Celebrating a FOLD First With Tanaz Bhathena

It’s almost May in Brampton, which can only mean one thing: The Festival of Literary Diversity countdown is on! The FOLD is celebrating the launch of its first Teen Track with “a day of small group activities, workshops and interactive writing events for aspiring and emerging teen writers” (from the website).

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tanaz Bhathena, featured in the inaugural Teen Track, to discuss the FOLD, and her books Beauty of the Moment, and A Girl Like That.

What made you want to write your most recent book, The Beauty of the Moment?

I wanted to write a love story featuring two South Asian immigrant teens in Canada. Not only did I want them to have a happy ending, I wanted them to show them thriving in this country in spite of the obstacles they face due to their respective families and cultures. When it comes to South Asian immigrants, fiction is largely skewed toward depicting them in difficult or tragic situations. But we also have our happy stories and I wanted teens to see themselves reflected in that way as well.  

You’ve mentioned in another interview that you would often check out adult fiction from the library as a young adult because that’s where you saw yourself represented. What impact did that have on your decision to write young adult fiction?

I honestly thought there was no room for my story in young adult fiction—that teens wouldn’t be interested in a book about an Indian teen growing up in Saudi Arabia. I struggled for the longest time to find a breakthrough in the adult market, with little success. Publishers found my first book “too dark.” It’s only thanks to movements such as We Need Diverse Books in the US and the Festival of Literary Diversity in Canada that my book finally found a home in the US—and that, too, with a young adult publisher.

This year is a pretty special first for the FOLD because it’s the launch of the Teen Track which you’re part of. What does it mean to be part of such a momentous first for the FOLD? 

It’s a tremendous honor. I’ve been a fan of the FOLD since I first discovered the festival in 2016. The organizers do tireless work in promoting marginalized Canadian authors and providing them with opportunities. With the teen track program, marginalized teens will not only be able to interact with authors who have been published, but they will be also see authors who look like them, and share their culture and experiences. I am really excited for this program!

You’ve mentioned before that YA books fill you with hope. Tell me more about why it’s so important for teens (and adults) to have access to more YA fiction.  

Back when I was reading YA, there were only certain kinds of books or stories being published. But these days, there is so much variety! The writing is of incredible caliber and the plots are engaging and creative. It’s important for teens and adults to have more access to YA fiction because the teenagers of this generation are changing the world. They are more socially conscious and politically active than I’ve ever seen—and that reality needs to be reflected in our literature.

Throughout Beauty of the Moment, Susan is under pressure not just from family, but people who don’t understand her culture, her friends, and then her parents’ divorce. What would you say to someone who says that teens aren’t under that much pressure or stress?

I think adults often forget what it was like to be a teenager and can sometimes make disparaging comments about “teens being teens.” Fiction teaches us empathy, and anyone who feels that teens aren’t under stress should read a YA novel!

While writing Susan’s character in Beauty of the Moment, did you find that you were writing yourself into the character?

I did! It was incredibly difficult—mostly because I don’t really like writing myself into my own fiction. But writing Susan’s character was also important to me. Growing up, I faced immense pressure from my parents to pursue a career that I didn’t enjoy. I know many other South Asian kids face the same type of pressure and I wanted to show that they are not alone—and that things can turn out okay in the end.

What’s your favourite part of writing YA?

Being able to enter a completely different headspace and leaving my boring adult reality behind!

What would you say to a young person who is trying to see themselves on the page, but struggling at doing so thus far? 

Growing up, I did not see myself in the books that I read. I had to write my own story and make my own niche.  While I don’t expect all teens to do this—not everyone wants to write books!—teen readers can work in other ways. They can write to publishers on social media, asking to see a specific kind of story. They can support the authors whose stories they want to see more of by doing one or more of these things: buying books, asking their local library to order in copies, writing reviews, and or recommending them to others.

As readers, you have the power to change things, to demand that publishers not only put in the effort to seek out more diverse stories but also authentic voices to tell those stories.

For more information and tickets to the festival, taking place May 2nd-5th, please visit the FOLD website.