A Life of Books: Reema Patel, author of Such Big Dreams

Reema Patel, a Tornoto-based writer and lawyer, spent years working with youth non-profits and in human-rights advocacy. Her debut novel, Such Big Dreams, came out in April via Ballantine Books.

The book follows a young woman living in a Mumbai slum as she grapples with a incident that occurred a decade prior that resulted in the loss of her best friend. She currently works for a non-profit and her world turns upside-down when a Bollywood star decides to make herself the face of organization.

We asked Reema to to answer our A Life of Books questionnaire so readers could get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

My mother limited our television time to 30 minutes a day, until she actually threw the thing out when I was in second grade. What followed was intense boredom and a compulsion to read anything I could get my hands on – from Encyclopedia Britannica to Archie Comics to formula fiction about identical blonde twins in Southern California. The first time I ever related to a character in a book was in Beverley Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series. Both Ramona and I had older sisters who wanted very little to do with us, we were both slightly exasperating in our need to be loved, and unwilling to diminish ourselves in the face of smug, virtuous little Susans. Ramona forever. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I’m expecting a baby this spring, and though I don’t plan on throwing out our television, I want her to love reading as much as I did. I want her to read widely, to learn for herself why certain stories and books resonate with her. I want her to learn about worlds and experiences different from her own, but also to see herself in the books she reads. If anything, I’m so glad that there is so much more variety in children’s books today in terms of representation, substance, and messaging.  

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

The only book I hated reading in high school was The Scarlet Letter. I don’t remember exactly why I disliked it, but I have no desire to re-enter the story world of 17th century Puritanical New England to see if I’ve evolved. Beyond Hawthorne, our high school English curriculum wasn’t just comprised of books by dead white men, but rather, incredible novels like Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  by Maya Angelou, all of which I loved then and now.

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

For some reason I went through a John Grisham phase when I was thirteen or fourteen. I liked to talk about them a lot, but I’m not sure I really understood them. Perhaps I got the idea that reading legal thrillers was a very grown up thing to do. For the record, reading John Grisham had nothing to do with my choosing to eventually attend law school.

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Writing about NGO culture and class dynamics in a city as unique as Bombay was nerve-wracking at times – I was often worried about getting nuance wrong, even though I had lived and worked there for a period of time. 

Through the editing process for my debut novel, I found myself seeking out and re-reading books to transport me back into the many worlds of modern-day Bombay. In particular, I leaned on Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, a non-fiction book that dives deep into the city’s corruption, politics, organized crime, and film industry.  I also read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, a novel about an old man who refuses to let a ruthless property developer buy him out of his middle class flat. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

The last time I thought that was when I read A Burning by Megha Majumdar in 2020. I was stunned by her strong, complex characters and their vivid voices. The themes explored in the book were top of mind for me, from state-sponsored Islamophobia to the way ordinary people with low-self esteem can get swept up in fascist movements.

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I am excited to read Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Lama, The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, and The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara.  

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

God-men, theme-parks, dirty-money. Sorry about the hyphens.

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