"Never dim your light"

In which my son interviews one of his favorite authors

A few years ago, I encountered a new children’s book by a recent acquaintance of mine. “Always Anjali,” by the actor and producer Sheetal Sheth, may have been a picture book aimed at people a few decades younger than I, but it hit home hard. It’s a book about what happens when people mispronounce — and, in fact, dispronounce — names they feel don’t belong. It is about a low-grade, quotidian form of Othering that I’ve known throughout my life, that can seem trivial, not worth mentioning, and yet that can have lasting effects, levying a small tax on one’s every step in the world.

It was also a book of a kind I hadn’t grown up with — one with characters who looked like me, came from where I came from.

So I was eager to see what Sheetal had come up with in her new book, “Bravo Anjali!”, which continues the adventures of one of the few South Asian characters in major children’s books. I sat down with my six-year-old, Orion, and delved into a story about another variety of childhood meanness. Here the issue isn’t name dispronunciation. Rather, it’s what happens when a child finds glimmers of talent and greatness within themselves — and feels pressure from other children to snuff out those glimmers.

At some point, I had a funny idea. What if Orion were to conduct an interview for The Ink? His per-word rate is more than affordable. So he came up with some questions for Sheetal, who has become one of his favorite authors, and he asked them over Zoom the other day, and the very sweet result is below.

But first: Afghanistan…

If you, like me, are anguished about the news from Afghanistan, I wanted to share some powerful conversations I got to have on Sunday while anchoring MSNBC’s live coverage. I tried to bring on big-thinking guests who could give us more than the latest tactical wrinkle, and reflect on what it all means for American empire, for the women and girls of Afghanistan, for the world order at large. I talked to the reporter Anand Gopal about whether the Taliban has changed in the last 20 years. I talked to the novelist Khaled Hosseini, who made a moving plea for the world not to abandon the country of his birth. I talked to Nicolle Wallace about why no one in the Bush administration she served anticipated the lost war that even a cursory reading of history would have predicted. I talked to Brinley Bruton and Azmat Khan about what lies ahead for Afghan women and girls, and about how the narrative of female empowerment has been used to justify a war that was really about other things. And I asked Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who issued the lone vote against the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, what this lost war means for American power.

Life sentences

I also want to introduce you to an incredibly special new project called “One Sentence,” by the wonderful writer Ben Dolnick. It’s a new, free newsletter that takes one interesting sentence a week and analyzes what makes it so compelling.

In this recent edition, Ben parses the following sentence from the legendary biographer Robert Caro: “How could they know about the grass?” Ben writes:

I usually hate biographies. This will, I know, make me sound like a moron, but: they seem as a form almost built to be dull. Imagine you’re going out to dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in a few months. You settle in, order some guacamole, and say, “So — what’s been going on?” And your friend says, “Well, lemme see, the last time we saw each other was March first. On March second, I went and got a new filter for my air conditioner. And then on the third, weirdly, I realized the filter was the wrong size…” I call this friend Biography…

However! Robert Caro’s biographies are astonishing.

Check out One Sentence here. Now, on to the main course:

“Never dim your light”: a conversation with Sheetal Sheth

ORION: Why did you want to make the kids mean to each other in the story?

SHEETAL: That’s a good question, Orion. So it wasn’t that I was making them mean — I mean, they were mean to Anjali — but I really wanted to write a book about friendship and how friendship can be complicated sometimes when you’re dealing with big feelings. And so her friend Deepak, who is her old friend, he’s never been like that with her. And suddenly he was being mean to her, which was really so that we could then see how they deal with their friendship. And she tried to talk to him about it a couple of times, and each time she didn’t get to actually talk about it and deal with what was going on until the very end, until he realized it and then he came and apologized.

And did you notice how she didn’t let him off the hook? How she said it wasn’t OK and then they kind of move forward, but they both had to take responsibility for things like he did. And I really wanted to have a book that dealt with friendship in that way, that we could just kind of see how it can get complicated, especially for kids, when you’re feeling the things that you’re feeling.

ORION: How did you make the book go so fast even though it has many, many, many pages?

SHEETAL: Oh, well, I’m so glad you felt like that. Your dad knows, because he writes, that that is something that we try to do. We hope that you feel that way. We never want you to feel like, “This is taking so long.” I’m so happy you felt that way. I must have changed it a hundred times. Up until the very last day it even went to the printer, I would change words. I would take a word out. I would make a different way to end it. We would move the pictures around. Because with kids’ books, with picture books, the pictures work with the words, and it’s really important that you find the right way to put them both on the page. So we just kept tweaking until we got that right. And so I’m so happy that you felt like it went so fast.

ORION: Even though it has super-much pages.

How much time did the book take to create?

SHEETAL: So this book probably took me about six months to write, and that’s just to get it to a certain place where then I can share it with people. And then you share it with someone called an editor, who’s the person who’s kind of in charge of making the book. They give me notes; we go back and forth. And because I had already written the first book, “Always Anjali,” we already had a flow of how to work. But we had a new illustrator this time, and so we brought her in very early. So the whole book, by the time the illustrations were done, probably took over a year, maybe a year and a half.

ORION: That’s a long time.

Why do you think kids are mean to each other in the world?

SHEETAL: That’s a really good question. Why do you think, Orion? I’d love to hear what you think about that.

ORION: I don’t really know.

SHEETAL: I think sometimes when someone is mean, whether you’re a kid or even a grownup, it usually means you’re sad about something. That’s what I think. That’s what I tell my kids when something happens to them and they wonder why someone, or even a friend of theirs, would be mean. I usually say to them, “I think they might be sad about something, and let’s figure out what they’re sad about. And maybe if we can help them with that, they wouldn’t be so mean.”

In this book, Deepak was used to being the best and liked being the best. And I don’t think he was happy about the fact that there was this girl, his friend, who was better than him. I don’t think he was able to accept the fact that maybe he had to work a little bit harder or he might just not be the best anymore. So instead of working harder, he got mean.

ORION: Did your life have any problems like in the book?

SHEETAL: So, Orion, all of the books I write are from my life. So not exactly what you’re reading, but I take something that’s happened to me or someone that I know, and then I make it into a bigger story. So some of it is true, some of it is not, but it’s all based on things that have happened to me. And I, a lot of times, felt like Anjalai feels in both of these books.

For example, with the first book, Orion, when I was growing up, no one could say my name. You’ve read the first book, I know.

ORION: Mm-hmm.

SHEETAL: No one could say my name. They would mispronounce it. My teachers would give me nicknames sometimes that I didn’t ask for. And then even when I was a grownup, people kept telling me I had to change my name. In fact, I wasn’t able to get certain jobs that I wanted because I wouldn’t change my name. People kept telling me, “You have to change your name, you have to change your name.” And I wouldn’t change my name, and then I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, which was so silly.

And then with this book, with “Bravo Anjali!”, I did feel like there were times in my life where I was really good at something, but I let people make me feel bad about it. And I wasn’t able to be as good as I wanted to be because I felt like people wouldn’t like it if I was great at something. You know how Anjali steps into her light and learns never to dim her light? Something I wanted to talk about is that we should never, ever, ever let anyone make us feel bad about being great at something.

ORION: What does that sentence mean in the book, “Never dim your light”?

SHEETAL: You know how you have a light inside of you with all the great things that make you you? We always love seeing it. We feel it when we see you. I don’t want anyone to feel like you should ever make that light a little bit less bright. We want to see all of Orion all the time. And so that’s what that light means. Because remember Anjali was messing up on purpose in her class after the boys made fun of her?

ORION: Yeah.

SHEETAL: So that line was to tell Anjali, “Never dim your light. We want to see how great you are and how wonderful you are all the time.”

Sheetal Sheth is an actor, producer, activist, and children’s book author. Her new book is “Bravo Anjali!” This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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