For the March issue of Ink Splat, we had a great time talking with Darshana Khiani, whose most recent book is How to Wear a Sari. With so few books with a South Asian cultural backdrop out there, Darshana wanted to write fun, lighthearted books about the everyday experiences kids encounter through that lens.
from Darshana Khiani
Give this month’s writing challenge a try!
Today we are going to write a “how to …” story. These stories are kind of like a story with steps. First, you do this, then you do that, etc. It makes for an easy plot. Let’s get started.
Step 1: Think of something you are good at, or something you have tried many times but still can’t get quite right. Ideas include riding a bike, baking cookies, building a robot, or washing your dog.
Step 2: Break down the task into 3 to 5 steps.
Step 3: Brainstorm what can go wrong at each of those steps and then exaggerate it. The more you exaggerate the step the more likely it is to be funny.
Maya poured a teaspoon of sugar into the dough.
Maya poured a cup of sugar into the dough.
Now, what if the illustrations show that she accidentally mistook the salt for sugar?
You now have the middle section done, but to make it a story you need a beginning and an ending. You will want to ponder the following questions.
- Why does your character want to do the task?
- Will the character succeed or fail?
- What does the character learn over the course of the story?
An Interview with Darshana Khiani
Your stories often have a South Asian backdrop. Can you tell us more about your vision for bringing this aspect of your background into your stories? Are there challenges with doing so?
Back in 2011, when my kids were young, they loved Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious books. The few South Asian books I found were aimed at teaching the reader about South Asian culture. I wanted books that focused on the everyday experiences kids face with South Asian culture as the backdrop. I wanted to write funny, light-hearted books. One of the challenges I faced was that for the reader to see the humor in a scene, the reader needs to have knowledge of the culture. In How to Wear a Sari, the reader needed to know that a sari is hard to wear, and something done by adults, else they wouldn’t be able to understand why it would be funny that a young girl was going to attempt it. A South Asian wouldn’t need that explanation since they would already know from seeing the adult women in their lives. However, a non-South Asian person would need that background info.
Now let’s talk more about your picture book, How to Wear a Sari. How were you inspired to tell this particular story?
I was planning my Indian outfits for the upcoming Diwali holiday season. I’ve always loved the gorgeous embroidery, the silky fabric, and the vibrant colors of saris. Unfortunately, I’ve never gotten the hang of wearing one. Being able to wear a sari is a rite of passage in South Asian culture. It’s a symbol of womanhood much like wearing high heels or a fancy gown is in Western cultures. I wondered what it would be like for a young girl to wear an unwieldy sari. Why did she want to wear it? What challenges would she face? Would she succeed? And from that, the story was born.
You enjoy writing light-hearted stories and using humor. Do you have any tips for accessing the humor in a story?
That is a great question. Humor is all around us. One just needs to notice the little moments. For How to Wear a Sari, I thought about the steps to draping a sari and explored the question of what could go wrong using my own experiences as a starting point.
And a follow-up question: How do you find just the right level of humor for a story? Do you have to do a lot of revision on the humorous aspects of your stories?
I know my joke has landed when I see a reader laugh, giggle, or smirk. I rely on feedback from my critique group and other early readers to make sure the joke is landing. When I write a funny scene, I visualize what the art might be and make sure the words are complementary. Or I might have the text set up the joke and let the punchline be in the art.
Let’s talk about your life as a writer. You are also a computer engineer. How does writing fit into the flow of your life?
My day is quite full with family and a day job. Since writing brings me joy, I fit it into the nook and crannies of the day, but I also set aside time for it. I meet with a friend over Zoom every Saturday morning for two hours and we write. Stories are always percolating in the back of my mind – while driving, falling asleep at night, even while taking a shower. So even when I’m not writing, my brain is still noodling on a story.
Do you ever get writer’s block, and, if so, what do you do when it happens?
Yes! One of the ways I deal with writer’s block is I write out different ways of fixing an issue by hand instead of using a computer. For me, something is freeing about writing on paper. If I’m really stuck, I will have my main character write a letter to me, the author, saying what they think about the story and how it should be fixed.
What would you tell your younger writing self?
Follow your curiosity. Write lots. It is only through lots of practice do you learn writing and figure out what writing methods work for you. Your first draft will be garbage but keep going. Even once you’re published your first drafts will still be garbage, but you will know how to revise and make them better.
What’s a highlight in your life as a writer?
So far, my highlight has been seeing my book, How to Wear a Sari, in Target stores. I love receiving photographs from folks sharing stories of how their child took the book to school for show-n-tell or fell asleep with it.
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Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.
Check out her website: https://darshanakhiani.com/
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