Author Veera Hiranandani (The Whole Story of Half a Girl) has always wanted to write stories that reflect her own experiences. The main character from her new novel The Night Diary, Nisha, a shy, bookish child from a mixed background (Hiranandani is Jewish and Hindu, while Nisha is Muslim and Hindu), fits that description — albeit with one major difference: Nisha lives in 1947 India, at the beginning of the dangerous, tumultuous period of Partition, when the country was split into two independent nations now known as India and Pakistan.
Although she’d never written historical fiction before, Hiranandani was drawn to the history of the Partition of India both personally and professionally. That curiosity manifested in The Night Diary, a middle-grade novel that illuminates the event. Below, Hiranandani talks to EW about history, identity, and the choices that brought The Night Diary to life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are there specific authors that have influenced your writing?
VEERA HIRANANDANI: [Growing up], I read Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl. I just fell in love with the act of reading, and I think it helped keep me company as a little bit of a lonely, shy kid. [As an adult], I wanted to write a book that was for that kid… Even though I related to a lot of the characters I was reading because of their universal aspects, because of my mixed background, I never really saw myself specifically in any books. So the first book I wrote, The Whole Story of Half a Girl, was definitely sort of giving myself the book that I never had.
One series that was really meaningful to me was Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. It’s about a Jewish family in the Lower East Side of New York. [One] side of my family is Jewish, and I envied their solid sense of identity. I didn’t really find that [on] my South Asian side. I felt those influences more as an adult.
What made you choose to write about the Partition of India?
My father was born in what is now Pakistan, and he and his family had to leave during the Partition of India. He was around 9 in 1947, and he left the village Mirpur Khas — which is where Nisha leaves and goes to Jodhpur — and he also made the same journey. So this was a story that I grew up with, but it was something that I found out about in bits and pieces. It was a painful part of my father’s history, and it wasn’t something he was really excited to share with me growing up. But I just became more and more curious about it and as I got older we would talk about it more. I often reference the movie Gandhi because I saw it when I was 11. I’d heard a bit about Partition [and] how I was connected somehow to this piece of history. But when I saw it on an American movie screen, I realized the magnitude of the history. My father’s family was lucky — they had to leave their home and community, but they survived. They weren’t attacked, they didn’t go through any huge violent episodes. [They] had to start over, and it was a real loss, but at the same time, they were some of the luckiest people during that time.
Nisha is both Muslim and Hindu in The Night Diary. Why did you conceive of her that way?
Because my family is Hindu, I wanted her to be going in the direction that a Hindu would travel during that time, and having to leave what became Pakistan. I would talk to my father and get information that would echo that part of the history. And the questions that I have about Partition in general. There was sort of a mounting frustration, but it just completely exploded very quickly, and many communities that were completely peaceful were suddenly overcome by fear and mistrust. [The] results were shocking and devastating, and I think to this day nobody really fully understands them. I mean, I’ve done a lot of research now, and I still can’t fully understand it.
My favorite part of the book is the sibling dynamic between Nisha and her brother Amil. It’s so tender and loving and well realized, and I think it’s a very grounding aspect for the story.
Thank you. When I first started writing the book, years ago, the main character was actually a boy. I think I was sort of modeling it on a younger version of my father. But as I wrote, I wasn’t fully connecting to the character deeply enough. So I gave that character a sister, and then she became a twin sister, and that twin sister became the main character. Certainly the symbolic aspect of twins; they’re two halves of each other in a way in that some of their personal weaknesses they fill in for each other. I also have a son and a daughter, and as I wrote the book over the years, my son and daughter were getting older. And their relationship was evolving, and I was observing that as a mother. So it’s all those things, it’s my father, it’s me, it’s my son and daughter. Those were all the pieces to create them. I didn’t want them to be alone, you know, I wanted both of them to have each other.
Amil seems to be dyslexic in the novel. Where did that character detail come from, and why did you feel that was important to include?
Well, I don’t label disabilities in the novel because I felt like they wouldn’t be labeled back then, necessarily. It’s not like they would have gone through the whole process that people go through now, to figure out and diagnose what somebody might be struggling with. So I purposely left them unnamed and up for interpretation. I have had experiences as a parent with children having learning disabilities, but I don’t like to get too into it because of just the privacy of my kids. But I think that’s where that comes from, just being a parent that way, and observing learning disabilities close up … I tend to be attracted to portraying characters who feel outside of things in some way, for a number of different reasons.
In some ways Nisha has a fairly modern family: She grows up with a single dad, and parents with different religions, although their household is pretty secular. Their father also teaches them tolerant beliefs.
Those certainly were my own influences growing up; I grew up with parents [of] two different religions, but also in a very secular household. It was something that felt familiar to me. I do think that even though there were so many communities and people during that time, I think a lot of people felt like, ‘I’m an Indian, I’m don’t necessarily feel I am a Hindu, or a Muslim, or Sikh, or Christian, I’m an Indian first and foremost.’ I think that creating Papa, who felt that way, just felt real to me. My father talked about growing up in Mirpur Khas—it was a very blended community, and people would celebrate each other’s holidays, and people didn’t really divide themselves that way.
Towards the end of the book, there is some violence that is pretty brutal. I’m sure that’s a consideration, when you’re writing for young readers, about what you’re going to include. Did you consider different ways of delivering that part of the story?
Yes, it was something I thought about for a really long time. I think that when you read, when you study the history of Partition, it’s just so shockingly bloody and disturbing. There are so many images from that time: dead bodies piled up in alleys, and people just destroyed and dismembered, and the violence against women was just so terrible and so disturbing. I really wanted to share this story with young people, because I think it’s an important story, a global piece of our history that especially in this country isn’t studied very often. But then, how do I balance that? How am I truthful to the history without being inappropriate for young readers? So I felt like I would show just enough to be truthful to the pain and the violence without going over that line.
The story certainly has a hopeful ending, but not all of it is resolved. Why was it important to you to end on a note where not everything is quite figured out?
Again, I feel like that is more true to life, that whatever obstacles you’re facing, you move a little bit at a time. If it’s a hopeful ending, it’s moving towards what you hope to be, what you aspire to be. But at the same time, those kinds of changes tend to take a long time. I felt like they were starting over, and there was hope that Nisha would find her strength, and find connection.