American Betiya surprised me in a really good way.
I expected a happy Young Adult contemporary with romance based on the synopsis and because it is pitched as “for fans of Sandhya Menon”. And as it is a story of an American-Indian, I expected culture and identity to also a play a role.
It was a little like my expectations, but a lot of it was not. And it blew me away.
Thank you to Lonely Pages Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to read this gem early and praise it.
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Fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson will identify with this powerful story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship.
Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in–his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art–make him her mother’s worst nightmare.
They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver’s troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself–and what’s really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.
Winner of the SCBWI Emerging Voices award, Anuradha Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
Content warnings: death, grief, drug usage, suicide, depression, racism.
I didn’t just read this book, I experienced it.
Generally, I talk about “experience” in fantasy or science fiction books because they take me out of this world more and create an entirely new one. In those books, I mostly experience the world and the magic.
In American Betiya, I experienced Rani’s life. From start to finish, Rani’s feelings were my feelings. At some parts I was uncomfortable but I soon realized that it was intentional. Every chapter in this book in so intentional with building up the story and conveying meaning to the readers through Rani’s story.
The writing complements the story so well. It is descriptive and immersive. I have so many highlights and annotations, I wish I could show them all and explain each one.
It’s like landing in Mumbai for the first time: Your five senses are lured by a luminous, gritty chaos. Left to your own defenses, you eventually adjust to the crowds, the thickness of the air, the rich beauty and mad poverty.
Rani is a high school student experiencing her first crush and relationship. Finding someone who likes you back as much as you like them is hard, especially at a young age. First relationships feel so magical* with butterflies and newfound confidence.
*in books, at least. I’ve never dated so don’t ask me, lol.
Generally, relationships in young adult contemporaries follow a pattern. They have a meet-cute, fall in love, break up for a bit due to something, and get back together stronger to give a happy ending. About 20% into the book, I expected the same from American Betiya. And honestly, I was not interested in it.
The book had so much more to show through Rani, especially with the setup of her family, identity, culture, and community. I felt like the romance was dulling the book and wished that it did not exist at all. I was not interested in Rani being in love with Oliver, a tattooed and pierced “mysterious” artist white boy.
All is not what it seems, though. Rajurkar has artfully woven this relationship to show us concepts like microaggressions, cultural fetishization, and obsession.
Tied in with these general concepts are also facts that are specific to Indians. How nose piercings for us can be viewed as a traditional Indian thing and not a rebellious teenage act. What our culture means to us even if we are not super religious. What the word “exotic” means to a brown-skinned girl.
Through the smallest things like off-hand comments and seemingly benign interests, the relationship signifies so much.
After the book ended, I spent a while thinking about the beginning and all the small things that I missed or shook off that were silently building to the story which would rattle me later.
I am struggling to explain it well without bringing up specific scenes and spoiling the book. Just, trust me when I say that the writing and representation are really good.
I hate to admit it, but contradicting my parents is giving me the kind of rush I used to get when I ran cross-country.
While Rani’s relationship with Oliver is the main plotline in this book, it does not completely define her identity. Rani’s family play a huge role and it is what I related to because the family is so Indian and familiar to me.
From Rani hiding her relationship from her family—which literally every single friend of mine with a relationship has done for the same reasons—to learning more about her parents through others because Asian parents don’t think their past as important to narrate to their kids. Even her justifying being vegetarian even though she is not highly religious spoke to me because I’m the same.
There was enough focus on Rani’s relationship with individual members of her family which made her character whole. No character, especially Asian, is complete without a deep dive into familial relationships.
But there will always be angry people, betiya, as long as humans exist in the world. We mustn’t let them poison our minds.
Through it all, American Betiya is a story of growth through experiences. Rani has a very meaningful time in her life in this book which teaches her many things and causes her to grow in ways that can’t be measured.
Rani learns about herself, her self-identity, her passions, what she is willing to share, where to draw the line, and how to identify and navigate uncomfortable situations and conversations.
The title is apt. American Betiya is about what it means to be an American-Indian daughter. And it is written so well.
P. S. I’m not including a rating for this book because my ratings are highly subjective to my feelings and whether the book made me cry. My thoughts for this book mean so much more than my rating.
Anuradha D. Rajurkar is the national recipient of the SCBWI Emerging Voices Award for her contemporary debut novel, American Betiya. Born and raised in the Chicago area to Indian immigrant parents, Anuradha earned two degrees from Northwestern University, and for many years had the joy of being a public school teacher by day, writer by night.
Nowadays, when she’s not writing or reading, you can find Anuradha exploring the shores of Lake Michigan with her family, obsessing over her garden, watching either happy TV like Queer Eye or old horror flicks with her son, cooking Indian food, or roguishly knitting sweaters without their patterns. She hopes her stories will inspire teens to embrace their unique identities and inner badass despite outside pressures and cultural expectations.