Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina: A Girl’s Search for Her True Self
When considering books to review for The Geekiary, I try to focus on what we represent as a site, so I look for some diversity – books about women, LGBTQ+ characters, or people of color. As I was scrolling through the list of titles offered at this years BookExpo, one such title jumped out at me: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani.
Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani, is the story of an Indian-American girl who finds a magic shawl. Priyanka, who has never been to India, puts on the shawl and is transported to a magical, colorful world that is more vivid than any guidebook or Bollywood film could be. In fact, the pages in which Priyanka is wearing the shawl are the only pages in the novel in color. The rest of the pages, as Priyanka seeks to learn more about the father she never knew, are in black and white. It’s a striking and effective contrast, to show how sometimes reality falls short of our expectations.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Nidhi about her debut graphic novel, which publishes this October. Check out our interview below!
THE GEEKIARY: You started out with art, right? You’re an artist?
NIDHI CHANANI: Actually I didn’t. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in literature, and then I worked in the non-profit sector for a while. I worked at a library… I was working in the non-profit sector and I got unceremoniously laid off, and I had wanted to minor in art when I was going to UC Santa Cruz, but they didn’t offer it as a minor, and my parents wouldn’t let me major in art. Basically, I danced around a bunch of different careers and then came right back to what I had wanted to do when I was in college but didn’t have the opportunity to do. And so I went to art school. No, I wasn’t always an artist, actually. I spent seven years in the making.
THE GEEKIARY: You majored in literature. Did you want to be a writer? What did you want to do with that?
NIDHI CHANANI: I did, but also being an avid reader for a number of years, I knew that I needed to read a lot more. There was a creative writing program, and I considered it for a good while, but I decided that it was better for me to study literature – analyzing my use of time. Would it be better for me to use my time to study how to write or to study the books that are already there? So that’s what I chose to do.
THE GEEKIARY: This is your first graphic novel.
NIDHI CHANANI: It is!
THE GEEKIARY: I haven’t gotten the chance to read it yet, because I just now got it. Tell me a little bit about it, and how you came up with the idea.
NIDHI CHANANI: Pashmina is the story of Priyanka Das, who’s an Indian-American girl growing up in Southern California who finds a magical pashmina shawl, and it allows her to learn more about who she is and where she came from. The root idea – she comes across the shawl in a suitcase of her mom’s that’s tucked away in a closet that has all these items from India that her mom has never showed her, including letters from her sister that went unanswered; because her mom really wanted to kind of close out that part of her life, but she also practices a lot of strict rules and has her practice Hinduism. So there are parts of her culture that her mom allows her to engage in, and then there are parts of her own identity as an Indian woman, as a woman who grew up in India, that she’s just completely closed off. And so Priyanka, when she finds this, she’s learning all this stuff about her own family in India, her mom, and that allows her to kind of learn a lot about her family and her culture. But the idea, that suitcase idea, is where the core of the story came from, and it’s because my mom used to go to India. My parents, actually – both my parents would go to India, they would bring back a suitcase, and I would open it up, and it was like opening up a box to another world. It was full of different colors and smells and tastes – nothing that I could access here, and so I guess that core thought is where Pashmina grew out of.
THE GEEKIARY: Have you been to India since?
NIDHI CHANANI: Yes, I’ve been there many times. […] I was born there, but I came here when I was four months old, so a lot of people will say, “Oh, well, that doesn’t mean that you were born there.” And I’m like, “No, actually, it does. I was born there.” I’m very proud of that fact. We grew up in this very close-knit Indian community in Southern California, and as a result I kind of felt like I was always growing up in India – just a different version of India. Our own version of India.
THE GEEKIARY: With the story – did the story part come to you first, or did you have a vision of it?
NIDHI CHANANI: What’s interesting is, actually, to do the graphic novel, I did a script first. I did, like, eight drafts of this script. And now I’m working on my second book, and I’m going straight into thumbnails because what happened is I worked so hard on those eight drafts, and when I started thumbnailing out the visuals, it changed again. And again and again and again. So to kind of alleviate that […] or to reduce to the number of drafts that I’m doing, I’m jumping right into the visuals. But I don’t think I could have done that with Pashmina. I can only do this with my second book, because I had to build that skill set first.
THE GEEKIARY: Yeah, writing a book and then writing a graphic novel are completely different.
NIDHI CHANANI: Completely. But I think that now where I’m at in my skill set, it’s great to do both the words and the art in tandem. Thumbnails are really loose drawings, so I’m not diving into it or anything, but it’s nice to have that visual pacing and pages worked out while I’m writing, because those two things are now where I’m at in my comics understanding, my comics development, working together. So I kind of have alleviated the need to do drafts; the same time, though, if I need to stop in the middle of thumbnailing and write a little bit, I allow myself to do that. I don’t think that each one is pure. I’m not purely doing one thing or purely doing the other, I’m just doing a little mishmash of both.
THE GEEKIARY: Did you feel a lot of pressure to represent the Indian culture a certain way? There’s not much diversity in literature anymore, or in graphic novels, and especially there’s not a whole lot from Southeast Asia, so did you feel a lot of pressure to do a really good job?
NIDHI CHANANI: I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a really good job in anything that I do, so there’s that. And then while I was drawing the book, and the different things that I utilized, whether she’s in Calcutta or she’s using this kind of Hindi or she’s saying this, I thought a lot about those things that you’re talking about. Like, “How am I doing this? What are people going to think? What are people from my community going to expect?” I thought about it, and then I told that voice to be quiet, because the thing is, I can only represent it the way that I know. This book, I’m not asking it to be the Indian graphic book. Maybe people will think of it that way, but what I’m hoping is that this is going to show one perspective of one experience and it’s fiction, and that if this book does well, that it will allow the space for other authors to come and give their own takes on that same experience. And I don’t plan on ever doing another identity piece after this. My next book is about a jukebox time machine. The characters in the book are Muslim, so I’ll probably always keep my characters within South Asia, but I don’t want to do another identity book, and another identity book and another identity book. But I do feel that this was important for me to get out of my system and now I can move on to another topic.
THE GEEKIARY: I think – you mentioned the characters just, you know, being Muslim, that’s important, too. A lot of the books that come out, the characters just aren’t that. It’s about that, as opposed to that’s just what they happen to be.
NIDHI CHANANI: Yeah, exactly.
THE GEEKIARY: I’m intrigued by the jukebox time machine idea.
NIDHI CHANANI: Good, I’m glad! Four years from now, you’ll see it. Maybe three.
THE GEEKIARY: Did you read a lot of graphic novels to sort of get an idea of how to do it?
NIDHI CHANANI: I definitely think that I was reading a lot more graphic novels in the development cycle. This took four years to make, so in that time frame I was reading a lot. I also had a baby in the middle of it, so I wasn’t reading at all. It kind of ebbed and flowed throughout the whole process. Growing up I didn’t read a lot of comic books. I make the distinction – I didn’t read a lot of comic books. I read a lot of funny comics – Sunday funnies – but comic books themselves didn’t really call to me because they were mostly that Marvel/DC world. This is nothing new that many women in comics talk about, is that content wasn’t made for me, so it never really interested me, and so when I went to art school, I was exposed to a lot of different comic books through art school and peers. When I read American Born Chinese was really what I think was the seed of me thinking, “Maybe this is something that I could do.” And with my lit background and studying art, it kind of seemed like a natural progression. Although if you asked me when I was studying literature at UC Santa Cruz if I ever thought I would make a comic book, I probably would have said, “I don’t think so. It probably wouldn’t sell.” Whereas now, knowing what I know, I feel like I can bring a lot to it.
THE GEEKIARY: What do you hope people get out of Pashmina?
NIDHI CHANANI: […] A story about a girl trying to understand herself. I think the best books leave you with something. So if it leaves them with insight into the Indian-American experience, great. If it leaves them with an insight into women having choice and power in their lives, great. And if it leaves them with a feeling of belonging, a feeling that they’ve been represented in this book in a way that they haven’t been represented before, that’s wonderful. So it’s a multitude of things. I feel like that question has been asked to me a lot, and I don’t have one answer. I guess the one answer would be, I just hope that the book isn’t one of those books that you read and you’re done with, but one that you can read and get something from on another read and another read, and something that stays with you.
Thanks again, Nidhi, for taking the time to speak to us!
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from THE Ohio State University. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, and conventions in the NYC area.
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