Opening a suitcase and revelling in a fantasy

Nupur Pradhan
Saturday, 19 May 2018

American author Nidhi Chanani tells us that the idea of India was very alluring and that’s what took root in her graphic novel, Pashmina

Nidhi Chanani, a India-born US-raised illustrator and author takes us on a journey of her birth country through her debut graphic novel, Pashmina. Seen through the eyes of Priyanka, a US raised teen, Pri (as she is called) has never visited India and her idea of the country is only in her imagination. Until she finds a tucked away Pashmina. In a chat, Chanani tells us more about the story and her upcoming novels.

What was the inspiration behind the book?
My inspiration for Pashmina came from a variety of sources: my mom, growing up in the US, my first trip to India, and women’s choice — all of these things are woven into the story. When I was younger, my parents would travel to India often. When they returned, their suitcases had a pungent, almost magical smell — from a place that seemed very far away. I was probably 10 years old the first time this happened. Opening their suitcase made me feel close to this other world.
In a way, I believe this story has been with me since then. Combined with my desire to escape a tumultuous household, the idea of India was incredibly alluring. I wanted to explore a different path to India than I had experienced. My teenage understanding of India was tainted by poverty-stricken, third world imagery.
How wonderful would it be if a young person learned about their culture through only positive representations? That’s the root of Pashmina; opening a suitcase and travelling to a fantasy version of India where a character can learn about their heritage in a favourable light.

Is Pri’s quest to know more about India and the culture somewhere a reflection of yourself?
There are many aspects of the story that are directly pulled from my life. I do love samosas and comics! However, unlike Priyanka, I grew up close to my family in India. I was raised by both my parents and a large extended family. Priyanka seeks understanding in a way that’s very specific because her experience is very isolated. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t so alone.

What made you write a book for the young audience? 
I wrote the book I wanted to write. The suggested audience is a marketing decision. I believe that Pashmina is all ages. I’ve had seven year olds and adults read and enjoy it.

Can you explain the process of writing a graphic novel? Does the story come first or the art?
My process was very linear. Full script, thumbnails and then final art. I reworked my script eight times, thumbs at least three times and final art was very minimally changed. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to have the fantasy portions in colour and the reality in black and white. Colour is one of my favourite parts of creating art. Within a visual medium like graphic novels, I want to use colour to augment the story. I love comics and utilising colour (and the lack thereof) is a unique tool that can only happen in a graphic novel. As a storyteller, I want to push myself and as a comics creator, I want to do so as well. I believe that colour is a strong tool for a nuanced story along with page layout, panelling and word choice.

Generally, illustrated books feature superheroes or a mythological character. Not many everyday stories are presented in the form of illustrations. Do you see this trend changing anytime soon?
I predominantly read fiction comics and books. The trends I’m seeing within comics are exactly the opposite — more fiction with compelling stories that contain no superheroes. I think a mix of all these things are important because we all have our unique interests.

Any words of wisdom for budding graphic artists?
Draw and read a lot! Start small. Try a 3, 6 or 10 page comic before you dive into your big book idea. 

Any new books planned? 
Later this year, my bilingual board book, Shubh Raatri Dost/ Good Night Friend will release with Bharat Babies. I also have a children’s picture book that I’m illustrating, I WILL BE FIERCE that will release next year. My next graphic novel, JUKEBOX, is one I am writing with my husband Nick Giordano. It’s about two Muslim-American cousins, Shaheen and Tannaz (or Shahi and Naz), who find a jukebox that takes them back in time. It’s slated to release in 2020.

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