Welcome back to 'Norman Asks' and an even bigger welcome to our special guest, Sajni Patel!
Sajni debuted in 2020 with her book, The Trouble with Hating You, and has continued to write delightful contemporary and YA fiction sprinkled with her gift for love stories that pack a punch below the surface. You don’t have to look far to spot her books – they’ve been featured on more book lists than you can count on all ten fingers.
Norman the Bookworm called Sajni over to slip under the cover of the latest book she’s graced our shelves with, First Love, Take Two (The Trouble with Hating You #2). This second chance romance is overflowing with slow burning chemistry (the best kind) and doesn’t shy away from confronting the tough stuff that follows when two people decide to intertwine their lives.
Keep reading and get ready to be completely charmed by Sajni.
Sajni: Thank you so much for having me here to chat about First Love, Take Two!
I have to say that the second chance trope was the most difficult to write! I don’t think in terms of tropes when I set out to write or develop a story. I tend to go with what feels natural for the story. It’s usually afterward when readers bring it out and I think, oh yeah . . .
Preeti and Daniel’s dating history and undying love for one another was set up in the previous book, The Trouble with Hating You, and my publisher wanted me to write Preeti’s story next. That’s how we initially get to First Love, Take Two. It was either second chances or something entirely different.
I’d toyed around with the idea of Preeti finding new love, but no matter how the story went, she always returned to Daniel. So, that was that! These two needed to have their second chance. I wrote their story to see where it would go and how it would fit into the overall world of theirs, if it was convincing, moving and a natural companion novel for The Trouble with Hating You. Preeti had to stay true to her character and work through the issues that was brought out in the first book, so the second chance direction was, really, the only way to do the story justice.
Sajni: I pored over every word as to make sure I wasn’t offensive. It was a labour of love and respect but also stress and tears. There was a time when I didn’t think I could handle writing this story for various reasons, and I was advised by some to remove Daniel all together, or at least remove the Blackness. Which was extremely triggering and yet solidifying. Once I heard that, I was more determined than ever to write this story and breach the topics of racism and anti-Blackness. How could I not when the issues were fighting against the story in the first place?
A lot of this book stems from personal experience of having dated Black men, and like Preeti, there was a lot of hate and microaggressions to be dealt with. There’s a large community of South Asian and Black couples and we don’t really see much of that in books.
While drawing on personal experiences, I tried to make sure that I stayed away from harmful stereotypes and ran details by Black friends and readers and pushed myself as much as possible to avoid misrepresentation. There had to be a thoughtful approach and removing myself to see this story, Daniel and his family, from the inside and the outside.
There are some readers out there who are disappointed that they didn’t get to see Daniel’s POV, which was a path I wanted to take at one point. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. Around the time I finished the original version, George Floyd’s horrific murder occurred here in the United States and it unleashed a movement addressing racism. We needed to be angry and upset and push for accountability and open discussion and stop anti-Blackness. At that point, I realized telling Daniel’s story, including how racism affects him, was not my place to tell. I couldn’t, in good conscience, write the Black man’s POV and tell his story.
There was some pushback when I decided to rewrite the entire book solely in Preeti’s POV, but I felt that it was the right thing to do. Sure, I could say that as an author, it’s my job to write outside my space or that I know what it’s like because I dated Black men and they’ve told me how these aggressions felt/I saw their reactions first-hand. But, no. I really do not know what it’s like to be a Black man, much less one facing racism. Let’s be clear, there is a lot of joy, pain and nuances that I wouldn’t have been able to capture, and the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt someone.
Sajni: I drew on my personal experiences suffering with mental health, from anxiety and panic attacks to severe depression to touch aversion. Perhaps that’s why it’s regarded as genuine. It comes from a real place.
I actually cut back on some things so it wasn’t all darkness in Preeti’s head as it sometimes feels like in my head. Mental health is a seldom-addressed topic in the South Asian community and in society in general. Since Covid, we’ve been more open about starting conversations and normalizing mental health, whether it’s admitting something is wrong, taking time for ourselves without feeling guilty, seeking therapy or treatment, empathizing with others, seeing the signs, speaking up, etc. Mental health is a large component to our overall health and many people suffer across the spectrum from small amounts of stress to chronic and life-altering issues.
I was simply putting myself and my experiences into the book, but it became more. It became a way to open conversation and I can’t believe the sheer amount of readers who’ve told me that they felt so seen and how this book is helping them deal with their mental health and opening conversation in their own lives. I would never have guessed upon such an impact, and I’m humbled, but more importantly, grateful that this story has helped someone. And that is worth all the doubts and fears and stress I had while writing the book.
As with everything I write, I strive to be mindful of how my words are perceived. I didn’t want to cause any harm, so there was a lot of research involved. I tried to avoid brushing over anything and instead aimed to give readers a more immersive understanding or relatability, as well as avoid stereotypes.
Sajni: I always joke that I must’ve been hungry when I was writing! There is always plenty of food in all of my books. Food is a social and personal thing that brings us together.
In my family, we revolve around food and food is how we show love for each other. We always feed others, to the point where it’s a fault. Festivities and gatherings are reasons to share meals and eat together. We see how much Daniel’s grandparents love to feed their loved ones, including Preeti, and how this is a moment of bonding. We see how Daniel, even while being upset with Preeti, takes care of her through food. We also have some fun, sexy pancake moments!
On a personal level, food brings us comfort and can be a soothing balm. Preeti finds solace in tacos and southern pies and with her mother’s cooking, and even though Preeti can’t cook, bless her heart, she tries to cook for others. There’s a scene where she’s making cha (Indian tea) for her dad because it’s really the only thing that she can make for him and it’s a lovely, father/daughter moment that speaks louder than words.
Sajni: Thank you! I tried my best to create this girl group of friends, each one different than the last but all connected by incredibly fierce bonds. I’m so flattered that so many readers love this world enough to want to keep reading about these characters. Liya was the lead character in the first book, The Trouble with Hating You, and Preeti with First Love, Take Two. There’s currently nothing slated for Reema and Sana. That’s not to say there never will be, but alas, nothing in the works. However, I do have many books set for release in the next few years, and I hope readers will join me in exploring new worlds with new characters!