Ranbir Singh Sidhu was at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn to discuss his debut novel Deep Singh Blue with Tanwi Nandini Islam. Nandini also read from her debut novel, Bright Lines.
Deep Singh Blue follows Deep, the son of immigrant parents, and his brother Jag, who has stopped talking. Deep meets Lily, the daughter of Chinese immigrant. She is an older, married woman. The novel unfolds in a desert valley of northern California.
Sidhu explains that Lilly didn’t exist at all in early drafts. Two other women who ultimately were melded together became her. Slowly he realized the novel was about identity, and her Chinese ancestry provides complexities to her character that fit thematically. It was a slow evolution for Lily.
Setting plays a major role in the novel. Deep Singh Blue is set in the desert in part because Sidhu says he is intimately familiar with the place, but also because of what it means. The desert provides a love / hate relationship with the world. It’s bleak and depressing but also kind of beautiful.
The 1980s in northern California was a very conservative place, and this also created a compelling setting for Sidhu’s characters. The klan was still active in these places then, yet only a train ride away was San Francisco. Sidhu describes an actual lynching that took place in the 1980s.
Sidhu sees his narratives as representative of otherwise under represented people. The publishing world is quite privileged, he notes, and the novel is about people with little access to that privilege. “Getting this published was a fucking ordeal,” Sidhu says.
Sidhu began writing the story that would become the novel in 2005. The story troubled him and went nowhere until he began to evolve it into a longer, more complex novel. The addition of the voice of an older Deep was an important turning point because it gave the reader hope that Deep would be able to survive the ordeals. It allows the reader to know there is life beyond his tragedy.
Nandini’s book also features characters with marginalized narratives. Her teenage protagonist is herself an immigrant living in Brooklyn. “I wrote the book I didn’t have growing up,” she says. “There was not that voice in literature.”
While her novel features teenagers undergoing a coming of age narrative, it is not book marketed as Young Adult. That doesn’t mean Nandini doesn’t want teenagers to read it. She describes YA simply as a construct for capitalism.
Nandini’s book does have lots of sex though, and that was intentional. And sex isn’t just between traditionally attractive heterosexual sex either: “I wanted to show a wide range of people having sex.”
“Sometimes you get punished for having sex,” she adds. Then, referring to her writing about her experiences on the internet: “I’ve been called a whore so many times.”