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Builder of an Inclusive World

Mar/19/2023 / by Abhijit Masih

Alisha Rai, who is out with her latest novel, a teen romance, brings a lawyer’s rigor to her writing

Alisha Rai
Alisha Rai. Photo: Elizabeth Burgi

Award-winning romance author Alisha Rai’s first YA book, “While You Were Dreaming,” is to hit the stores on March 21. Set in the world of a teenager, Sonya Patil, it is a story about saving her crush and her undocumented family. The author shared with SEEMA her process of building the world in her stories and the importance of fully-fleshed characters.

How did you imagine the 16-year-old Sonia and her world of contemporary culture, such as cosplay, the school environment and the language?

I have two much younger siblings, so my surroundings do skew younger! Most importantly, though, there are some things that change from generation to generation and a lot of things that don’t. I have always loved cosplay and while attitudes towards nerd culture have changed, the excitement of creating something just for yourself is a constant.

What gave you the courage to create a sub-genre of brown romance in a world predominantly skewed towards white romance?

I’m not sure if it was courage or simply the desire to see more of the books that I craved on the shelves. I’m perpetually in awe over how many more romances are published by South Asian authors these days, compared to when I was young. It’s not equal yet, but watching a shift happen and the rise of voices demanding representation has been incredibly satisfying.

What challenges did you face in using South Asian characters/leads in your books?

In the beginning, most of the challenges revolved around getting past people who didn’t think enough readers would find characters who didn’t look like them relatable. I consider it my main job to normalize the idea that anyone can be a lead character (or a romance author!). A lot of us grew up never seeing people who looked like us falling in love. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be secure from the time they’re young that they’re main character material.

How did you pivot from being a legal eagle to a romance writer?

There’s actually a lot of overlap between legal writing and romance writing (and a lot of former lawyers in romance). Personally, the kind of law I was doing was very dry and analytical. My brain needed the escape of another world. I was a writer before I went to law school, but being a lawyer made me a much better writer. It taught me how to tighten my prose and reduce fillers. That being said, I don’t encourage anyone to take on law school debt unless they are very sure they want to be a lawyer.

You have had tremendous success within the romance genre. What is the common thread running through all your books that you feel is instrumental in their success?

I spend a lot of time on world-building, which isn’t something people realize that contemporary authors have to do! It’s really important that the book reflects our world as it exists, and that my characters are fully-fleshed out people. I also have really strong themes of family and community that, I think, resonates well with my readers.

Do you get feedback from South Asians who have a different view about your characterization of South Asians?

Sometimes I hope that readers who don’t feel exactly represented by my characters can find some shared cultural markers. Or that they can, at the very least, understand them and empathize with where they are coming from. When there isn’t a lot of representation of a group in media, it becomes quite easy to feel every bit of representation must represent everyone in that group. Unfortunately, it can’t, especially since there are literally billions of us and we’re far from a monolith. This is why it’s so important to continue to publish and market new South Asian voices and hire diverse voices behind the scenes.


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