Filmmaker and graphic novelist Keshni Kashyap discusses with Budhaditya Bhattacharya her debut book “Tina’s Mouth” and why Sartre is fun

Tina’s Mouth (Harper Collins) by Keshni Kashyap draws its readers into the world of Tina Malhotra, a 15-year-old Indian American who, like all people her age, is in the grip of that terrible malady known as teenage angst. She is dumped by her best friend Alex and her infatuation with Neil Strumminger is headed nowhere.

The book is in the form of a diary she keeps as a course requirement. It’s addressed to Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, who becomes Tina’s confidant and unlikely companion in her journey through high school existential drift. The book has been illustrated by Los Angeles based Japanese painter Mari Araki.

Raised in Los Angeles, Keshni Kashyap studied literature at Berkeley and film at UCLA. She is developing the show version of the book with an American TV producer and pitching it to networks. She is also working on a young adult novel, apart from screenplays and essays. She replied to questions in an e-mail interview.

When and how did you discover existentialism? Was your engagement with it as intense as your protagonist’s?

I took a class in existential philosophy (it was offered at my school) when I was 14 or 15. Much like Tina. I remember being very drawn to the discussions in that class and the sort of questions it presented. I also loved my teacher, Mr. Parkman, who was very out-of-the box, unique and charismatic.

Why do you think Sartre is able to endear himself to a high school-er in a way that Gayatri Spivak can’t?

Ha! That’s an interesting question. I don't know if Gayatri Spivak is any less endearing. I remember being pretty enthralled by her – or the idea of her – when I was in college. Perhaps Sartre is a little more accessible to a high school-er. The core issue, however, is that I went to high school in America, where the majority is white. I was interested in playing with something, I think, in having this young Indian American girl spill her guts and give her ‘treatise’ on her identity to a white, male philosopher. There is a power dynamic there that was interesting to me. Sartre, also, let’s be honest, is fun. He was a total womaniser; he had a long term relationship with a lesbian and he wrote different sorts of things, including a few hilarious plays. He also was extremely intriguing to look at!

Although the protagonist is an Indian American, is it significant that this is not the most decisive part of her identity?

At the time, writing about Indian American identity didn’t seem terribly interesting to me. But, I am acutely interested in identity - and, in particular, American identity – so I wanted to write about Tina figuring out who she was through the lens of her upbringing which, of course, is Indian. She’s a teenager like any other with teenager problems.

What were your reasons for using the diary format? Do you keep one yourself?

I did journal pretty extensively starting elementary school. More sporadically now, though I keep it more in the form of stories and letters. The diary allowed me to get more deeply into Tina’s head. I’m also a writer – not an illustrator – and I was driving the story. So, I had to figure out a way to drive the story in my own word-oriented way.

Having studied and made films, you must have had a visual conception of the story as you were writing it. Or did you leave it entirely to Mari Araki? How exactly did the collaboration work?

I loved Mari’s illustrations always. Once I wrote the manuscript, we went back and forth. It was a very close collaboration and took a long, long time.

How did you decide that the story of Tina’s Mouth was going to be a graphic novel? In what ways is writing a graphic novel different from writing for films?

I always wanted it to be a graphic novel. And, like film, graphic novels are visual storytelling. You can go deep into someone’s head, I think, in a particular way with graphic novels and I wanted to play with that. A big difference with films and graphic novels – certainly Tina’s Mouth – is that I had to figure out how to make words work with pictures. That is very tough to do. A picture tends to be stronger than words so they compete. Mari and I had to figure out inventive ways not to allow the two to overlap. In other words, each part had to give separate information.

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