(Sheryl Dixit, April 6)
|Citizen of||United States|
|Born in||Jodhpur, Rajasthan|
|Lives in||Pacific Grove, California|
|Journey Highlight||The advertising entrepreneur who becomes a best-selling novelist and brand ambassador for India at 61.|
|Educational & Professional Pursuits||BA from Stanford University; MFA from California College of Arts. Runs an advertising and marketing agency.|
|Global Indian Quotient||Her debut novel “The Henna Artist” brings a fresh perspective on India to western audiences. Being translated in 23 languages with a TV adaptation in the works.|
|Impact||Helps fledgling authors with mentoring. Serves as Author Advocate for ‘Room to Read’, a US-based non-profit for children’s literacy.|
Alka Joshi honestly thought of herself as a ‘hack’, a writer of mini-stories. That was before she won international acclaim for The Henna Artist, her New York Times bestseller that encapsulates a young woman’s drive for self-sufficiency after escaping an abusive marriage and battling conspiring factors that threaten her ingenuity. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it “An amiable and entertaining debut novel about an important theme — balancing family with personal ambition — that allows readers to escape into a fantasy teeming with sensory pleasure.”
Alka says The Henna Artist is bringing India to the world: It’s being serialized by Miramax, and the second book The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is due for a mid-year release.
Alka’s a great example of pursuing your dreams and pushing the boundaries: she was 61 when the book launched. Starting her career as a copywriter and later advertising agency promoter, Alka created campaigns for TV and radio. Over three decades she became adept at crafting themes with dialogue in a very short timeframe. Then Alka’s husband motivated her to try writing long-form fiction. “He said: You’re always telling stories about people and situations just to entertain me,” she recalls. Taking up the challenge Alka completed a two-year writing course at the California College of Arts, and came away with a Masters and a draft of her book.
Alka’s Indian heritage complimented her natural creative flair as a wordsmith. “Hard work is an Indian ‘thing’ because we are determined to succeed,” says Alka.
In 2008 after a gap of 40 years, Alka traveled back to India with her mother. Exploring her ancestral roots in Rajasthan not just transformed her into an Indophile, but set the scene for Alka’s book.
“I had no expectations of a land I barely remembered. But what a trip that turned out to be,” says Alka. India embraced its prodigal in a fulfilling and kaleidoscopic reunion. Alka’s senses were wonderfully overwhelmed: Colourful saris gracefully draped, enticing foods to delight the palate, aromas of wood fires, warm jelabies and henna drying on hands were visuals that eventually found expression in the book. “The markets, handicrafts, monuments…I saw India through my mother’s eyes and rediscovered my heritage. I was proud. I felt that I could breathe again.” says Alka.
Alka has lived in the US since 1967 when the family joined her father Ramesh in the US to do his doctorate. Determined that his children should have the best education, the family lived in mostly white neighborhoods with good schools. Alka and her brothers were the only brown kids and their school friends only knew India as an underdeveloped, starving, illiterate nation. At the impressionable age of 9 Alka started to feel ashamed of her origins, so she simply disassociated herself from the Indian stereotype.
But the trip to India changed everything. Also, the book’s title protagonist and henna artist evolved as Alka uncovered her mother Sudha’s traditional veneer that masked an independent and quietly assertive spirit. Sudha motivated her children to make their own choices, while her life remained embedded in convention, one in which she still cooked chappatis for Alka’s dad every night.
Alka is a spirited feminist having faced racism, sexism and wage disparity throughout her career. “I am all about women’s rights and choices. I hired only women (in her advertising agency) so they could gain confidence and experience. We were successful and we had fun,” she says.
Grateful for her privileged life, Alka pays back by supporting disadvantaged women and girls, and mentoring fledging authors.
That’s why she loves being Author Advocate for ‘Room to Read’, a US-based global nonprofit for children’s literacy and girls’ education. She represents them across geographies, encouraging kids to read, write, find and develop their talents.
Not bad at all, for a hack.