Author Preeti Chhibber on bringing Kamala Khan to life

2 years ago / by Pratika Yashaswi
YA author, speaker, and freelance writer Preeti Chhibber
YA author, speaker, and freelance writer Preeti Chhibber

Preeti Chhibber is the first South Asian-American woman to have written Ms Marvel aka Kamala Khan, a South Asian-American, Muslim character headlining a much-anticipated series estimated to release by November this year.

Chhibber is a prolific writer and has been writing for Marvel since 2018. She’s versatile, and has to her credit several books, comics and articles for all kinds of audiences: young children, teenagers and adults. Apart from writing, she also runs a podcast called “Desi Geek Girls” with her friend Swapna Krishna. Though she is pure geek, she believes that anyone who watches and loves a Marvel/DC movie or story can be referred to as a geek.

SEEMA sat down for a chat with Chhibber about Ms Marvel and the wonderful, growing South Asian community of writers. It’s immediately obvious that Chhibber is a kind and grounded person who is extremely articulate and graceful. She gave us much to think about and it was a pleasure to chat with her.

How did you get started writing for Marvel and DC?

I started writing for Marvel in 2018. They were looking for someone to write a tie-in book to the movie “Spider Man: Far from Home.” A friend of mine who writes for Disney told me they were looking for somebody who can turn around projects pretty fast and that it was a secret project. I sent over some samples of my work and they went “Yes, okay, we want you to write this book.” And that’s how it happened. It was very fast and very overwhelming because at that point, I had only written one thing professionally in terms of fiction. But then I got to write this tie-in story.

Then I got a literary agent, and Scholastic reached out to me about writing “Avengers Assembly” in the spring of 2019. Now I get to write some of my favorite characters.

Do you find it weird that Kamala Khan is a Pakistani Muslim but her first name is Kamala?

That’s not something I would nitpick at because she was created with such love and care by Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson, both of whom are Muslim and know that.

Also, she’s so much more than the pieces that make up her identity, you know what I mean? She knows she’s not “normal,” and speaks very clearly to this idea that, the world is telling you that you’re one thing, but you want to be another. And how uncomfortable you are when you live in this space between identities, which I think is who she is. That’s why she’s so relatable to so many people.

What’s your favorite thing about Ms Marvel?

When she premiered, they called her “the new Peter Parker,” who’s my absolute favorite superhero of all time.

Also all she wants to do is be really good at what she’s doing. But life is so hard: she’s a teenager, she doesn’t have full agency, she makes decisions and she messes up, but she still continues to try to be and do good. All within the guise of being a first-generation Pakistani-American kid.

Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal by Preeti Chhibber

There’s a relatability there, to the fish out of water, dealing with a hyphenated identity and how to kind of exist as an American. And for a South Asian-American person, those two identities sometimes don’t speak to each other. So all of those things are so relatable and easy to connect to for so many kids in this country.

As South Asian Americans, our history in this country is pretty fraught. They don’t necessarily teach it here, but we mass immigrated after they got rid of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1965. Then, there was a boom of immigration from South Asia. A lot of us are growing up at the same time and existing in this space at the same time. We’re dealing with a lot of similar issues. And I think Ms. Marvel represents a lot of that for us.

Tell us more about your podcast, Desi Geek Girls!

My friend Swapna Krishna and I wanted a place where we could just unapologetically enjoy things. It’s just us hanging out with each other and talking about the TV shows we like. If we don’t like something, we don’t talk about it. We pick things that we really enjoy and have in depth conversations with each other through the lens of us both being first generation born Indian-American women, and use a feminist lens. And we don’t have to explain perspective in that way to each other. It’s very easy when you don’t have to code-switch. You just have someone at the other end of the microphone who just gets it. It’s not work; we’re having fun.

And if people enjoy listening to it, then that’s awesome. It is very nice when we get notes from other South Asian-American listeners who say stuff like “I didn’t think there was a space for me in geek culture.” Or “I didn’t think this is something I was allowed to like.” Or “I didn’t think that I was welcome in this space.” So that’s always nice.

You have a really diverse range of work that you do: You have a podcast, the YA novels, comics AND you write for all ages. Where does all this creativity come from?

I think part of it is that my mom always encouraged us to read very widely. It was never: “These are the right kinds of books. These are the wrong kinds of books.”
It was: “As long as you’re reading!” So I always read everything. I have a very wide palette of interests. Maybe the only thing I don’t enjoy is horror. I’m a fan of being a fan. I just liked things. And so I try to bring that joy to everything that I create.

Part of it is also being a millennial in America. We have this mindset of a constant hustle and productivity, which isn’t super healthy, but it means so many of us have found a way to monetize our interests.

What’s the South Asian writers’ community like in the US?

It’s great. I’ve watched it grow actually – the children’s side, at least.

It used to be that I could count the number of books by South Asian authors in the children’s space on one hand. Now, I can’t keep up with how many books are being published by South Asian and South Asian-American writers. And it’s amazing and I love it so much. There’s Samira Ahmed, who’s taking over Miss Marvel. [She will be writing a new series titled “The Magnificent Ms. Marvel”] She was early on one of the first South Asian YA authors I got to meet and I’m so glad that she exists. Sona Charaipotra, Nisha Sharma, Aisha Saeed – there are so many wonderful people. And we all make sure that we are supporting one another. And we try to be conscious of what is happening in the community and know what books are coming out. We lift each other up and lift each other’s voices up. In 2019, before the pandemic, my friend Nisha set up a writer’s retreat. And there were 10 South Asian women, and it was awesome. It was just really nice.