Patel is the most common Indian surname in the U.S. The name comes from a caste of village leaders and landowners in the state of Gujarat, many of whom moved to North America in the 1970s, buying hotels and shops to support their families. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of stereotypes about what it means to be a Patel: first and foremost is an intense focus on family.
But what happens when that dynamic curdles? This is the question at the heart of Sonia Patel’s first teen novel, Rani Patel in Full Effect. Like Patel herself, Rani is a first-generation Gujarati girl growing up on the remote Hawaiian island of Molokai. Rani’s family are the only Indians on the island, and this isolation breeds dysfunction: her father treats her mother like a slave and Rani like his beloved wife—including sexually—until he abruptly abandons them for a new girlfriend. To cope with her situation, Rani turns to her love of rap, joining an underground hip-hop collective where she begins to express herself but also becomes entangled with a sketchy older guy.
Patel drew many of these dynamics from her own childhood: the overbearing father, the traditional mother, the escape through music. Her father moved them to Molokai on something of a whim, and, without any support structure, her parents’ marriage imploded. “I’m an only child, so it’s kind of lonely when things are happening at home and you don’t know how to deal with it,” she says. Hip-hop helped her process those feelings and engage with bigger ideas about political protest and social justice.
In fact, it was her passion for rap that led Patel to writing in the first place. Throughout high school, college, and medical school, Patel composed her own rap, without ever sharing it. But when she started seeing patients as an adolescent psychiatrist, she felt compelled to start performing. “Things got so intense sometimes that I just needed some way to release it,” she says.
Then, after years of collecting the raps she’d written, Patel found that they told a story. “It was like this one girl speaking and this progression of things that happened in her life and how she kind of found her identity and strength through her lyrics.” That girl became Rani, and those raps appear throughout the novel.
However, the novel isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical; Patel mixed many of her own experiences with the stories she’s witnessed in her practice. She’s passionate about helping young women move on from sexual trauma and wanted to show what that really looks like. “Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is that Rani’s not likable…she does all these dumb things, she keeps making these mistakes, but that’s usually the way it goes,” Patel says. “People who’ve been through trauma repeat it.”
To tell such a complicated, sensitive story, Patel strove above all to be authentic. In her practice she constantly sees girls who struggle to say what’s really on their minds. So, she says, “I wanted to role model in a way, being real and not sugar-coating anything.” Even the novel’s most outrageous-seeming plot point—when Rani’s father demands that he and his pregnant girlfriend move back into the family home where his wife would care for the baby—is drawn from life: Patel’s own father made the same request.
Patel hopes that despite the difficult subject matter, readers, especially teens, relate to Rani’s voice and her struggle to overcome what’s happened to her. They might even learn something about how to manage their own troubles. As obvious as it may seem, she says, “I want them to take a step back and see that they have a brain that they can use to actually think and make decisions.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.