NAW Interview with Julia Regal Singh

Julia Regal SinghJulia Regul Singh worked as an urban planner and urban designer in Germany and the US before turning to writing. She holds a Bachelor of Geography from the University of Bayreuth (Germany) and has a master’s degree in Urban Planning and Urban Design from the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg (Germany). She is also the author of Boris the Bench, a children’s book.

Julia resides in New Delhi with her husband, bringing up their three children Punjabi-style and working on her Hindi.

 

 

NAW- How did you become a writer?

Writing has always been my passion.

As long as I can remember I have been writing as a hobby. I write diaries. I love writing letters with my many pen pals from all over the world. My days are not complete without writing something, short stories, children’s stories, or just my thoughts – to clear my head or to share ideas with my friends.

I grew up in Germany. I was very lucky that my parents encouraged me to always look “ueber den Tellerrand” – which literally means “to look over your plate’s edge.” In High School they encouraged me to study abroad and I lived with a host family in North Carolina for one year. For my High School graduation in Germany, they gifted me an around-the-world air ticket. Their friends were shocked that my parents sent their 19 year old daughter alone on a trip to travel the world, but my parents thought it was a must before I went off to college. From my parents I learned to embrace our world as a whole and ignore borders! When my graduate studies brought me to New York City to study urban planning, I doubt they expected me to fall in love with a man from India, but they took it as yet another adventure in their daughter’s life. I love how both our families see our union as a plus to their lives – they have not lost a daughter or a son to a strange place, but they see it as an opportunity to gain new friends and a chance to learn new customs from one another.

My travels, my studies abroad, working in NYC, and now living in India are all experiences that encourage me to write! I feel like my family and friends have seen me as a writer before I dared to call myself a writer or author, which helped me to take the leap into this art form professionally.

NAW- Tell us about your book, Leap of Faith. How did you get the idea for it?

When I share my experiences as a German living in India with people, the response is great and people always encourage me to share my thoughts in columns or even in a book format. I started collecting my own experiences and stories I heard from friends and people around me and ideas for new stories emerged. Often I took these stories a little further, asking myself “What if I was in these situations? What if I ended up living in a village in India? What if I took the rickshaw to work every morning?,” without really losing my ‘foreign eye’ on the story.

I guess being a new mom when I moved to Delhi, my first book that I decided to get published was a children’s story called “Boris the Bench.” Even though the process is different from writing and publishing a novel, it taught me a lot about writing, editing, finding a publisher, printing and promoting a book. “Boris the Bench” was set in a park that could be in any part of the world. With “Leap of Faith” I wanted to write something about India. After “Boris the Bench” I got the confidence to attempt a longer project. When a friend of mine introduced me to my future editor Kausalya from Rupa Publications, who was looking for foreign writers writing from their perspectives on India, I considered writing a novel. Neither of us wanted another story about westerners finding themselves in India or coming here to save the poor. There is so much more to India and Kausalya encouraged me to write something entertaining and funny, something that shows a little bit of the beauty, glamour and lighter side of life in India. I chose to turn to my cross-cultural experiences for inspiration and looked for a common thread in my notes and it all came back to the humour that emerges when people from two cultures like each other but not fully understand each other’s way of doing things.

NAW- Tell us about the character of Christina von Hoisdorf. How did you develop the character?

Similar to my story, I chose the two main characters to be Christina from Germany getting married to Andalip from India. I guess I could have switched the roles and chosen an Indian bride, but over the many years that I have observed other couples in relationships with an Indian partner, mostly the men were Indian and the women were anything but. With both characters, I drew heavily on stereotypes.

For Christina that meant I want her to really stick out in India especially with her looks, hence I picture her to be very tall and slim, blond and blue eyed. With people and cultures in India being very diverse, I realized that even a person from the west can blend into India quite well with darker complexion or even light eyes. Especially now that I have a little bit of an Indian accent in my English, people sometimes get confused and wonder if I am Punjabi or Pakistani. Friends, who happen to be blond and blue eyes, often get asked if their photos can be clicked, their hair could be touched, or they get random comments from strangers when walking around in Delhi. Those are the experiences I imagined for Christina.

As with her looks, I pictured Christina’s personality the way people often describe the Germans: punctual, focused and driven, and a little “besserwisserisch” (meaning ‘thinking to know everything better than others). Not too warm and outgoing as the Indians! To leave a lot of room for confusion, I wanted Christina to stick out and clash both with her looks and personality – not to fit in, to be the opposite of what a perfect Sikh bride would be if for example Andalip’s grandmother had chosen her. Short, blond curly hair instead of long, thick silky Indian hair; career driven and over thirty instead of a typical twenty something, ready to stay-at-home Indian bride out of Bollywood.

I guess “Christina” is a tribute to the many women (and I guess in ways men) who are brave enough to leave their old lives behind and move abroad to follow the person they love, reinventing traditions and ignoring what society dictates, believing that all of us are equal and friendship can thrive across borders.  That of course it not that simple and all of us are different, which – with the right personality – leaves room to learn and grow. Christina’s character is supposed to embody that.

NAW- Did you draw heavily on your real life experiences while writing the book? How easy or difficult was it adjusting to life in India?

I always felt the urge to write something that explains my family and friends the life between two different cultures that my husband and I chose for our family. When we lived in New York, we had many friends who came from different countries and it was totally accepted (and even cool) for a German woman to be in a relationship with an Indian man. Any given occasion with friends we would call ourselves the mini-United Nations because our children were Indo-Germans, Israeli-Americans, Korean-French or Pakistani-Estonians. Once we stepped out of New York, it quickly became clear that even with the world around us being very interconnected, being in a cross-cultural relationship is still an exception rather than the norm.

When writing “Leap of Faith” I chose to write about places that I know and situations that I myself have experienced. I also grew up in Germany and my Indian husband and I got married here in Delhi. But this is just the setting for this story and I often joke that my story is less dramatic and different from Christina and Andalip’s. The stories and characters in “Leap of Faith” evolved from my experiences and observations in India and are purposely mixed up with stories I read about or heard from friends over the years and heavily exaggerated for comical effects. For example, when I was writing the book, I attended another Indo-German wedding here in Delhi. At the Mehendi ceremony, the 90+ year old Indian grandmother was literally “parked” in a corner of the oversized party hall, with a microphone and a karaoke machine and she sang one popular Bollywood number after the other throughout the party. I found that very cute and had never seen anything like this. My biggest confusion was that everybody around me thought this to be very normal and very typical for a party like this one. That image stuck to me and ended up with Andalip’s Dadi.

I chose a format in which I switch between perspectives throughout the book to highlight how in every story there are many realities and many sides to it. There is no such thing as the ultimate truth! Or better, things can’t be divided into right and wrong rather they are just done differently in different cultures (or even families for that matter). Especially as a freshly married couple or now as a parent, it helps me and hopefully others in cross-cultural families to remember that there are many ways to be in this world and that we should be open to and show respect to people’s traditions and cultural back grounds. Obviously, that leaves a lot of space for confusion and misunderstandings but also for great humour and romance!

India is part of my life for the last 15 years and I have been living in New Delhi for almost seven years now. I am definitely over the first culture shock and call Delhi my home. I have been trying to learn Hindi for a few years and finally feel like I understand most everything and can communicate if I have to, which also helps me to enjoy India.

India is an amazing place which challenges my every sense every day and it is like nothing I have ever experienced before. For me it is a writer’s dream!  So when I moved to India, starting a new life in India I got side-tracked from my interest in urban planning – or maybe overwhelmed by the task – so I got busy with learning to be an author and mother. And I took that opportunity to reinvent myself and took out more time to write more seriously. I think at first I jotted down my confusions about my daily life in India and worked through my culture shock that way.

Leap of faith

NAW- How did you research for the book?

I guess “Leap of Faith” is the product of my interaction with India over the last 15 years. I have had the pleasure to be travelling throughout India, I made many Indian friends all over the world and I also married into a large Punjabi family. Most of my research as you might call it is drawn from my own experiences, observations and conversations I had since I first came to Delhi in 2000.

The entire process of writing this novel has been an amazing experience and I immensely enjoyed working on it, because by setting the story in New York, Hamburg and Delhi, I got to fully draw from my experiences living in these places. I chose an Indian wedding as the common thread for my story, but I also feel that I stayed true to myself and managed to add a little more to the typical romantic comedy by highlighting the cross-cultural aspects of the relationships and interactions between Christina from Germany and Andalip from India in this story. I do hope the novel will make people think about cross-cultural acceptance and friendships and teach them a little bit about both sides of the coin – or better Indo-German relations and cultures!

“Leap of Faith” is fiction, so I draw from my experiences and read a lot about India, but the outcome is a product of my imagination. When I first visited India in 2000, I felt still quite unique being a foreigner married to an Indian. Today, I see many cross cultural couples in India, foreigners and Indians as well as people from different parts of India, whose stories inspired my writing. None of my characters are actually based on people I know, but obviously one can’t help but get influenced by character traits or my own experiences that get woven into a new story line and new characters come to life.

NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How did you get published?

I am sure most writers agree that it is one thing to write and another to get published. When I finally decided that I want to go public with my writing, it was very difficult to find anybody interested in my work at first and I was not really sure how to go about it. Especially when I chose to try to get my children’s book published I found myself amongst many other talented women, mothers who write children stories for their kids, who want to share them with a larger audience.  I had written a children’s story called “Boris the Bench” that I had gotten good feed-back from family and friends, so I decided to push it further and use it as a test run for publishing my work.

So I researched publishing houses, looked for illustrators, talked to other writers, and basically learned to be more vocal about my writing to everybody around me. And that is how I met my future publisher Kim Narisetti, who at the time was also based in New Delhi with her own publishing company called “Urban Crayon Press.” Besides liking my story, Kim took me under her wings and with her mentoring and inspiration, I managed to learn a lot about the entire process of writing, editing, and publishing in India.

And once you are a published author, it is definitely easier to have somebody else take an interest in your writing. For “Leap of Faith” I had not even finalised the story, but a close friend of mine made the introduction with Rupa Publication. At that time they were looking for foreign writers who write about India from a new perspective. Without the experiences gained with “Boris the Bench” and my new confidence in promoting my work, this would have not been so straight forward.

NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any you would like to name as inspiration?

I always enjoyed works of fiction with historical backgrounds and insights into foreign countries and cultures. One of my first favorite writers was James A. Michener with his colossal works like “Chesapeake Bay” or “Alaska,” getting into the history of places by following families over generations.  Reading his stories for me was like travelling in time, visiting new countries and learning about them through stories that span over generations, coming alive through character that I could relate to, and not through mandatory and boring school books.

After I met my husband I started to read a lot about India, especially enjoying books on the experience on Indians living in the US, where we lived at the time. The list of author’s who inspire me is very long, but I guess there are three writers that sparked my interest for writing about cross-cultural experiences, especially in the countries that I call home: Jhumpa Lahiri with “The Namesake”, Chitra Banerji Divakaruni with her “The Mistress of Spices” and “Unknown Errors of our Lifes” and Vikram Seth with “Two Lives” and a “Suitable Boy”.

NAW- Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?

Right now I working on two projects: I wrote a children’s story in rhyme called “My cousin Max.” It is a story about a small boy who eagerly waits to meet his “foreign” cousin-brother that he has never met. The story is inspired by my children, nieces and nephews’ lives – so the setting could be again India and Germany. Again I want people to think about the fact that even though we might all grow up in different parts of the world, we still are very similar. And differences are opportunities to learn from each other and laugh but definitely nothing to be scared about!

I also started writing short stories about people adjusting to a new life in a new country, which I would love to put together in a book. I have been contemplating to write in German again, because I feel that people in Germany are very eager to hear about my life in India from a German perspective.

Right now I am still very much involved with “Leap of Faith” and people have asked me how Christina’s and Andalip’s story continues. I am sure one day I will write a sequel to “” since many people “Leap of Faith” are eager to hear what happens next. First, I would like to translate “Leap of Faith” into German and get it published in Germany!

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