Alka Joshi Tells Unsung Stories
By Anya Shukla
In 2020, Alka Joshi—at 62 years old—published her debut novel, “The Henna Artist.” Set in 1950s India, her book caught the world’s attention, becoming a bestseller and Reese’s Book Club pick. Joshi currently has several projects in the works: she received a Netflix deal for a TV adaptation of “The Henna Artist,” published her second book, “The Secret Keeper of Jaipur,” to acclaim in 2021, and is researching a third.
That being said, Joshi’s path to this success has been circuitous. She spent the majority of her career in advertising and public relations before getting her MFA in 2008, then took 10 years to perfect her first novel. I spoke with Joshi to learn how her career path impacted her writing and what her first book meant to her.
Q: As a teen, did you plan on becoming a writer?
A: I actually started out as a visual artist. As soon as I could hold a pen in my hand, I was drawing. I would draw on the walls, on the floor. My parents were surprised because nobody else in my family has any artistic leanings whatsoever, but they would encourage me. My mother, in particular, always told me to do whatever I wanted in my life. If I wanted to be a creative person, I could be a creative person, but I should make sure that I could support myself with that.
I thought about going to art school but ended up going to Stanford, where I majored in art history. My artistic and art history education helps me paint pictures with words—that’s how I would describe my writing style. I love for my readers to be able to picture exactly what I'm imagining, and I like to help get them there as authentically as possible. So I like to use my words very carefully to place them in the setting and make them feel as if they are in the story itself.
Q: How did you transition from art history to advertising and PR?
A: I had always been fascinated by advertising and TV commercials. I thought advertising would combine my need to create with the academic side of things. I didn’t have a degree in advertising, but I put together a portfolio over two or three years and ended up getting a job at McCann Erickson.
There are two ways to go into the creative sector of advertising: become an art director or a copywriter. I wanted to be an art director, but McCann Erickson only had copywriter positions open. It wasn’t anything that I had aspired to, but it got my foot in the door.
Luckily, I really loved coming up with ideas for ads; I loved coming up with radio campaigns, writing the dialogue, casting the characters. That was my first foray into making these tiny little stories. Through that experience, I learned how to write dialogue and create characters very quickly. I ended up staying on as a copywriter and eventually ran my own advertising agency.
Q: You took time away from your agency in 2008 to pursue your MFA. Was that when you came up with the idea for “The Henna Artist”?
A: Yes—during my MFA program, I made a lot of trips to Jaipur, which is where most of our extended family still live. That got me started into an exploration of India and my mother's life. My mother had an arranged marriage; she would have rather stayed in college, but she didn’t have that option. I was so grateful to my mother for raising me so differently from the way she had been raised, and I wanted to imagine a more independent life for my mother.
I thought, why don't I use fiction to create that life for her? That was the genesis of “The Henna Artist”: a love letter to my mother.
Q: That’s so sweet! What did your first novel’s success mean to you, especially given that it’s centered on India?
A: When I first came to the United States in 1967, my brothers and I were the only brown kids in our classes. India seemed like a place where no American wanted to go. We faced so many questions from our peers: why do Indian women wear dots on their foreheads? Why do you worship cows? Why do you let so many poor people go hungry? At the age of nine, I wasn’t able to answer questions like that. I became very reticent to even talk about India.
Writing “The Henna Artist” helped me connect to my heritage and be proud of the culture that I disavowed for so long. I think one of the reasons that my books have touched readers around the world is that I told a story that has not been told, a story of 1950s women in India, the agency they were or were not allowed, and how they fought to get agency. I don't know any other book that has done that.
Q: You’ve talked about using “The Henna Artist” as a tool to correct misperceptions about India. Can you expand on that?
A: Everything I had ever read in my American textbooks about Britain’s colonization of India was whitewashed; the British were portrayed as benevolent overlords. The reality is that the Indians were more than happy to be rid of the British. Over the 200 years the British were there, they robbed India of so much of her wealth. Before the British came, India was a very prosperous country, exporting textiles, building ships, manufacturing steel. Then, to eliminate competition with British production, England started taking over and destroying Indian industries. They demolished the handlooms in India and in one case even broke the thumbs of Indian weavers so they could never weave again. What's going to happen to a nation once you start destroying every way they have to make the economy strong?
I incorporated this information into my book—subtly, because I didn’t want to proselytize. What I hear from my readers is, wow, you showed me an India I didn't even know existed. No matter where my readers are from, they now have a new appreciation of the beauty of India, of the kinds of handicrafts that are created there, of the various spices and textiles that I describe in my book, and of her people’s resilience.
Q: Finally, do you have any advice for teen artists of color?
A: Find what is different about you and make art about that; try not to copy what has been done before. Imitation is a good way to learn your craft, but I don't think it’s what's going to make you stand out. To resonate with readers, you need to have passion for what you’re creating. What makes you passionate and fired up to create every day is going to be different from someone else’s intention.
Also, create because you need to create, not because you want to find success. Don’t do it for the money because that’s not true art; I don’t think that gets you where you want to be. After all, creating art is a long-term endeavor. Creating takes time and experience. It took me years to write and publish “The Henna Artist.” I had to learn to be patient with myself and give myself time to make it the best book that it could be.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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