Overcoming the Superficial

body hair
Image credits: Focal Point Studios

In “TJ Powar has Something to Prove,” an exciting debut that hit bookstores earlier this summer, YA author Jesmeen Kaur Deo places an intersectional perspective on one of the most complex aspects of the South Asian female experience — body hair.

TJ Powar is a fiery high schooler who’s got it all — she’s beautiful and popular, a star soccer player, and an excellent debater.

But when a meme comes out comparing her looks to her cousin’s, TJ isn’t happy. The thing is, her cousin does not remove her body hair — and TJ doesn’t want to believe that her social status is that superficial. So, she ditches her razors, cancels her waxing appointments, and takes it upon herself to prove, debate style, that she is lovable regardless of the state of her body hair. But as every South Asian girl who’s ever struggled with body hair issues can attest, things aren’t so simple.

Take a feisty and intelligent protagonist, a sizzling rivals-to-lovers trope, and a healthy dose of humor, and you’ve got a “Never Have I Ever| style novel that’s sure to dazzle. This is a must-read for young South Asians.

SEEMA got talking with Kaur Deo to learn more about her writing journey as well as her bold young protagonist, TJ.

body hair

Tell us about yourself. What was your journey to becoming a writer and debuting with this book?

Like many authors, I’ve been writing most of my life. I started out as a kid with (bad) poetry and short stories, but I’ve always wanted to write novels. Near the end of 2016, I started writing a novel seriously with the goal of publication. I didn’t have any industry connections, so I went looking for mentors. In 2018, I was lucky enough to be selected as the mentee of author Meredith Ireland (“The Jasmine Project,” “Everyone Hates Kelsie Miller”). Meredith helped me revise that manuscript and pitch it in the Twitter pitch contest DVPit, which is how my literary agent and I connected. However, that first book, which was a YA contemporary fantasy, did not end up selling. I wrote other things in the meantime, though. TJ Powar was one of them. And it was the one that ended up becoming my first book to get an offer for publication. And I was so happy about that — not just for me and my dreams, but also that I was getting to put out a book that I wish I had as a teen. A book that I hoped would help people, the same way writing it helped me.

I remember the first time I encountered the idea that I was perfect the way I was, sans stereotypical expectations of women. It was liberating but also difficult to believe I was perfectly alright without shaving or waxing, with the consequences it had on my social life, especially as a young teenage girl. I know a lot of South Asians go through this. How does your book tackle this?

I like to think the book tackles this through a realistic lens. Rejecting beauty standards absolutely has negative social consequences. And TJ experiences them. The book doesn’t flinch away from that fact but also plays with the idea of doing it anyway as a form of liberation. TJ learns in this book that her concept of beauty is extremely warped, but also that she puts too much value on the concept of beauty itself. I don’t want to spoil too much, but she certainly finds that her initial resolution (“This House Believes That TJ Powar can be her hairy self and still be beautiful”) is inherently flawed for multiple reasons.

Are there parts of the book that mirror your own life experiences? As a South Asian woman, what were the conflicts you faced while growing up? How did you cope with them?

There are many parts that mirror my or others’ real-life experiences. Sadly, a lot of these things are just universal for brown girls growing up. Personally, I definitely struggled with adhering to Western beauty standards, and I grew up constantly trying to defend aspects of myself and my culture to ignorant people. I did not really cope; I just avoided. All my healing has been done as an adult. Only now can I look back and understand how outrageously unjust that was.

TJ could have been anything. Why did you choose to make her a debater?

I’ve always wanted to write a book about academic debating since it was one of the most fun parts of my high school career. Once I had the idea to write a book about body hair stigma, I had the thought that maybe I could combine the two ideas. In the end, it felt like it worked well; as I alluded to earlier, minority populations, unfortunately, often spend a lot of their time and energy defending their right to exist as they are. Trying to prove their worth. Debating felt like an appropriate avenue to explore that.

How has the initial feedback been for this book?

It’s been wonderful. Even before the book was published, I had early readers telling me this story changed their perspective or made them genuinely believe they could be loved as they are. And that is ultimately all I wanted.

What’s coming up for you in the future? Is there anything specific you’re working on or looking forward to?

I am always working away on writing projects, but I currently have nothing to share about them! I’m looking forward to some of the author events I’m doing this summer and fall for TJ Powar.

Like the sound of this book? Purchase a copy here.

To champion more pioneering authors on SEEMA.com, check out Nandita Dinesh: Of War and Humanity