In Sayantani DasGupta’s debut novel, 12-year-old Kiranmala discovers that she’s an interdimensional demon slayer—and that she’s not even from this world. In fact, she’s from a place with moving maps, talking birds, crush-worthy princes, and a cruel but oh-so-glamorous Rakkhoshi Queen. And so when Kiran’s parents mysteriously vanish, Kiran must journey beyond New Jersey, battle through demon slobber, and uncover the secrets of her past if she ever wants to live a somewhat normal life again….
A professor at Columbia University and a fan of A Wrinkle in Time, Sayantani discusses the real raskkhosh she’s battled, girl gangs of carnivorous teenage demons, and the connection between Albert Einstein and traditional folk stories.
Kiranmala is smart, funny, loyal, lives in Jersey and is easily embarrassed by her family. In what ways are you similar to her, and in what ways are you different?
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Like Kiranmala, I’m a daughter of Bengali (Indian) immigrants. I was born and brought up in Ohio until right before high school, when we moved to New Jersey (the town next to Parsippany, where Kiranmala is from!). Like any child of immigrants growing up in a homogenous mainstream environment, I was deeply aware of my family’s differences.
At the beginning of The Serpent’s Secret, Kiranmala has a drooling, flesh eating rakkhosh slam through her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. My own demons weren’t real, but they were just as dangerous. My rakkhosh was named racism, and that was the demon that slammed into the security of my family life. It burrowed under my brown skin, making me feel self conscious and self doubting of myself and my family. It was only when I grew older and able to name this demon that I could finally slay it. In other words, I had to understand it as something systemic outside of myself and not some flaw that was inherent to my skin color, language, culture or family origins.
Like Kiranmala, I found my strength in my cultural stories. Unlike her, I travelled to a real place to hear these stories—West Bengal, India. Kiranmala travels into the land that most of these folktales takes place—The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers. But both of us came/come into our power by accepting and celebrating all the parts of our identities.
The Serpent’s Secret is an original take on tales from West Bengal, India—the same stories that you grew up listening to as a child. Which fantastical figure were you most excited to reinterpret for this book and why?
Even though The Serpent King is the biggest baddie in The Serpent’s Secret, I must admit, I have always had a soft spot for rakkhosh (also called rakshasa in other parts of South Asia), who are the villains everyone loves to hate. I mean, they eat people and use their bones as toothpicks, all the while drooling and speaking in rhyme—what’s not to love? So in the book, my favorite character is probably the Rakkhoshi Queen—who is both glamorous and seriously evil. But she’s also a three dimensional character who loves her son, and has a horrible case of acid indigestion she’s always complaining about. I’m pretty fond of the rakkhoshi fan girls too, my answer to the Beliebers. What’s better than a girl gang of carnivorous teenage demons with a major crush?
In one of my favorite scenes of The Serpent’s Secret, a character sings, “Everything is connected to everything, but how?” In your book, science, magic, and story are all intertwined. Why did you choose to include talk of black holes and Albert Einstein in this book about folktales and magic, and what is the connection between them?
I think there’s this expectation that Asian American stories based on folktales will be somehow exotic and mystical, magical and spiritual but not modern, funny, political, or certainly, scientific. I wanted to push back on this expectation by having both folktales and string theory side by side in this book. There’s no reason one person can’t be drawn to both those things—I know I am! (In fact in my “day job,” I teach Narrative Medicine, an emerging interdisciplinary field at the intersection of stories, social justice and health science.) Of course, it actually makes sense too because traditional folk stories as well as mythologies often emerged as ways to answer questions about the natural world our ancestors encountered—including the stars, moon, and planets. After all, everything is connected to everything!
Many jokes and puns are threaded through the story. Which one are you most proud of?
I am a fan of all jokes and puns—the worse the joke the more I’m fond of it! Of my favorites in The Serpent’s Secret might be the ridiculous signs that Kiranmala encounters at the Transit Corridor between her own dimension and the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers. The signs are inspired by those in a real-life airport security line, a place with which immigrant families are very familiar. I just wanted to point out the absurdity of the travel experience, particularly for immigrants going “home” to visit friends and relatives. These are emotionally loaded, exciting trips, while simultaneously being anxiety-filled border-crossings, where we are often profiled and made into the under-suspicion “Other.” Because she doesn’t have any official papers (like “a tweet from the President”), Kiranmala first has to get into a line for “good-for-nothing undocumented scoundrels,” and then encounters increasingly preposterous signs that say things like, “Drink all your liquids. Take off your shoes. Hop on one foot,” while the next one says, “No drinking of liquids. No bare feet. And unless you can provide evidence of being part toad, kangaroo or jumping juju beast, stop hopping!”
And finally, what was your favorite book when you were Kiran’s age?
Easy. Anything by Madeline L’Engle. A Ring of Endless Light was probably my favorite at age 12 (what 12 year old girl doesn’t want to communicate with dolphins?), followed very, very closely by, you guessed it, A Wrinkle in Time! I am beyond thrilled that Ava DuVernay’s diversely cast film version of the book is coming out so close after The Serpent’s Secret. I wrote this book because I never got to see heroic characters who looked like me in my childhood favorite books. And now, almost like wish fulfillment, so soon after my heroic immigrant daughter novel comes out, the world will get to see a girl of color play Meg Murry! A girl of color will save the world! It feels like fate. I am beyond thrilled.
The Serpent’s Secret is on B&N bookshelves now!