Written by: Beth Fred, Special to CC2K
With her novel indie girl, Kavitha Daswani accomplished a feat I was beginning to think impossible with her: publishing a mainstream YA novel with a non-white protagonist.
Indie girl focuses on the life of an American-born Indian girl who aspires to be a fashion reporter and struggles with the balance of what it means to be American, what it means to be Indian and what it means to be Indira Konnipuddi. (Indira is the birth name her parents chose for her in hopes she would be like Indira Ghandi). The balance she strikes is “indie.” Indira calls herself Indie, because it sounds less ethnic and “cooler.” I like “Indie” to describe Indira because in a lot of ways she is much more independent than the other girls in the Indian community she lives in and really even than the other girls at school. (Her fashion obsession doesn’t drive her to an eating disorder the way it does the girls at school).
Most of the Indian girls in the LA suburbs dress in traditional Indian attire and make plans and career choices their parents would find acceptable. Indie stumbled upon a fashion encyclopedia in the library when she was eleven years old and had been determined to succeed in the “silly” career choice of a fashion reporter since. She mixes Indian style clothing with American clothing to create looks she finds unique and fashionable. Her parents would prefer that she would just wear the traditional clothing the way they were intended to be worn. I love the way she mixes and matches the clothes. I think it’s another example of how she succeeds very well at living two cultures at once. Her parents are Indian, but she was born here. But she hasn’t forgotten that she is Indian.
The story begins to unfold after Indie takes a job babysitting for the founder and editor of a fashion magazine that outsells Vogue, Aralyn Taylor. This woman is egocentric, somewhat racist, and completely unthankful when the sixteen year old Indie saves her magazine. Indie gives Aralyn two big stories. As an insider in the Indian community, Indie discovers that an American actress is buying her wedding dress directly from the women in a village of India who would have been paid in rupees to make it so some European designer could sell it for pounds. The magazine sells were beginning to stagger, so Indie gives Aralyn this story in hopes of gaining an internship, since she has been very reliable in taking of the Taylor’s son. Aralyn runs the story, receives the praise and never bothers to say thank you. This happens a second time when Indie pretends not to know English so that she can listen to a European actress talk to her agent and reveal yet another cover page story for Aralyn. This time she says thank you, but shows no other grace and without this story she would have been unable to close a deal her magazine desperately needed.
In exchange for Indie being allowed to travel to Italy with Aralyn, she promises her father she will spend the rest of her summer in India doing volunteer work and focus on more important matters. She does go to India but it seems unclear as to whether she will really give up her dreams of being a fashion reporter, and I hope she doesn’t.
I love this book because as Indie balances trying to uphold her obligations to her culture and family with wanting to be a strong, popular, successful American girl, it shows what it is to grow up in two worlds at the same time when those worlds often contradict each other and inevitably collide. Also, it shows the cruelty of stereotypes in our culture without being flamboyantly extreme. Very early in the book, Aralyn tells Indie that she can babysit for her because “people from your part of the world make good domestics.” Indie never misses a day of babysitting, and she stops what she is doing to show up on demand. She is good enough to be household help but she’ll never be good enough to work for the magazine, in spite of her dedication to the Taylor family and the fact that she is the only person in L.A. who can put up with the brat baby and his psycho mother. Her father is a successful neurosurgeon and he tries to explain to her that she can be a doctor or engineer, because that is how Americans see Indians, but she can’t write, or work in the media because that’s not how we think of Indians.
That being said, there were some things that bothered me about this book. There are some grammatical errors that make comprehension almost impossible in spots. The writing was over-simplified and there wasn’t enough attention to detail. The writing (style, not content) reminded me of Rachel Cain’s Morganville Vampires in that the reading level seems to be at the 7th or 8th grade level, but the storyline is intriguing though not completely fleshed out. However, I think that the issues in indie girl are interesting reading material for an adult, provided that the writing style doesn’t bore you first. I did get bored in places, but overall I’m glad I read it because I haven’t seen anything that conquers these issues quite so well before.
If you’re interested in the subject matter, you’ll enjoy this book. However, if you’re not the writing style isn’t enough to be in itself engaging. I am interested in the subject matter and I think the issues addressed are important, so I’d recommend it, if for no other reason than it gives the reader some interesting things to think about.