In 2002 a new young adult novel from the then unknown author Tanuja Desai Hidier began appearing on bookshelves and in libraries. From under a big red question mark, two glimmering eyes peered out from the cover, beckoning you to pick it up and devour it. Born Confused was the first novel to depict the Indian-American experience for an explicitly young audience. It told the story of Dimple Lala, an Indian-American teenager growing up in New York City, as she navigated love, friendship, and ambition. Born Confused, which was published by Scholastic and featured in Seventeen magazine, set a new standard for storytelling in a multicultural age.
Editors Nadya Agrawal and Jasleena Grewal sat down to text and discuss the impact Desai Hidier’s first book had on their development as brown women writers.
Nadya Agrawal: So it’s been 15 years since Born Confused came out. Who were you 15 years ago?
Jasleena Grewal: 15 years ago I was clinically depressed and frankly in a dark time where I felt out of control and uncomfortable with myself—I was twelve and didn’t know what to make out of these feelings, so when I found Dimple it was like I had found a friend who shared some of my feelings. You were 11 hehe so who was Nadya then 🙈
Nadya: I think I found the book when I was in middle school. I had always been a voracious reader and pulled down every book from the shelves at school. I managed to slip Born Confused into the shopping basket during a family trip to Borders (RIP). At that point I hadn’t read about any brown girls written by brown women, it was always a white perspective. That was something I was aware of even if I didn’t have the experience to be upset by it. So it was sort of revolutionary. All four brown girls in my grade passed around a few copies of Born Confused and were a little conspiratorial about it when any onlookers asked what we were talking about. That book was community and it created community.
Jasleena: YEAH I feel like it totally bonded me to other brown girls. I also felt like it was sort of my secret and so when I saw how much other brown girls lit up when I mentioned the book, it instantly bonded us and opened up a new angle to our friendship. And how Dimple described her narration of her white friend (forget her name) as an onlooker, her charm and sensuality and the way she danced, the jealously and also the awareness of how their racial differences made others receive them differently in the world— that was a relief to see that kind of rage and frustration, to share it with Dimple.
Nadya: I think the cover was my favorite part about it. Like carrying it around and other brown folks instantly recognizing the cover. It was pretty iconic – the dot of the question mark was her bindi. I remember thinking it was a little cheesy and a little clever. Her name was Gwendolyn I think? It definitely gave me the language to talk about those things for sure.
Jasleena: OH THAT COVER. I so longed to see that, I picked it up JUST because of the design, like I was craving any minute connection to brownness. Quite different to how I am now, I have more discretion lol. Yeah damn it even her name was gorgeous!! I’m like feeling those feelings again
Nadya: I think I was still in my brown-hating phase a bit at that age. But I definitely felt a little kinship to brown girls around me. Not enough to be close but enough to be aware.
Jasleena: Absolutely same for me. I was white-washing myself but there was a part of me that held on really tightly to my brownness (values, the way I was raised, ESPECIALLY art and poetry) because I knew even then it made me powerful and unique.
Nadya: I had Bharatnatyam classes on the weekend but I was compartmentalizing my brownness–Indian on Saturday and Sunday mornings and something neutral during the week. I wasn’t fussed about it yet. I didn’t feel like celebrating culture was inherently good or bad, just something we did.
Jasleena: Same!! I tried and quit after a few tries. But I was doing that as well and what’s sad is I thought that’s what was normal and just how life was supposed to be, and now I see how constricting that kind of existence is.
Nadya: Yeah, like you could ONLY be brown on the weekends or during specific times. Every other time you had just “be you,” whatever that means. As if you could separate brownness from yourself.
Nadya: I think the only other books I read before Born Confused that tapped into some sense of heritage and ownership for me were those books Homeless Bird and Shiva’s Fire. But those were written by white women. They were like a sort of facade.
Jasleena: Yeah I remember seeing the cover to Shiva’s Fire and you know what’s really eerie…I didn’t pick it up because I somehow sensed that.
Nadya: They presented a very specific idea about brown girls. And they had nothing to do with the diaspora.
Jasleena: YEAH that too I wanted something to do with ME.
Nadya: At that time I was hungry for everything. Anything vaguely connected to me I needed to have.
Jasleena: And I just saw more of ME in the cover and title especially “BORN CONFUSED.”
Nadya: Why do you think Born Confused was so successful in relaying that diaspora experience? I think it was fairly successful. Aspirational even.
Jasleena: Completely aspirational and it remains that way to me. It laid a legacy.
Nadya: Or a template? It definitely charted a course.
Jasleena: It was honest and that’s what I think works for me. Writing things a lot of people experience and think but because of all the complexities an BS of the world can’t always say or act upon or heal or extricate. I guess that BS can be rephrased as White Supremacy.
Nadya: lol tru.
Jasleena: Yeah for sure it charted a course. It united us enough that now we can finally speak to our differences. And I love what Dimple said about her parents liking (or lack thereof) to her photographs—they didn’t get the medium as an art, they were emotionally unavailable to her, so I related with that as well. In personal narrative, and through the interlocution of that kind of psychology, we can begin to analyze how our ancestral histories influence even our most intimate dynamics in families and friendships. NOW I get that. Then I just needed some relief. I completely met it with my emotions and very little critique or analysis.
Nadya: Mmm, I latched on to that because I wanted to much to be misunderstood. I don’t think I was clever or creative enough at the time to be misunderstood. I got to live vicariously through that conflict. Do you remember the DJ, Gulab Jammin? I used to think that was the dopest moniker. I swear to god I wanted to be DJ Gulab Jammin when I grew up and did college radio or whatever.
Jasleena: YEAH!!! I can totally see that for you hahaha. Honestly at that point. I just felt ok to be mad. And that’s what I needed because still to this day there’s a lot of shame I work with around anger.
Nadya: You think Born Confused allowed you to be angry for the first time?
Jasleena Grewal: Yeah. Good catch 🙂
Nadya: Hmm, I think I was still just sorting through what it meant to be seen and given a place to be that wasn’t exoticised or like the subject for the day at school. It was such neutral space completely driven by internal feelings.
Jasleena: I mean now I look at people like GG on Shahs and I relate to the anger on an adult level so yeah it’s totally followed me and I can’t relate to white anger. But I can from a brown perspective. Yesssss totally. Totally totally it was that.
Nadya: Are you talking about the Shahs of Sunset?
Jasleena: I on the other hand enjoyed being exotisized at that time because I needed validation. Yeah.
Nadya: I feel that! The exotisization part, not the Shahs part.
Nadya: Like even being exotisized was being seen.
Jasleena Grewal: Totally.
Nadya: I definitely played into it many times over my 26 years. But it was freeing to not have to do that for once.
Jasleena: So in a way Dimple was also bearing witness. Holding space for us. Same same same.
Nadya: I think this was also a rare example of unabashed love between brown people that wasn’t like familial or arranged or Bollywood. It was two people actually choosing each other in Born Confused and finding their way to each other. And they were both Indian!! And at the time I thought brown boys were kinda gross because they were so mean and dismissive.
Jasleena: Aaahahah. I totally am there with you on this. The brown guys I knew either wanted white girls or brown sex pots and I was an awkward teen with an eating disorder. I still want that. What you just described.
Nadya: I didn’t see brown relationships that were happening with people my age until college but then it was still so weirdly political and cliquey. I kinda reveled in how pure Dimple and DJ GJ were.
Jasleena: Agency in love. To be chosen but also to choose.
Nadya: ALSO WHAT WAS HIS NAME. I’m gonna keep calling him GJ until we figure this out. lmao I just typed “born confused” into google as “brown confused.”
Jasleena: LMMMAAO the irony
Nadya: Karsh Kapoor!
Jasleena: Same. I wanna revisit the novel now to get to know their relationships again.
Nadya: Omg I’m just realizing how filmy they all sound.
Jasleena : HAHA YEAH. Even the cover. Very filmy. That’s why I loved it all. Love movies 🤓📺🎞
Nadya: So, 15 years later who are you now?
Jasleena Grewal: I am about to turn 28 and I am stepping into my womanhood. I don’t refer to myself as a girl now. So that happened for the first time this year. I’m letting go of all of the defense mechanisms I had as a girl that no longer serve me now. I’m more comfortable with myself and I’m learning to be ok with the discomfort even when I don’t understand it.
Jasleena: 🙈 I find Dimples in my life now thru womxn online and IRL. I need them to keep growing. Now you answer 😀
Nadya: I’m 26 and halfway to 27. I live in New York City. I’m a paid writer working on major projects. I started this little magazine that shares amazing work from the South Asian diaspora 🙃. I’m in love. I have a plan but I’m open to the future. I have surrounded myself with creators and artists. I have become friends with the first brown woman writer I ever read (hi Tanuja!) who shaped me so fundamentally with her work. Things are excellent.
Jasleena: This was soooo nourishing to do this wow.
Nadya: But I want to know–where do you think you’d be without Born Confused?
Nadya: Lmao pls.
Jasleena: HAHAHA oh man sorry ok yes. Honestly that was a catalyst that helped guide me to just be ok with myself. I’m still learning that. I know I needed that novel to be inspired to write for the diaspora tho, to participate in it, otherwise I’d still be scoffing at it, seeing it as something different than myself, not seeing myself as someone part of a larger culture. I wish brown men had a figure like that. Dimple for brown guys. Seems like they coulda used something like that
Nadya: It was the first book of its kind–a YA novel focusing on the Indian-American experience. I think I’d be where I am now but it would’ve taken longer and I would have had to do a lot more of the work myself to be introspective. I’m sure it would have taken me longer to start writing but I hope it would’ve happened eventually. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, huh?
Jasleena: Totally I completely agree with you and feel exactly the same.
Nadya: I’m glad we got to do this. Reflecting on the last 15 years as well as 15 years of Born Confused has been, as you said, nourishing.
Jasleena: SAME ❤️❤️❤️