Actress Sheetal Sheth first rose to fame in 1999 with her star turn in the indie film ABCD, in which her role as rebellious Indian-American daughter Nina. The role struck a lasting chord with a generation of children of South Asian immigrants as they connected with Nina’s desire to break away from tradition. Roles in several independent and Hollywood films soon followed.
Sheth is now entering the world of children’s books with the upcoming release of her new picture book Always Anjali, which is set to be released in May. In it, seven-year-old Anjali is dismayed when she realizes that her name marks her as an outsider and declares her desire to change it to her parents. What follows is little Anjali’s journey to accept herself and the characteristics that make her unique.
We reached out to the actress to talk about her first children’s book, her experiences being a South Asian actor in the 1990s, and how she’s parenting two young children in the age of Trump.
The Teal Mango: I was just looking at your bio while preparing for this interview and it seems like you have about five jobs! You’re an actress, producer, writer and now a children’s book author.
Sheetal Sheth: Yes, I am definitely very, very tired but also very happy.
TTM: Tell us how you got the idea for this book and why you wanted to write for children.
Sheth: I’ve been an actor for a long time, but I’ve also worked with kids my whole life. I studied education a lot along with my acting degree at NYU. Then when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I started looking for books to read to her and I just felt really dismayed. There was not a lot of inclusion. I would go to bookstores and I would ask for this type of book and they would say things like ‘well this one has a friend of color.’
There’s definitely been a lot more inclusion in the young adult book world, but in picture books, the ones that are out there seem to center on holidays like Diwali, Holi, and Ramadan or other big events. But our books should be about everything and not just one off events. So I said, ‘Let me take a crack at it.’
TTM: What year was it that you were looking for these books?
Sheth: This was 2014, that’s when my daughter was born, so not that long ago. The process took four years from the idea to writing it to finding an illustrator. I am so thrilled to have the partners I have working on this.
TTM: I was also struck by how relatable the book’s plot is. Anjali gets a bike for her birthday and really wants a license plate with her name on it. But while there are plenty of plates for kids named Amy and Chris, there’s nothing for Anjali. I think a lot of South Asian kids have had that experience.
Sheth: It’s not just South Asian kids, it’s all kids! Everyone who does not have an obvious name has that experience. And really, it shouldn’t happen. Everything should be personalized for everyone. When I got quotes from other authors and people who read the book, a lot of people, from all backgrounds, mentioned how that happened to them. It’s a universal experience in many ways.
TTM: Is that how you got the idea for the story? Do you remember not finding your name on keychains and things when you were a kid?
Sheth: That did happen to me, but the stronger memory for me were things that happened after I graduated from NYU and started auditioning. This was in the late 1990s, so before Mindy Kaling and all of the stars we have today. And after one of my auditions, they asked me, ‘So, which of your names do you want to change?’ And I was just so stunned. Some South Asians had changed their names, but it’s not something that I wanted to do.
Then they told me, ‘The director really likes you and you are the first choice for the role, but they are not comfortable with someone with your name for your part.’ If this happened now, we would tweet it and tell people, but this was the 90s and a lot of things really stunned me.
TTM: Did you give your kids South Asian names? What do you tell them about taking pride in names and their culture?
Sheth: We do talk about it. They don’t have South Asian names, but their names are different because my husband and I are wacky and gave them unusual names. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old and my older daughter has started school now and she comes home now saying things that she never said before. And it’s because the news now, because of this president, there are a lot of things that are not appropriate for children. So you have to shield kids from a lot of things.
TTM: How do you have these conversations about what’s in the news with your older daughter?
Sheth: In my home, we are not Trump fans — no offense to Trump fans — but we’re not. I just say, ‘you know, he’s not very nice’ and we talk about that. The theme of this book is embracing what makes you special.
The book is actually for 3 to 10-year-olds and the reason it is so large is that the meaning of the book changes the more you understand it. The girl the book is about, Anjali, is discovering what is great about herself. When you are a person of color, there are a lot of questions about identity growing up.
Click here to pre-order your book today; expected delivery in May 2018!