A child, mother, and grandmother travel all the way to the end of the earth in this picture book that celebrates multigenerational love?perfect for fans of Drawn Together and Alma. “I want to see what’s at the end of the earth!” Sejal, Mommy, and Pati travel together to the southern tip of India. Along the way, they share meals, visit markets, and catch up with old friends. For Pati, the trip retraces spaces she knows well. For Mommy, it’s a return to the place she grew up. For Sejal, it’s a discovery of new sights and sounds. The family finds their way to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, and delight in making it to the end of the earth together. This own voices picture book celebrates the beauty of India and the enduring love of family. Drop In with us to find out how Rajani LaRocca uses storytelling to do positive messaging about things that matter for young people!
A short bio: Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. She is also the cohost of the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast. Her middle grade debut, Midsummer’s Mayhem (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books), an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking, was an Indies Introduce selection, an Indie Next pick, a Kirkus Best Middle Grade Book of 2019, and a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award Honor title. Her middle grade novel-in-verse, Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, 2/201), has received multiple starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, a Spring 2021 Indie Next Top Ten Title, a BookPage Best Middle Grade of 2021, and the winner of the 2021 New England Book Award. Her third middle grade novel, Much Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books) was featured on the TODAY Show and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection with a Kirkus starred review. Her debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math (Lee & Low) is set in ancient India and introduces the basics of binary numbers. It received multiple starred reviews and is the winner of the 2021 Mathical Book Prize for grades 3-5 and a Massachusetts Book Award Honor title.Leave a comment for radio show guests
Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math
A child, mother, and grandmother travel all the way to the end of the earth in this picture book that celebrates multigenerational love, perfect for fans of Drawn Together and Alma. “I want to see what’s at the end of the earth!” Sejal, Mommy, and Pati travel together to the southern tip of India. Along the way, they share meals, visit markets, and catch up with old friends. For Pati, the trip retraces spaces she knows well. For Mommy, it’s a return to the place she grew up. For Sejal, it’s a discovery of new sights and sounds. The family finds their way to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, and delight in making it to the end of the earth together. This own voices picture book celebrates the beauty of India and the enduring love of family. Drop In with us to find out how Rajani LaRocca uses storytelling to do positive messaging about things that matter for young people!
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. She is also the cohost of the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast. Her middle grade debut, Midsummer’s Mayhem (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books), an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking, was an Indies Introduce selection, an Indie Next pick, a Kirkus Best Middle Grade Book of 2019, and a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award Honor title. Her middle grade novel-in-verse, Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, 2/201), has received multiple starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, a Spring 2021 Indie Next Top Ten Title, a BookPage Best Middle Grade of 2021, and the winner of the 2021 New England Book Award. Her third middle grade novel, Much Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books) was featured on the TODAY Show and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection with a Kirkus starred review. Her debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math (Lee & Low) is set in ancient India and introduces the basics of binary numbers. It received multiple starred reviews and is the winner of the 2021 Mathical Book Prize for grades 3-5 and a Massachusetts Book Award Honor title.
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. It’s time to celebrate peace on earth, goodwill toward men and women especially because today in 1948, the United Nations established a set of human rights to protect the dignity and equality of all people across the world. While the interpretation of these values sometimes proves controversial no one can argue against the right of every person to be free from fear and to love and be loved without hiding who they are. Here to talk about her journey from Bangalore, India to becoming a Massachusetts doctor and author of award-winning children’s and young adult fiction is Rajani LaRocca. Her most recent book is Where Three Oceans Meet. Welcome Rajani. Great to have you with us.
Rajani: So excited to be here Diane. Thank you.
Diane: Rajani, the book is about three generations in the family of women and they want to travel to the end of the world. Sounds like a great project. They go to the southernmost tip of India to Kanyakumari and they take symbolically in their luggage, the eldest Pati takes her nine yard, sorry of heavy silk, mommy takes her six yard, sorry of lighter silk and Sejal, the girl, the granddaughter takes her jeans and her t-shirts. It’s so symbolic about generations and celebrating the enduring love of generations together. I wondered having read this the first thoughts that came to mind are what is it about stories like this that make it easier for important messages and themes to get across.
Rajani: Oh what a great question. I think what’s really interesting to me is that as a parent I often found that important discussions were easier when you weren’t necessarily looking at your child. I found that they tended to open up when they were in the back seat of the car especially if it was dark and I was looking at the road. They would talk to me about things that were on their mind. There was something about being on a journey together that allowed the words to flow.
Diane: Isn’t it interesting?
Rajani: Similarly I think that when you read a story especially a picture book like Where Three Oceans Meet that is so beautifully illustrated and you just kind of follow along with the story and you’re looking at the illustrations that the message of the story somehow flows into your mind and your heart a little bit more easily.
Diane: Well, I agree. It’s not like being taught to. It’s more like sharing an adventure. You pointed out I love this, you have the illustrations are by Archana Sreenivasan. Am I pronouncing her name correctly?
Rajani: Archana Sreenivasan, yes. She’s wonderful.
Diane: She’s wonderful and she’s throughout your books, six of which came out this year. She is also from Bangalore. It’s really interesting to me to maintain that connection and also just to give again the reader something to look at so that they’re diverted, maybe unconsciously can absorb the story even better because as you say it’s when we’re really thinking that we’re under pressure that it’s much harder actually to learn. I wonder if you then by extension how you came to address young people, young girls especially. What made you want to speak to and with this audience?
Rajani: Okay so as a woman and as an immigrant who had, I came to the US. I immigrated to the US as a baby. I really grew up as an American but I had relatives whom I really adored in India. We got to visit them every few years. We would stay for several weeks, maybe a couple of months during the summer but that was only every few years. Every time I went there was this reconnection but there was also this kind of sense of you wanted to pack everything you could into this brief time that we were together before we had to be apart again.
One of the things that I kind of realized as I got older is that these moments that you spend with people you love it’s these small moments that kind of mean everything. When I got into writing again, my first career as a doctor I realized that it was these kinds of stories that meant the most to me. There’s so much joy and then there’s also pain because you’re apart from people that you care about but the joy outweighed it. I wanted to speak to that. I wanted to in this story in particular speak to the just vital and important role that women play in each other’s lives. It’s not only about missing people that you love because you can’t be with them but about the connection between mothers and daughters and grandmothers that endures no matter how far apart you are.
Diane: I thought it was so beautiful that bond with the grandmother Pati and mommy and Sejal that there was so much respect for the differences. I mean they were going on the same trip but they were looking for different things. Pati, the grandmother she wanted to go to the temples. She wanted the spiritual things. Mommy wanted to catch up with friends along the way going through the country of India. Sejal, she just wanted to go to the end of the earth and have the big adventure. There was so much respect for the differences also among the generations. I wondered if you feel is that kind of respect also part of the message. It is something that came through to me very loud and clear this beautiful respective differences.
Rajani: Oh thank you. Yes, I do believe that was part of what I was trying to convey. I think this is true of any group of people who love each other and respect each other that they can all have slightly different reasons for wanting to do something but that ultimately it is the act of doing it together that is the important thing. That is kind of a refrain in the book is that the mom and the grandmother keep saying yes, Sejal we’ll do it together. We’ll see it together. I just had fun with it. This is true of my own family. The inspiration for this book was an actual trip that I took with my relatives through South India. We started in Bangalore and we went all the way to Kanyakumari. We had more than three people. It was not just me and my mother and my grandmother but my mom and my grandmother were there and there were some other relatives as well. Everyone kind of had a slightly different reason for wanting to do this trip.
My grandmother definitely wanted to see all the temples. I was just a kid. I was the only kid on this particular trip. None of my cousins could come because they had to go to school and I was just kind of along for the ride. What kind of cool things can I see? What kind of cool things can I do? That absolutely was rooted in my own experience but I also find that anything when you have a large family and a large group of people together everyone brings their own perspective. Everybody is slightly different but in the end the reason why they’re doing whatever they’re doing going on a trip, having a party, celebrating with a meal is that they wanted to spend time together.
Diane: This collaborative idea and kind of respecting and observing and appreciating other people and their motivations and their interests it’s really important coming into the holiday season or Hanukkah has already passed but for many it’s a holiday season. We’re going to be together and we’re going to be together some of us for the first time in quite a while. I think this message of how to be together and just sort of embrace one another’s differences and peculiarities even just it goes a long way at a time like this. You mentioned particularly women and of course it’s really interesting to me as a woman but I think that also the women, they’re united in one way because they are mommy has immigrated to the US in the story with her daughter.
They are experiencing an otherness. I think that one of the themes I’ve read three of your books and we’re going to get into your whole over in just a moment but I mean this theme of otherness how does it feel in comparison, it’s so interesting to me that you stepped from one world to the other, from this world let’s say the new world in America to the old world to explore and be with your family. You kept your feet in both worlds. That produced a kind of otherness when you were in America. It produced an otherness when you were in India. I wonder how that feels today for you as the mother of your daughters. How has that evolved do you think?
Rajani: Oh this is such a great question. Here’s the thing. When I was growing up I definitely felt like I was straggling two worlds and I wasn’t sure that I really truly belonged in either one. As you mentioned growing up as an Indian immigrant in the United States I definitely felt at times that I was different from everybody else as much as I also felt at the same time that I was very similar to everyone else. I had to hold both of those things at the same time. Then when we would go to India I felt 100% a part of my beautiful, close-knit family but also was very aware that I was extremely different from the people around me.
It got to the point where I felt like people on the street could tell even no matter what I was wearing they could tell that I wasn’t really Indian because I walked a different way. I definitely spoke with a different accent. That was kind of wherever I went I felt like I was older. That was okay because I also at the same time felt very, very much embraced by the people around me and felt very loved and very supportive. I was very fortunate in that way.
Then as you grow older you enter different communities. I entered one community in college and then entered another in medical school and then went on to practice medicine and really felt like I had found my people in terms of kind of what our goals were, what we’re trying to achieve and our interest, our interest in and care for other human beings no matter who they were but when I went back to writing I had really put it on hiatus for decades when I was in medical school and training and when my children were little. When I went back to writing, I realized that this feeling of being the other is fodder for stories. I mean there’s an inherent conflict there. When I started writing again I just wrote what I felt most deeply about.
These are the stories that emerged. I will say one other thing is that it is normal to feel out of place. It is normal for everybody kind of on the planet to feel out of place. There are plenty of people whose families have been in the same place for generations who still feel like well, I’m different inside than other people. I don’t know if anybody else thinks like this. The other reason that I write for young people is because that sense of otherness, that conflict that is within you is inherent to the process of growing up. No matter who you are there is a point at which you think to yourself I don’t think I’m with my parents. I think that there’s something, I see things differently from them. Is that okay and who is it that I really am and what do I want to be but the biggest advantage I would say to being an adult thinking about these things is that with a little bit more time under your belt you can see that all these things that seem so impossible to reconcile when you are young can coexist.
I grew up and I married somebody who is not Indian or Indian American. We are raising two beautiful kids, a boy and a girl. They are being raised in two kinds of cultures. The cultures that their parents came from but also the culture of the community in which we live. These things can be in harmony with each other. I know of course like everybody my children have their own conflicts about who they are and feeling like they weren’t necessarily like other people but at least they have the perspectives of their parents who also kind of grew up feeling these same things to help them along.
Diane: Yes and can understand them and actually illustrate them through these wonderful stories that about they come through the other, feeling other is material for sure for writing and many writers speak from that point of view. I think you articulated it in a beautiful way. Yes, there can just be an internal alienation. We have a couple minutes before the break but I thought we should let people know exactly who we’re talking to here. It’s kind of an amazing trajectory. Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and an impossibly cute dog. That’s good. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. She spends her times writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine and making too many sweets.
Well I’m looking forward to the book Midsummer’s Mayhem also by you Rajani and it’s got a lot of food in it. We’re going to talk about the importance of food. You are also the co-host of the STEM women in Kidlet Podcast. Your middle grade novel debut Midsummer’s Mayhem, an Indian American mashup of a Midsummer’s Night Dream and competitive baking. We’re going to look forward to that. That was an Indies Introduced Section selection and an indie next pick, Kirkus Best Middle Grade book of 2019 and a 2020 Massachusetts Book Award Honor Title. Your middle grade novel in verse Red, White and Whole which I also read has received multiple star reviews and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. There’s a whole slew of other awards to it but Kirkus called it the best book of the year. I am very inclined to agree with it.
Your third middle grade novel Much Ado About Baseball was featured on the Today Show and is the Junior Library Guild Gold Select Standard Selection with a Kirkus Star Review. Your debut picture book Seven Gold Rings: A Tale of Music and Math. We’re going to talk about music as well is set in ancient India and introduces the basics of binary numbers. Okay that’s a fun topic. It received multiple star reviews and is the winner of the 2021 Mathematical Book Prize for Grades three to five. You’re the author of a picture book Bracelets for Brothers, Where Three Oceans Meet, The Secret Code Inside You, I’ll Go and Come Back, masala chai, Fast and Slow, Your One and Only Heart, Summer is for Cousins and more. You can learn more about her at rajanilarocca.com.
We are going to pause for a commercial break and with that introduction we know that there’s a lot more to speak about. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you if you have a question or comment about the show. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the letter email@example.com. Now back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Rajani LaRocca and she is the author of many books as you heard but Red, White and Whole is a book that moved me greatly. On the cover one of the blurbs by Kathi Appelt says that it is truly one of the most heart-expanding stories ever. Congratulations on this book Rajani.
Rajani: Thank you so much. As I usually say when I talk about this book it’s the book of my heart and it means a great deal to me.
Diane: I can see why. There were a lot of primal situations going on. One of the questions you ask is what is a mother and is a mother just too much sometimes to even comprehend all the aspects of her, your parents in Red, White and Whole have emigrated from India. It’s spoken in the first person. It’s written as a diary which makes it so immediate and so compelling. I really had to blink at the end to find out that it was actually fictional but the parents, your parents in the book have left India and they have sacrificed a great deal of their well-being to have you go to private school. Your grandmother is with you, your Amma but now you’re on the spot. You are a kid but now you’re in private school. You realize that all the hopes of the family are resting with you to perform, to stay cleaved with Indian traditional values which include hard work and not getting interested in boys and lots of other things that a normal girl might do.
There’s a tension there because you feel this pressure of performing. That’s relatable to many out there. You have a kind of not guilt but kind of a sense of compulsion to do what’s expected of you but sometimes you’d like to just fit in. Talk a little bit if you would please about that tension between belonging to a culture of your origin and then wanting to be belonging to a culture of your acculturation, of your new home.
Rajani: Red, White and Whole as you mentioned is written in poetry. It is set in 1983 and although it is a work of fiction many of the emotional aspects of this book came right from my life. It’s set in 1983 and the main character Reha is 13 years old. I was 13 in 1983. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants. She feels torn between the world of her parents and their community and her friends at school where she is the only Indian American student. This is set in the 80’s so there’s a lot of 80’s kind of pop culture references. She wants to wear cool clothes. She wants to listen to pop music. She wants to go to a middle school dance like other teenagers but her parents and especially her mother or Amma as she calls her really feel like they have expectations and she has better things to do with her time.
This is very much a part of what life was like for me when I was growing up. I absolutely adored my parents. I still do. They raised me with so much love and so much understanding. They immigrated to this country because they felt like opportunities would be greater for them and for me here. They 100% wanted me to follow my interest and to be whoever I wanted to be but they also wanted very much for me to be close to the culture that I came from and kind of have their same traditions and values and hold them dear. That was in direct conflict sometimes with what I felt like I wanted to do especially as a teenager in terms of fitting in and just being a regular American kid. I think it was really important to me in this story that Reha like me, this was not, I don’t know how to explain this most of the tension and conflict in this story comes from within Reha although she feels like her parents have expectations that she’s not sure she can always meet. Most of the kind of issue is from what her expectations are of herself. That’s very much true.
You can still be loved and supported and care about the people around you, both your friends and your family and still feel conflict inside you. That’s really what I wanted to get at. That’s part of what I wanted to get in this story. I feel that writing it in first person in poetry means that you’re very much inside Reha’s head the whole time and hopefully understand that that’s where the real conflict is.
Diane: It’s a seminal book. She has this conflict when it’s time to go to the dance. She hems and hauls. She doesn’t even really know how to tell her parents that she wants to go to this dance. I wondered since you mentioned that you have the books with you even though you’re traveling. So kind of you to join us with the books. I wonder if you would mind reading a passage so that people can get an idea through your voice and what a passage sounds like. You could pick one, any of your favorites or I just happen to open to page 70 Hot and Cold because they were talking about this dance. The dance is so symbolic of the two different cultures like you’re really not supposed to want to go to a dance. You’re supposed to be focusing on your studies. Even though other kids in your neighborhood can’t even go to the private school that you go to. They want to go to the dance. Would you mind? I mean we’d be so honored Rajani if you could you read a passage from Hot and Cold if you wouldn’t mind.
Rajani: Of course. Hot and cold. When daddy gets angry he flashes hot like a flame that suddenly springs to life making you jump and pull back your hand. He shouts and we are quiet. Then after a few moments it is over and he’s forgotten what he shouted about. Amma doesn’t get angry often but when she does her anger is long lived and slow. A coldness in her voice, a kiss that’s too brief, a phrase murmured when you don’t expect it. She folds into herself and turns her face away like the new moon. There’s nothing to do but wait until she shows her light again. That is exactly what Amma does after I mention the dance.
Diane: So savory. It’s so lifelike witnessing the signals that a mom is giving off and trying to interpret them. I also, I guess at this point I just can’t resist asking you were you journaling along, all along during your life. When did you decide that this poetry which is such a lovely medium for Red, White and Whole. You can sit down and read this of a sitting and yet walk away with so much. I wondered when poetry entered your life. You were studying medicine. You were being a doctor. How did you decide that that was the right medium to talk about these internal tensions and these internal states of holding those tensions and questions?
Rajani: I loved to write when I was younger. I’m not a lifelong journal keeper. There’s something about the daily practice of keeping a journal that stressed me out. I would always start one and then never continue it but I did write during periods of my life. I wrote letters which I mean by hand which nobody does anymore now but I loved that. I basically it was kind of a journal. I would write to my cousins in India and two friends that I made um across the US. I went to a wonderful school from fourth grade to the end of high school Louisville Collegiate School in Louisville, Kentucky. I had some remarkable English and writing teachers there.
During the course of my education began to, I was infused with the sense that I had something to say and that writing was a wonderful way to say it even if I just wrote things to myself. When I was in college I was pre-med but I took a lot of liberal arts courses and I took some writing courses as well. I did a lot of kind of personal essay writing in college. I guess I didn’t really ever think that I would be a published author until much later in my life when I had been practicing medicine for a while, my kids were a little older and I had this drive to return to writing. I just took some classes. I took some online classes and then I met some people in person through in-person classes. I felt like I wanted to do this. Over a few years decided that I wanted to try to be published.
I just met this other wonderful community of writers. Once I met fellow writers they kept me going even though it was a long road to being published and not easy and filled with rejection but when it came to writing Red, White and Whole I had this idea for this book and it started uh with a metaphor and the metaphor is of blood and all that it means in terms of biology and family and community. I knew kind of the outline of what I wanted to say which was about this girl who was conflicted between two worlds but then whose mother gets really desperately ill and feels conflicted between those two worlds of the world of kind of regular people who are walking around being healthy and somebody who you love who is in the hospital and very sick.
I knew that this kind of tied into a Hindu myth of Savitri, who is a woman who basically meets the god of death Yama and saves her husband’s life. Reha in the story I knew thought about that story a lot and thought that if she could just be the perfect daughter, the daughter that her parents wanted her to be that she could save her mother’s life. All of these things came together as the idea for this book. I thought I think this needs to be in poetry because poetry is human experience that is boiled down to its essence. It is spare but it also holds a lot. Because this is a book for young people, I also knew that I wanted poetry with space on the page, allows space in somebody’s mind and heart to kind of understand and assimilate what is being said.
I said okay, I think this needs to be a novel in verse but then I didn’t know how to write a novel in verse. I had written some poetry but I didn’t know if I could write an entire novel in this form. As we all do when we’re interested in something I kind of read every novel and verse for young people that I could and learned a lot through that. Then just tried. This book I felt like that times like the story existed somewhere in the ether and picked me to write it but also there’s so many personal things in this story that came from my real life that I also had had to like stop myself sometimes because I would wake up at three in the morning and I’d have all these ideas for poems that I wanted to write. I would just make myself just write down the names of the poems or the topics and not actually write them then. This story poured out of me and I’m just grateful that um that I was able to bring it to the world.
Diane: I’m extremely grateful that you did as well that you do have something to say. I thought that the blood, the lineage, the heritage, the life-giving quality of blood. Then the final anecdote which was that you who when you skinned your knee very badly in the book were treated by a doctor. In that treating the doctor was very respectful of you even though you were a young girl explained everything that was happening in her in your procedure of bandaging and cleaning and infection prevention and all of it but the other aspect is that you fainted at the sight of blood.
Let’s go back Rajani. I mean this is just something that really got me because here’s your mother. She’s like working what would be like she’s working at like Quest Diagnostics or something. She’s drawing blood to determine diagnosis for people, life-saving activity and of itself but she is also professionally about blood. There you are you can’t even stand the sight of blood. How did you overcome that to become a medical doctor? We’ve got a couple minutes before the break but how did that happen?
Rajani: This is where the story of Reha in the book differs from my story. I did have that crazy scrape, that horrible scrape on my shin but I’ve never been scared of blood thank goodness but I’m telling you this is where Diane when you’re writing a book and people say that the character is kind of like on your shoulder or whispering in your ear that part of this character she came up with that. Like I was writing this poem about how she became interested in becoming a doctor and going into medicine. At the end of the poem this line where she fainted at the sight of blood. I was like wait a minute, what? Really? Then I realized well wow, Reha you like came up with a very big obstacle for yourself if you want to go into medicine.
Diane: But it’s a great one. Also it makes her vulnerable. Reha then is somebody who’s got a flaw and so therefore we can relate to her even more. The stories that have these embedded messages of bonding and individuation they come home much more readily because we identify with these great characters that you’ve created like Reha. I do think that we’ve just got a minute to go before the break but there’s so much symbolism. I’m thinking about a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Somehow the whole way that you wrote this book Red, White and Whole makes it so palatable. We’re with you on these pages of poetry. We will continue to speak with Rajani LaRocca when we come back from a break. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re with Rajani LaRocca and she is a primary care physician, practicing internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of really how many books Rajani?
Rajani: I have eight books that are out already and then I have about as many coming out in the next couple of years.
Diane: Wonderful. I mean you’re prolific. Your writing style is very direct. We get the message and it’s lyrical and beautiful. I think there’s just such a wonderful combination and balance of things going on. One of the other symbols that I found throughout the book, it was also in Where Three Oceans Meet and Red, White and Whole which I will read again actually. I just think it’s a wonderful point of reference to go through life is food. Now your family in Red, White and Whole is vegetarian. Like the big Thanksgiving where they kill the bird and you’re in America and you’re trying to assimilate or as best you can fit in.
These kinds of situations produce awkwardness. Your food is also it’s spicy. There’s a lot of preparation. There’s a lengthy preparation in terms of making curries for example or grinding spices. I wondered about the whole symbology of food now that people are going to medical school and becoming doctors like yourself. What about the symbol of food as a gesture of caring and love. When you get home there’s the snacks. You’re eating this beautifully prepared food. The book, it’s really transportive. I can almost sense it. How does that work in modern life and what’s that kind of evolution like in terms of furthering the culture and enduring the culture and having it endure?
Rajani: Oh so now you’ve asked me a question on one of my favorite topics. I think if you can’t tell food I think is in every single one of my books. I feel like so I love food but in Red, White and Whole in particular I focused on not just the fact that I love food and we love food from all kinds of different cultures and we love different tastes. I focus on the food that is prepared at home. To me it is sacred, the kind of meals that families share together. Then for many cultures this is kind of tradition that has been passed on for hundreds or thousands of years. What kinds of foods you eat when.
I remember when I lived in, when I would visit India and we would stay for the summer, my family there would eat what they were eating depended very much upon what was in season and what was fresh and available at the market. We would stay with my uncle and aunt and they would go to the market every morning and see what looked good. That’s what we would cook and eat together. In many ways the food is very simple so lots of vegetables and lentils and rice but also kind of flatbreads, chapapis were very common. Then really fun condiments to add to things that were also homemade.
My parents and I living in the US, my mom and later my dad cooked every day. We would not go to the market every day like they did in India but there were kind of certain things that we ate almost every day. One of them is mentioned in the book. It’s called rasam which is a kind of a spicy lentil soup so pretty thin but using yellow lentils typically but the equivalent would be red lentils or pink lentils that we have in the US. It’s a kind of tomato based broth. Then you would cook this and then at the end you would add this kind of seasoning. It usually involves a little bit of oil, black mustard seeds and a little bit of something called hangin which kind of added a special flavor. The popping of those mustard seeds are something that I just remember from almost every day of my childhood.
They symbolize in Red, White and Whole something really important to Reha not just um kind of food from home but her mother’s love and care in preparing all that food every day. There is a scene when the mom is in the hospital and Reha and her dad are making the rasam at home. She’s watching the mustard seed. She’s trying to make sure that she takes them off the flame before they burn. She fails and everything smells like burnt food. She feels like this is a disaster. It’s just symbolic of how much she misses her mom. That scene in the book is taken directly from my own life.
My mom didn’t have leukemia like the mom in the book but she was injured in a car accident. We had, my dad and I tried to make rasam one night and we totally burned the mustard seeds. I just felt like nothing was ever going to be the same. That moment was taken straight from my life and kind of put right into the book but even beyond that I think food in general reflects a culture so vividly. I really do feel like when I meet people from other parts of the world or even when we visit other parts of the world if you get to eat somebody else’s food and not just if you can do it not just restaurant food because that’s different. It’s kind of changed and transformed it into something more palatable for a wide range of people. You get to eat in somebody’s home and eat their home food you really get insight into who they really are.
Diane: Absolutely. It feels like a return to something when you, something very foundational when you are eating the food of your culture. I’m old enough that some of our family members are no longer with us but the big special event is to go back and my cousin and I recreating my grandmother’s recipes. It connects you to people. I mean food, it brings you to them and in burning the mustard seeds. I loved these scenes with the mustard seeds it also means that that person is basically irreplaceable. That symmetry is gone in your world if that person isn’t present.
I’m holding in my hands a book called Midsummer’s Mayhem also by Rajani. Rajani, I just want you to kind of walk us through. It’s also illustrated by your wonderful colleague from Bangalore. Walk us through this. Is this symbolic also of a return again to these cycles of nature. You go into the woods and you start to source food from there or how would you characterize it? I’ve not read it yet but I’m going to. It’s in my hot little hands.
Rajani: Well, I hope you enjoy it. Midsummer’s Mayhem is as you said before it is a Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Cupcake Wars basically. It’s about a girl who loves to bake. This family in this book is a little bit different. The family of this book resembles my family that I have with my husband. One of Mimi’s parents is Indian American that’s her mom and one of her parents is not. He’s white and that’s her dad. That is very similar to my family. I actually have a daughter named Mira who we call Mimi. It is a contemporary setting.
I should tell you that the illustrator for the book and the cover is not Archana. It is Rachel Suggs. She did just a wonderful job. I have different illustrators for almost every book. She did a fantastic job. Kind of this is a novel but there are kind of a few scenes that are illustrated. This book so of course it centers around food and baking in particular. It brings together several loves in my life which include food and baking, Shakespeare and kind of magic. I knew that I wanted to write a story that had something to do with kind of magic in the woods. I had a memory from when I was a kid where my dad didn’t travel that much but sometimes when he did he was gone for up to a week. I had an overactive imagination and I would think what if the person who returns isn’t actually my dad but somebody who looks exactly like him how would I know.
Diane: The imposter.
Rajani: I had like this these series of quiz questions that only my real dad would know the answer to. Luckily it was always my dad.
Diane: He passed the test.
Rajani: When I wrote this book I was like what would happen if there were a girl whose dad came back from a business trip and there was something actually wrong with him. How would she know? She was the only one who figured this out. Then I kind of went from there. I was like well why is she the only one who notices. Then I said oh maybe she’s one of many children and she’s the youngest. She’s the one that’s kind of waiting for him to return. Then what is actually wrong with him. Of course I thought oh it’s got to be something magical and maybe has something to do with the woods.
I live in Concord, Massachusetts where we are surrounded by conservation land. I was like oh definitely something magical would happen here. Then I thought of fairies because that’s who live in the woods. Then I said oh, there’s a link to Shakespeare’s play here a Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is actually a link between a Midsummer Night’s Dream and the family in my story. I felt like it all came together to be this kind of concoction of a novel.
Diane: A concoction like a wonderful recipe that comes together and makes this surprise kind of dish that you just can’t get enough of. There are going to be as you mentioned eight books coming out which I’m now desperately looking forward to. What’s next? What’s the very next one so we’ve got a couple minutes left. What can we anticipate from you Rajani?
Rajani: Yes, my next book is a picture book coming with Candlewick Press on March 29th. It’s called I’ll Go and Come Back. It is a story of a little girl who travels to India to see relatives that feels lonely and homesick but then her grandmother spends time with her. They play together. They cook and they each get together of course. She feels at home. Then the grandmother comes to visit the little girl in the US and feels lonely and homesick and the little girl helps her feel at home. The title I’ll Go and Come back it’s from a Tamil phrase. In Tamil we don’t say goodbye. You say I’ll go and come back so there’s always this promise of return.
Diane: I love it. You can also return to Rajani at her social media handles RajaniLaRocca, that’s on twitter and Instagram. I think somehow Rajani that this moment that you had as a young girl feeling like you were not enough or that you didn’t belong. It produced somehow a motivation to be sure that you were enough. That you did accomplish great things and you have accomplished great things. Thank you very much for being with us and sharing your insights.
Rajani: Oh thank you for having me Diane. This was lovely. I think the big message that I want to give all my readers is that ultimately we decide where we belong.
Diane: Absolutely and where home is and sometimes we carry it and sometimes it’s more than one place is it not?
Rajani: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Diane: It’s just a wonderful study in holding both worlds, non-binary situations as we know are so important in understanding and compassion. I felt the need to sit a little straighter and do better by becoming more diligent and even nerdy than I already was from reading your books. What great reads. Thanks to our engineers as well as Rajani. Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer Robert Giolino and most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and observe differences with respect. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.