Sunflower Spotted is a guest feature where authors, content creators, and creatives are invited to the blog to talk about their work, their personal advocacy, and their lived experiences. Mainly consisting of interviews and spotlights, this series hopes to uplift voices and foster fascinating conversations.
by Anuradha D. Rajurkar
Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in–his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art–make him her mother’s worst nightmare.
They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver’s troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself–and what’s really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.
Winner of the SCBWI Emerging Voices award, Anuradha Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
“Making art is kind of hard,” I blurt. He laughs quietly, hanging his head forward. “Yeah. The general misconception is that art is effortless and fun and farty.”
“Totally. That’s my parents, all the way,” I say. Fleetingly, I wonder if I should keep my family out of things. He leans back against the windowpane.
“Typical. But really it’s a study, like anything else. I mean, it’s not like doctors saving lives, or anything”—he grins at me—“but there’s a lot you can do through art. A lot you can say, and work through. And the result is not always a pretty picture.”
“Case in point,” I say, nodding at my creation.
He laughs. “I genuinely like the way yours turned out. But the point is for you to be happy with it. There’ll always be hype beasts out there, but it’s not about an outsider’s assessment of what’s cool or current. It’s about whether you’ve created something that embodies your beliefs, your values, your message. Or whether it at least allowed you to explore and release some shit.”
His eyes are pale against dark brows and lashes—a study in contrast. “It probably forces you to examine things carefully,” I mumble, trying to be coherent despite his nearness. “So you know what you’re trying to say.”
My eyes flicker to the windows—the day is overcast, translucent clouds blowing through a silver sky. Aajoba loves when the light is like this—he says that a cloudy day is best for “photo-graphing.”
“You’re already an artist.” He regards me evenly. “You just don’t always know it.”
I shrug. “If you say so.”
He smiles. “Can we meet up again? I promise I’ll remind you to bring your camera.” I can’t stop staring at his eyes, striated grays and blues, like the lake on a stormy day. “What I mean is—can we, like, start seeing each other, for real?”
My hands are shaking; I clasp them together. Is this really happening? “I’d like that.”
A slow smile spreads over his face. “Yeah?”
I lean in and kiss him, like it’s something I do on the regular. A thrill pulses through me, and I don’t recognize myself, sitting in a strange art room, kissing a guy for the third time this week. He moves in closer, and when the kiss ends, he holds me tight. “Um. But we do have to keep it under wraps,” I murmur into his hoodie.
“Sounds sexy,” he says.
“I’m serious,” I say, sitting up straight. “I’m forbidden to date.”
He shifts into attention mode. “Wh-what?”
“My parents—I’m so sorry, but my parents can’t know about . . . anything. If they find out, I’d never be allowed out of the house.”
“Really? Wh—so . . . they don’t know you’re here?”
“No. Dating’s not a part of their culture. They’re not even cool with me being friends with guys, much less . . .” I gesture between the two of us. Heat rises in my face. Uuuuggh, too much!
But he’s unfazed. He takes my hand, every synapse within it rocketing to life. What is this radioactive thing happening to my hand? “Okay,” he says. “Intense.” It dawns on me that I might be scaring him off. Why would anyone tolerate my parents’ archaic rules?
“I’m so sorry,” I hear myself mutter. “I totally get it if you don’t want to—deal.”
“What? No. Are you kidding me right now?”
“I don’t want you to feel like—”
“Rani. You get me, and I think I get you.” A gust of wind rattles the old windows.
“Yeah,” I say, squinting out at the waving treetops. I look into his face. “You do.” I swallow hard.
“Do you know how freaking rare it is for someone to get me?”
I burst out laughing. “I can imagine.”
“Yeah. We’ll figure it out,” he says with comical finality.
“Okay.” My heart’s oozing between the bars of the iron fortress I’ve built around it. “But, um, just to recap: I need you to honestly promise that you’ll do everything in your power to help keep us a secret from my family. Them knowing would actually be catastrophic, so if you could, like, protect—”
“Rani. Holy shit, I promise.” He looks into my eyes. “I’ll protect you from their wrath. Like a superhero.”
My face is burning, and I start babbling. “It’s a huge risk for me to be with you, but I’m also too far out to backpedal now, and in all honesty, you’re wo—” I stop.
He leans down and looks playfully straight into my eyes. “I’m what?”
“You’re . . . um. I guess I was gonna say . . . you’re worth it?” I blink. Why am I still talking?
But he draws me in close. “I’m deeply honored that you think I’m worth it.” And then we’re kissing. The touch of his lips, his body crushed against mine, feels somehow both freeing and grounding, the chemicals between us a warm, slow-burn energy. . . . For once, we’re alone together, and I’m flying, buzzing, electric, careening through a reckless new dimension where I say something honest and in return, I get kissed like this . . . He rests his chin on the top of my head, and I breathe his spicy-soap scent in deep.
“I love that you’re only dating me because it’s too late for you to paddle back to safer waters.”
I laugh. “You’re nothing but danger.”
“True.” He shifts. “But one day, I’ll just knock on their door, introduce myself, and make them love me.”
SHEALEA: Hi, Anuradha! It’s such an honor to have you on my blog and to celebrate the release of your debut novel with you. Congratulations and thanks for being here! Now that your book is officially hitting the shelves this week, how are you feeling?
ANURADHA: Thank you for having me, Shealea! It feels incredibly surreal to have my book hitting the shelves this week. It’s also been really busy with interviews, podcasts, celebrating over the phone with family and friends, and prepping for launch events, so I haven’t yet gotten to revel in the joy of it all. But the launch event itself will be joyous, and I plan to go for a long walk by the lake with my husband and younger son after the event, so I’m looking forward to that. 😊
Can you tell us more about Rani’s character?
SHEALEA: Let’s revisit the excerpt revealed on my blog today. During my first read of it, I had the hugest smile on my face. Rani’s awkwardness and worrisomeness is something teenage me could relate to. Can you tell us more about her character?
ANURADHA: Rani has a clear sense of her future as an aspiring doctor and enjoys the support of her South Asian community, whom she sees on weekends. She attends high school in a liberal city that prides itself on its progressivism and value for diversity, but with so few fellow Asian students, she’s suffered from feelings of invisibility. The lure of love and the desire to finally be seen for her artistry is strong after so many years of being viewed one-dimensionally. Oliver awakens all of that in her: aside from the euphoria of first love, he helps stoke the fires of her artistic side.
I so enjoyed leaning into the layers of Rani’s character. In her desire for love, she misses signs of dysfunction in her relationship with Oliver. I enjoyed the messiness of her character; the mistakes she makes keep her raw and real as a character, and give us insight into her honest struggles.
What inspired you to write about a romantic relationship between two teenagers from different cultures?
SHEALEA: American Betiya is marketed as a thoughtful, evocative story about “first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship.” What inspired you to write about a romantic relationship between two teenagers from different — if not, occasionally clashing — cultures?
ANURADHA: While I love the common “love conquers all” trope in YA, the reality is, many of our early relationships can feel volatile and filled with angst. This was the kind of story I would have loved and appreciated in high school for its portrayal of South Asian American culture, fierce feminist allyship, and the common reality of viewing another person–and their culture– as a means for escape.
I feel as though cultural conflicts within relationships are so prevalent for understandable reasons, and find it a fascinating topic for its layers and inherent tension. While American Betiya is a work of fiction, I can relate emotionally to its themes of protecting and embracing cultural identity, discovering one’s identity against the backdrop of cultural expectations, and managing racism and patriarchy that show up in the places we least expect.
What should readers take away from this book?
SHEALEA: What is your biggest hope for American Betiya and what would you like readers to take away from it?
ANURADHA: I hope that in Rani’s story of forbidden love, culture, betrayal, family, and feminist allyship, readers might feel inspired to embrace their identity despite others’ demands or expectations. I hope they might better recognize when a relationship–romantic or otherwise–begins to feel too compromising. And that though there are often no witnesses to the specific oppression they may face, I hope that readers will be inspired to access their own inner strength to speak up on their behalf –with a little help from their friends.
I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Have you added American Betiya to your TBR?
🌻 How did you like this exclusive excerpt? What’s your first impression of this debut?
🌻 American Betiya delves into cultural conflicts within romantic relationships. Do you think this is a topic that should be talked about among teenagers of color?