Keeping the Story Alive

Author Roshani Chokshi 13C tells EmoryWire how her time at Emory inspired her New York Times best-selling middle-grade novels.

By Roshani Chokshi 13C as told to Elizabeth Cobb Durel

Roshani Chokshi 13C

photo by Aman Sharma 13C

I was lucky enough to take an art history course with Dr. Bonna Wescoat, and it made me think about how mythology is still quite a living thing. And, that there were more stories to explore within it. 

Every single time I would go to Dr. Wescoat's office hours, being able to step away from campus itself and disappear inside [The Carlos Museum] was very meditative. 

There’s something about the lighting of it—dark, velvety. It looks like a story about to set stage in a theater. There are all of these objects around that have taken on a whole new meaning inside of a museum—like they were made or constructed somewhere else, but now they are pieces of human history as a whole. 

Aru Shah and the End of Time is inspired by an ancient Sanskrit epic, one of many, many Sanskrit epics, all rich fodder for Indian and South Asian artists. I saw things that made me wonder: Why do we keep returning to this image? Why do we keep showing this story over and over again? 

My young adult trilogy with my teen publisher Macmillan is launching in January, and that is actually far more of a museum sort of conversation. As someone who is Filipino and Indian I am the product of colonialism, and there is always that question of where do these objects truly belong? If a museum were to say something like “this was salvaged in X Y Z during the 19th century,” you know that's an age of imperialism. You know that it's quite possible some of those objects weren't loaned to them by villagers, but perhaps forcibly taken. It’s interesting to me because it goes to the history and the human significance of the objects, and not just where people think that something belongs. 

When I heard that Rick Riordan (the New York Times bestselling author of middle-grade fiction) was starting an imprint for mythological adventures from non-Western cultures, I honestly thought it sounded like the fan fiction I wrote when I was little, about the Japanese manga series Sailor Moon—except now all the Sailor Moon characters were me and my best friends, who were certainly not white, and yet, not denied the chance of adventure. 

Roshani Book
So I called my agent and we put together a proposal and did not think that anything would happen. And then it did. A week later we got the news that they would buy the four book Aru Shah series. 

Rick provides editorial feedback on the Aru books and his insight is spot on. But what I respect the most about him is that he’s this white guy willingly giving his million-plus-reader platform to authors of color and marginalized voices. 

He was very respectful about not asking me to pull back on any of the cultural aspects of the book. None of that. Kids are way smarter than people give them credit for. They're so kind. They're so empathetic, but they don't think twice that “Oh, this is something a little strange to spell out,” or “Oh, I've never had this [to eat].” They don't care. They just want an adventure. 

What Rick told me is that kids have an exceptional bullsh*t radar. If you talk down to the reader, they will know, and they will put the book down. The challenge with middle grade fiction is in preserving an authentic voice. There's no way that you can imitate it. You really have to sit there and go back to being thirteen all over again which is exceptionally painful. Channel that and don’t lose it. If you lose it, you've corrupted the soul of a book. 

When I was at Emory, I majored in 14th century British literature, and what stuck with me, particularly from my honors thesis advisors, Dr. Bonna Wescoat and Dr. Jim Morey, and what they went back to in all their classes, was that a story is an immortal thing. 

Dr. Morey talked about how there are perhaps maybe six original stories in the world and everything else is a re-telling. It's just a story with a different set of bones and different skin but the soul is the same. 

In the ancient world, mythology is the way to explain the world around us. It imparts logic on chaos. It’s the same sort of thing in the medieval world. It’s the reason why we have fairytales, to explain things we have no control over. It gives a face to the things that frighten us. 

When I graduated. I wasn't exceptional at Emory. I had wonderful teachers. I made great friends. But I wasn't the kid that you do a profile on. In a way I'm grateful that Emory surrounded me with exceptional people because it cured me of narcissism very quickly. I left Emory at peace with myself knowing that I had done my best, knowing that there would always be people better in life than I was, or worse off, or any of those things. 

If I was to do something creatively I had to do it only for myself. I honestly think that if someone had told me I was the best writer in class or something, I'd be writing depressing, midlife crisis, suburbia literary fiction. It's not like those stories don't have their place, but they're not my realm. I don't think I would have had the courage to say I want to write children's fantasy, because I would have thought it was lowbrow or not compelling, not powerful, and that could not be farther from the truth. When children see themselves in a story, that's magic in itself. I'm very grateful that I get to do that in my life. 

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