March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hip-Hop, Sexual Abuse, and Reconciliation: Sonia Patel on “Rani Patel in Full Effect”

author-photo-sonia-patelIn her debut, Sonia Patel covers the gamut of tough subject matter. The title character of Rani Patel in Full Effect (Cinco Puntos; Oct. 11, 2016) is not only facing the dissolution of her parents’ marriage but has long been a victim of incest and sexual abuse. She is able to battle through this trauma via her love of rap and hip-hop. Child and adolescent psychiatrist Patel shared with SLJ what inspired her to write this hard-hitting novel set in early 1990s Hawaii.

This is a very personal book for you, as you mention in your author’s note. What inspired you to write Rani’s story?

My primary inspiration—survivors of misogyny and sexual abuse. In writing Rani Patel in Full Effect, my objective was to shed light on some of the real ways these traumas can affect survivors. There are YA books out there that address misogyny and sexual abuse, but I think the perspective I can offer—that of a child and adolescent psychiatrist who’s spent over 10,000 hours talking with and helping teens recover from trauma, complex mental illness, and dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as that of a person who’s lived through some these issues—gives me particular authority to write about the topics.

The story started as a binder full of rap I’d written over the years based on these experiences. The rap was my way of creatively releasing my own intense feelings and those conjured up when I treated other teen and women. At some point, I realized that if I read the rap in a certain order, it told a story. Turns out, it was the story of a 16-year-old amalgam of me and some of my teen patients.

What kind of research did you have to do to get the setting and the characters just right?

Reflection on my teenage years. I grew up on Moloka’i, and the places on the island and the descriptions of Native Hawaiian culture were realistic in terms of how I’d experienced them. I was drawn to hip-hop culture from a young age, like Rani, and I’ve immersed myself in all its forms (dance, rap, fashion, and appreciation of graffiti and DJing) since I was a kid. Also like Rani, my parents had a traditional Gujarati Indian arranged marriage and then immigrated to the East Coast. Nine months later, I was the first person on both sides to be born in America. The Gujarati culture presented in the book is how I lived it. The characters, and their role in family dysfunction and abuse, are based on a blend of my ordeals and those of some of my patients. Then there’s the nine years I spent studying family dynamics, various mental illnesses, and trauma in medical school and psychiatric residency, in addition to the 10-plus years of guiding patients in recovery.

Which character did you most identify with? Which character was the hardest to write?

I identified most with Rani. Her voice reflects mine as a teen. Rani seemed fine and well-adjusted on the surface, but she’d stopped becoming her own person when her father [Pradip] made her into his surrogate partner. Just like me. Many of her difficulties were mine, such as low self-worth, anxiety, depressive tendencies, difficulties in close female relationships, and subconscious re-creation of the dysfunctional relationship with her father with older men.

The hardest character to write was Mark [Rani’s 20-something love interest]. He is very much a product of his dysfunctional upbringing and doesn’t have any insight into how his past affects his present. Balancing his charming and altruistic side with his dark side was tricky. Especially because he ends up repeating the violence against women that he observed with his own parents. Initially, I wanted Mark to gain insight and make positive change at the end (unlike Pradip), but often this doesn’t happen in real life (like Pradip). I thought it more important for teens to see Rani gain insight and change because they might relate to her in some ways.


This is a difficult novel to get through, especially because there were times when, as a reader, I’d be yelling at Rani for making the same mistakes over again. And often, she’s not very likable. What are your thoughts on “likable” or “unlikable” characters?

It was my goal to present characters as realistically as possible. Overall, I want readers to think about the complexities of people and how their past can shape them. It would’ve been unrealistic to present Rani as a heroine who could simply “get over” the trauma and make good decisions just like that. What some readers may not realize is that trauma affects brain development, and thus aspects of thoughts, feelings, and decision-making capabilities. So a survivor may not be able to simply “power through” situations in their life in a positive way.

Rani’s father hurts her. Yet she still wants his attention and validation. Mark hurts Rani. She still wants his attention and validation. Pono [friend from school and possible love interest] tries to help Rani. She hurts him. But Rani’s not a bad person. The reason Rani does those unlikable things is because that’s essentially how the trauma wired her brain to operate. Her brain can’t yet “will” itself out of bad decision-making or bad behavior. Other examples of unlikable aspects of Rani that result from her trauma—such as her lack of female friends because she only knows how to connect with guys and the lack of follow-through on doing the feminist things she raps about—[are] because she only knows how to function in dysfunction. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the abusive relationship with her father essentially trained Rani to feel good about herself only in those kinds of unhealthy relationships.

As for Mark and Pradip, they are not necessarily bad people. They engage in bad behavior. They hurt others and refuse to look at how their behavior affects others, despite many opportunities to do so. They do some good things and can show thoughtfulness to others in certain ways, but ultimately they have poor self-worth and are stuck in thinking about themselves and seeking immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean their behavior should be excused, but it’s more complicated than simply saying they’re “bad” people.

There are lots of cool music references throughout. Was this the music that influenced you in the ’90s? Why did you decide to set the story in this particular moment of hip-hop history?

The hip-hop music references most definitely influenced me in the late ’80s and ’90s. And still today. Like Rani, positive and socially conscious rap lyrics and dope beats uplifted me, pulling me out of the negativity in my head. I was especially influenced by Queen Latifah, Run-DMC, KRS-One, Gang Starr,  LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, MC Lyte, Eric B. &  Rakim, and Paris, and so it felt natural for Rani to be inspired by the same rappers.

The late ’80s–early ’90s is referred to as the golden age of hip-hop because of all the innovation and creativity in rapping and beat making during those years. Many rappers became more political and socially conscious in their lyrics. So the themes of female empowerment and political and social consciousness in the book matched the shifts in hip-hop during that time period.

The relationship between Rani and her mother, Meera, evolves over the course of the novel, from mostly contentious to mostly understanding. How do you think current teens relate to that relationship?

Though some teens may not freely admit this, most of the teens I’ve talked with want a better relationship with their mothers. This is often very difficult to achieve because adolescence is supposed to be a time when youth begin to develop their own identity separate from their parents. So conflict between what a teen wants and what their mother wants for him or her is common. Add to that family dysfunction, such as ambivalent mother-daughter relationships, for example, and the task of identity formation can become thwarted. Teens then remain trapped thinking about, avoiding, or acting out against the relationship instead of being able to focus on their own development.

I want teen readers to see that there can be understanding and improvement in previously conflicted relationships with a parent. In the book, it began when Meera became more emotionally available to Rani and acknowledged her mistakes and how they enabled Pradip to continue his abusive relationship with them both. This validation from her mother allowed Rani to feel love in a new unconditional, unintrusive way (opposite of the conditional, intrusive love demonstrated by her father). And this in turn set the stage for Rani to begin catching up on the normal adolescent emotional development she missed out on when her father was abusing her.

In reality, the process of development “catch up” can take a long time. That’s why the book ends with Rani demonstrating insight and talking about what she has to continue to do to complete the healing process. She isn’t fully recovered by the end. She and Pono acknowledge that they like each other, but they aren’t going out. Rani has to retrain her brain to make good decisions based on rational thoughts instead of negative thoughts and emotions. By surrounding herself and being completely honest with her mother, Pono, Omar, and her new girlfriends (Rani had to make a conscious effort to develop and nurture friendships with these girls), she’s more likely to do this. It’s like learning to ride a bike. She’ll keep practicing in a safe environment until she gets it.

Why do you think music and creativity is finally the way that Rani (and teens today) is able to empower herself?

The unconditional acceptance and identification she couldn’t find in her parents Rani found in hip-hop and especially rap. Hip-hop, unlike her relationship with her parents, didn’t hurt her. The lyrics and beat she most identified with were powerful and helped her to think positive thoughts and have positive feelings. And writing rap helped her fake her confidence until she could actually internalize it.

What are you working on next?

Another young adult novel. This one is set on the most populated Hawaiian island, Oahu. I’m incorporating many issues I see in my child and adolescent psychiatry practice—sex trafficking, depression, bulimia, alcoholism, various forms of abuse, and the complexities of identity development—into a tragic love story of a trans Gujarati boy and a girl from Hauula. It’s important to me that these issues be presented in an accurate way. The main characters, Jaya and Rasa, are inspired by teen patients I’ve treated.

What advice would you give young authors of color who are trying to write stories that they can’t currently reflected on library and bookstore shelves?

  1. Write every day.
  2. Remind yourself of the importance of what you have to share. It is absolutely important! Don’t unwittingly marginalize your own work even if it isn’t received strongly at first. Try not to apply conventional white YA writing constructs to your work, even if others try to do so. Stories don’t have to fit in with traditionally accepted prose, character arcs, world-building, and so on to be meaningful. For example, if others think your work is not up to par with typical white or the welcome, established POC YA canon, think again. Just as there are many kinds of teens with many kinds of backgrounds and experiences, there should be many kinds of stories to reflect this diversity. Remind yourself that it’s not necessary for everyone to like your work but that only by having more diversity in the YA world can we begin to hope that people will have equal opportunities to read stories that are not necessarily mainstream in writing style and content.


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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz ( is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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