A Chat with Author and Musician Tanuja Desai Hidier about Deep Blue She and the 15th Anniversary of Born Confused
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with author Tanuja Desai Hidier about her new song and music video Deep Blue She and the recent 15 year anniversary of her groundbreaking novel, Born Confused. Tanuja is a writer, musician, and activist who works tirelessly building cultural bridges and bringing awareness about pressing issues relating to women at the intersections of race and class to the forefront. If you haven’t read Born Confused or Bombay Blues, please do yourself the favor and push them up on your TBR list! Also, check out her new music video Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo WeMix.
Your song “Deep Blue She” from your booktrack album Bombay Spleen (songs based on your novel Bombay Blues) was a #VogueEmpower playlist pick for Vogue India’s social awareness initiative for women. What inspired the track?
The state of the world—in a state of emergency! “Deep Blue She” was catalyzed by Nirbhaya [the Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh] and is–as is the Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo WeMix music video/PSA project–in memory of her. The recriminalization of homosexuality in India (377) and sections in the penal code there that do not treat marital rape as a crime are also referred to in the track (and inBombay Blues, too).
I wrote the original song with Marie Tueje. It’s a kind of revision of “A Sailor Went to Sea”; my intention with it was to write a modern-day feminist women’s/LGBTQ/human rights and empowerment-themed dance track, a kind of call to rise up: to love our daughters more. Raise our sons to lay down swords. Stand up for ourselves and each other. Love who we want to love. Be who we want to be. Make room for and celebrate each other.
And create safe spaces for that embrace.
What inspired the concept for the Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo WeMix remix and music video/PSA?
A couple years ago, I was sitting in a London café with Tim Cunningham (who directed the “Heptanesia” video for Bombay Spleen, as well as “Between The Rock & The Ether”, my collaboration with the late, great and much-missed State of Bengal). We were mulling over what the next video should be, and he suggested it be “Deep Blue She” to show the range of the album, and that we could get a few of our friends in various countries to film themselves on their phones dancing around to it, and collage it all together.
That idea stuck. And deepened one morning in 2016—that of the US election result (though Nirbhaya was two years before, unfortunately it all seemed part of the same abominable continuum). After a morning spent ramblingly assuring my stunned daughters (then 11 and 7) that things were going to be okay, that a positive force always rises up to push back, transform the negative (and their beloved Tia Pamela in Mexico wasn’t going to be banned to the other side of that ‘wall’)…and then the tears I cried at the kitchen table by myself after dropping them off to school… I felt I had to do something. Do the very thing I told them in order to comfort them and hold the hope: Make a little piece of positive force.
And I started thinking, this DIY worldwide dance could itself be political. An opportunity to rise up: honor–and showcase the amazing work of–our communities. Especially some of those most under threat, undervalued and over-Othered.
And flip the ‘minority’ to the majority and create a visual world where this supposed Other is the ‘norm’.
Where the margins are the page.
And on our terms: the video was filmed mostly on cellphones, by participants (The We) themselves, all over the world, over the course of a year. The idea being that we decide the frame, the angle, the dress, the dance. We tell our tales ourselves.
And then bring it back off the page, the screen, the stereo…and offer concrete ways to help (all artist proceeds from the remix to charity; pick your price).
What was the process like? How long did it take?
That day, after the kitchen table breakdown, I began reaching out to friends. And friends of friends. A few at first, figuring we’d be done in December (ha!). It felt vital to me to be superinclusive and as diverse as possible (race/religion/sexuality/gender; also ableism and age: hence in utero footage through to elderly). A lot of survivors are in the video…whether they talk about it or not (some didn’t want to discuss but did want to dance it out). Personal as the political always is as well: my beloved parents are in it, and daughters too.
And so the project kept evolving, growing as the year went on.…until 364 days later, we wrapped with 100+ artist/activists having taken part in this dance of intersectional comm(unity). Original art was created for the project, news footage filmed for it (including the Women’s Marches in NYC, DC, Standing Rock). The remix features Anoushka Shankar on sitar, Jon Faddis on trumpet, Amita Swadhin on Testimony, Valarie Kaur on Night Watch: their instruments testimonies, their testimonies, instruments. (And YOU! And thank you.)
How long have you been writing fiction and music?
Since I was about five years old? That’s around when I wrote my first poems: “The Secret” (spoiler alert: it’s a feather) and “Nelly & Shelly” (the fascination with twins, and twinning, commenced early). I wrote mostly poems till my teens; I have boxloads of three-ring binders of them in my childhood home. Some of these poems had melodies too– were first songs, in a sense. As a child I also invented bands and singers: designed their album covers, wrote and recorded songs for them on my tape recorder, and had a whole index card system where I’d draw them on one side, and write their bios on the other.
Funnily, none of my singers were ever women of color (always women, though). In fact, I only realized in my 30s, maybe even 40s, this was the same of my short story characters (and I was writing those from about six years old onwards too—a long time!).
Most likely because I’d never seen such heroes and heroines on bookshelves, TV screens, magazine pages (and even on the street, to a large extent; my family was the first of our particular ‘brown’ in our town, and the first to immigrate from both sides of the family in the 60s).
Many years later, one of the reasons I wrote Born Confused and protagonist Dimple Lala was to fill this hole on my childhood bookshelf with a South Asian American coming of age story. To create heroes and heroines who more closely resembled those in my own life. My own home.
How long have you been performing music?
When I was a kid I’d subject my mother to endless in-house performances. The first Madonna album came out when I was a teen, and I’d grab a roundbrush (which I was never skilled enough to use on my hair, but found perfect as a pseudo-mic) and climb all over the kitchen counters, table, singing “Lucky Star” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”. The basement—where my older brother had a birthday gift stereo and we were the proud owners of a strobe light–was another venue I often gigged at. By myself. “Rock Lobster” with my back on the cool crimson cement, wiggling arms and legs up in the air like antennae.
My family—we’re all music lovers (my parents have come to a lot of my own gigs, too: from NYC’s CBGBs to London’s Water Rats, throwing it down on the beer-slick floors). My mother sang on the radio in India when she was a teen. My brother plays piano and guitar (and wrote a song on my first booktrack album, When We Were Twins). Car trips, we’d be singing all the way to Vermont. My father has always been a great appreciator of music, and just recently, in his late 70s, began experimenting on the piano (he doesn’t read music and has never taken lessons)….and what’s been coming out of that fortysomething instrument has been so, so beautiful.
And out of the house?
In NYC, when I was in my early twenties, I joined a recording project for songwriter (and author) Robert Dunn. Wednesday nights another friend, Anthony, and I would meet at his West End Avenue apartment and lay down vocals. At first this was on cassettes, then on a four-track recorder…and eventually–hugely excited by how cutting edge we were–getting CDs pressed. Wild Mercury played out first at an Open Mic night somewhere downtown. We were so drunk on vodka and pinball from the long wait to go up for our five minutes I don’t remember much about it…except the exhilaration after at having gotten it over with. I do remember on our way down the West Side Highway to the venue, Bob gazing out his taxi window at the shimmering skyscrapers of Manhattan and saying, “NYC, folks. Looks like we made it.” Ha! We later played CB’s Gallery.
Then, from 98 to 2000 I was lead singer in a regularly gigging punk-pop band. That was an amazing experience: a rock ‘n’ roll dream come true. I’d fantasized about doing this for years (despite the fact, or perhaps because, I’d always been so shy speaking up in front of people; I mean, even in university, I was the type whose heart would start pounding in my chest if we were even just going around the classroom saying our names and why we’d taken that particular course). In NYC, I’d been growing increasingly frustrated going out to other people’s gigs, wanting so badly to be doing it myself it was detracting from my ability to even enjoy them. One day, when everyone was out to lunch at my custom publishing copyeditor/editor job, I was flipping through the Band ads in the Village Voice, when I came across a little succinct Singer Wanted a la Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson ad. I was overcome with a: If not now, then when? And before I knew it had picked up the phone and dialed.
I later auditioned and got the gig—and that’s where I met Atom Fellows (band founder), who is still my collaborator (and musical brother) to this day.
Atom, Jeannie, Helder, Jonathan and me—we regularly played CBGBs, the Elbow Room. Mercury Lounge. That whole downtown circuit. And when I moved to London this band—io—was the hardest part of my NYC life to leave.
In London, I joined San Transisto –a pop/folk five-piece –through which I was blessed to meet my musical sister (and collaborator to this day), Marie Tueje.
What instruments do you play? How do you write music?
I played piano when I was a child for a few years. I detested practicing and doing the theory homework and now, of course. wish I’d stuck with it. When I songwrite I tend to do it either by singing out the lyrics and melody (and sometimes instrumental parts too, such as what became the trumpet riff in Heptanesia), then building music around that with my main musical coconspirators (Atom and Marie)…or singing on top of a riff or track they send me…or writing/playing with them in real time, which is often the most alchemical of all: making something out of nothing, playing off each other live, together in a room.
If you could work with a dream team of musicians, who would you want to work with?
I feel like I already work with a dream team; I’m a massive fan of the friends I write with: Atom and Marie and Dave Sharma (who produced the second album Bombay Spleen: songs based on Bombay Blues). In my opinion, they’re total rockstars—as humans, too (even more important). As is Jon Faddis–trumpet legend, taught by Dizzy himself (he plays on four tracks on Bombay Spleen and is both onscreen and on the remix of the Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo project). And dear DJ Rekha (who’s on a remix on When We Were Twins). Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity allowed me to work with Anoushka Shankar for the first time (she’s in the video and also plays sitar on the remix). I just love her work (Land of Gold is on repeat on my iPod), and she’s a shining light of a person, an empath and activist who plays and lives her truth.
All that said, I’m definitely open to collaborating with new people. I’m currently working on some ideas with Dee Dhanjal and Matt Mars. And am loving hearing/seeing Madame Gandhi, Horsepowar, Swet Shop Boys, Anik Khan. Vijay Iyer: amazing. I’d be interested in doing music for theater, for film, TV, too.
Name a book (or books) that you could read over and over and never tire of?
You know, it’s been SO long since I’ve read a book over and over. Is that a sad side of to-do-list adulthood? Childhood, however: You could spot my favorites from miles away: they’d be the ones with broken bindings, so many pages folded where I’d savored a turn of phrase, they looked like origami. Pages warped and yellowed from the bathwater flowing from tap to shoulder and splattering onto them. Growing up, it was Judy Blume, A Wrinkle in Time, the Great Brain books, Nancy Drew, witches, ghost, haunted house stories, Little Women, Dickens, Twain. And those precious Enid Blyton books (Mallory Towers, the Seven, Famous Five, Naughtiest Girl—everything!) suitcased in by relatives visiting from India, or traveling via London (they weren’t available at all in the US back then). In high school I stayed up all night raving to my mother I was so high off reading The Iliad and Odyssey. When I was living in NYC post-college I remember loving Love in the Time of Cholera so much I slept with it under my pillow for weeks. The English Patient kept me in and up on my 55th and Broadway sofa all night, rather than out on the dance floor (quite a feat!). Later, Marcel Pagnol, too, in a loft on Mulberry Street. And then, in London: Murakami. Mildred Pierce. Thrity Umrigar. Eliot Schrefer. And Just Kids knocked my socks off. I could read Patti over and over again.
What books are you reading now?
I’m currently reading a 90-year-old book I’d never heard of till last year: Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji–the first Newbery Award-winning book by a person of color (South Asian, to boot)! I first heard of this work via Pooja Makhijani’s piece in The Atlantic (and Oindrila Mukherjee’s for Scroll/ Lakshmi Gandhi’s for NBC.) And then stumbled upon it last week on the shelf at the Wilbraham Public Library, in the town where I grew up.
Just breathtaking. And feels like he’s a kind of desi grandgranduncle, too. A familial connection.
What are your most binge-worthy TV shows?
The last binge was a while ago, but was pretty amazing: three Nordic series in a row: Borgen, Occupied, and The Bridge.
Describe your works in progress?
Born Confused is set in NYC, Bombay Blues in Bombay/Mumbai…and I’ve often felt there should be a third part to Dimple Lala’s story: the London book. Have lots of ideas for that one, as well as a non-series novel. But I tend not to talk about ideas that are brewing—in part because I still don’t have the language for them, and don’t want to box them in too early on. I also don’t like talking too much about the process while I’m in it. Writing a novel’s like casting a spell on yourself; you’re trying to hold an entire world in your head, your hands, your imagination at all times. Cup that tiny spark that got you started to begin with close to your heart and keep it glowing through the days, the hours, the magical and often very mundane and ergonomically incorrect process of actually transforming it into something communicable. With both my books, my parents and husband were the only ones subjected to the early drafts (tomes, really; I had to count on unconditional love for the patience that took!), and my editor.
How do your author friends make you a better writer/musician?
The way any friends do: By letting you know—making you feel–you are not alone. You are loved. Safety-netted. Which gives you more courage to dive into the unknown on the page.
How does your writing influence your music, and vice versa?
They are very much part of the same creative process for me: shining a light on the same story from different angles, and —sometimes more audibly, sometimes more visibly, sometimes in that deep humming writing silence–exploring the same questions. (Especially as the two albums I’ve made are ‘booktracks’—soundtracks connected to my novels!)
My first album When We Were Twins (songs based on Born Confused) I made with the band I was in in London, and the one I’d been in in NYC after the book was already out. I was still in that same novel-writing headspace and the songs were a natural extension of that. With Bombay Spleen—songs connected to Bombay Blues–the book-and-album writing process was completely intertwined, a verse egging me into a chapter, a chapter cracking wide the melody of a line. It was a more compact team, too: I wrote Bombay Spleen with my longtime collaborators Atom Fellows and Marie Tueje (who were in the NYC and LDN bands, respectively). It was produced by Dave Sharma.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing?
What’s the most difficult thing about creating music?
Perhaps condensing the story of the song down to a three, four, five-minute space (I tend to write an extra verse or two in the early phases of a track). Marie and I often run the joy-test: Even with a melancholy song, an angry song; there should be a rush of positive energy—a feeling of being lifted rather than depleted– when playing/singing/channeling it. And if it’s not there…the song hasn’t fully arrived yet.
Another pretty accurate test: As Atom has said on occasion, flopping down on his back with his guitar on his stomach: If your guitarist is getting tired, the song’s over. Ha!
All that said, it doesn’t feel difficult–in the sense of painful—creating music. It always feels like a release, and there’s often such wonderful human company along the way. With fiction, you can be accompanied wonderfully as well—though you have to create those covoyagers and put the time into getting to know them, trust them. And then they begin to show you who they are…and trust you too.
Where are your most inspiring places to create?
I wrote most of Born Confused in cafes around Portobello Market in London, where I was living at the time (though the story is set in NJ and NY, this writing neighborhood is definitely in it too; for example, Dimple’s best friend’s street, Lancaster Road, is named after the next street up from the Portobello Road flat I was writing from). It was an enormously joyful experience (oh, the relief of finally writing that book!). Getting up in the am and taking a little walk with a coffee, saying hello to the vendors (the streets virtually car-free due to the bustling market). Settling in at a writing café; usually I could get three or four hours of a flow, before it would taper off. I wrote Born Confused mostly by hand, in (Clairefontaine; my favorite) notebooks. After the burst of café writing, I’d come home, sit at my desk in the window overlooking the fruit and veg section of the market, and go through the very mechanical task of transcribing what I’d hand-written into my laptop. And by the time I’d finished, inevitably, I’d usually have gone past my notebook and into another moment in the story.
Sometimes I’d soundtrack my scenes too: play the music I imagined would be playing in the fictitious club–or the music that would be soundtracking Dimple Lala’s internal landscape in that club.
My best writing hours were 10 or 11 pm to 3 or 4 am. This was pre-kids (although they might still be my best writing hours! Harder to maintain when you get up at 6 or 7 though rather than 9).
I wrote much of Bombay Blues in cafes, too. It helped a lot to get up, get dressed, and get on the bus then tube and commute with the rest of the city to ‘work’. To have a routine like this. And ideas, scenes, themes, dialogue would always clarify in transit to central London. Much of the process with this book, I was blessed to be writing next to an author friend (who was writing her 7th or 8th novel), the wonderful Karen Essex. We’d save each other seats near outlets. Watch each other’s laptops so we could take a few little walks, breaks during the writing day. We’d start in the a.m. with a coffee and catch-up—which made it a lot easier, in fact, a total joy to turn up to the page no matter how tired, whatever else was going on in our lives–and then, kind of emotionally holding hands, we’d dive into our fictional worlds. And though we still haven’t even read those books of each other’s yet, we were incredibly in synch, with all kinds of telepathy and alchemy (and giggles) going on during those two years.
So…cafes, it looks like. And highly recommended tip for café writers: slurp the coffee out from under the foam in your cappuccino to safeguard your seat (by that precious laptop outlet) all the longer.
Do you read your book reviews? If so, what advice would you give for dealing with positive or negative reviews?
Don’t get too attached to the negative OR positive reviews. You’ve worked this long on stopping all those judgmental (am I good enough?) voices in your head to be free to create—don’t let them in again! Just be true to your characters, their journeys. True to their—and your –truths. Everything else is a matter of opinion.
Easier said than done, sometimes. But important to aim this way.
What’s your favorite snack when you’re writing/composing?
Coffee (though I can’t have too much, or too late; need just the right amount to hit a state of ‘coffee genius’—otherwise too easy to jitter off into self-delusion, deprecation, and nerves). At my Bombay Blues writing café in London, there was, dangerously, hazelnut chocolate spread alongside the salt and peppershakers on the table.
I think you can imagine what happened there.
Songwriting sessions at home: red wine. Nuts.
Born Confused—and Born Confused and Bombay Blues heroine Dimple Lala—just turned 15. I recently took part in Brown Girl Magazine’s #BornConfused15 series celebrating the anniversary of this first South Asian American YA novel—one in which many now-published authors talk about the role Dimple played in their own lives and writing journeys.
Why do you think the story still resonates today?
Thank you for that. And I’m so grateful it does. Connecting with readers has been one of the greatest gifts writing has granted me.
And now, bonus: Reading these readers-become-amazing writers! Shoutout to Marina Budhos, Sonali Dev, Donna Freitas, Nisha Sharma, Carlie Sorosiak, Sarvat Hasin, SJ Sindu, Samira Ahmed!
When I was writing Born Confused and Dimple, I didn’t realize it was the first of its kind. Was just trying to tell my own truth. Truths.
But funny how when you do that you often tell those of others too.
Stumble across the universal.
I think that’s why coming of age stories can be so powerful. Because—no matter our years, gender, race, space, place–we never stop coming of age.
And Dimple’s journey across both books is in part about learning to see a hyphenated identity as whole. A ‘neither here nor there’ space as a You Are Here.
And we are all of hyphenated identities. Culturally, if you go back far enough, but also in the sense of being constantly evolving jigsaws, multifaceted humans in motion.
And We Are Here.
Indeed We are. And finally: How did you celebrate Dimple Lala’s 15th birthday? Her new year…and New Year’s?
By celebrating The We! Our communities, our storytellers, our culture-makers-and-shapers. With the DEEP BLUE SHE #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo #WeMix music video project (see above)—a year in the making (massive shoutout to editor Atom Fellows)–featuring 100+ artist/activists (including amazing authors Marina Budhos; Gemma Weekes; Kat Beyer; Uma Krishnaswami; Elizabeth Acevedo; Cynthia Leitich-Smith; Paula Yoo; Sharbari Ahmed; Mitali Desai; Eliot Schrefer; Mira Kamdar; Nico Medina; Billy Merrell; Bill Konigsberg). In a way, Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity is my birthday promise to Dimple Lala: To keep celebrating the ‘skins’ we’re in, honoring our collective and individual voices. And it’s a thank you as well, to the communities I’m blessed to know and call home, for their dedication and determination to fight the good fight. To tell our stories. And make sure they get heard.
And hopefully, the project is also a way to offer support and concrete help so others can do so, too: All artist proceeds from sales of the remix at Bandcamp to charity.
Please watch, share, and join the #MergrrrlMovement!
With thanks and love and a huge huggy Happy New Year from me and Dimple. Onwards!
Tanuja Desai Hidier is an author, singer-songwriter, and innovator of the ‘booktrack’ (albums of original songs to accompany her novels). Her first novel, Born Confused—considered to be the first ever South Asian American YA novel—recently turned 15. Born Confused has been hailed by Rolling Stone Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Paste Magazine as one of the greatest YA novels of all time (on lists including such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Women). Tanuja is the recipient of the 2015 South Asia Book Award (for her second novel, Bombay Blues), the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the London Writers/Waterstones Award, and her short stories have been included in numerous anthologies. Her most recent project—DEEP BLUE SHE (The #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo #WeMix) music video/PSA, based on a track from her second album, and featuring 100+ artist/activists (mostly women of color)—just went live. Outlook India calls it “The We Are The World of our times.” More info at: www.thisistanuja.com/DeepBlueShe