Interview with Morris Finalist Sonia Patel

image1-2

Rani Patel in Full Effect is one of those books that isn’t polite or nice. Which is good because the issues in this book are not polite or nice; they are open wounds and heartbreak and survival and resilience. I had an opportunity to interview, William C. Morris finalist, and fellow Cinco Puntos author, Sonia Patel.

Isabel Quintero:  From the very beginning the book was tense. Very tense. Everything added to this; the setting, the relationships. I always felt like there was something that was about to happen. Was it your intent to keep it tense because of the subject matter or did it just happen? 

Sonia Patel: I am glad you felt the tension. That was my intent. The tension reflects the chaos that happens once Rani’s incestuous relationship with her father abruptly ends. While in the covertly and overtly incestuous relationship she is isolated from her mother, her extended family, her surrounding cultures, and peers. Once her father abandons her, she flounders. Even though she is intelligent, she doesn’t have enough experience in the real world. Her attempts at building her own life and identity, separate from her father, result in chaos and tension as she unconsciously tries to recreate her relationship with her father with Mark.

IQ: One of things I appreciated about Rani is how uncomfortable it made me. Let me explain. There were many times that I was frustrated with Rani, that I was like, “What are you doing?” And I had to step back and check myself; I was victim blaming. Did you think about how readers would react to Rani’s “bad” choices, especially with Mark, and the assumption that she was making “bad” choices to begin with?

SP: I knew readers would assume she was making “bad” choices. And that was my intention. I wanted to make it crystal clear that survivors of trauma often do this. In my author’s note I talk about how their brains are often biologically hardwired to do this because trauma can damage normal brain development. But in the story I wanted to show this biologic brain damage in the outward manifestation of Rani’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Rani often made impulsive, irrational decisions based on what would make her feel good, or at least less bad, in the moment because overall she felt sad, anxious, and unworthy most of the time. And these “bad” decisions led to situations that then presented more opportunities to make other “bad” decisions. Because of her role as her father’s “wife,” she didn’t get ample opportunity to develop her own sense of self, which is what is supposed to happen during adolescence. In more normal adolescence, children and teens make mistakes and receive individual, familial, and/or societal rewards and consequences that either discourage or reinforce the behavior. Youth thus begin to learn how to make good decisions. Rani wasn’t allowed to be herself. Plus she was distant from the protective aspects of her mother, Gujarati culture, and female peers (all a result of her father’s incestuous relationship with her). She was her father’s object and so, despite her intelligence, when she was presented with situations or relationships outside of her incestuous relationship she ended up making the quick, feel-good-in-the-moment-but-ultimately-bad choices. And that when she starts to get how the abuse affected her and begins to rebuild her relationship with her mother she gets a chance to make better decisions.

By the end of the story most readers seem to get why she keeps making “bad” choices.

I was surprised by the reactions of a few readers who found Rani “dumb,” “one dimensional,” “asking for it,” and “not using a big vocabulary” even at the end of the story. I could have made Rani more obviously empowered. I could’ve had her make all the “right” choices from the beginning. I could’ve used big flowery words and sentences. I could’ve developed her character beyond that of a traumatized teen who hasn’t yet healed. I could’ve developed the other characters beyond how a traumatized teen who hasn’t yet healed relates to them. But all that would be, in my opinion, an unrealistic portrayal of the effects of covert and overt sexual abuse. That kind of story, based on my work with traumatized teens, would minimize the biologic effects of trauma and reinforce intolerance, judgement, and lack of empathy of the actual trauma experience.

IQ: Rani still seems to love her dad, even though he doesn’t deserve it. Or does he? Maybe, I am being judgmental. In, “My Hero,” you bring up mental illness, and Rani’s dad says, “The pills also made me do things I didn’t plan on,” in a way he seems to be blaming his behavior on medication and not taking responsibility for his actions. While Rani and her mom are happy to have them out of their lives, he gets another partner and more children, and there are no real consequences for him.  Why is that? 

SP: I completely understand your reaction. And yes Rani’s dad is blaming his behavior on the medication and not taking responsibility. He’s got an inflated sense of his own importance. He has a deep need for admiration from others. He lacks empathy for others. Underneath it all, though, he’s got poor self-worth (though he has no insight into this). These things make it more likely that he continues his misogynistic and abusive behavior—because it makes him feel better about himself and he’s blind to how it affects others.

Unfortunately, he gets away with no real consequences. If I’d been Rani’s psychiatrist, and I knew about the incest, I would’ve called child protective services and hopefully there would’ve been some consequences for him. But she didn’t have a psychiatrist. And often,  by the time teens see a psychiatrist, the abusive parents may not be around or the teens may not want to take legal or emotional action. In many real life cases of incest and sexual abuse, there is no real consequence for the abusers. Shoot take a look at the person about to enter the White House.

Still, there is hope for the surviving teens. Once they are safe from the abuser they can begin to heal—find words to describe their trauma, gain insight into how the trauma has affected them, and help them build their identity, self-worth, tolerance of their swinging pendulum of emotions, and social connections.

IQ: I think Rani is resilient. Often when sexual abuse is involved, victims are expected to behave certain way; quiet, broken, anti-social. To behave in ways we associate with weakness. This is not the case for Rani. Yes, she is broken (?) in someways, but she is also fierce. I really liked that.

SP: Yes. Reaction to trauma is variable. The biologic damage can vary. The thought, feeling, and behavioral manifestations can vary.  Rani’s story is one version.  I chose to present her as resilient and strong in many ways. She’s also very smart. From the outside, no one could tell there was anything wrong. This is often the case with trauma survivors, especially if the abuse is chronic. And especially when other family members remain silent or enable to abuse. The fierceness Rani presents is how she makes sure no one can tell there’s something wrong. It’s a front. Heck if her own father sexually abuses her and her mother is distant and in denial, the only way to get through that is to put on a front. In some cases this can turn into dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder). While the abuse is going on Rani doesn’t want anyone digging too deep. Because what’s really underneath is shame, guilt, sadness, fear, and self-hate. When her her father abandons her, everything unravels. Her situation changes and though she’s not being abused anymore it’s like she’s emotionally naked in the real world. She hasn’t built herself up enough yet and she becomes a jumbled mess of fierceness and vulnerability.

IQ: I wanted to talk about your use of rap music. I know very little about it; I know I like Wu-Tang and Biggie and Tupac. You, on the other hand, seem to have grown up rapping.  While rap is now a part of various communities in some way or another, rap emerged in the black community. Was there ever concern about cultural appropriation or how would you address someone who would question your intent?

SP: Hip hop was born in the 70’s in the Bronx as a form of expression and resistance for the black community that continued to suffer the multifaceted consequences of oppression in America. I first heard rap (Run DMC’s Hard Times) on the radio when I was a kid. Back then I had no insight into whether or not I was culturally appropriating anything. All I knew was that when my parents were fighting, listening to rap made me feel better. I couldn’t talk to anyone about what was going on at home so I listened to rap. I never stopped listening to rap. I grew to love it more than Michael Jackson’s pop style music. Rap’s beat and flow lifted me. The way rappers dressed inspired me. I copied their dance moves and felt free. Rap made me feel powerful in a way nothing else had. For me as a kid, rap was my savior. It was something very personal.

I am still a huge fan of hip hop. All aspects of it. Rap. Fashion. Graffiti. DJing. Dance. I’ve met people of all ethnicities who love and live one or more forms of hip hop. In that hip hop community, I haven’t come across people questioning each other about cultural appropriation. Maybe my experience is limited, but I don’t think so. I would never, ever want to be disrespectful or falsely represent another culture. And I am not trying to be black. I can’t. I’m not.

But I know I love hip hop and rap. I feel it in my soul. I feel it like a first generation Gujarati-Indian person who found solace in its beats and flow throughout my life struggles (which I don’t compare as more or less intense than the struggles of others). Hip hop was my culture when I had no other. It was my emotional support when I had no other. It was how I resisted. It was how I built my self-worth. It helped my form my identity separate from my difficult past. It helped me express my fluidity on the gender spectrum. Just like when I was a kid, these things that hip hop and rap represent to me are personal. I am not trying to make like I’m a hip hop or rap expert or authority figure. I’m just trying to survive and hip hop and rap help me. I’m grateful beyond words to hip hop culture.

IQ: Why do you think rap is so powerful and resonates so much with young people of color especially? Do you still rap? Who is your favorite rapper and why?

SP: Rap is one form of expression and resistance for marginalized people of color. The powerful beats are universally loved. Most young people can’t help but head nod when they hear a dope beat. The lyrics are catchy, intelligent, crafty, and witty. They offer young people a voice they might not otherwise have. Rap can be written and performed for fun. For love. For political intentions. For social conscious raising. For empowerment. A young person doesn’t need much to rap. A pen and a pad. If you don’t have a fancy studio for the beats, you can get a friend to beatbox and mimic a drum machine with his or her mouth, tongue, lips, and voice.

I still listen to and write rap. For me it’s the same as always. It’s my own therapy. My own self-expression. And a way to express my good intentions for the young people I treat in my psychiatric practice.

My favorite rapper is…wow, it’s hard to pick just one! I love all the rappers I grew up with in the golden age of hip hop, the late 80’s and 90’s. If I had to pick one right now it’s a toss up between Lauryn Hill and M.I.A. Damn those ladies are fierce and socially/politically conscious!

IQ: You are a psychiatrist. What made you want to write a YA novel? Not that the two professions, writer and psychiatrist, are mutually exclusive, but I’m curious.

SP: In my years of medical training and working as a child & adolescent psychiatrist I’ve learned that the teen who presents as the patient is not always the only patient. Many times, it is the family system he or she comes from that is the true “patient.” The family system patient might be unbalanced and the teen happens to be the one that gets the attention for acting or feeling in a worrisome way. Treating just the teen in a case like this is unlikely to be effective. In these cases, it’s important to treat the entire family system. Family psychotherapy. Families can be resistant to this because they may not accept that their family unit is dysfunctional.

I also know the effects of an out-of-whack family system based on my own family of origin experience. Sometimes during family therapy sessions I want to tell the families about my experiences in hopes that giving a real life example of why my psychiatric recommendations might be helpful. But there are reasons psychiatrists generally steer clear of self-revelation in direct patient care. So I don’t talk about personal experiences most of the time in therapy sessions.

Meanwhile I had a binder full of rap I’d written over the years. One day flipping through the binder, I realized that if I read it in a certain order, it told a story. Parly my story and partly that of teens  and women I’d treated. It hit me. I could write a YA novel highlighting family dysfunction and how it can affect a teen. I could base it on a combination of my real life family experiences and those of some of patients as well as my imagination. That was how Rani Patel In Full Effect was born.

As a child & adolescent psychiatrist and as a person of color who grew up in a dysfunctional family unit, I think my perspective is unique. I call it diversity in diversity. In Rani I can best describe it as this: Rani is a POC. She’s growing up disconnected from two diverse cultures, Gujarati Indian and Native Hawaiian. She doesn’t have the luxury to cope only with normal teen developmental issues because she’s been her father’s covert and overt sexual object her entire life. She has to gain insight into the impact of the abuse (on how she thinks, feels, and acts) before she can even begin to make positive changes in her life and get back to normal teen developmental issues.

It’s not just sexually abused teens that can relate to Rani’s thought, feelings, and behaviors. I’ve seen similar emotions and behaviors displayed in teens with other struggles. As a writer and a psychiatrist, I hope I can reach more of the teens that need a certain type of realistic inspiration.

IQ: What are you reading right now?

SP: My husband and kids enjoy playing and watching tennis as much as possible. I used to play tennis high school, but I don’t play much now. I do, however, try to support their positive habit as much as I can tolerate. That’s why I’m reading Open by Andre Agassi. I’m glad I am. It’s fascinating stuff.

IQ: Do you have a favorite writer?

SP: Arundhati Roy. I love that she writes powerful fiction and politically and socially conscious nonfiction.

IQ: What are you working on now?

SP: A YA love story. Jaya & Rasa. It’s about a 17-year-old transgender Gujarati Indian boy and a 16-year-old girl from a broken family. They find unconditional love and acceptance in each other. There are themes of depression, bulimia, alcoholism, sex trafficking, identity development, and the healing power of music (grunge, specifically Nirvana!) woven in.

IQ: Anything else you want to let readers know about you?

SP: Like Rani, I’ve shaved my head and dyed the stubble blonde for some of the same reasons. Times were hard. And hey it’s safer than smoking crack.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Morris Finalist Sonia Patel”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s