Sheetal Sheth is an acclaimed actress known for her provocative performances in a wide range of memorable roles on film and television. She has starred in more than 19 feature films and many TV shows and has earned a loyal following.
I spoke to Sheth about her first book for children, “Always Anjali.”
Anjali is a little girl with a great big heart. When Anjali gets a bike on her birthday, she and her two best friends are excited to get matching license plates with their names on it. But Anjali can’t find her name. There’s Amy, Betsy, Chris, and many more, but no Anjali. To make matters worse, she gets bullied for her different name, and is so upset she demands to change it. When her parents refuse and she is forced to take matters into her own hands, she learns to celebrate who she is and carry her name with pride.
Is the story of “Always Anjali” based on a real-life incident?
The story is based on many real-life incidents that have happened to me, my friends, my friends’ kids, and so many people that I have met over the years.
With your acting background, what made you write a storybook?
Telling stories is what I love to do. I’ve just been doing it through a different medium. But in this case, my purpose crossed disciplines organically. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was dismayed at the lack of representation in kid’s literature. I didn’t see enough children’s books that featured kids of color just living their life. Most of the ones I found were centered around a cultural holiday or an event. I thought we are never going to feel like we are part of the fabric of the mainstream unless we are the heroes of stories where we are doing ‘normal’ things.
What made you pick the name ‘Anjali?’ Why not ‘Sheetal?’ (though both are beautiful names)
Ha! I wasn’t going to use my name! That just didn’t feel right. However, I did go through other names before I selected Anjali. I wanted a classic South Asian name. I wanted a name that started with an ‘A.’ I wanted something melodic with the right meaning… there were many factors and I think Anjali is perfect.
Are you working on other ideas for a future book?
Yes, this is meant to be a series and I have ideas for the next few carved out and a rough draft of the second one. I just need time to write!
What is one inspiring message you would like to share with your readers?
Don’t be afraid of talking to our kids or each other about anything. We can handle anything if discussed with love, grace and respect. Our future depends on it.
You can learn more about Sheth and her amazing projects by visiting her website.
In the context of history, the written word enables us to see life as one did, understand the experiences of others, and contextualize our past within our present selves.
Published in 2021, the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)’s well-researched debut anthology, “Our Stories,” was written by 64 scholars, activists, authors, and members of the South Asian community. The anthology is a compassionate and anecdotal revival of our history, identity, and political standing in a nation with histories of welcomed immigration juxtaposed against deep beliefs of racism. Each story presents the promised freedoms of the new nation paired with its challenges and differences.
“Our Stories” explores the current South Asian American cultural climate, detailing accounts that had lasting impacts. These include the September 11 attacks, Black Lives Matter protests, and voting patterns from recent elections. A majority of the anthology focuses on understanding our past. The first account of South Asians on North American soil dates to the late 1700s, when many Pakistani and Bangladeshi men entered the land as laborers aboard steamships. Although the presence of South Asian Americans was far and few until the 1900s, their strife is important to learn about, share, and remember.
Before the civil rights movement, South Asian American history was fraught with the fight for citizenship and a battle with unbridled racism. Take the Bellingham riots, where South Asian mill workers were attacked and made to feel unwelcome in their place of work, elements of which are still present in today’s America. Take Kala Bagai’s story, and her reality when her husband took his own life in 1928, seven years after receiving his naturalization. After his citizenship was revoked, he was also refused a visa to return to India, and ended his life in despair at the paradox of his reality. Raising three children whom she put through college herself, Kala Bagai’s harrowing story is one to remember, especially during a time when women were celebrating the chance to vote. Her voice was not heard. The early ’90s saw xenophobia, culminating in similar stories and despite some improvements since the 20th century, citizenship status is still a source of financial stress, with its purgatory limbos and unpredictable results.
South Asian Americans can immigrate to the country today due to a combination of the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act and the Hart-Celler Act (1965), two key policies passed that welcomed the wave of highly-skilled labor, especially in demanding areas of information technology, engineering, and science. Beneficial immigration laws have been driven by the hard work of South Asians and other minority groups in North America.
Apart from the tumultuous stories surrounding the hardships of immigration, “Our Stories” introduces some nuanced positives of the South Asian American experience. From observing the allure that Niagara Falls has on South Asian immigrants, to the famous South Asian American literary writers including Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri, we can draw patterns between American culture combined with South Asian influence. Even the gradual growth of yoga as a practice in the West is explored — from the time of Swami Vivekananda, who is critical for bringing Vedanta to the West, to Rishi Singh Grewal, one of America’s first Indian-born yoga teachers. Originally taken as a mystical and magical practice, yoga has become more postural and meditative as it continues to spread across the United States.
We also have detailed accounts of impressive South Asian American women in history who helped break boundaries and create possibilities for not only South Asians, but for all women of the time. Dr. Anandibai Joshee, the first-ever South Asian American woman to receive a medical degree in the late 1800s, provided medical services for women in India who would rather die than accept medical assistance from male physicians. Pandita Rambai was another critical social reformer from the 1800s, whose hardships during childhood, drove her to provide a better life for women in India and around the globe.
Covering real-life narratives from the 1700s to the present day, ‘Our Stories’ is a must-read for every South Asian immigrant and descendant living in America. Understanding our history is critical while living in a country where racial identity is often both appropriated and appreciated. As South Asians continue to inhabit new geographies, we are entwining the history of the past with the happenings of the present, and the impact of that ancestral and spatial legacy will shape our future for generations to come.
You can purchase a copy of “Our Stories” through this link. Support SAADA by donating to the organization here.
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.