Saanvi Agarwal’s journey of writing from inspirations to aspirations
Beaverton, Oregon. Young Saanvi Agarwal flips through another book — preparing for the annual Oregon Battle of The Books, a competition for young readers that challenges their comprehension of a designated book list. The beginning of her story starts here. The beginning of a proud Indian American. The beginning of a phenomenal, passionate writer.
Dumpling Days written by Grace Lin is about a young Taiwanese American girl staying in Taiwan for a month as she defines what it means to be Asian American. The novel is one of Agarwal’s greatest inspirations for writing.
“At the time [my mom] bought me Dumpling Days and I totally judged it by its cover because it’s this plain blue cover and I was like, ‘this seems boring, I’m not going to read it.’ And then I went to India. So on the long plane ride, my mom must have shoved between like my other books or something, and I ended up reading it, and absolutely fell in love with it.” Agarwal says.
During the time period, many novels, especially ones targeted for young teens, were written with predominantly white characters. Representation was rare so Dumpling Days was one of the first novels in which Agarwal felt seen.
“It was a book that actually mirrored a character that was like me. Because I was going to India for like the first time [since I could not remember the trip when I was six.] It was a perfect match, to my situation. So, [there’s] a lot of sentimentality. I think a lot of people’s struggle with being an immigrant.” Agarwal shares.
Agarwal has had her own fair share of struggles being Indian American which is something that is also reflected in her writing.
“I actually didn’t grow up in California. I grew up in Oregon which is a wonderful place to stay, but there’s not a lot of Asian Americans. So, where I went to school, my elementary school there was one other Indian girl and my entire, like all fives, like sixth grades, actually,
I wouldn’t say I was super heavily discriminated against, but there was always that barrier because nobody really understood my culture or my traditions.” Agarwal says.
Fremont, California. Agarwal, a current Junior at American, has made some big accomplishments during the quarantine. Not only has she founded an organization to help people receive educational opportunities called Faye, but she has written a novel titled Tempestuous.
Her novel, inspired by her own experiences, tells the story of “Ishanee Dalaal [who] learns that she has a stomach tumor at 11 am alone in a white hospital.” The major themes in her novel are driven by Agarwal’s own personal opinions and thoughts. Her decision to write about terminal illness was very personal.
“I, myself, have never had the scenario of the character with her terminal tumor situation, but I definitely was a kid that was like in the hospital for a while when I was younger. I’ve been injured a lot, so I wanted to kind of showcase what it was like to be in those kind situations because there’s a lot of kids that go out there. I had close friends who were also in situations where they were actually facing serious illnesses.I wanted to showcase a realistic story. What’s it like when you’re actually faced with almost impending death like the probability of dying?” says Agarwal.
Agarwal also shares how her novel is different compared to other possible young adult novels about terminal illness through scraping the bucket list trope and focusing more on the negative issues that patients may face.
“It’s really raw in the sense that most families can’t necessarily afford to take their kids to go see the entire world before they die. There’s a lot of parents who can’t even afford treatment and stuff. So the story really delves into the realism of that. Some of it draws on my experiences and my friends’ experiences.” Agarwal says.
Agarwal has this ability to portray authentic emotions through her writing as noticed by her 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Christensen.
“I think she can really do a great job at giving other people’s perspectives that I don’t think she’s ever gone through something like that. She has this empathy that’s so amazing, where she can kind of feel how other people might handle situations, and I kind of love that where I feel like she takes her personality out of it and gives us a character which is so hard to do, especially at any age, let alone [at like] 16.” Ms. Christensen shares.
Furthermore, another major theme in her novel is identity. Keerti Varada (11), a writer and Agarwal’s friend and beta reader, notes how through Agarwal’s writing, her identity of being Indian American is expressed and shared with her readers.
“I’m talking about language and origin and small things like food and ethnic dress and stuff like that. The kind of struggle between speaking different languages when at home and when [at] school or eating different foods. I think that’s something a lot of us struggle with no matter where you’re from, that balance between home and the rest of the world, and you want to connect with your culture, but at the same time you don’t want to be seen as different, and you want to be able to blend with friends. So that kind of battle between self identity, national identity and ethnic identity was a big one [in our writing]. Saanvi and I both were trying to come to terms with our own identity through our writing.” Varada says.
Another reason that Agarwal chose to write about identity is as Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
“Part of the reason why I write about Indian culture is because I don’t like the way that people sometimes think of it. I think that is, those are like my two main inspirations when it comes to writing is mental illnesses, that’s another one that I love to write about, but [also] bridging between stereotypes and reality. This is what teenagers are really like, this is what Asian Americans are really like, this is what mental illness, this is what romance is really like.”
Unknown City, Unknown State, Unknown Country. The ultimate future for Agarwal is full of opportunities. While she does not plan to major in writing but rather something in STEM, Agarwal hopes to continue writing and is already making steps to make her dreams a reality.
“I’m actually currently working to publish. For me, writing is really a really big passion and something that I probably want to do as a career in the future. So getting started out is a good idea for me. It’s something that’s gonna be helpful for my overall career in the future.” Agarwal says.
Audio of the interview: