Saumya Dave is writer, resident psychiatrist, and co-founder of thisisforHER, an organization that “improves mental health awareness and education for women and girls through unique art therapy group workshops.” Her debut novel, Well-Behaved Indian Women is a mother-daughter story about three generations of women focusing on identity, immigration, and relationships, and the medical field.
Her second novel, What A Happy Family, while dealing with similar themes, also focuses on what makes family and how identities are forged and broken through families. This novel focuses on the Joshi family, headed by Bina and Deepak who immigrated to the US, their children: Suhani, who is married to Zack, Natasha who is to be engaged, and Anuj who is studying at Cornell. Over the course of the novel, the fissures and tensions in the family come to the surface with Natasha refusing the marriage proposal and being fired from her job, wanting to focus on her career as a stand-up comedian, and having a mental health episode. Apart from mother-daughter relationships in the two novels, mental health issues of South Asian immigrants are described in details and with compassion. FBC has covered mental health in sports and whether therapy is for you.
I interviewed Dave on her real life inspiration behind the two novels, mental health balancing various roles, releasing books during the pandemic, and her favorite TV shows.
Rashmila Maiti: As this is a book club, what books are you currently reading? Which authors inspire you?
Saumya Dave: I have the bad or good habit, depending on how you look at it, of reading multiple books at the same time. I am currently reading What We Carry: A Memoir by Maya Shanbhag Lang, a beautiful memoir about her relationship with her mother who is a psychiatrist. I also just started reading Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin. It covers motherhood and female friendships. Those two authors inspire me because of the themes that they cover. I recently read and loved The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris because she explored racism in the publishing industry through fiction. I am so happy with the acclaim that it is getting.
RM: What does being a feminist mean to you?
SD: Feminism is about having equal rights for everyone. It is about us wanting a world where women, men, however someone identifies, and feel that they take up space in our world— they feel that they are able to have the same rights, abilities, and potential carried out as everyone else. I know, so many times, feminism gets called out as a gender thing, or different kinds of ideas and interpretations. I see feminism as equality as it should be.
RM: How has your own experience as psychiatrist shaped your two novels?
SD: So much more than I could have ever predicted. When I was in medical school, I was writing all the time. I was writing when I wasn’t studying for tests or on my clinical rotations. At that time, writing and medicine seemed as two parallel jobs that I was having. They weren’t necessarily helping each other so much but they were both important to me. When I became a psychiatrist and started my training in New York, I realized that psychiatry is about understanding people, what motivates them, what elements make their story, what makes them scared, and what makes them hopeful. A lot of those questions drive the characters in my books. When I was working on my first book, Well-Behaved Indian Woman (working on it for ten years), it started out as a romantic comedy between Kunal and Simran. When I was in residency and learned how much people’s families impact their mental health and understanding of themselves, I actually realized my book was a mother-daughter story. So, I dove more deeply into Simran’s mom and grandmother, it became a three generation story.
My second book, What A Happy Family started out as a book on work and being a resident. When I learned more about family therapy, I realized towards the end of my residency that there is so much in our family bonds and dynamics that shape us in all sorts of directions. That realization helped me change the entire story and focus of the novel.
RM: What A Happy Family deals extensively with the mental health of immigrants and their children. What do you think about therapy and its portrayal in the media?
SD: I think the portrayal of therapy and treatment of mental illness, and mental health in general, has changed a lot in the media. When I was growing up, I didn’t see it much at all. So quantity-wise, there wasn’t much that I was consuming as a little girl. Now, there’s much more of a spectrum in what is portrayed. I see more things on TV about characters going onto therapy; I see more things in books; I see more things in the news, research journal, and other sources about mental health. That makes me really happy as it makes me feel as though it is taken more seriously across the board. It is being recognized as something we do need to talk about. There are platforms devoted to just immigrant mental health, and more research has been put into it.
For example, last year, I did this corporate talk on Asian-American mental health and I was doing some research on impostor syndrome for the talk. I found some great reports in Harvard Business Review, where they took a deeper dive into impostor syndrome, and about how we actually need to look at the systems that are causing impostor syndrome, and not just at the person who has it. Why do you have it and here’s how we treat it puts it all on the individual. Many cases of impostor syndrome come from a variety of systems operating that make someone believe that they do not belong in a particular place. The vantage points are changing and I really appreciate that.
I also see the awareness of women’s mental health a lot now: the pregnancy period, the hormonal fluctuations, different things that can happen to a woman’s body. There is call to action to learn more about it. But I will still say that in medicine, there’s still some work to do. Research studies need to incorporate more women, insurance companies need to cover more visits for women, and we need to know the nuances of a woman’s body in order to provide the treatment.
RM: The women in your novels are real, dealing with problems, and they grow as individuals. How has your own experience shaped your fictional protagonists?
SD: So much more than I had ever anticipated. When I was in my early twenties, I had no idea where I was going personally or professionally. And I was writing this book where I thought I was following this young woman’s journey to her engagement. She is planning this big fat desi wedding and there’s drama and that’s it. I realized in conversations with friends that we were all asking the same questions at the core: who do I want to be? What’s my purpose in life? What do I want my life to look like in five years? What makes me happy versus what I am doing for approval from others? So, all these big interesting questions were driving our conversations. And I realized that those need to be the questions that are driving my characters, too. And along the same lines, I have been very close to my family my entire life. So, for What A Happy Family, learning about my family members’ stories and seeing some of the same experiences that we have shared together through their lens, helped me learn that sometimes family members can take away completely different experiences from the same memory than we may have. So, definitely my personal experiences have helped shape so much of the core questions that drove my novels.
RM: You have been living with your own family in 2020. How have your own family dynamics shaped What A Happy Family?
SD: So much. My husband, baby, and I were supposed to stay with my parents for three months and that turned into fifteen months because the pandemic happened right during that time. I feel that every single person I know, their life has been impacted by this in different ways.
Before I was with my parents, I thought this book was going to be about a woman in her medical residency and the hurdles in that, and there was going to be an angle on mental health in that. It was after I was staying with my family that I realized that I really wanted to write a book about family dynamics and how we all impact each other. I found that when I was back in the same house as my parents and grandparents, this time, technically as an adult, I still regressed into a young girl. There was a moment when I was writing in my diary and listening to music from the 90s and I thought, okay, we have literally gone back in time with where we are.
But even with my parents seeing me as an adult, there was constantly a push and pull between are you a child right now or are you an adult. I was saying things to them that sounded maybe a little parental: are you going out right now, did you decontaminate this, are you getting enough rest. Sometimes, it was unclear who was in what role. The idea of roles has always fascinated me, and seeing my brother and sister how they were as adults as well as hearing about their experiences growing up and realizing I missed so much. I always saw things from my point of view so, I thought I had it all figured out as the oldest child. But there were so many things they went through that I didn’t realize. Those things really helped inform the book because once I became aware of all that, I thought how can these characters come to a new sense of understanding once they maybe break apart at first.
RM: What it’s like to release a book during the pandemic?
SD: It’s surreal. So now I will be releasing two books during the pandemic, so I don’t know what it’s like to not do it. But because the first one took so long to write and get a deal for, I had plenty of time to create fantasies of what it would look like; oh, there will be a big glamorous launch party. I mean things that wouldn’t have happened even without the pandemic. But none of those things happened and that was tough. For so many of the other debut authors I knew, last year was definitely an adjustment for us because we didn’t get to meet any readers in person and that was something, like when you are working on something that is so solitary for a long time, you look forward to that part of it.
But I will say that on the flipside, I didn’t realize this would happen at all: a lot of people started book clubs during the pandemic and met with their members regularly. As everything was so virtual and people didn’t have to be in the same space, I was able to join over fifty book clubs with women who read Well Behaved Indian Women all around the world. And that was incredible. That wouldn’t have happened if this situation hadn’t occurred. So this was a silver lining that I was able to connect with a lot of wonderful readers whom I may not have been able to.
RM: How do you balance your career as a new mom, physician, and author during the pandemic and more generally?
SD: I didn’t balance it at all. Overall there was no balance. I wrote the book in the middle of the night; it was the only time I could get that I wasn’t interrupted or didn’t feel guilty for not being with my son or doing my other work. I am kind of split with that. On one hand, I am happy that I was able to write and get it done; I ended up writing multiple drafts and so, from that standpoint, I am happy. But on the other hand, it’s so important for all of us to get our rest and for us to see that as equally productive and focus on our well-being. If I could go back in time, I would give myself that grace to do that because I don’t think we all need to work ourselves to the point of burnout, and we don’t need to keep pushing ourselves in that way. Sometimes, it can be hard to draw that line.
RM: What do you like to do when you are not writing, consulting, or being a mother/wife/daughter-in-law?
SD: I wish I had a cooler and more sophisticated answer but I love watching television. There have been so many great shows on lately. My husband and I will watch TV together and we will pick apart story lines and characters, and we will map out their plots and make predictions. There are such strongly written shows out there and it’s been really fun. It felt like a true escape when going out has been quite limited, especially for the majority of the past year and more.
Also I really love doing barre exercises. I started doing that when I was cleared for exercise after I gave birth. And I realized that I feel so powerful about being connected to my body and feeling stronger, not just for me. Movement really helped me manage a lot of emotions and help me drown a lot of the noise from the day to day and it’s something I would commit to every week. It has helped me multiple times feel anchored more than I thought.
RM: Any favorite TV shows?
SD: Right after I gave birth, I watched Jane the Virgin. It has an intergenerational component. The main character wants to be a writer, there’s a love triangle; there were actually a lot of fun parallels with Well Behaved Indian Women. It was funny because when my book came out, the readers said that it reminded them of Jane the Virgin. I thought the family dynamics and the way they mix genres, everything was done so well in that show. I also really loved The Flight Attendant, a thriller on HBO. It was a mini-series and I loved how the main character has an unreliable narrator sort of vibe but you kind of want to root for her. It was very unconventional in that sort of way.
There was also Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that I didn’t think I would love because it seemed very focused on romance in the first season. But it actually covers a lot about mental health and does that in a very compassionate way as the show goes on. There’s a lot therapy in the show; the therapist is excellent, she’s so sensitive and empathetic. I thought the portrayal of the main character’s real condition of needing more help was done extremely well. And, Never Have I Ever by Mindy Kaling: it was so nice to see people who looked like my family and friends on screen, and going through regular coming-of-age issues. That was just so heartwarming and really wonderful to see and to hear that other people, no matter what their background, were also watching.
RM: What advice do you have for writers?
SD: How much time do I have (laughs)? First, read as much as possible. Read things that you like as much as things that you don’t like. It’s really helpful to pick apart things that don’t resonate with you and that maybe even cause negative feelings in you, whether that’s frustration, anger, apathy, anything. The negative feelings can really help you pick apart a story, dissect it, and learn what your own style is, and what is resonating with you.
The next thing would be community of writers because writing is such a lonely process. A lot of the work is done on your own, even your research can be done on your depending on what kind of work you are doing. And now there are so many online communities, hashtags on Twitter, writing websites, so many other things that weren’t there when I started. Writers are so supportive to one other; they are really the most supportive group of people I have ever come across and they really want to help each other, and help you celebrate all the little wins, be it one page or one sentence you are proud of: your writer friends will really understand what that means. Finding joy in writing is so important. So if you are feeling burned out or disillusioned, it’s totally okay to step away and take a break and to refuel.
RM: Any final words about your novels?
SD: I appreciate anyone who takes the time to even look into my books because as an author, it means the world. It really really does. When there aren’t a lot of books from a particular culture, there can sometimes be a pressure to represent that entire culture. So many people have been very kind in having related to the characters, or how it represents their families and communities. But I’ve heard from a few people who’ve said that this is not my experience. I’m South Asian and this is not my experience. So, my final point would be that if you have an idea for a story, you have something that’s brewing in your head, and it’s been there simmering for a while, it’s worth it to follow it through and see what it looks like because we do need more and more stories that represent our world.