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A Catalyst for Social Change

Mar/10/2024 / by Melanie Fourie

Dr. Puja Shah is a dentist and author

South Asian woman with dark hair wearing earrings and necklace with white blouse
Photo Courtesy: Puja Shah

Known for her debut award-winning novel “For My Sister,” Dr. Puja Shah has an eclectic career trajectory. Shah, holding a degree in dental medicine from Tufts University, pivoted to dedicate herself to writing, a passion stemming from youth. “For My Sister” recently earned acclaim, winning the 2023 Literary Titan Fiction Book Award, the 2022 International Impact Book Award, and the 2022 American Writing Award for Social Change. 

The novel chronicles the harrowing journey of twin sisters Amla and Asya, trafficked into Sonagachi (Asia’s largest red-light district). Human trafficking is a pressing and often overlooked concern, and Shah’s work plays a role in bringing this issue to the fore. Join us in this exclusive interview as Shah shares insights into her background, commitment to social change, and the transformative power of storytelling.

Your background and upbringing seem to have played a significant role in shaping your identity. How do you think your early experiences, being born premature to immigrant parents in Queens, influenced your journey?

Education was always important to my parents, and writing has always been my passion. As a first-born child, passion was not something we spoke about in an immigrant family. There were three career tracks that my parents found worthy—the ones that got them (and immigrants like them) out of India and to the U.S. after the Immigration Act was amended, post-civil rights movement. You could either be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. For the years prior to my transition into a fiction author, I worked in healthcare with a large corporation and the state government. 

It was almost the opposite of the creative path I am on now! There were moments I wished I had followed my gut instinct as a teenager, as I always knew I was a writer at heart but did not have the courage to pursue it back then. As a first-generation immigrant daughter in Indian culture, I opted for the safer career option, but eventually learned you cannot escape who you are at your core. I think I needed to go through that journey to get to where I am now.

Being a premature child that made it no matter what doctors said shaped me, as well as by reminding myself to find the courage I knew I had all along to finally pursue my dreams. I truly believe it was all meant to be the way it happened.

Winning numerous poetry and short story awards in your youth must have been a transformative experience. Can you share a specific moment or piece of work from that time that you believe had a profound impact on your perspective as a writer and advocate for change?

The first award I won was for a poem I wrote in elementary school about looking beyond a rainbow for gold and looking beyond the struggle to achieve your dreams. Growing up as a New Yorker shaped so much of my advocacy heart for the social change I knew was needed in society. As the child of an immigrant and in my travels abroad, I saw real-life struggles that I knew I wanted to speak up for through my writing. 

As an avid reader exploring poetry slams and book readings in New York City during your teen years, what authors or works have left a lasting impression on you and continue to inspire your writing today?

In those years of New York City book readings and poetry slams, I was able to listen intently to other cultures, views, and topics, which allowed me to develop a unique empathy and understanding of humanity that I captured in my own stories and writing, even to this day. Some of the many authors that spoke to my heart in those early days include Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz.

Today, I find inspiration in writers that fuel my creativity, such as Rick Rubin, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz, as well as in authors whose fiction writing I admire, such as Lisa See, Gregory David Roberts, and Abraham Varghese. 

The blend of east and west has always fascinated you. How do you integrate this cultural fusion into your writing, particularly in “For My Sister,” and what messages do you hope readers take away regarding cultural diversity and understanding?

I believe that there are light and shadows in all parts of life, including culture. My favorite parts of the beautiful Indian culture I have inherited from my ancestors are the introspective musings of Vedic knowledge, the rich and vibrant colors of holidays, and the meaning behind everything. Every spice in our flavorful dishes has a healing purpose, and every sound in a song has a vibrational meaning.

As a girl, I wanted to dance like the Bollywood stars, wear saris like my mother, and buy vegetables from street markets like my father did as a child. 

Yet it is important to question the ways in which culture may not serve the highest good, and if so, what do we do about it? I questioned the adapted rituals that excluded the girl child and the customs that devalued her existence. Turning inward from the deep reverence for eastern meditation I developed through the years, I started to understand how important it was to see what is relevant to humanity and to shine a light on both the shadows and the light of my cultural heritage. 

Transitioning from dentistry to pursuing your passion for writing is a significant shift. Can you elaborate on the moment or realization that empowered you to follow your heart and embrace a different path?

Becoming a mother was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. As I stepped into motherhood, I was often challenged with what values I wanted to pass down to my kids and how to instil them. I started to realize that the only way my children would understand the importance of courage, individuality, intuition, giving back, self-love, and all the beautiful things that stem from following your inner voice was if I modelled those qualities myself. This was difference from living for someone else’s idea of what my life should look like.

If I embraced the truth of what I knew and lived in it, my kids could one day know how to believe in themselves no matter what anyone else says.

“For My Sister” addresses the sensitive and crucial issue of human trafficking. What inspired you to delve into this topic, and how do you hope your novel contributes to raising awareness and inspiring social change?

During my public health career, I spent volunteer days in Uganda and India with inspiring nonprofit organizations. I learned how empowering girls with education can empower a whole village.

When I started writing the story of Asya and Amla years ago, it became clear to me that it was more than just a story. I wanted to share the voice of the underrepresented girls in India and echo the voice of trapped female voices everywhere. Doing the research that accompanied this fictional narrative, I came to see and feel the pain and anguish two girls experienced because they were abandoned and betrayed. I learned how connected and concerned I was about the plight of these two girls.

Amla and Asya in my novel represent girls around the world, including ones here in the U.S., who do not deserve second-class citizenship. They are identical twins, yet they are quite different. Asya follows the rules, Amla breaks them, and so the book is told from both perspectives. I have a sister, and I loved building this relationship. Their differences are duality, as every single girl I think possesses. Society wants us to follow rules as women—what’s expected of us. And we all have the side of us that wasn’t born that way—the side that wants to explore the world and live our dreams.

I imagined my own mother’s childhood and what would have happened had her parents not valued education for her. As a mother myself now, I worry for all girls. Girls are throbbing with ideas and joy. Girls who love to play sports or read like I did as a girl. My hope is that when people read my novel, they will have more awareness of this topic and talk more. They can share with others the many stories of missing girls everywhere and even be inspired to help the advocacy efforts to eradicate the trafficking of girls and women. 

How has the recognition from awards influenced your perspective on storytelling and the impact you aim to make through your work?

It is easy to turn the other person away when a conversation or topic gets difficult. I am grateful for this recognition for my art and the message I want to empower society with. I believe art with purpose is motivated by compassion, and anything that stems from the seeds of compassion is how true change can occur.

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