For the Midsummer 2021 Espoon Fantasia -group interviewed India born, US raised and Finland based author Mintie Das, whose book Brown Girl Ghosted came out just before Covid in US and is now available in Finnish as Kuolleetkin ghostaa. You can find Mintie from her homepage or check her Instagram. You can read the interview also in Finnish.
When was the last time you visited the library? Did you have a specific reason?
I live within walking distance from Oodi which is such a bright, beautiful space to just hang out at, checking out books.
What do libraries mean to you? Do you have a library related memory?
My father and I share a love of libraries and some of my earliest memories are of me “helping” him find research books at our local university library which was a beautiful, modern five story building that towered over my small American hometown. Also, since we lived in a lot of countries growing up, one of the first things I would do is go to the main library in every city and check out their English book selection.
I have always loved books and so this is going to sound kind of corny but libraries are a sacred space for me. Even now, I can still feel the excitement I had as a child when I walk into a library that I’ve never been to before.
You have lived in several countries and now you’ve settled in Finland. Why did you decide to settle here?
I was born in India and raised in the US. But I was lucky to grow up living all over the world because my father is a Human Rights Expert for the United Nations. Then as an adult, my career has also taken me around the world. So that discovery of the unknown is something that I thrive on.
When I was thirteen years old, my Dad was invited by your government to do his research here and so we (my father, older brother and I) moved to Finland for a year. This was before the internet so at first I had no idea what I was coming into. But it ended up being one of the best years of my life. Actually, my two best friends from that year are still two of my best friends now.
I know this sounds crazy but I feel like I was a Finn in a past life just b/c I feel so connected to this country! I love the dark humor, melancholy and the direct, no nonsense attitude of the Finns.
I continued to visit Finland until I went to university but after that, my life just became too busy to come back. But I always missed it because some of my happiest moments were here. So finally, about eleven years ago, I decided to what the hell—let me just pick up and move to Finland. Not because of a guy or a job but simply because I loved this country. That was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.
How did you become an author?
From when I was very young, I loved reading and I loved making up stories. I think writing has always been part of my DNA. However, as a female, a person of color and an immigrant, becoming a writer was not easy.
Despite the fact that my father was hugely successful with a rather un-traditional career, like many immigrant parents, he had sacrificed a lot for his children to have opportunities he had not had and therefore wanted me to follow a more traditional path like medicine or law. His idea was that I make a lot of money as a lawyer and then I can write whatever I want.
A creative life means having the courage to be vulnerable and to believe in your work even when others don’t. Not having that validation or encouragement from my family and my immediate community scared me from writing for many years.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties when I was in a very low point in my life that I heard the message in one of my daily meditations to “write myself out of it.” So I did. That was the very first book that I’d ever written and it was the original Brown Girl.
When I went to find a publisher for Brown Girl, a lot of really big American publishers were interested but they kept on telling me because the main character wasn’t white, it would never be a mainstream publication. More specifically, although there were a few mainstream publications featuring Indian-American protagonists, my story didn’t fit in with the accepted narrative that the predominantly white US publishing industry allowed which was the oppressed brown girl with an arranged marriage storyline.
For any creative, rejection is a part of the game. But my book wasn’t being rejected because it wasn’t good enough—it was being rejected because it wasn’t “white” enough. I was infuriated and I decided to put Brown Girl away until the publishing industry could accept it on my terms, not theirs.
Fear is a natural part of life let alone a creative life. Everyone feels it but you can’t let it stop you. I’ve taken that lesson with me and it’s basically the theme of Brown Girl—the new Brown Girl that is.
It took sixteen years but finally I got a major US publisher for Brown Girl. During those sixteen years, I wrote and published three books. Not only had my writing voice grown stronger but the world was a much different place so I needed to re-write Brown Girl to reflect that. That’s what became Brown Girl Ghosted.
I want to end this answer by stressing to people, especially young readers that there is never one correct path to achieving your dreams—in fact, don’t be afraid to do it your own way.
The Storm Sisters books have an unusual story behind their publication. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?
Storm Sisters came about because I was actually consulting at Rovio for a completely different project. Then I found out they had a publishing unit and so I told them “I was a great writer and you should publish me.” They mentioned the idea of girl pirates and let me create the entire story world, characters around that idea which became Storm Sisters. We premiered at Frankfurt Book Fair and were shortlisted for Berlin Film Festival. The books were translated into eight languages and it continues to be one of the best professional and personal experiences of my life.
Who are your literary influences?
I love mysteries and that’s why I always weave a mystery into my books so Agatha Christie is huge. I also love Laura Lippman who is an incredible contemporary mystery novelist.
But really more than authors, my biggest influences are specific books. The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas) is amazing and show that YA shouldn’t be dismissed as not being as serious or holding as much literary weight as other genres. Other massive influences are Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn), Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer)—I could go on forever!
What is your typical writing day like?
I’m a night bird so I usually start writing around 4:30p and until about 2a.
Growing up, my Nepalese nanny taught me how to meditate and I do it everyday when I wake up. For however long or short it takes. I catch up on emails and other business. Then I go on a walk. Although there’s so much beautiful nature in Finland and in Helsinki, where I live, I actually prefer walks around the city. I love looking at the architecture and people watching. Then after a nice brunch (cooking is one of my hobbies), I start writing.
I’ve been working from home for years so COVID-19 didn’t change anything.
Which do you prefer, writing new text or editing old, and why? Have you found forgotten gems from your unpublished material, which you have started working on again, or have you used your old material in new works?
I don’t really know how to answer this so I’ll just share a little about my process and hopefully it fits somewhere in this question. I meditate until I can hear the words, see a sentence, see an image or get an idea of what to write. Then that’s what I do, I write.
My first full drafts are always about me putting in every possible thing I want. I know it’s a cliché but writing is really about what you take out so after the first draft, or like they say “kill your darlings.” I have an editor that I trust very much and we start editing/revising the manuscript. If I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to something we’re editing out, then I keep it in a folder. I check that folder throughout writing the book, seeing if some of the parts that I took out might work somewhere else.
How do you plan your stories? Do you use for example a big board on which you have characters and events outlined or a small black notebook? Do you explore different alternative timelines or is the plot set exactly from the beginning? How do you do your worldbuilding?
Once I know what I want to write, I’m big into research. Obviously for Storm Sisters I had to do a lot of research b/c I knew I wanted to set the story in the 1780s but I had no idea about pirates in that time period. Likewise, I knew I wanted the girls to sail all over the world so I visited a lot of cities and countries in Asia and Europe that had huge ports.
With Brown Girl Ghosted, it’s a novel set in present day and takes a lot from the mythological and supernatural stories from my Indian background. But I also really wanted to get a more cultural understanding of those myths as well as delve into the Mughal history that would be the base of the Aiedeo, the ancient warrior queens, that I write about in Brown Girl Ghosted. So I actually took a month long trip through Rajasthan and Assam, the state where I was born. It was amazing because in Rajasthan, I rode camels in the desert, visited the extraordinary Mughal palaces and learned so much from the historians. Then in Assam, which is much more untamed, I rode elephants in the jungle and visited these tiny villages known for their history of “black magic.”
I let all of these experiences and the knowledge that I’ve gained kind of seep in and from there, I can start writing the world. World building is really important to me because I believe in stories that can be told through multiple formats to give audiences a 360 degree experience.
The practical side of world building is I write detailed story bibles outlining everything about the characters, setting—everything about the world. Those story bibles are not only a great reference while I’m writing, they’re very helpful to share with movie and film studios that are interested in adapting my books.
Once I’ve built the world, then I write a detailed outline. I know some writers think outlines kill creativity but for me, I tend to write series/trilogies so outlines help me keep track of the plot. The outline is like a map which lets me know what direction I’m going towards but I also let myself be open to any twists or turns along the way.
I don’t start writing a word until I know exactly how my story ends—in the book and in the series/trilogy—b/c I hate reading a book or watching a movie that has loose ends!
Brown Girl Ghosted has big issues like racism, rape culture and bullying. Was it easy for you to write about these themes?
I took a lot from my own life when writing Brown Girl Ghosted. I think, especially in this particular time in our world, it’s really important to explore issues like race, racism, inclusivity, identity, #timesup, etc. To write about those things in a relatable way, it required me to go very deep within myself which of course, is not easy. However, I am also a strong believer that humor is a very powerful tool when exploring these issues because it makes it so much easier to approach the topics.
I explore race with a kickass brown girl heroine and a fun mystery with murder and mean girls. Think of Brown Girl Ghosted like Riverdale meets The Hate U Give.
What else would you like to tell us about your new book?
Lie. Deny. Die.
Sixteen-year-old Violet Choudhury’s world is built on lies. There’s the lie that it doesn’t matter if she’s one of the only brown girls in her small Midwestern town as long as she tries to fit in. And fitting in means being a cheerleader (bottom of the pyramid) and always being the sidekick (never the heroine.) Then there are the lies Violet tells herself: that she doesn’t see dead people anymore, that the Aiedeo, Violet’s ancient legacy of supernatural Indian warrior queens, have let her go. After all, it’s hard to convince everyone you’re “normal” with a bunch of shady dead relatives hanging around.
But Violet’s carefully constructed world shatters when a classmate is murdered and the Aiedeo show up with a life-or-death ultimatum for her.
Violet’s mission? Use her secret powers to find the killer.
Or else she’s next.
A mystery about mean girls, murder and race in a small town. BROWN GIRL GHOSTED is Riverdale meets The Hate U Give.
Brown Girl Ghosted also has a unusual story behind it. As I mentioned before, I wrote this book about eighteen years ago. I actually had a lot of interest from big American publishers. But I kept on being told that because the main character wasn’t white, it would never be a mainstream publication. I knew that wasn’t right so I put the book away and waited until the American publishing industry evolve. Then I was at a dinner at Berlin Film Festival where I was sitting next to JK Rowling’s editor and I was telling her all these funny stories about growing up as one of the only brown girls (I’m Indian-American) in my small American town. She said I should write my stories down and I realized I had.
So I dusted off my old manuscript for Brown Girl, updated it and added a supernatural twist. Brown Girl Ghosted is about a sixteen-year-old Indian American girl who is forced to fulfill her destiny as an Aiedeo, an ancient line of Indian warrior queens, while struggling to survive high-school and live a normal teenage life in her small Midwestern town. It took nearly two decades but I ended up selling it to a major American publisher and in March 2020, Brown Girl Ghosted launched in the US.
I was actually in the US in March 2020 on the first week of a massive 78-day US tour to support the launch when corona hit and the entire world shut down. I came back pretty devastated because although I’d already had two Storm Sisters novels published, it had taken so long to actually get Brown Girl Ghosted out and then all our tour plans were destroyed. So I’m really excited to get to be in Finland for the premiere of Brown Girl Ghosted/Kuolletkiin ghostaa.
Do you have a favourite book or a character from your own books? If yes, can you explain why?
I can’t pick a favorite character but the Dede character in Brown Girl Ghosted is absolutely my Nepalese nanny who raised me. I didn’t even bother to change her name. In real life and in fiction, Dede was always a Mr. Miyagi meets Jack Sparrow street smart lady boss in her saree and matching Keds.
What advice can you give to people who want to write?
Don’t be afraid to suck. Seriously, whatever your age, when you first start writing, what you imagine might not be what exactly comes out on the page. That’s ok. Trust that you’ll get better with practice and just have fun with it!
Looks like juhannus will be warm and sunny in Finland. How are you planning to celebrate?
My husband and I love staying in Helsinki for Midsummer b/c everyone leaves and it feels like we have the entire city to ourselves.
We would like to thank Mintie for the interview and wish you all a great summer!