A Note from Uzma Jalaluddin, Author of Ayesha At Last:
I'm always eager to get my hands on books written by Alisha Rai, and While You Were Dreaming, her YA debut, was no exception. Alisha's masterful ability to craft character and create a whole ecosystem firmly fixed in the complexities of modern life is a delight to behold! Sonia, the 16-year-old protagonist of this romantic, heartfelt, and important story, is a young woman both relatable and compelling. When we learn that Sonia's undocumented mother was recently deported to India, leaving her and her older sister Kareena to figure things out on their own, I knew this story would be special. Sonia then saves her crush from drowning, all while dressed in a kick-ass cosplay superhero costume, only to become a viral vigilante sensation after she fled the scene. So good! I loved the nods to the migration crisis, the thoughtful discussion of body positivity, brown-Auntie nosiness, and of course the nuanced portrayals of first, second, and third generation immigrants from diverse backgrounds. Add in the nods to the romcom classic While You Were Sleeping, and this novel truly has it all! Sonia's journey is both immensely readable, heart-breakingly hopeful, and hugely satisfying. Alisha, how do you do it all?
The following questions were written from Uzma to Alisha.
1.You've written several notable books already, and While You Were Dreaming is your debut into the world of young adult novels. How did writing this book differ in terms of structure, goals, and process?
This book was very much a labor of love. I've wanted to write a young adult book ever since my youngest siblings hit their teenage years. I wanted to give them what I never had, which was seeing someone they could relate to on a bookshelf. I'm thrilled the genre has expanded so much over the years that they now see multiple people who look like them on the shelves! The biggest difference between writing this book and writing my other books was tapping into a younger voice, and remembering that the struggles a first generation American teen might face today aren't necessarily the same struggles I faced at the same age; though the flutters of first love and relationship conflicts cross generational borders.
2. I absolutely loved the nods to the rom-com classic While You Were Sleeping (I would seriously watch Sandra Bullock doing the dishes). What was it about this movie that inspired you? I also got major Ms. Marvel vibes...was that another inspo?
Yes! Both were inspirations. While You Were Sleeping is one of the rare movies that can span the age gaps between me, my older sister, and my youngest sister. We all watch it at least once every holiday season. I think it's an excellent example of what a lot of romcoms in the RomCom Golden Age of the 90s did so well: package serious topics and emotions, like loneliness, together with humor and hope. And in my opinion, that's something that Ms. Marvel does well, too.
3. Let's talk about cosplay. Do you have any interest in the activity, or was it just a convenient way to hide Sonia's anonymity when she saves James in a superhero costume?
Oh no, I love cosplay, and Halloween's my favorite holiday. Like Sonia, I sometimes enjoy and appreciate costume construction more than the actual source material. One of my favorite memories is taking my brother to San Diego Comic Con a few years ago. We cosplayed in coordinating outfits every day, except for the day I was on a panel — where he jumped into the question line dressed as Miles Morales in a loving yet futile attempt to embarrass me.
4. You are a master of writing stories with nuanced characters who are BIPOC or part of other marginalized communities. Was this a goal for you as a diverse writer, or something that simply emerged from your own lived experience? In your opinion, what are some things to keep in mind when writing diverse characters? Do you have any pet peeves or portrayals that make you wince?
My main goal in writing romance is to make it clear that everyone is worthy of love and happiness. A lot of us grew up never seeing people who looked like us falling in love, and I'm hopeful that the next generation will be secure from the time they're young that they're main character material. My characters do unfold naturally, but I also try to be conscious of what I feel qualified to write. I think that's the most important thing to keep in mind, to be self-aware. There's some stories I just don't feel qualified to write because someone else could do more justice to them, and that's okay. And, yes, there's been South Asian American portrayals on TV or in movies that make me wince. But so long as the depiction isn't flat out racist or harmful, I remind myself that we're not a monolith, and what I find unrealistic may be someone else's lived experience.
5. I loved all the food references in While You Were Dreaming. Favorite desi dish?
This is tough! I'm a snacker at heart so I love any and all Mumbai street food: pani puri, bhel, Bombay sandwiches, pav bhaji. I'm not South Indian, but I adore the cuisine, especially idli and masala dosa. This isn't a dish, but properly prepared masala chai runs through my veins. That is way more than one, sorry!
6. What do you hope readers take away from While You Were Dreaming?
I'd like them to take away the overall message of the story: that there can be hope and happiness even in the darkest of times. Hoping and dreaming are essential acts of self-care, and the best tools to get us through those messy periods in our lives.
A Final Note from Uzma:
While You Were Dreaming is a dream of a novel: passionate, funny, and so very human. While it doesn't shy away from serious issues or teenage angst, it manages —like all of Alisha's novels — to be a delicious confection, highly readable, and always hopeful.