"Only a Grandma Could" Shenaaz Nanji on Joyfully Celebrating Identity & Culture Against Bullying & Prejudice
Everyone can remember the dread of walking in to a new situation as a kid – especially if you're the only one who's new. For Alina, in Shenaaz Nanji's newest book Alina in a Pinch, moving to a new city means new friends, new school, new everything. And nothing is worse than lunchtime.
When her grandmother visits, Alina comforts herself in the familiar scents and tastes of the Afro-Indian foods she loves, taking them to school to bring a bit of home to her lonely lunch hour. Instead of comfort though, Alina gets a nasty, bullying note about her food. But even though the bullying shakes her, Alina is proud of her grandmother, her food, and her culture, and when auditions for a children's cooking competition open, Alina is determined to showcase her tasty, traditional food and teach her classmates that something new can be delicious.
A smart, timely tale of acceptance, pride, and identity, Alina in a Pinch is a book that has you cheering for its plucky protagonist in both her cooking competition and her navigation through the tough social landscape of a new school. We're excited to speak with Shenaaz about the book today, as she tells us about how writing for young readers can be a fascinating challenge akin to building "a beautiful house using only a few blocks", how she longed for books like this for her own kids when they faced racist bullying, and why food being central to Alina's story came as a surprise to her.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My publisher expressed an interest in a chapter book for early readers like my picture book, Treasure for Lunch that explored diversity and acceptance. My first thoughts were easy-peasy but challenges creeped in. Chapter books are special, they are often the first books that kids read on their own. I had not written for this age before. How do I write an easy-to-follow plot yet compelling story? How do I write simply yet use engaging language? Can I give the readers a character to care about? Can I make them laugh and cry? How do I build a beautiful house using only a few blocks?
Fortunately, at this time I became a new grandma. Filled with warm fuzzy feelings for my grandson, the story spilled out organically page by page without conscious effort. Being a mother as well as a grandma, I knew the stark difference in the roles of motherhood versus grandparents. As a grandma, I could be silly, laugh, play, no discipline required, then return the baby. I also knew that children listen more to their grandparents than to their busy parents. So, the very first thing I did in the story was to get rid of Alina’s parents leaving Alina with her Nani or Grandma. Nani is Alina’s influencer. Only a grandma could teach Alina about culture and heritage. Only a grandma could trigger Alina’s realization that it is okay to be different and be cool. Only a grandma could shape Alina’s self-view and worldview.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Every writer tells stories through the lens of their own life experiences. Here’s my story. As an immigrant mother raising my children in Canada, we straddled two different worlds: our Afro-Indian heritage and our new Canadian identity. The thorny question was: how do we identify with both cultures without compromising our authenticity? Call the process clumsy, messy, challenging, whatever. Always, I struggled with what traditions to accept and what to ignore? Should we wear traditional Indian outfits? Should we celebrate Halloween and Christmas? Do we take Indian lunch at work? Unfortunately, when one lives with one foot in one culture, the other foot in another, we do not fully fit into either one. Torn between two identities and being a visible minority, sometimes 1 + 1 equalled 0. Story time opened a wonderful opportunity for me to show that hey, we are different, but the same in many ways, that diversity is strength, that where we are born and raised—our heritage—is part of who we are, and we cannot run away from that.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
I can relate to Alina in the story as it mirrors my family’s journey in Canada when my children were as young as Alina. Young kids are conscious and curious about their racial and cultural identity. I remember my 4-year-old son once came home from playschool after being teased. “Mom are we really Indians?” he asked, very concerned. Racism aside, heritage and culture can be confusing to the young ones. In desperation I searched for appropriate books to read to him but came up empty handed. At that time there were no books on diverse cultures. As an immigrant and a visible minority, I find we have less of a sense of belonging. When we feel like we don’t belong to any community, the tendency is to try to hide one or more aspects of ourselves to try to fit in. However, by hiding some aspects of ourselves we are ignoring a part of our identity and compromising our authenticity. On the other hand, if we try to adapt and assimilate into the mainstream we are plagued by difficult questions: Am I Indian enough or am I too white? What traditions do I accept? Which ones do I drop? How do I fit in with my friends without betraying my culture? I finally found the answer in the story when Alina tries to be brave enough to be her own true self.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
I am aware that food like music is a universal language, and that food is the best way to really understand other cultures and people from different countries. However, the inclusion of food in the story took me by surprise. More so, because I am not a good cook and do not spend much time in the kitchen. My children too never showed any interest in cooking. So, I am not sure why Grandma in the story is portrayed as a good cook and why Alina is keen in exploring recipes for healthy nutritious food. One reason why the story is food related could be because I wrote the story during Covid when all the restaurants were closed, and the pandemic forced me to spend more time in the kitchen. I was exploring new recipes at that time, so food was dominant in my mind.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book? The inspiration, writing the first draft, revision, the editorial relationship, promotion and discussing the book, or something else altogether? What's the toughest part?
Readers are surprised when I say I like writing, but I also hate it. Writing for me is like the sweet golden ladhoo. I so want to eat it. However, if I eat the Indian sweet, I know I will regret it. On the other hand, if I don’t eat it, I will also regret it.
When inspiration strikes, it is magical. A voice in my head says, wait till you read my story. Upon writing the first draft however I find it frustrating that the grand idea in my head does not translate clearly on the page. Where did the magic go? Why does my glamorous idea look so blah, so unappealing on the page?
My favourite part of the writing process is revision. I enjoy working with the editors, my second eyes and ears, they work hard to improve the quality of the story. What a thrill it is to see my characters in my head come alive on the page a little more after each revision. As I rewrite sentences, move the scenes to fit in smoothly, delete extraneous words, it is so gratifying to see the story improving before my eyes. Like extracting raw gold or diamonds, I like ‘refining’ my writing to make it shine.
Shenaaz Nanji is an internationally published author with twelve award winning novels, short stories, and picture books. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Her novel, Child of Dandelions, was a finalist for the Governor General award in Children's Literature. Born in Kenya, she now lives in Calgary.