American Fiction Award 2021 Winner Kudla’s Veena Rao Interacts with Women on Her Book ‘Purple Lotus’

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American Fiction Award 2021 Winner Kudla’s Veena Rao Interacts with Mangaluru Women on Her Book ” Purple Lotus’! She is an award-winning journalist and author who shared some of the inspiration from her debut novel “Purple Lotus” which earned her a 2021 Georgia Author of the Year finalist, a 2021 American Fiction Award, and a finalist place in the multicultural and women’s fiction categories of the 2021 International Book Awards. The interaction was held on 3rd December 2021 at ‘Mount Pleasant’, the residence of Mrs Sabrina Hougaard, in Falnir, Mangaluru who heads ‘Soulo Conversations’, and who organized the event. Purple Lotus book is available on Amazon.

Mangaluru: Hailing from Mangaluru and then migrating to Atlanta in the US, Ms Veena Rao is an award-winning journalist and author. Purple Lotus, her recently released debut novel, is a 2021 Georgia Author of the Year finalist, a 2021 American Fiction Award winner, and an award-winning finalist in the multicultural and women’s fiction categories of the 2021 International Book Awards. She is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of NRI Pulse, an Atlanta-based news publication. She has been recognized by The Limca Book of Records (the Indian version of the Guinness Book of Records) as the first Indian woman to edit and publish a newspaper outside India. When she is not writing or meeting press deadlines, you will find her meditating or photographing the flora and fauna on her wooded walk route.

An interaction with Ms Veena Rao was held on 3rd December 2021 at ‘Mount Pleasant’, the residence of Mrs Sabrina Britto Hougaard, in Falnir, Mangaluru who heads ‘Soulo Conversations’, and who also organized the event, where Veena shared some of the inspiration from her debut novel “Purple Lotus”. Nearly 50 women joined in this interaction, where they asked a bunch of questions pertaining to the “Purple Lotus”book, and Veena responded with appropriate answers. The moderator for the session was Ms Sabrina Hougaard, and the event was sponsored by her husband. It was indeed a great post Diwali and pre-Christmas ‘Soulo Conversations’ celebration at Ms Sabrina’s Britto Hougaard’s Mount Pleasant”!

Award Winning -Author Veena Rao during the Interaction in Mangaluru

Winner of the She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) contest, Purple Lotus is an invaluable #OwnVoices story personalizing the immigrant experience with a universal message: there’s hope even if you feel inadequate, powerless, fearful. It is never too late to take control of your life – we must choose to live, not just exist. Dealing with themes of domestic violence, fighting the patriarchy, and seeking the right to self-determination, Purple Lotus is a story inspired by Rao’s own experiences as an Indian immigrant in Atlanta, GA.

When she was asked to brief about her book and Tara, the character in it, Veena Rao narrated the synopsis saying, “Tara moves to the American South three years after her arranged marriage to tech executive Sanjay. Ignored and lonely, Tara finds herself regressing back to childhood memories that have scarred her for life. When she was eight, her parents had left her behind with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them to make a new life for the family in Dubai”.

The Moderator and Organizer of the Session Ms Sabrina Britto Hougaard

“Tara’s memories of abandonment and isolation mirror her present life of loneliness and escalating abuse at the hands of her husband. She accepts the help of kind-hearted American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances. Then, in a moment of truth, she discovers the importance of self-worth—a revelation that gives her the courage to break free, gently rebuild her life, and even risk being shunned by her community when she marries her childhood love, Cyrus Saldanha”.

Life with Cyrus is beautiful, until old fears come knocking. Ultimately, Tara must face these fears to save her relationship with Cyrus—and to confront the victim-blaming society she was raised within. Intimate and deeply moving, Purple Lotus is the story of one woman’s ascension from the dark depths of desolation toward the light of freedom” ended Ms Veena Rao. Her story begins with a Mark Twain quote: “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”

Her book ‘Purple Lotus’ has received quite a number of praises, to name a few- Newsweek Magazine states ” “Rao’s resonant novel is an ode to the value of personal dignity and the importance of being true to oneself that carries on long after the final chapter.” ; “Touching on themes of abandonment, victimization and tradition, this novel is one of beauty and intimacy.” – Ms. Magazine; “A moving and polished novel that highlights Rao’s literary promise…” – Kirkus Reviews; “This thoughtful, moving novel will appeal to readers who enjoy stories that explore the inner lives of women who are pushing against societal expectations.” – Library Journal; “This book was a beautiful read. Rao’s language is gorgeous. She writes clearly, but her writing reads like music.“- Affinity Magazine; “Rao’s prowess as a writer dazzles across the pages.” – Khabar Magazine; “Rao’s strength in writing is her ability to maintain the mellow milieu even as she powerfully propagates empowerment…” – India Currents; “A polished narrative of survival and empowerment!” – Jaggery Lit, among others. With all these reviews, I think it’s worth your money in buying Veena Rao “Purple Lotus”!

Following the session, Yours Truly of Team Mangalorean had the pleasure of chatting with debut author Veena Rao about her novel, how she tackled topics such as domestic violence and mental illness, and much more. Here are the excerpts from the interview :

Q: Tell us about yourself and your Mangaluru roots?

My book Purple Lotus opens with the scene where my protagonist Tara’s family is moving back to Mangaluru from somewhere in the Northeastern part of the country. That scene is a page out of my own life. I was also six when my family moved to Mangaluru from Cuttack, Orissa. We lived in Mangaluru for ten years. I went to St. Gerosa and then to St. Mary’s High School. I was the middle child. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My dad and brother were fond of reading, and back in those days, we had some wonderful libraries. So, we read a lot and I fell in love with the make-believe world of books very early in life. I think for me escaping into books was a way to cope with the big transition from Cuttack to Mangaluru..

I was a very quiet child. I spoke very little. And so, writing became a way for me to express myself. When I was 12, I declared that I would grow up to become a writer. And so, I started writing detective novels with American detectives for my Indian classmates to read during lunch break. It was the love of writing that got me into journalism. I graduated with a post graduate degree in Economics from the Fergusson College in Pune and subsequently, I got a postgraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Symbiosis University following which I started my career as a journalist.

Q: Your personal experience with Mangaluru and how it influenced your novel?

I was 17 when my family moved from Mangaluru to Pune. But of course, Mangaluru is my hometown, and my roots here are deep. We used to visit my grandparents during summer breaks. So, when I started writing Purple Lotus, it was only natural that I would set it partly in Mangaluru. Most of the Mangaluru parts of the book however are crafted purely from memory. I loved depicting the local foods, culture, the beaches and temples and churches. And unlike Tara the heroine of Purple Lotus, who is left behind in an old crumbling house with her grandparents and uncle, I grew up surrounded with the love of my parents and siblings. Tara’s feelings of loss and abandonment are the outcome of my own research on the themes.

Q: What inspired you to become an author?

I was 12 when I declared to the world that I would grow up to become a world-famous writer. Of course, that dream did not materialize until 40 years later. That’s because I became a journalist, I had a son to raise, a business to run. Forget writing, I didn’t even have the time to read fiction. Finally, about 12 years ago, a friend gave me a copy of the Kite Runner written by an Afghan American writer called Khaled Hosseini. I loved the book. Then I read Hosseini’s second book called a Thousand Splendid Suns and fell so much in love with the two female characters that I was inspired to take up fiction writing again. So, I sat in front of a blank page, and the first words I typed were Purple Lotus, the title of the book.

The Purple Lotus is the symbol of self-awakening. The lotus blooms in murky, stagnant waters but grows unblemished and beautiful. And that’s Tara’s story. My book is about a woman from Mangaluru who moves to the US after an arranged marriage, but is trapped between an abusive marriage on the one side and a patriarchal family that wants her to make peace with her destiny and try harder to keep her husband happy. It’s the story of how a lonely, isolated, vulnerable woman finds the courage to take control of her life and live a full, happy life.

Q : Where did the inspiration for Purple Lotus come from?

Mariam and Laila of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns inspired me to take up creative writing again. I sat with a blank page, and the first thing I typed was the title, Purple Lotus. The lotus is such a beautiful symbol of rising above one’s circumstances. It grows in muddy waters, but rises tall toward the sun. The purple colored lotus is considered rare and symbolizes self-awakening. I suppose I knew what direction the story would take, but I had no story. Writing Purple Lotus was a very long, messy journey where I taught myself to write creatively as the story developed.

Q : An oracle once called you a “Purple Lotus”. What did he mean by that, and why did you pick that name for your debut book?

The lotus germinates and grows in stagnant, murky waters, but rises tall, pure, and beautiful toward the sun. In Indian culture, the lotus is a symbol of rising above one’s circumstances and realizing one’s inner potential. The purple colored lotus was traditionally considered rare. I interpreted the oracle’s words to mean that I am perfect just the way I am, warts and all. We all are. There’s a heroine in each one of us.

Q: What inspired you to write a feminist novel about a woman who overcomes abuse and confronts patriarchy?

I grew up in a vastly patriarchal community. My life’s journey has been all about overcoming my own insecurities and confronting my fears. So, it was very important for me to write about a woman who is introverted, insecure, and fearful, but her life’s journey teaches her not only to overcome external obstacles, but also find her self-worth and believe in her own strength.

Also, I am on the board of a non-profit called Saris to Suits that works at empowering victims of abuse and sexual violence. I work closely with another Atlanta-based organization called Raksha. Through these non-profits, I see instances of domestic abuse all the time. The point of my book is to raise awareness on these topics and normalize conversations around them.

Q: Women empowering other women as an important theme in the book- Explain?

It is a strong sisterhood that helps my protagonist Tara rise above her circumstances. It is the social nurturing and acceptance of her friends that help her grow as a person.

Almost every woman I met during my early years as an immigrant in the USA has empowered me in some way. There’s so much women can achieve through a strong sisterhood, by building each other up. My friends Frances West and Nancy Haden were the inspiration for Ruth and Dottie of Purple Lotus. Alyona, the warm-hearted, feisty Russian character represents several of my own friends, all immigrants like me who call Atlanta home.

Q: What’s the underlying message of Purple Lotus?

The underlying message of the book is self-awakening and hope. You are your own hope– even if you feel vulnerable, fearful, afraid. It’s never too late to take control over your life. I hope the international audience that reads this book will understand that some immigrant women have a harder time breaking free from an abusive relationship because of social factors, or legal dependence, or because of financial dependence on the abuser. And I also hope victims will feel encouraged to seek help. And even if they are not in a position to seek help, I hope my book will encourage them to believe in their own worth.

Q: What was your journey to publishing your book like?

It was riddled with rejections. It took me ten years to write and find a publisher for Purple Lotus. It is very hard to find a foothold in the publishing world in the US. You have to first find a literary agent to represent you, then the agent will find a publisher. And finding an agent who will take risks on an unknown brown author is extremely difficult.

Then in 2019 I entered a manuscript contest from my publisher She Writes Press without hoping for a positive outcome. To my shock and joy, Purple Lotus won the contest and a book and publicity deal. It was one of the most important and joyful moments of my life. Since its release, Purple Lotus has resonated with readers across the world. When my book won the American Fiction Award, the Georgia Author of the Year award, and was a finalist in a few other awards, it felt like the years of hard work, persistence and patience had finally paid off.

Q : What are your future plans?

I am currently working on my second novel. It’s about an immigrant woman from India who finds herself in a small rural town in Georgia (USA) and at the receiving end of casual racism.

Q : How do you define true love?

Love between equals that liberates, uplifts, and lasts a lifetime. But there’s another kind of love that determines who you truly become– self-love. The ability to recognize and honor your own worth is your most powerful armor in life.

Q : What’s the biggest takeaway from your story?

Believe in yourself.

Q : Purple Lotus tackles some difficult topics, such as domestic violence and mental illness. How did you go about approaching these topics?

I think those parts of the story just flowed without any hitches. I approached these topics as a journalist might: I followed the victim closely, but was careful not to make the scenes too graphic or over-the-top. Creative writing is very different from journalistic writing where you don’t let your own feelings or emotions show in your writing. A novel is all about getting the reader invested in your story by affecting them viscerally. And yet, I think I always had my journalistic antenna up while crafting the abuse or mental illness scenes.

Q : What according to you is your greatest strength? If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m a good listener. It’s a valuable quality for a journalist and author. You learn far more by listening than by talking. The downside is that 90% of the chatter is useless… ha ha.

It has taken a long time for me to accept myself, warts and all. I’ve reached a point where I am comfortable in my skin. I wouldn’t want to change one thing about myself, but I do want to continually evolve as a person.

Q : What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

The underlying message of the book is self-awakening and hope. You are your own hope. Even if you feel vulnerable, fearful, afraid. It’s never too late to take control over your life. I hope the international audience that reads this book will understand that some immigrant women have a harder time breaking free from an abusive relationship because of social factors, or legal dependence, or because of financial dependence on the abuser. And I also hope victims will feel encouraged to seek help. And even if they are not in a position to seek help, I hope my book will encourage them to believe in their own worth.

Q: What is your message for aspiring writers?

Read diverse books outside your comfort zone. Write, rewrite and polish until your draft is perfect. Network with other writers because there’s so much to learn about the writing and publishing world from others who are more experienced. Rejection is hard but part of the game. Be prepared not to give up when that happens. I taught myself to write fiction after I started working on my novel. If I could get a book deal, so can any aspiring writer. The publishing industry is more open to diverse voices than it has ever been before. Hone your craft. Write multiple drafts until it is polished to perfection. Be patient and persevere. Your time will come. Be patient and try again. Persistence pays off in the long run. Always.

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