Q&A: Author Sheba Karim on India, #MeToo and “The Marvelous Mirza Girls”

Q&A: Author Sheba Karim on India, #MeToo and "The Marvelous Mirza Girls"

I got to know Sheba Karim in 2018, when we both lived in Delhi—but I’ve been fangirling her since 2009, when her debut YA novel, Skunk Girl, captured my heart. Since then, Sheba’s published three novels and edited a collection of erotica. Her novels have appeared on best book lists by Kirkus and NPR, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she’s currently a writer in residence at Vanderbilt University.

Karim and I recently discussed her latest novel, The Marvelous Mirza Girls, which comes out May 18 from Harper Teen. Together, we talked about living in New Delhi, raising daughters, and combatting hate and authoritarianism—all of which feature prominently in this fast paced, political, adventure-packed romance.  

Mathangi Subramanian: India is being hard hit by COVID, and Delhi, where your book takes place, has been particularly devastated. How does it feel to be telling stories about Delhi during such a charged time? How do you think the various characters in your book would have reacted today’s events?

Sheba Karim: It’s a strange time to be putting out a book set in Delhi; the city I wrote about no longer exists. I’ve lived in Delhi on and off for the past 12 years. As I write this, it’s become a city of desperation, where graveyards have run out of room, crematoriums are burning bodies non-stop, and there is a black market for oxygen. So many people we know have become sick. I wonder, if my book, in some sense, now historical fiction.    

This second wave is an epic failure of a government whose primary focus is stoking communal hatred and eroding democratic and secular institutions. Noreen and Kabir, the two lovers in my book, could never have imagined this Delhi—just as, in early 2020, most of us couldn’t imagine what the coming year had in store. Among Kabir and his friends, there is a sense of foreboding, that something terrible could happen, given the right conditions.  But they are thinking more along the lines of mass riots and killings and arrests.  I don’t think any of them would have predicted this.

“[Delhi] has become a city of desperation, where graveyards have run out of room, crematoriums are burning bodies non-stop, and there is a black market for oxygen. … I wonder, if my book, in some sense, now historical fiction.”

Subramanian: Speaking of foreboding, your book beautifully critiques India’s right-wing government’s hateful policies. How did you experience this news cycle while living in Delhi? How did weave them into your narrative?

Karim: Noreen gets The Indian Express every morning, and over breakfast she reads about the lynching of Muslims and the murders of journalists. The people Noreen spends time with—Kabir’s woke friends, the intellectual elite, and her mother’s friends—have conversations about the assassinations and lynchings and the government’s increasingly autocratic nature.

Also, because Noreen comes from a Muslim background, the violence and racism against Muslims are on her and her mother’s radar in a way it might not be for, let’s say, for an upper caste Hindu American visiting Delhi. But because Noreen and her mother live a life of relative privilege, it doesn’t necessarily affect her day to day (not yet, at least). As always, it’s the underprivileged minorities who suffer most.

Similarly, although I lived a life of ex-pat privilege in Delhi, I had a lot of conversations around communalism, sexual violence, politics and #MeToo. I attended some protests—back when you could still hold protests in India. My maid and nanny were Christian, and they would tell me about rising violence against members of their community. My husband’s research involved spending time with young Muslim activists and poets, many of them working class, so he would come home with stories of what they were facing under this [BJP] regime. Although the characters I write about may not all be activists themselves, they are concerned citizens who are conscious of their privilege and want to do good.

Subramanian: Early in the book, Noreen’s love interest, Kabir, is shocked when his father is accused of sexual harassment. Can you tell us a little bit about the #MeToo movement in India? What motivated you to include it in Noreen’s story?

Karim: Hollywood sparked America’s #MeToo movement, and Bollywood played a similar role in India. In 2018, the actress Tanushree Datta accused the actor Nana Patekar of rape, which inspired other women to come forward with their stories. The movement soon spread beyond the entertainment industry, with politicians, media VIPs, and artists joining a growing list of accused. When I lived in Delhi in 2018, there was a tangible sense of hope: In a culture where the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported, women (of a certain class) suddenly felt empowered to tell their truth. There was this sense of “Finally, things might actually change.” 

Unsurprisingly, there was a backlash. A few of the prominent, accused men filed countersuits, effectively putting the survivors on trial. There were news reports declaring that the Indian #MeToo movement had stalled before achieving much success. There were also critiques that the movement ignored marginalized communities, that it was too cis, straight female oriented. While these critiques have validity, going from very few women speaking publicly about sexual harassment and assault to having it be part of the public conversation is progress. 

When I was living in India, the father of an outspoken, feminist female comic was accused of forcibly kissing someone. People called on her to publicly denounce her father. This incident inspired the #MeToo plot line in the book. We often think of #MeToo as solely affecting the accuser and accused, but there are so many other people affected as well: partners, children, relatives, loved ones.  Just like domestic violence, it’s a community issue.

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Subramanian: This book is full of female sexual pleasure, and I am here for it! I’m guessing that this is something you’ve thought a lot about, since you’ve edited a collection of erotica. How did you write these scenes, and why were they important to include?

Karim: Women deserve pleasure! Why should we apologize for it?  It’s easy to say, of course—but for Desi women raised with certain notions of honor and shame and modesty, it can take time to feel comfortable receiving and seeking pleasure. My girlfriends and I talk about how we didn’t come into our own sexually until our late 20’s, early 30’s, for all kinds of reasons: getting over hang ups, finding a good partner, figuring out what we liked (and how to ask for it). Noreen’s ahead of the game: she’s been raised with a lot of sex positivity. In Kabir, she finds someone she loves, trusts, and feels comfortable with. Finding a good person is half the battle.

Noreen’s journey is natural and beautiful and exciting (and occasionally awkward or funny) and that’s how I wanted to write it. The sad irony is that she is experiencing this in a city where women are often objectified in (a very male) public space. Even on the street outside her own flat, Noreen can’t help but be conscious of both her body, gender, and the cultural baggage of honor, shame and modesty.

“Women deserve pleasure! Why should we apologize for it?  It’s easy to say, of course—but for Desi women raised with certain notions of honor and shame and modesty, it can take time to feel comfortable receiving and seeking pleasure.”

Subramanian: I just love the relationship between Noreen and her mother. In your publicity materials, they’re compared to the Gilmore Girls—and while I did see parallels with Lorelei and Rory, I also felt there was something so quintessentially South Asian about them. (I felt the same way about Adi Uncle, Noreen’s gay South Asian godfather.) How do these relationships relate to your own journey as a South Asian parent?

Karim: The first large wave of South Asian immigrants came to the U.S. in the late ’60s and ’70s, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, which precipitated the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that opened up skilled immigration from Asia. Now we, the children of these immigrants—people like you and me—are the new “Aunties and Uncles,” the “role models” with adult responsibilities. Many of us still make mistakes. We’re still learning.

Like us, Noreen’s mother Ruby is trying to raise a strong, feminist teen while working through the baggage of her upbringing and of her former marriage. She doesn’t want to repeat her parents’ (or her own) mistakes, but she also knows they’re inevitable. This is something I think about, as a mother of two young girls—what mistakes can I avoid, and what new ones will I make? In imagining the relationship between Ruby and Noreen, I projected the kind of relationship I’d love to have with my daughters as they become adults—a relationship in which we enjoy spending time together, feel comfortable opening up about our lives, and appreciate each other’s sense of humor.

Our generation has also redefined family beyond heteronormativity and blood relationships. Our friends can form a kind of family. For Noreen, Ruby’s best friend Adi [who Noreen calls Adi Uncle] is family, a bond rooted in love. In fact, Noreen has a bevy of cool aunties and uncles to guide and support her. That’s something my own kids have, and this broader notion of family is something I wanted to feature in the book.

Subramanian: Having lived in Delhi for four years, I related to so much of this book—the constant fear of pollution, the specter of the Indian government’s increasing brutality, the thrill of first love. Who did you write this book for? What are you hoping readers will get out of it?

Karim: When we imagine audience, we often frame it in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, age. But while South Asian women are who I write for from the depths of my heart, they aren’t my only audience. Readers who know Delhi will likely connect to the book. My audience is also people who appreciate my particular sense of humor, and people who are interested in the things I’m writing and thinking about.   

I’ll also say this—we live in a world with a lot of trauma and a lot of choices. These days, I have a half hour or so before bed when I either watch TV or read (or doom scroll or fall into an Instagram hole and then feel terrible about my life). Before the pandemic, it seemed less “taxing” to watch an episode on Netflix than read a book. This changed during the pandemic—though I watched and loved a few shows (shout out to “Better Things”!), mostly I read. Being led into a story by a good writer was a balm during such an uncertain time. If my novel can be a source of sustenance for someone else, that’s pretty incredible.

Preorder a signed copy of The Marvelous Mirza Girls here.

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Mathangi Subramanian is an award winning writer, author and educator. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Quartz, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, Skipping Stones, Thinkling and the Seal Press anthology Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, among others, and she has received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholarship, a Jacob Javits Fellowship and an Office of Policy and Research Fellowship from Columbia Teachers College, where she completed her doctorate in communications and education in 2010. In 2016, she won the South Asia Book Award for her novel Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her latest book, A People’s History of Heaven was published in March 2019 by Algonquin Books.