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On the Complexity of Human Stories: A Q&A with Veera Hiranandani

by the Brightly Editors

The Night Diary cover illustration and design: Kelley Brady

Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, a historical novel for middle grade readers that follows 12-year-old Nisha and her family’s difficult journey as refugees seeking out a new home during the Partition of India in 1947. We were thrilled to chat with Veera about the historical and personal inspiration for The Night Diary, the quiet strength that Nisha presents throughout the book, and how fictional stories can help to highlight both the collective and individual experiences of human life.

The Night Diary is a Brightly Book Club for Kids pick. Click here to discover book-inspired activities and tips for discussion, and join in on the reading fun.

What inspired you to write a middle grade novel about the Partition of India?

I have a family connection to this piece of history. My father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition in 1947. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up — that several weeks after India became independent from the British and split into two countries, Pakistan and India, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother boarded a train in Pakistan and made it over the new border. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.

They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. Many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned about Partition in school, an event in our global history that displaced over 14 million people. It’s estimated that one to two million people died during this time. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around Partition, but it took me a long time before I felt confident enough to do so.

How did Nisha first develop into a character for you? Is she in any way like you?

Nisha is a lot like me. I was always a quiet, shy observer growing up, though Nisha’s inability to speak to people outside her home is more debilitating than it was for me. But, like Nisha, I also had questions about the world around me and didn’t always feel brave enough to ask them. I actually first started writing the book with a male main character. I think I was imagining my father as a young boy, but I felt too close to the real story and it wasn’t becoming my own. So I sort of moved the male character over, he became Amil, and I created Nisha. That’s when the book really took off in my mind. As a fiction writer, I take the seeds of what I know, plant them in a character, and then the character blossoms into her or his own version of whatever inspired me.

Nisha doesn’t know how to express herself to others, so much so that she eventually stops speaking entirely. What would you say to kids who may be in stressful situations and struggling to speak up?

Sometimes silence is more powerful than noise. Silence also makes people uncomfortable, which is why it is common for kids who are quiet to be relentlessly encouraged to speak up. As adults, we do want to encourage kids to feel like they have a voice and be able to use it, but you can be quiet and still advocate for yourself. As a shy kid, I was always asked to be louder and talk more. I didn’t feel valued for being quiet — that it might provide me with an important space or enable me to observe or listen better.

Nisha’s quietness is a big part of her, and it eventually becomes the only way she can feel control in a world that is unraveling around her. It is an expression of social anxiety which is difficult for her, but there is an aspect of strength in quietness that I don’t think is discussed enough. I think that kids who are quiet for whatever reason — whether it’s just how they came into the world, because of social anxiety, or because of a more specific reaction to trauma — deserve to be respected. A person who isn’t saying something is still saying something.

Nisha finds solace in cooking. Was her love of food inspired by your own?

Yes, I also find solace in eating and cooking. I love trying new dishes and food from all kinds of cultures. When I travel, my number one goal is usually trying the local favorites. When I was growing up, food was a place I could connect to both sides of my family. Sometimes when I was with my mother’s side of my family, I didn’t feel Jewish “enough” or on my father’s side I didn’t feel Hindu or Indian “enough,” but eating and cooking the traditional cultural dishes I grew up with was a comfort zone for me, a place where I didn’t feel on the outside of things. I started cooking pretty young and it has always been an empowering and creative space for me. My daily cooking is not very inspired. It’s often just about getting dinner on the table, but when I do have more time, I really love making food for people.

Nisha’s story is told through letters to her deceased mother. What made you decide on this particular format?

Because Nisha has a hard time speaking to others, I felt like the version of herself that she explores in her diary would be so new for her, and compelling for the reader to watch unfold. Nisha would be expressing herself in a way she never could before and her diary becomes a place where she explores her true thoughts, her identity, and her wish and longing for a mother, all with a sense of freedom that comes from writing in a personal diary. I wondered if the constraint of the diary format would be difficult for the narrative, but ultimately I felt excited by those boundaries. At times, I had to make a leap for the reader and include a more complete picture of the story than an actual 12-year old might write in her diary, but I tried to stay true to her voice.

Can you talk a bit about the refugee experience you depict in The Night Diary? What conversations were you hoping to spark with readers around this topic?

I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the connections I was making to the current global refugee crisis when I started the book several years ago. I was mainly focused on those who became refugees during Partition. But as I wrote, I started to think more about the connections that could be made.

In the novel, I tried to create a specific, individual experience underneath all the labels Nisha and her family live under, including being a refugee. When people get labeled, even if the label is useful or functional, it still doesn’t express the unique experience underneath. There isn’t just one refugee experience and I hope that readers will come away understanding that this is also only one fictional story of Partition and doesn’t represent the entire experience. There are many complex human stories under any label. I would love that idea to be part of the conversation, whether it be about religion, race, or any labeled group in society.