of three books. Her debut novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, about a first generation Indian-American teenager who might just be falling for the guy her parents chose for her, appeared on the New York Times best-seller list and launched a series of interconnected rom-coms. As part of Refinery29’s YA Month, Menon reflects on starting a universe telling the stories of two Indian-American teenagers, which resonated with readers. As one Goodreads reviewer wrote, “My Indian heart is happy.”
I wrote When Dimple Met Rishi in fall 2015 fully expecting it to be a one-off. It felt like this incredibly rare opportunity, to have a major publisher interested in a book about two Indian-American teens. And not just any book, a romantic comedy set in a world that was as bright and sunny and happy and funny as I wanted to make it. As someone who’d spent the entirety of the nineties gorging on Meg Ryan/Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant movies, it felt like a dream come true.
Not surprisingly, the story poured out of me. It was as if my body had been waiting, poised at the keyboard, for someone to just ask me to tell this specific story. I picture the Sandhya of 2015 as one of those wind-up dolls, unmoving until the story — and the ensuing encouragement from Simon & Schuster — came along and wound me up. If that sounds creepy, forgive me; I’m trying to make a point.
It was thrilling! It was exhilarating! It was a roller coaster ride from the first minute until the last. I got the first draft done very fast, and before I knew it, the book had come out and hit the New York Times best-seller list. I was getting lovely emails from readers. It was the dream. It was what I’d always wanted. And it was also kind of sad, because I knew my time with these characters — the first book I’d ever written with two main characters of my ethnicity — and in this world was over. It was time to move on to something new.
I still remember my editor asking me, out of the blue, if I’d consider writing any more books in the Dimple universe. I blinked. I couldn’t believe she had doubts about whether I’d want to or not! Yes, I remember saying, definitely, let me get off the phone so I can begin working on it right now. Well, she gently pointed out, there is the matter of contracts and things. Pish posh, said I, where should I sign?
I was that excited. And then I sat down at my laptop and…froze. It hit me, for the first time, that people now had expectations for the series. And not only that, I felt like people looked to me to represent all Indian-Americans everywhere. There are so few Indian-American authors writing realistic fiction that there’s this enormous pressure to represent every single Indian-American experience in one book — which is, of course, impossible. The emails that hurt the most are the ones that begin, “I’m Indian-American, and I would never do what Dimple/Rishi/their parents did.” When you write for teens, there’s that added responsibility and pressure to do it right, to not cause harm, to make them proud.
I wanted to sink into that universe again. I wanted to do the best I could by Sweetie and Ashish, the main characters of There’s Something About Sweetie, and my readers. I wanted to enjoy myself. And I was beginning to think those three things might be mutually exclusive.
But then, thinking back to my experience writing When Dimple Met Rishi, out May 14, I realized something: All that truly mattered was that I dug deep (where all creativity and memories are stored; right in the solar plexus) and spoke to experiences that were true for me. It was impossible to tell everybody’s story. It’s maddening that marginalized creators often feel like we have to, because there are so few of us. But I think we also deserve to give ourselves a break and realize the only story we can tell is our own.
Once I gave myself permission to do that, it was sunshine and rainbows and multi-colored parrots again (sorry, inside joke with Ashish and Sweetie). I realized slipping back into a much-loved universe was like slipping on my favorite pair of writing pants: soft, warm, and comfortable for an anxiously bubbling stomach.
As of this writing, release day for There’s Something about Sweetie is about two and a half months away. Although my anxiety does spike sometimes — did I represent everything well? Will readers connect with my main characters? Will people say I let them down? — I continue to remind myself that I told the story from my solar plexus, that I pulled it deep from within the core of me, and really, that’s all an author can hope to do.
So now I sit here in my office, gazing at the cover for my third book on my wall, head spinning with the realization that this is my life. And what a wonderful, bizarre, thrilling one it is.