Growing up in suburban New Jersey, author Divya Sood read and wrote avidly, but she reached a point at which she couldn’t identify herself in the stories she read. Born in Kolkata, India, Sood, now 39, immigrated to the U.S. with her parents as a child, and by her early teens, she began to realize that she is gay. Not knowing that it was possible to be Indian and gay, and not having ever encountered such characters in books or movies, Sood’s self-confidence suffered.
However, Sood’s latest novel, Nights Like This, brings queer Indian women to life. Published in February, Nights Like This tells the story of Jess, a writer in her 20s who writes fiction at Starbucks and lives with her girlfriend Anjali. One day, Jess meets Vanessa and falls wholeheartedly in love with her. Caught between the attention of both Anjali and Vanessa, Jess navigates heartbreak, betrayal, and a trip halfway around the world to find herself and discover what matters most.
While rooted in the South Asian LGBTQ community, Nights Like This successfully avoids stereotypes and tells a love story of three women whose dramas and heartbreaks are universal.
We talked with Sood to learn more about the novel and her own experience as a gay Indian woman.
Why did you decide to write Nights Like This?
I was out with friends one night and my first novel, Maya, had just been published. I was very excited and asked my friends if they had read it. One of my friends asked me if it was a heterosexual love story and I told her it was. She then said she wouldn’t read it. I was taken aback. I asked her why. She said, “Write about us.” By “us,” she meant LGBTQ South Indians.
At the time, I thought I would never have the courage to write such a book. Years later, I broke my knee joint and had to stay in bed for 12 weeks. To keep from going crazy, I started to write. I thought back to that conversation and I realized I did want to write a book that related to “us.” Growing up, I could never read about myself and my self-confidence suffered because I just assumed there was no one like me out there. I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. I wanted to give the world an amazing love story but I wanted it to come from all the love stories I had known and lived. That’s how Nights Like This came to be.
You’ve said that Jess, Anjali, and Vanessa showed up in your mind one day and “just wouldn’t leave.” Did you know right away that they were linked together in a love triangle when you first “met” them, or did the relationships among the three of them develop as they spent more time in your mind?
It was always a love triangle among them, right from the start. But the triangle evolved as they evolved. As the novel developed, the relationship among them became more intricate.
In which of the three main characters do you see yourself most?
There are aspects of me in each of them. The way Anjali loves, with reckless abandon—that’s how I love. Vanessa’s spontaneity comes from my own spontaneous nature and desire to travel and explore worlds and people. And Jess…her confusion and her questions for the world, that is an aspect of me as well.
If you could spend a day with one of these three characters, who would you choose and what would you do together?
Definitely Anjali. Since the inception of this work, I have always had a soft corner for her. We would spend the day walking through Manhattan, wining and dining. We’d spend time at Washington Square just taking a moment to reflect. There’d be a lot of talking, a lot of laughing.
What’s your favorite part of Nights Like This?
My absolute favorite part is when Jess and Anjali go to Washington Square to “watch hapless pigeons.” As their conversation unravels and they start to really talk, I feel it in my heart. Each time I read that passage whether it be at a reading or not, I can feel their emotions and their love in that part. I also love that part because every time I read it, there is someone in the audience who says, “I’ve felt that and it was so real for me.” To be able to relate to my readers that strongly, that’s a great thing as well.
What do you hope that readers will gain from reading Nights Like This?
I truly believe Nights Like This is a novel for anyone who has loved or been loved. What I want readers to take away is a sense of themselves. I want readers to realize that they are not alone in their euphoric love or in their heartbreak. Ultimately, and above all, Nights Like This is a love story and I want readers to feel the novel. You know, sometimes we can’t talk out what we think or feel because we are afraid of the reaction we might get. But with a book or a film, we are free to be ourselves, to laugh, to cry, to feel whatever we want because the characters become friends that we totally relate to yet friends that will never react or judge. It’s very refreshing to be able to relate to someone and be honest and yet not risk being criticized or rejected. I want my readers to have that freedom with this work. I want them to realize that we are not alone in our experiences and that someone “gets” what they are feeling whether it be good or bad.
I Can’t Think Straight is an amazing film that I adore. It’s a fun film. Lost and Delirious is another film I love but it’s a lot sadder, a lot more intense. But definitely those.
Let’s switch gears and talk about your life a little bit. How does Nights Like This draw from your experience as a gay woman of Indian descent? How does it diverge from your experience?
I haven’t just written Jess’s world: I’ve lived it. The struggle to sometimes hide, sometimes break free. The toggle between being “out” in NYC and yet having to face family and wonder when and how to “come clean.” Also, the experience of being young and single in NYC, I have lived that. My experiences diverge in that I’m not really on the social scene very much and I create worlds based on what I observe—I don’t really inhabit them.
At what point did you realize that you are gay?
I think I realized somewhere in my early teens but didn’t really question myself about it until my late teens, almost into my twenties. It was a very lonely, frightening experience. I didn’t know anyone I could really talk to about it because well first, I really didn’t talk to a lot of people back then and secondly, I didn’t think it was possible to be Indian and gay, so I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know how to talk about it.
What sort of struggles have you faced as a gay woman of South Indian descent?
There are certain questions that keep resurfacing: Can you be Indian and be gay? (Yes. In fact, before the British invasion, India celebrated sexuality in all its forms.); What did your parents say? (Question is, why is this important to you?); and how can you be so beautiful and be gay? (Why thank you for the compliment—I think—but the universe did not ordain that only non-beautiful people can be gay. Did you not get that memo?)
I overcome these “objections” and embrace my identity through writing.
How did you come out to your family, and how did they react?
It was not a pleasant time when I came out and I would never, ever want to visit that time again. Now, I think my parents acknowledge my sexuality but don’t embrace it. But I know a lot of their reaction comes from fear, not from intolerance. And I understand that. I’ve learned to be more understanding that this is a new space for them and they, for their part, have been supportive of my writing knowing that it is based on an LGBT culture. That is huge for me. And although we are not close, my brother has always been supportive and I am grateful for that.
What advice do you have for young South Asian women who are struggling to come to terms with their LGBTQ identity or are struggling to come out to their loved ones?
I would say do it at your own pace, at your own time. And when you do, expect the worst and be ready to deal with it. I would say remember it’s not that your family doesn’t love you or care for you: it’s quite the opposite—they care so much they are frightened because this is a world that is unfamiliar to them. When people are scared, they become angry, sad, afraid, sometimes all of those things. Give them time. And space. And meanwhile, be the best person that you can be and be proud of who you are.
Did the process of writing Nights Like This change you as an author or as a person?
Yes, the work did change me. As an author, it made me more honest about who I am and where I come from. As a person, it forced me to go back and feel the emotions that I have lived and kept sealed away inside me. When I wrote the first draft of this work, I was repeatedly told it missed feeling. That was because at that time, I was very detached from feeling myself and thought being stoical or cynical would save me from hurt. But for the sake of my characters, I made myself relive everything I had felt so I could give them heart. The next draft looked much better and now, upon reading the book, the one thing people tell me is that it makes them feel. The work taught me to be more open, to risk, to feel once again, to be ready for love.
What do your friends and family think of your writing?
My friends have really enjoyed it. Some have even called me up after reading the book and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you could write like that.” What’s great is that all my friends, straight or gay, male or female, have really connected with the book.
Do you see yourself as a romance writer, or do you hope to write books in other genres?
The nuances of love fascinate me. How we are attracted to or distracted away from people, how their place in our life changes or ours in theirs, I could spend a lifetime writing about the workings of the heart and mind and soul. No matter what I write, love will always be a part of it.
What sorts of projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a novel that delves into how a break up or heartbreak shapes and changes us as people. It’s about how that one experience can change the course of our lives forever. All my short stories involve LGBTQ characters and I think my work always will.
As the demand for books with greater ethnic and sexual diversity grows, what advice do you have for writers aspiring to write and publish more diverse books?
The best diversity lies within ourselves. We are multi-faceted individuals with many identities, each of them unique. Therefore, write your own story, something and someone that means something to you. Write what you would want to read.
For more information on Nights Like This and Divya Sood, visit www.divyasood.com.