An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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