Sonali Dev On Bollywood Cinema, Writing Complicated Relationships, And The Scenes That Still Make Her Laugh Out Loud
In Sonali Dev’s The Vibrant Years, readers are treated to a compassionate examination of the very complicated relationships among three generations of women. Bindu Desai is a glamorous grandmother living an orderly life in Florida with her former daughter-in-law, the tightly wound Ali. When Bindu unexpectedly inherits a million dollars from a mysterious figure from her past, it upends her serene existence. Bindu impulsively buys a luxury condo in Naples, and she and Ali are forced to confront living on their own for the first time in years. Ali has been stuck in a holding pattern at the news station where she works, and uses her newfound independence as a chance to finally pursue the promotion that’s forever been dangled in front of her. Meanwhile, Ali’s daughter Cullie, a tech wunderkind, must deliver a new app for her investors. When they buy her half-baked pitch for a dating app, the romantically challenged mother enlists the help of her conveniently single mother and grandmother to test-drive her new invention. What follows is a hilarious comedy of manners, as the three women grapple with hilariously horrendous first dates, reappearing exes, and long-buried secrets. Critics have heaped praise on Dev’s latest book. Publishers Weekly raved, “This effervescent tale is sure to please the author’s fans and win her new ones” and Kirkus Reviews hailed it as “an intergenerational tale of self-discovery and the relationships that matter most.”
The book starts with Bindu, who’s this very glamorous, larger than life woman who’s described as “trouble” at the beginning of the novel. Can you talk about Bindu and what appealed to you about her as a main character?
Absolutely. I think for one she was the seed for this novel. There’s a reason why. I grew up in India and I grew up watching Bollywood films. My earliest memories of the Bollywood films are from when I was very young. These were films of the sixties, seventies and eighties, which were very over the top, very larger than life. There is some stylistic influence on all my writing from this, but specifically with Bindu, there was this phenomenon in these films that I watched growing up where the heroine character was always the good girl. This was often a sari-wearing, long-haired, doe-eyed, modest woman who was definitively the good girl, the girl you took home to your family. Then there was the vamp—that was the word for these women. The vamp was the slinky-dress-wearing, whiskey in one hand, cigarette in the other, hyper-Westernized, hyper-sexualized character. It was always never the twain shall meet. It was an insidious message being given to me as a young girl—and to all the other young girls who were watching this, or to all women—about what makes the kind of girl who has a family and who’s respectable as opposed to a girl who exists for the enjoyment of men.
Even before I could identify it, it struck me as something was wrong here, or something was off. As I grew up I started to be fascinated by this kind of woman, because I knew a lot of women growing up, including my mom, who were very comfortable with who they were, who were comfortable with their bodies, and were comfortable with their sexuality, yet there was nothing in society telling us that was okay. I was fascinated by this vamp trope. I wondered about the women who played these vamps, and the interesting thing was I’d read interviews where once you got typecast into that role, on either side of the divide, you could never make the crossover. If you wanted to be a heroine in Hindi films of the time, if you took a role as a vamp you were never going to be a heroine. You were always going to be relegated there, because In the audience’s mind there was no crossover between those two women.
I was fascinated by these actresses who were playing these women who were comfortable with their sexuality, who were comfortable in the role of being the “bad girl.” I was really fascinated with what kind of person you had to be to thwart society’s rules in that way, to throw off the norms of that period, or to take on this person who you think had the right to exist. Going from there, future generations of women in India had these role models. and over time these two [archetypes] have mixed. That would never have happened without these women. I was very fascinated with what the mental makeup of a woman in the fifties, sixties, and seventies might be, because I think it took a certain kind of courage and a certain kind of comfort in your skin. I think that’s where Bindu came from for me. That ownership of your body and the price you sometimes had to pay and what that meant for the rest of your life. Bindu is an exploration of that and a result of me being fascinated by this way that society labeled women.
Bindu has a very complex relationship with her former daughter-in-law, where their lives are still very intertwined despite Aly no longer being married to Bindu’s son. Can you talk about how you came up with the relationship between these two women, who still have this incredible bond and support system?
There are a few things there. For one, I think we live in a time when divorce is such a common thing. Obviously when two people stop getting along, all the other people in their lives don’t automatically break relationships that they’ve taken time to build. There’s that obvious piece, but I think specifically making the choice to make this a story about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, as opposed to the story about a bond between a mother and a daughter, which we see so much more of and which has more of the commonality across experience. For me this was an important thing to speak to, because I feel like we’ve been lied to so much about that relationship. In Indian culture, not very long ago, maybe just a generation back, when a woman got married, she left—and I’m italicizing all the words as I say them—she left her parents’ home and became a part of her husband’s family. It was actually a break and kind of reassignment in your entire identity about where you belong—that happened. Women were largely given only the space of their domestic life, the home and the kitchen, as the place for them to prove themselves and as a place to build their identity. In that realm, you were always in competition with your mother-in-law, because she was the boss of that space. When you went in there, your life arc was becoming the boss until your son brought his wife home.
That was the only choice women were given. When there was any kind of disagreement there, you were laughed at and you were blamed for putting other women down, for being competitive, when it was simply a matter of having the space where you wanted to excel and the standards of excellence were the other people who had already existed there. This happened in day-to-day life for men in their workplaces. Because [the home] was the woman’s workplace, it just so happened that it was also her whole life.
I feel like so much of that context gets lost. The characterization of that relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, where it’s given that one note of being a competitive relationship, or being a negative kind of bond. That’s absolutely not true. In my own life, my mother-in-law and I have had vastly different life experiences. I’ve had so much more opportunities, I’ve had so many more choices, I’ve had so many more avenues to prove my identity, to do my work. She had far less choices, yet in every interaction we have what I get from her is “you can now do this and you absolutely should.” There is no pulling down, there is no holding back, when that would be natural given that you didn’t have the same opportunities.
This is what I’ve seen in my real life. This is what I’ve seen between my mother and her daughter-in-law, and my mother and her mother-in-law, where women have understood the natural progression for them and also the unnatural progression that they’ve had to fight for. These women have fought for us and one piece of that has been watching the next generation have what you didn’t have. That’s why I think the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is where this can really be shown. In terms of story, it’s really rich for showing what women want for other women, because traditionally the story told is often adversarial, when that’s not always the case. That’s only the case because of certain reasons where the context is often lost, and that’s why it was important for me to make this a story about that.
Cullie is a brilliant coder and app developer, and we get to see her process of developing several apps throughout the book. What was your research process like to capture the intricacies of her profession?
I think my life has really prepared me for that. I worked in technology for twenty years as a technical writer. Before that, in grad school I’d taken a few coding classes. My son is a programmer and codes, my nephews do, a lot of my family does. That piece was really easy for me in terms of the detail. As I was telling the story, when I had to think about what would Cullie do in a particular situation, all I had to do was pick up the phone and ask my son, “She’s trying to do ‘xyz.’ What would happen? What is the language I would use?” Even with the details of the app itself, I did interviews with my nephews who are programmers, my son who’s a programmer, and friends who have done this for a living for a very long time.
We actually watch her go through the creative process. When I was writing the book that was not actually in there. I will often give my books to subject matter experts and sensitivity readers to make sure I’m getting deep enough into the topic and really nailing it. I have a programmer friend who said to me, “There would actually be notes and papers and flow charts.” I was able to look at the ones she actually did while she was coding a product, so then it was easier for me to roll that into the story. It was just personal connections and then a whole lot of talking to friends who do this for a living.
Even when I’m writing stories, [there’s] that creative process of thinking you’re trying to do something and then realizing that you can’t do it until you fully understand what you’re trying to do. Until you fully understand what you’re trying to say, the story just feels off. There’s this moment when you’re writing any story that everything falls into place, because you’ve finally understood what it is you’re trying to say. It’s the same cycle for Cullie with these projects, where as long as she doesn’t know what she wants to do, she can’t do it. As soon as she knows what she wants to do, she can do it. That was again a very close thing to my heart, because I do it on a daily basis.
All three women go on some truly horrible dates that are laugh out loud funny. Were those scenes as fun to write as they were fun to read?
I have to first say that I have benefited from the pain of some of my closest friends a little bit. Every one of my single friends who have been doing this whole whatever this modern dating thing is, the stories are the kind of stuff that make you say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” because really they’re so horrific. I couldn’t make up a situation as bizarre as the situations some of my friends were actually encountering. It was so much fun to just come up with something, because nobody’s going to read this and say, “Oh, that stuff never happens.” If you’ve been on a dating app, you know that absolutely anything can happen. (laughs) I did have a lot of fun with that.
I literally sat down and thought, “What would be my nightmare? What would be the worst thing that could happen to me?” Specifically with Aly, she’s so guarded, what would be the worst thing for someone who takes herself so seriously? And it would be to have that protective shell ripped off in the funniest possible way. The same thing for Cullie. In many ways she takes herself so seriously, what would be the most ridiculous thing to happen to her? And Bindu who thinks of herself as this earth mother who is so open minded, what would be really funny about that? I did actually list a whole lot of wild scenarios, but then these were the ones that—specifically for these women—were ripping their specific shells off. I just had a blast with it. I will say that, to date, I will read those scenes and crack myself up. That is the best feeling in the world! My husband will laugh at me, “Are you laughing at your own book?” I’m like, “Yes it’s so funny!” (laughs)
The book takes place in Naples, Florida, and is so specific in terms of its sense of place. How did you arrive at setting the book there?
I get that question a lot. Of course, if you’re thinking about retirement communities in America, your mind goes to Florida first. It was the obvious choice. On a personal level, I have a very dear friend whose aunt and uncle migrated to America from India back in the sixties. They have done remarkably well for themselves and have this rich, big life. About five years ago, they retired and moved into this really luxurious retirement community in Naples where I visited them. When I did, I had so many feelings about immigration and fitting in. So much of my own life experience and my stories are about making your adopted home a home. That journey is very unique. It’s filled with fun, ambition, and seeking out adventure, but it’s also a displacement about trying to find your space and constantly dealing with an outside gaze that gauges whether or not you have a right to that space. That’s always happening in the immigrant experience. Who you come up against either treats you like you’re part of the space and you have the right to be there, or there’ll be confused by what you’re doing there, which is telling you essentially that this space is not for you. Whether we block it off or whether we let it in, it’s part of the immigrant experience.
This was a very interesting thing. This couple has been here for more than forty years now. They have children and grandchildren who were born and raised here and have contributed an incredible amount to life and the country and all of that. Yet there was a slight—and I hate saying this—but there was this slight disconnect between them and their space. For one it’s a new space; I’ve always seen them in their home in Chicago. It was a very interesting experience for me. It fed this story a whole lot and that’s where the setting came from specifically. I wanted to really get into what it means when people with one experience encounter people with another experience. Often it’s, “Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky! I’m so glad that didn’t happen to me.” Or often it could be, “Oh, I’ve missed out on this. Why didn’t I know this existed? Why didn’t I know I could be this?” We’re constantly doing that, and age is no barrier to that, because we’re constantly gauging ourselves against everything outside of us. That’s why I picked Naples. That thing struck me so much as being such a unique and rich experience that would feed the story.
And finally, what role have libraries played in your life?
I love that question. I grew up in India and let me just say we do not have a public library system that is anywhere near what we have in this country. When I first moved here, it was one of my most delightful discoveries and one of my greatest joys. I remember walking into a public library and thinking, “What, this is all free? I can just be here and I can take anything out of here?” I remember having this moment of almost operatic gratitude. I was completely blown away.
Since then, I raised my children almost inside a public library. We were in Ypsilanti. They built this beautiful library walking distance from home. My punishment for my kids for not finishing homework was, “We’re not going to the library!” (laughs) They would do anything—literally anything—to go to the library. We had this tradition that went from their toddler years all the way through middle school. We would come back with piles of books, get in bed, lotion our feet, and read as long as we wanted. That was the greatest treat. Imagine the three of us cuddled up in beds, under the comforters, lovely smelling lotion on our feet, socks on, and piles of books. My kids are home for Thanksgiving and—I’m not making this up—they are at the library picking up my holds for me! It’s just a part of our life. For our family, it’s been a second home. Anytime I’m able to speak at a library or do anything it’s such a special thing. I can never say no to anything I do with public libraries.