Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Author Guest Post - Shobhan Bantwal

It's my pleasure to introduce you to today's guest blogger, Shobhan Bantwal, author of The Dowry Bride and The Sari Shop Widow. Bantwal calls her writing “Bollywood in a Book,” romantic, colorful, action-packed tales, rich with elements of her own Indian culture -- stories that entertain and educate.

Pungent curry, sweet fried onions, incense, colorful beads, and lush fabrics - The Sari Shop Widow is a novel set on the streets of Edison, New Jersey's Little India, where a young businesswoman rediscovers the magic of love and family. When Anjali Kapadia's posh sari boutique in New Jersey is on the verge of financial ruin, her wealthy uncle from India comes to her rescue. But the wily, dictatorial uncle arrives with some unpleasant surprises--a young Indo-British partner named Rishi Shah for one--and a startling secret that disturbs Anjali.

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The Challenges of an Ethnic Fiction Writer

As an Indian-American author writing for a primarily American audience, I constantly face some tough challenges. No doubt the fiction market has launched many talented South Asian writers in recent years, but what they write and what I write is oceans apart. Mine is mainstream popular women’s fiction with romance at its center, while theirs is literary fiction—a slice of life. It is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

Despite the rising popularity of ethnic fiction, particularly from Asia, it is still a mere fraction of the thousands of fiction books published by American publishers. When I decided to venture into the hard-to-crack realm of fiction, especially mainstream, I knew it was going to be a serious challenge. And yet, with all the confidence and naiveté of a novice, I decided to take a bite nonetheless.

With a bit of caution, I began my creative writing career on a small scale, by writing articles for Indian-American publications, both print and electronic. With some 25 articles published in two years, I was rather pleased with myself. Not bad for a new writer, I figured, especially for a 50 year-old one who had never written a creative word beyond a class essay.

After that modest taste of success, I started writing short stories with Indian heroes and heroines. My stories were suitable for ethnic Asian publications, but how would the mainstream American ones react to my submissions? And my ambitions were gradually shifting in that direction.

Would they appreciate stories about arranged marriage, dowry, virgin brides and grooms, and male dominance? Would they even bother with characters like obedient wives and mothers who, despite advanced degrees and flourishing careers of their own, catered happily to the men their lives?

Not many American readers know a lot about Indian culture. It is not because they are ignorant; it is because Indian writers and moviemakers have not been effective in portraying the true face of India to American audiences. The real India lies somewhere between the glamour of Bollywood movies and the deprivation and despair of serious literary novels and documentaries.

To learn the techniques of making my stories more appealing to non-Indians, I enrolled in a creative writing course at the local community college. Our homework was read aloud for a critique session each week. As I read my short story about a young bride in an unhappy marriage, my American classmates just could not comprehend why my modern young protagonist could not walk away from her spineless husband and abusive in-laws. And if she happened to fall in love with another man and wanted to make love with him, why did she not surrender to the urge?

However, the course made me realize I had to get more creative in creating my characters. I could not assume that my readers would connect with them instantly, or understand their rationale, let alone sympathize with them. I had to make my stories unique and interesting enough to keep my readers turning the pages. Over the next couple of years I worked hard at doing exactly that.

The road to becoming a published author has been bumpy to say the least, with a lot of bruises to my ego. Landing a reputable agent and publisher were sweet experiences, but they came after a long and hard upward climb.

Creating shy yet sociable, timid yet sufficiently bold women clad in saris and lehengas, and making them likable is a tough job. Presenting sensitive, soft-hearted males as real men and not wimps, and authoritative males as essentially good at heart to a non-Asian readership is even tougher.

I still struggle with the fine balance between explaining and over-explaining an Indian word, custom, tradition or adage. Indians are not prone to emotional displays, so I often have to get into the character’s mind and explain away the finer emotions.

Introducing sexually tense and graphic scenes into my Indian romances is another little stumbling block to navigate. Young women in contemporary India are no longer the shy virgins of yesteryear, but their sex lives are still very private and secret. Their independent streak naturally causes friction in their conservative families. And I have to keep that fact in mind as I craft my romantic stories. But friction and tension are good things when it comes to creating a novel. A good, juicy story thrives on conflict, taboos, and societal constraints.

Nevertheless, despite all the challenges, my novels have turned into something that many readers delight in, and they have garnered me a large and loyal readership. For that I am deeply grateful to my karma and my family and friends.

To enter my contest and read my award-winning short stories, articles, recipes, and see some interesting photographs from India, go to my website, www.shobhanbantwal.com. The book trailer video for THE SARI SHOP WIDOW and my other books can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9uRlbkxxes.

Thank you for that entertaining post, dear Author! From personal experience, I can relate to many of the issues you've touched in this post of yours. You've described it exactly! And it is that insight that you have into the minds of your readers that makes your stories to compelling. Kudos! I look forward to many more years of reading your books. Read Shoban's previous post here.

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  1. I agree with Shobhan that there is a need for more ethnic fiction! Reading about her challenges and successes in this post is inspirational! I look forward to reading The Sari Shop Window!

  2. Thank you so much for posting my article on your popular blog during my virtual blog tour. I'm honored to be in the company of so many illustrious authors and bloggers.

    Shobhan Bantwal

  3. What a wonderful guest post! Very interesting and entertaining, reading about the challenges that she faced towards her goal of being a published author has inspired me to read her novels! Thanks!

  4. Shawna L

    I just love the cover of this book Thanks for the review I have been wanting to read this but wasn't sure it was for me but after your review I know now I really do need & want to read this amazing book ~!!!!