Good morning, everyone!
Happy Labor Day, if you’re in the United States, and thanks so much for stopping by the blog today!
Today, I am joined by authors Vanshika Prusty, Elly Ha, and Megan Manzano in conversation about the anthology the three are in, along with 11 other fabulous authors. The four of us are here today to talk not only about the collection itself, but also the way it came about, the authors’ individual stories, and the particular challenges that came with writing about faith, and much more!
So, please enjoy the interview, and don’t forget to enter for a chance to win a copy of the anthology for yourself!
Keep faith, in the broad sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be a religion, unless you want it to be. It doesn’t have to speak about the universe, unless you want it to. It doesn’t have to be about anyone but yourself. Keep faith, in other planets and other houses; be it in the face of danger, grief, or while you spread your arms and laugh. Keep faith the same way you keep hope, bright and shiny, ever present. Keep faith in all your queer, beautiful self. Because you deserve it.
This is an anthology of 14 short stories, by 14 queer authors, where faith and queerness intersect. Incidental, purposeful, we-exist-and-that’s-why queerness. And faith meaning whatever you want it to mean.
NICKY: Good morning, y’all! I’m so excited y’all agreed to come by to talk with me about your wonderful anthology, KEEP FAITH!
VANSHIKA: Morning Mate! It’s a pleasure to be here!
ELLY: Good morning, and thank you thank you!
MEGAN: Morning! Thanks for having us onboard.
NICKY: Now, Gabhi talks about this a bit in the collection’s introduction, but can y’all tell us about how the anthology came about, and the process of putting it all together?
VANSHIKA: Gabhi approached me a few months ago about this anthology because, as she mentioned in the introduction, a friend of ours’ partner was going through a really rough patch. I was onboard because this community of writers has been so welcoming to me, it’s almost like another family. So if someone needs help, and I can help, I will do my utmost.
After everyone agreed, we came up with a timeline on drafting, editing, and publishing the anthology, and here we are now.
ELLY: Similarly to Van, Gabhi DM’d me about a friend’s situation and asked if I could pitch in a short story. It’s been a year since I wrote anything substantial, thanks to writer’s block and general depressive life stuff post-graduation, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to get back on my feet with writing. Plus, I am always, always down to help the writing community out in any way I can. They are some of my coolest, most relatable friends.
MEGAN: My story is similar to both Vanshika’s and Elly’s. Gabhi sent me a DM about the anthology and the reason behind it and I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. The writing community is a huge part of my life and I’ve met some great people through it. The anthology also forced me to finish a story, which I haven’t done in years due to depression and balancing agenting with editing and my own personal writing goals. Keep Faith, with its deadlines and enthusiasm, pushed write again and love it.
NICKY: That’s really amazing, and it’s wonderful to see so many of y’all come together like this to help! *smiles* Before we get into more questions, can each of y’all summarize your own stories for us?
VANSHIKA: Of course! My story, Droplets of Starlight, is a quiet, contemporary story about a girl, Payal, struggling with understanding where she belongs in her society and her gods as a bisexual girl in India; and how she feels about her childhood frenemy turned best friend turned crush.
ELLY: Life is a Story of Change is a semi-autobiographical story about an unnamed Korean American MC whose life has been an anxious, depressive trash fire with only two constants—that she is asexual and aromantic, and that her best friend is a brown boy named Julius. We follow her relationship with Julius from middle school to college, and how they became friends because of an obscure anime they both watched, to enemies, to lovers. Her constants in life, therefore it seems, never really stay constant, and she eventually has trouble reconciling that fact.
MEGAN: Bigger Than Us is about two teens, Jude and Mari, who have to face a reality they had been ignoring since they were children— Jude could be a Mage. In the country of Aurora, Mages are reincarnations of Gods and are immediately whisked away by the government to become servants of the people. Jude always believed she was meant for this path, but falling in love with Mari threw a rather large wrench in her future. She has to reconcile being a Mage with her love for Mari and if ultimately, either is worth keeping.
NICKY: Wow, all three of these sound incredible and exciting! As we know, the connecting theme is the intersection of queerness and religion/faith, which I’d imagine is a difficult one to write about if that is particularly fraught in your own lives. Can you talk a bit about any challenges you experienced in writing your story?
VANSHIKA: I wrote the story when I was in desperate need for a story like it.
When I returned to Canada at the age of sixteen, I figured out I was bisexual in a conversation with an ex-friend. I realized then that I had to do a lot of unlearning of internalized bigotry I’d learned from my mostly conservative family and family friends. It resulted in my believing that, to be successful in my unlearning, I had to reject everything about me from before, including my faith.
It was perhaps the worst years of my life (2015-2017) when I started rejecting my faith, and then my culture, and finally everything that made me who I am. When I turned eighteen, a mix of screaming matches and declining mental health led me to my knees, sobbing in front of RadhaKrishna. I don’t really know how I got there, but I understood then that it was unfair of me to reject my faith.
I started writing this story as a result of my journey back to my faith when I was 18. And because I desperately needed this story, I wrote it.
ELLY: I pretty much teared up at like, every section. Because it took so much from my own life story, I kept thinking the same questions my MC was thinking. As a high schooler, I had no doubts that I was ace. My best friend was just my best friend who was in love with me. Then we had a big, honestly childish, fight that created a two-year void in my life. I went to college, fell deeper into depression, and my anxiety became super apparent. When my best friend came back into my life again and we both started loving each other, I had to ask the same questions the MC asks: “Am I still ace? How? In what capacity?”
So I guess I wrote this to really probe the question of how fluid sexuality is, and also how much I want to cling to my label. It’s been a sense of security for me. I’ve always known that the one unchanging fact about me was my sexuality, that I was asexual and aromantic. And now that that’s kind of up in flames, I didn’t know where to turn to for answers if not in writing.
What I gleaned from writing this was that I needed to have faith in myself, because I’m the only one who can decide what and who I am. And if I’m not sure what my sexuality is right now, that’s totally okay as long as I can make peace with it.
MEGAN: Faith and sexuality have always been two forces in my life. I was raised Catholic–religious education lessons, Sunday school, you name it–but once I got older and began discovering more of who I was, my faith became less clear. Queerness in my faith was questionable, in some places, the thing that could send you to Hell. That realization just didn’t sit right with me. I spent a lot of time asking how could people, who were generally good otherwise, be damned because they were queer?
My family, thankfully, didn’t align themselves with that belief, but it didn’t help answer the question racking around in my brain.
As I got older, I walked away from faith. This is a choice not everyone can have or everyone finds easy, but I’ve been fortunate in the sense that it was the right decision for me. I think this questioning unintentionally went into Bigger Than Us. I knew I wanted to write a story about magic and queerness and deciding if love is the end all motivation, but I didn’t have an exact plan when I started. Reading the final draft, I’m honestly surprised I didn’t see the connection sooner. It does explain why nailing the ending took so long because Jude was on the same path I was as a teen.
NICKY: Thank you all for sharing this. The journey you talk about, Megan, is very similar to the one that I went through as well. Faith and identity are such deeply person, complex topics. Now, in addition, were there any aspects of writing your story that you found to be easy (or, easier) and you just breezed through?
VANSHIKA: When I was describing the stars, but is that really a surprise to anyone ahaha.
ELLY: Definitely the banter between the two characters. It’s quite literally how my boyfriend and I talk, haha.
MEGAN: The easiest part was writing the relationship. I’m a sucker for angst and that’s what my two main characters bring to the table.
NICKY: Tell us some details about the main character in your story! Elly, you’ve indicated as much, but Vanshika and Megan, are they autobiographical in any way? What’s something y’all think is most important for us to know about them?
VANSHIKA: My main character, Payal, isn’t too much like me, I don’t think. She shares my love for stars, Bollywood music and aloo bhujia, but otherwise, I think I’m much more like Zoya, the love interest in the story.
Payal is an introvert who, I think, would want to explore the stars with the love of her life by her side one day. She loves any book that’ll make her heart ache, any food that’ll burn her tongue, and any lehenga that’ll make her seem like a princess. And she has a deep, unending love of her gods. That’s the thing I related to most when I wrote her.
She cannot fathom a world in which her gods aren’t a part of her life. And it tears her apart to think that, according to the Hindu extremists Politicians and others like them, she’s disgusting to her gods. That something so integral to who she is, her sexuality, is also something her gods hate her for. I tried to depict that similarly to how I’d felt, and as respectfully as I could. It was important to me that Payal, and every other kid like me and her, knew that no god existed who hated their worshippers’ happiness.
ELLY: MC is definitely like me, a writer, but we differ in that she’s much more open about her feelings. She’s much more open to talking about her feelings. She’s able to realize that she created a problem by not talking about it. We are similar in that we’re unsure how to navigate love, especially when all your life, you’ve never felt romantically attracted to anyone.
Julius is a poet, which is how MC began to fall in love with him. He’s also six-feet tall and resembles a jock with his long-ish black hair and deep brown skin, but secretly, he’s a soft boy who just wants cuddles and hand holding.
One very important thing to know about these two: they are actually lifted straight out of one of my manuscripts called The Beauty of Broken Things. I simply gave them different names and masked their backgrounds a bit. So if you like this story, you’ll love the actual book this is based off!
MEGAN: Jude is the person I wish I was in particular situations. She’s stubborn, uncompromising, and has unshakable confidence. She’s always felt she knows where she belongs in life and what steps she needs to take to get there which is very different from me. It took me a little while to get to where I am today and I still think there’s work to be done.
What we definitely share is the softness/affection towards our romantic partners. Jude’s girlfriend is the one person who challenges her goals and the one person Jude has let herself fall for. She becomes a softer version of herself with Mari and allows some of her vulnerabilities to show (though if you ask Jude if she has weaknesses, she’ll personally say no, Lol). I’m similar in the sense that I’m generally not an affectionate person except for those I’m in a relationship with.
NICKY: All of them sound like such great characters! What’s one bit of advice you wish someone had given you, that might’ve eased your mind, when you started your own journey towards understanding queer identity, religion/faith, and how they could intersect in your own life?
VANSHIKA: It’s okay to not be what’s expected of you. It’s okay to be who you think is best for you. Queerness is not one experience fits all. The beauty of being queer is that you can make it what you need it to be. You don’t have to change yourself to be a part of the LGBTQIAP+ community.
ELLY: Sexuality is definitely fluid, just like gender is. You can be a little ace, a little aro. You can be just ace and aro, without having to explain what that means. If you’re queer, you’re queer.
MEGAN: It’s okay if your identity changes or if you don’t have all the words you need at your disposal yet. You’ll find what works to best feel at home in your own skin.
NICKY: Damn, I wish someone had told me these as well. They would’ve gone a long way to help, I think! And now a few quick, fun questions! If you can, please share a few songs that would go on a playlist for your story!
VANSHIKA: Happily! I even made a playlist for it: https://music.apple.com/ca/playlist/droplets-of-starlight/pl.u-qxyl0WYtX4zppJ
ELLY: YES. Well, actually, this is the playlist for that full-length novel I mentioned earlier! https://open.spotify.com/playlist/04xKcJJBqnOcMm8SBJjSRI?si=goLsoe0oRCez2YthtpqX5g
MEGAN: I don’t have a playlist on hand, but here are my top three songs to listen to for Bigger Than Us:
NICKY: Great lists, and featuring some of my favorite artists! If your main character could only drink one thing for the rest of their life, what would they choose?
VANSHIKA: Chai with crushed ginger, the way her Papa makes it!
ELLY: MC would choose bubble tea, specifically honey milk green tea. Julius would probably choose Kashmiri chai.
MEGAN: Iced coffee with a splash of milk and no sugar.
NICKY: Recommend us a few books! Some good ones you’ve read lately, some of your favorites, some that your story’s characters would read, etc.
VANSHIKA: If y’all read just one book this year, make it The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with my story, but my gods, am I glad it exists. It’s such a phenomenal novel and deserves literally all the awards.
Some books that Payal would read, besides TPW, would be There’s Something About Sweetie, for sure, because Sandhya is a freaking genius with words. Running With Lions would be one of her absolute favourite books because Julian Winters’ writing is breathtaking and captivating as f—. And anything by Roshani Chokshi would be at the top of her TBR the minute it was announced.
Zoya would fall in love with Laura E. Weymouth’s debut, The Light Between Worlds, and Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost. Some of her all time favourites would be Alisha Rai’s Hate To Want You, Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana, and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire.
ELLY: I haven’t been able to read much this year considering I graduated college and started a full time job, BUT… Like Vanshika, if you can handle gore and very mature content, I highly recommend The Poppy War and the sequel, The Dragon Republic.
MC and Julius both would recommend The Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds for some pretty intense feels, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad for lush storytelling a la Roshani Chokshi, and for murderous fun, Wicked Saints by Emily Duncan.
My bookshelf is huge and full of books I need to read, but alas, how do I stop procrastinating on reading?? So, here are some of those books I glance every day and long to flip through: Girls of Paper and Fire, Descendant of the Crane, Jade War, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, We Hunt the Flame, and so so many more. I know, I’m a terrible author for being a terrible reader!
MEGAN: Some of my all time faves that you should read/put on your TBR are Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim, Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Bruja Born by Zoraida Cordova, They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera, Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody, How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters, Proxy by Alex London, and Forest of A Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao.
Jude would definitely love Forest of A Thousand Lanterns because it stars a morally grey protagonist. She’d also highly recommend Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer for not only the reason above, but for the super cool world building of a monster black market.
NICKY: Several of these are on my TBR, so I’m hype to see y’all enjoyed them! And I’m for sure going to have to check out the ones I’ve not read or heard of! *rapidly takes notes* Alright, y’all, that’s all we’ve got for today. *smiles* Thank you so much, again, for coming by, and I wish you all the success in the world with this collection and your future endeavors!
VANSHIKA: Thank you so much for having us!
ELLY: Thank you for the opportunity! I had a blast answering such fun and thoughtful questions!
MEGAN: Thank you so much for chatting with us. It’s been great!
NICKY: And that wraps up our interview for today! Scroll down a little further to enter the giveaway for a chance to win a copy of KEEP FAITH and read these three amazing stories, and more!