Illustrating the Vagaries of Culture with “For the Love of Laxmi”

Feb/14/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi
Author Bijal Shah

For immigrant daughters, Bijal Shah’s “For the Love of Laxmi” is a must-read. We dive into it in an exclusive interview with the author

They always say, watch how you talk to young children, because you never know what might make it to their inner voice when they grow up. And this holds especially true for women. What happens when a young woman is growing up in one country, but has her roots in another? What are the things she learns and unlearns about herself and her place in her world as she blossoms into adulthood?

Bijal Shah answers this with her book, “For the Love of Laxmi: Everyday Desi Biases and the Imprints They Leave.” A relatable, light-hearted, illustrated read, it’s intended to be a conversation starter among families, with one reader even remarking that she hopes to see it in a therapist’s office someday.

As women, we’ve all been subject to the double standards at home: we don’t get away with the things our brothers do, and can’t stay out as late. We’ve heard our mothers say “If you don’t oil your hair, it’ll all fall off!” or that nobody will want to marry us, for many strange reasons that have nothing to do with us.

Turns out, Shah’s heroine hears these things, too. Through Laxmi’s inner dialogue, we witness how words can shape a child’s identity and insecurities.

“For the Love of Laxmi” is a must-read among must-reads that center South Asian girlhood, yet appeals beyond that culture. It belongs in the bookshelf of every family home, and every young girl deserves to have a book that can speak to her experiences.

Like much of Shah’s target audience, we probably never had one of these as girls. And now, it’s time to share it – and Laxmi – with our daughters.

Get the book on Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble, BAM, and Mascot

What was your childhood and adolescence like?

I was in India until I was 10, mostly in Mumbai and the summers in Nadiad (a city in Gujarat, India). And then, when my family moved to the States, I grew up in Maryland, moved to Seattle for a few years post-college, and finally settled in New York.

My childhood was interesting. I am the oldest child on both sides of the family, so I was loved and cherished immensely, but that also came with the pressure of setting the example, of many expectations, of setting the tone, etc. I always say,  I grew up with a ton of moms around me because of my masis, chachi, and bua.  I was at most of their weddings, I saw them grow up, become mothers, etc. But what that also meant was when I was growing up, I had more than just my parents telling me what to be, which was difficult at that time.

Now, all of these stories and dynamics make a fantastic story, and also fabulous to look back and say, I knew these people, they were in their early 20s and figuring out their identities in a world that wasn’t so empowering for them. I look at them with so much pride for everything they are.

Who did you have in mind as your target, ideal reader while you were writing this book? How are you hoping for this book to be used?

For me, the ideal target reader is someone in their mid-30s and after. The book was created with the idea of being able to reflect on similar moments in your life and seeing their impact on you and your environment. With that said, I think the laughable moments are easily identifiable for anyone in their teens and above as well.

I hope the book is used as a conversation starter among many generations. I want to see a daughter bring up a moment to their mother, I want to see a grandmother share a similar experience that happened to her in her childhood. I want to see a brother say he never noticed these, and regrets he didn’t. I want these moments to be relatable, laughable, and a conversation starter that can lead to a mindful change in how we say things.

For the Love of Laxmi

Why did you choose to go the route of illustration, as opposed to any other artistic medium, such as photography or collage?

I love this question because this was such a big thought process during the creation. After I explored a lot of mediums, I kept coming back to the illustrations style — maybe because it felt like I could see each reader place themselves in that room.

Whether it was with the chakri (Indian snack) on the dining table, or the “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” calendar, or the grandma with her bangles. I wanted readers to find that moment that resembled their home. I wanted readers to place themselves there, and I don’t think anything could’ve been as arbitrary and as placeable as an illustration.

It has the perfect balance of driving imagination without certainty of character—like a photograph tells you it’s a story about someone else, where an illustration tells you it’s a story, but you decide who those characters are.

What have readers been saying about the book so far?

The early response has been heartwarming: one reader’s 4-year-old daughter saw the book and assumed it was a children’s book, and the mother asked her what the book was about, and her response was, “ours.” And that meant so much so hear and just seeing how much representation matters.

We hear the book is part of a series. What is your vision for that?

We are very close to finishing the content of Part Two. The next part is about Laxmi navigating the outside world, her college experience, how some remarks stayed with her over the years and impacted her decisions. You’ll see some new remarks that you didn’t see in Part One, that Laxmi remembers as she is making important decisions about her future.

Part Three is about her now identifying how these remarks impacted her, her taking ownership, and her drawing boundaries.

My vision is to turn this into an animated series: short animated moments for the family to see together.

What took you from “It would be nice to have a book like this” to creating Laxmi’s character and turning it into a story?

It was a very personal journey. First, I was impacted by many similar moments in life, and then I saw similar things happen to my cousins. Then, I witnessed how that affected them, their behaviors, lashing out moments, personalities, and insecurities. And then, over the years, friends and I shared these moments, and I saw the same in their stories.

And I genuinely believe the root of our insecurities or egos always lies in those early years, and I am hoping this book can contribute even a little bit to start these conversations.

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