South Asian Girls Are the Stars — Not the Sidekicks —in Desi Chick Lit

Harry Potter had us in the back. Now we are front and center.

Kiran Misra
ZORA
Published in
6 min readMar 11, 2020

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An illustration of a South Asian woman reading a book. A rich landscape of a South Asian city emerges from the book.
Illustration: Aishwarya Srivastava

II spent most of my childhood years completely and truly convinced that one day Warner Brothers producers would show up on my doorstep to cast me as Parvati or Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. At the time, my younger sister looked like my twin, and we happened to be in the ballpark of the right age to play the Patil twins—never mind the fact that we lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rather than, say, anywhere in Great Britain. Unsurprisingly, no producers ever showed up on our doorstep. Even when Parvati was recast between the third and fourth movies, casting agents did not head to Cedar Rapids to pluck me from obscurity.

Back then, the Patils were the closest thing I had to young women in literature whose lives I could imagine were somewhat like mine. Yes, they could cast patronuses and eat treacle tarts, and no, our lives really weren’t practically similar. But they were girls who wore their black hair tightly braided down their backs like I did—a classic Indian choti floating in a sea of blond and brunette heads.

For today’s young South Asian American girl, however, there are dozens of opportunities to see ourselves reflected in the pages of our favorite stories, courtesy of the burgeoning canon known as “Desi chick lit.” This broad genre, as defined by Goodreads, encompasses any piece of “popular literature (novels or short stories) written by or about South Asian women.” In reality, they often feature South Asian women of the diaspora trying to straddle cultures and reconcile their South Asian bits with their Western traits.

When I read my first piece of Desi chick lit in middle school, I stopped feeling like I had to try to shove my experiences into the narrative arcs of stories where families ate pot roast at the kitchen table or casually attended sleepovers at their friends’ houses without mounting a carefully planned multipronged parent persuasion strategy in advance.

I felt seen.

In The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, middle-school Sunita comes to terms with her Indian heritage when her grandparents make a yearlong visit to the United States. While I read, I…

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