Through the magic of the internet, I’ve been friends with Jesmeen Kaur Deo for several years now. She posted a fanfiction that I feverishly devoured. I sent her gushing Tumblr fanmail, and the rest, as they say, is history. My love for her writing goes back years, so when she announced her debut novel would be coming out this year, I practically clawed my way into her laptop to read it. TJ Powar Has Something to Prove is funny, thoughtful, affirming, heart-wrenching, and everything in between. I could gush about the YA contemporary ad nauseam, but I figured a more compelling entry point for the rest of the world would be to let the author speak for herself. To that end, I sat down with Jesmeen to talk about her inspiration, representing her culture, and her journey as a writer. Read on for our conversation!
MEHA RAZDAN: So just to start, tell me a little about yourself. Tell the people who you are.
JESMEEN KAUR DEO: I’m Jesmeen! I am an Indo-Canadian author. And I wrote this book, TJ Powar Has Something to Prove, which is a YA novel about a pretty, popular high school debater called TJ who becomes a subject of a meme along with her cousin. In the meme, TJ is the “expectation” of dating an Indian girl and her cousin is the “reality” because she doesn’t remove her body hair. And when the meme goes viral, TJ decides to stop removing her body hair as well, in order to prove to the world — and mostly to herself — that she can be beautiful just the way she is… and she runs into a lot of problems.
MR: She sure does, and it’s very entertaining. I loved it! I want to ask, what inspired you to write this book? Specifically, I was really intrigued because body hair can seem like such a granular issue in the grander scheme of things. So what inspired you to approach that? How did you create this whole story from such a specific part of the whole debate around beauty?
JKD: I think in terms of like, the body hair aspect itself, I don’t remember an exact “Eureka!” moment or anything like that. But I do remember growing up reading books, like dystopians where girls would accidentally wear revealing clothes or something and not even be bothered about it. Or YA contemporaries where they have to put on swimsuits without any notice — stuff like this would always be happening. And I’d be like… are they bothered by the body hair that’s inevitably there that they haven’t had time to remove? But it was never mentioned.
I think actually, the first time I saw it mentioned was in The Hunger Games. Katniss is like, plucked and waxed when she goes to the Capitol. It’s the one time I think I read body hair portrayed not as a joke — it was actually something that Katniss missed, that she didn’t want to be taken away from her. And I think that was kind of revolutionary to me at the time. But it was also so clear that we just don’t talk about this for some reason. I think that always bugged me.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. Me and a friend, MJ, were talking about how ugly women aren’t really afforded serious love stories in fiction a lot of the time, and that conversation was prompted by Game of Thrones, what with the last season coming out and Brienne and Jaime and that whole thing… we were just talking about how often the ugly woman’s romance is just played off a joke — we really liked how it was treated seriously, by this author and by this show up to up to a point.
I think those two things culminated in this moment where I was like, “okay, I want to write a story about body hair stigma.” In terms of the story itself coming together, I’d always wanted to write a book about high school debate, because debating was a large part of my high school career. It was one of the highlights, and I really liked it. I’ve always wanted to write about it, but I just never had the right angle for it. So basically, I was like, “can I put these together in some way?”
And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense — TJ is trying to prove to the world that she deserves to exist, and she’s worthy. She’s constantly arguing with people about it. So it just made sense for her to be a debater, because it really fits into the themes of the book. That’s kind of how it came together. Then the whole beauty standards aspect kind of came at the same time, because of those discussions that I’d been having, surrounding ugliness, and why we perceive beauty as such an important thing.
MR: And that’s part of the book that I found really fascinating. I won’t go into it too much, because I don’t want to spoil the arc. One thing I found really interesting was actually approaching this concept of people being considered “ugly” or “beautiful.” So often I think it’s brought into this “inner beauty” thing where “we’re all beautiful on the inside.” And I remember having a conversation with you about like effortless “French girl beauty,” this idea that effortlessness is what’s beautiful. So how did you arrive at this place where you don’t flinch away from the fact that actually, there are specific ways we view people and it’s not always positive?
JKD: It’s such a classic messaging growing up in media that “everybody’s beautiful,” “you’ll find somebody that finds you beautiful, and like, even if you’re not, you have inner beauty.” And I always found that to be very empty messaging, because it’s still putting beauty as the priority that we should all work towards. It still puts a pressure on you to be beautiful in some way. I just didn’t find it that helpful — it’s still the same pressure. It’s just trying to make you feel better about the fact that you’re ugly.
Again, I don’t really remember an exact sort of moment where, I thought “maybe we could approach this differently.”. Ultimately, I just came to this conclusion of like, “what’s wrong with being ugly? And why do we avoid that so much? Why are we so strongly against being ugly? Why is that like, the most important thing in the world — to be beautiful?” And that’s really the angle I took in this book. Because body hair — you can argue about it. “Is it beautiful? Is it just like Western standards?” And that’s a worthy conversation to have.
I think another worthy conversation to have is, “why does it even matter in the end? Why can’t we be attractive in other ways other than our looks?” Inner beauty — I don’t really subscribe to that concept, either. Because, as I said, in the book, it doesn’t make any sense. Why are you calling it beauty again? It’s your personality! Why do we need to label it as the same thing? Why is it so important?
MR: Talking of Western beauty standards, I think one way you kind of explore that in the book is with the fact that TJ and her cousin Simran, they’re very sort entrenched in the Punjabi community — which was very cool for me because I am half Punjabi. You’re from Canada, where, if people don’t know, there’s a very large Punjabi population. So can you talk a little bit about representing this very specific community on the page? As an author of color, I feel like a lot of times, you’re immediately going to be put under this box “Own Voices representation” — it’s something that’s gonna get very heavily advertised and scrutinized with your work. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JKD: Yeah, for sure. So about the Own Voices part, I think a lot like a lot of writers are very keenly aware of that pressure, which is obviously very unfair. It certainly is something you think about when you write and it’s certainly like a challenge that I’m worried about. How am I representing my community? What stereotypes am I playing into and is this harmful? And I think ultimately, there’s no solution to that — you can’t represent every single member of a certain community.
All you can really do, I think, is write a book where everybody is welcome. They don’t necessarily have to be explicitly in the story and represented, but as long as no one goes into this book and like unwelcome or feels harmed by it, then I think that’s all we can really do. That’s the mindset that I’ve brought into my writing in general, not just for the Punjabi community, but for minority. I can’t, and I don’t want to just randomly throw in characters to be tokens. That’s not really how I write. But as long as I can write a book where everybody feels welcome, that’s not like judging people or being harmful to them in some ways — that’s all I can do. That’s kind of how I handle that aspect of it.
In terms of handling the characters in this book, as you mentioned, there’s a lot of different brown characters and Punjabi characters in this book, who all come from different backgrounds and not necessarily like what we see in Indian characters in media. It was a lot of fun for me. I think a lot of it was just again, drawn from my own experiences — as you said Canada has a very large Punjabi population. And I’ve met a lot of different types of people growing up.
Certainly, I would say all the brown characters in this book had certain aspects of personality that came from brown people that I’ve known in real life — anybody who sees a part of themselves in this book, know it’s because it was endearing to me! Even people’s flaws I find endearing enough to put into a character. So that’s how I build these people. TJ, Rajan, Simran… they all have like, a little bit in them of people I know and love.
MR: I’m curious, what types of media that you consume in life influenced not just this book, but your writing process in general? How do you balance Western and Indian influences? What stood out to you as you were building this world?
JKD: That’s a good question! I think that growing up, I grew up in a smaller community. We were a little bit more insular, and I don’t feel like I actually consumed that many Indian stories or Brown stories growing up. I think I’ve told you this before, but I really haven’t watched that much Bollywood — I was mostly surrounded by Western media growing up. And so that probably had a certain influence on me. But in real life, like there were all these other cultural influences that I never saw in media. So sometimes I want to write a story that’s fun and entertaining, and just pure escapism — an adventure.
But I also want to include those aspects of my culture, not just to tokenize it but because I just think it adds an extra dimension. It doesn’t have to be about that. But I think it’s like another layer to it. I think it makes people feel more welcome. It makes me feel like I’m writing a story that people like me growing up will be able to enjoy and see themselves in. And it’s not about that. It shouldn’t have to be about that. It’s just you know, people like us, we’re having the same kind of adventures that white people have been afforded for so long.
MR: Can I just say, I was stunned when you told me that you didn’t really grow up with a lot of Bollywood because I read the book, and at so many points, I was like, “that’s such a great Bollywood reference!” and you’d say “what are you talking about?” I was convinced the book was at least slightly inspired by Bend it Like Beckham — which is one of my favourite movies ever — and you had no clue what I was on about.
JKD: It was a great recommendation to be fair!
MR: Speaking of which, another aspect of this book which loved was the romance, which is something we’ve spent a lot of time discussing in detail. So before I spoil too much about it, can you tee up a little of the romance angle of this book and kind talk a little bit about how you develop that? And also, what your own interests in writing about romantic relationships are and how they developed this?
JKD: Yeah, sure. So, as you know, I have a background in fanfiction. And I think that that helps me to develop my skills in writing not just in romance, but creating characters and characters’ relationships with each other, romantic or otherwise. And certainly, I brought that to my original writing. Obviously, writing original characters is a bit different — having to develop that, you don’t have a built in dynamic already.
When I write original characters and try to develop a romance, I start with the main character. I guess I do internal chemistry tests, where I try to decide what what kind of character would best complement this person and what would make that “spark” go. For this story, for TJ, she was already mostly built in my mind — I knew that she was going to be very stubborn, and she was going to be very suspicious of people.
She’s very proud. I knew I wanted her love interest from the get go to be her rival. Somebody that she would clash a lot with. Somebody that she would see things in that she feels that she herself lacks. And so she kind of resents him for that, but really, she just envies it and she doesn’t really like know the difference between her resentment and her admiration. So that was a really interesting dynamic.
The other thing that was important, I think, when I was doing those internal chemistry tests is that I thought it was very important that her love interest be a little bit off on his own beat. He’s very brutally honest in a way that catches her off guard, because like I said, she spends a lot of the story being suspicious of people’s motivations and trying to prove herself — I think she really needed somebody who could just give it to her straight, and would be honest with her all the time.
He caught her off guard. He also caught me off guard multiple times in the writing of this book, he made my life a lot harder, because he was so honest. So it was an interesting challenge. But I think it was really worth it in the end. He’s definitely one of my favorite characters I’ve written. Like all my characters, he draws inspiration from from other people that I know in real life and things that I’ve seen. He was a fun character to develop.
MR: And developed very well, because there were just so many like frantic texts at three in the morning when I was reading this book screaming “oh my god!” So as always, great content.
You mentioned your background in fanfiction, which brings me to how we know each other from the Tumblr days of yore, and one thing that was really interesting to me is I knew you a lot from the sci-fi/fantasy types of fandom, very big world building stuff. That’s where I first got to know your writing. So what drove you to explore “real life?” Why a contemporary space? It’s so honest and realistic, the way this book is written. But it wasn’t like where I knew your writing from. So how did you arrive at this place?
JKD: What a great question — I wish I knew. Yeah, this is the first time that I’ve written something like so lighthearted. So I’m glad you liked it! I think obviously, I come from darker, sci-fi kind of themes. That’s certainly something I’m comfortable with and enjoy writing. I think I just knew when this story idea came to me, about body hair and high school debate. Really the only kind of story that would contain these well would be a contemporary that was a bit more lighthearted in tone. So really, I just wrote the story in the way that I thought would best portray those themes and the things that I wanted to talk about, and the rest kind of came from there.
It was a little bit weird and a little bit challenging, because, you know, the tone is different. And it took me a little bit to adjust to that writing style. But once I got used to it, it was fun to get into that mindset, because I haven’t done a lot of work in this sort of realm. Is it my favorite realm? I don’t know. Probably not. But I think for certain types of stories, it works very well. And obviously I would not say no to writing stories like this in the future, and I have ideas for that too. But yeah, certainly this was my first dive into it.
MR: So what are some other books right now of that kind, not necessarily YA but in the contemporary space that you’ve been really inspired by or just really enjoyed?
JKD: You already know some of them! So in terms of YA, I really enjoyed My Mechanical Romance by Alexene Farol Follmouth. That was a lot of fun to read. The author is, of course, Olivie Blake writing as her other persona. It’s a STEM romcom where a girl joins a Robotics Club and discovers it’s a bit of an Old Boys Club. And I really connected with that main character since a lot of people don’t take her seriously because she doesn’t necessarily know the lingo or the official terms for things, but she knows her shit. So I related to that, and the romance was cute. So I enjoyed that one.
I also really enjoyed Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach. That one’s kind of similar in theme, actually to my book — it’s a feminist romcom where the main character is the Editor of her school newspaper, and she gets she basically gets pushed aside for Editor in Chief, because one of her classmates, a guy, gets chosen for the position instead, even though he has no qualifications. She gets really pissed about it. And then it sets off a feminist movement in herr school… but then she lowkey falls for him at the same time. So that’s spicy! It’s like “fake hating.”
Then I really enjoyed Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi. It’s a younger YA, and it’s just a coming of age YA Contemporary with a bit of romance. I really enjoyed that one, just because it felt very true to being 14 years old. And it also talks a little bit about body hair!
In the adult realm — The Roughest Draft by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberly was a lot of fun. You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle. The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne, obviously is a classic. Those are most of the ones that come to mind at this moment, but I’m sure there are more!
MR: A very good list of recommendations! So this is obviously your big debut — what are some things on your “writerly bucket list?”
JKD: In terms of things I want to write, I mean, they’re all over the place, as you know. But there are some books I want to write that are kind of similar in tone to TJ. Not necessarily in the same contemporary genre. I have adult fantasy and historical ideas. I have YA fantasy and adult romance ideas. I’m very much all over the map. And I think that’s kind of like on my writer’s bucket list. I really don’t want to be pigeonholed to one genre. I just want to write whatever comes to mind, or that comes to my heart. To just be able to do that, which I know is very difficult in this marketing day and age.
In terms of author goals, like with this debut novel, I think really, it’s easy to get bogged down in all these external things like hitting bestseller lists. But those things are out of my control. And I acknowledge that. I think when when this book sold, my main goal really was just that I wanted someone who was Brown to read this and really feel like the message changed theirlife. And I’ve already had readers say that that to me, so that’s kind of nice. That’s kind of the big goal I had for this book, and it’s already come true before publication. I can’t really ask for more than that!
I think bestseller lists are cool or whatever. But for me, cultural impact is much more interesting than having clout in the moment — what I really want is to write books that stay in people’s heads for a long time after they’ve read them. Clout is cool. But what I really want is for people toust love my stories enough that they think about them long after. I guess I just want legacy in some way.
MR: And is there a certain part or chapter or scene from TJ that you’re most excited for readers to get to? In as vague detail as you can without giving spoilers?Is there a moment where you’re like, “oh, I can’t wait for people to get here!”
JKD: Hmm. I think a lot of the romance scenes are ones that I’m looking forward to reactions for. There’s also one scene near the end that TJ has with Lulu, who’s her hair removal person. It’s a pivotal scene in the book for TJ. Lulu tells her things about her perception of her own body hair and beauty that I wish someone had told me as a teenager, and it’s kind of a big moment. I hope that that leaves an impact on people.
MR: So TJ Powar Has Something to Prove it’s out on June 7. It’s available for pre order now and will soon be available wherever books are sold. Where can readers find you on on the interwebs or in the ether?
JKD: Very few places. I’m on Twitter at @JDeoWrites. And the same on my website, JDeoWrites.com. Technically, I have a Tumblr @JDeoWrites as well. But I only like post on there once in a blue moon. So you can find me mostly on Twitter if you want to find me and harass me! My book comes out June 7. That’s today! You can purchase it anywhere that you buy books.
For more from Meha, check out her interview with Tashie Bhuiyan here!