Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel
Trigger Warnings (highlight words below)
Self-harm, rape, incest, pedophilia, sexual abuse, substance abuse
Rani Patel is many things. She’s a rapper who lives in the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i- a daughter of Gujarati immigrants who is the only Indian in her community. She’s a girl who’s been affected by an unspeakable trauma in her childhood, and she’s someone who’s trying to find a place for herself in a world governed by men. The patriarchy has shaped her culture, her relationships with her family and friends, her parents’ broken marriage, and Rani is just about done with it. The story begins when Rani discovers that her father’s been having an affair with a woman just a couple years older than Rani. The novel unfolds through explorations of gender roles in ‘Indian culture,’ (you’ll find out why I used quotations) as well as Rani’s more personal traumas.
Rani Patel in Full Effect started off strong with a well-established voice, and a seemingly snarky, strong heroine that would develop and mature to overcome the hardships she had gone through her entire life. The pretty-decent rap was an added bonus, but as the narrative went along, things started to go downhill. For starters- the technicalities. The secondary characters were completely flat, had very little of substance to their personalities, and were mainly used as plot points. The protagonist undergoes very little development, and the some that she does go through is so heavy-handed it’s almost laughable. Putting technicalities aside and moving on to the deeper stuff, I’d like to point out that Sonia Patel is an accredited psychiatrist at one of the most prestigious universities in North America, and she clearly has a very good handle on topics of childhood abuse. But that did not play in her favor, because this book read like a case study.
If you’ve ever read psychology case studies, you’ll know how very targeted they are. How very little information you get about the person other than their trauma and the consequences of that trauma; this book read a lot like that. It was as if Sonia Patel had a checklist on hand of every symptom, every negative consequence she could think of to add to the protagonist’s life. And I feel that topics of childhood abuse and trauma are important- in fact, they are so important that it’s crucial that we do not reduce victims to their traumas. Rani Patel was a feisty young woman who had all the potential in the world, but her personality, her choices – even the trivial ones – were completely dominated by this imaginary checklist. Rani did not feel human, and this contributes to a stigma. A picture of trauma victims that they are little more than their past.
Moreover, this book was very scattered. I’m a huge proponent for cohesive contemporaries, where we are given complete pictures of protagonists’ lives, but this was all-over-the-place. There were strong themes of the negativities of Indian culture with regards to the position of women in marriages and outside of them- explored through Rani’s parents’ marriage. Rani’s relationships with her parents also played a pivotal role. But then there was also a love-triangle between Rani’s classmate, Rani and a thirty-one year-old dude. There was Rani’s overcoming of trauma, as well as her rapping. It was so much in so little that it felt displaced and somewhat illogical. Now think about what I said before- how Rani’s trauma took over every aspect of her life. Connect that with all of this stuff that was happening, and you get a very heavy-handed, in-your-face book about a caricature, rather than a person.
Am I sounding harsh? I mean to be harsh, because those are just a fraction of problems I had with this novel. I do not mean to invalidate Sonia Patel’s voice- not at all, but as someone who is from a culture almost identical to Indian culture, I found the author’s portrayal problematic and one-dimensional. It lacked any sort of nuance whatsoever. Indian culture- how barbaric and backward, where men see women as property, where women are constantly and commonly oppressed. This exists. This exists in South Asian societies- the patriarchy is alive and thriving, and it’s a sad fact that needs to be addressed, explored and annihilated. But damn, there was such little nuance in the cultural elements of this book. The ‘good’ things were Bollywood, jalebis and clothes- the superficial things that give India the label of “exotic” to the Westerner, but deep down, this novel believes that India is archaic. It’s just another projection of a stigma. I repeat: I am aware that these things exist, but to reduce a massive, ancient culture to its most primitive form is horrendous. Not to mention that this is done throughout the novel, and then this line pops up during a love scene between Rani and a white dude:
“He becomes the European conqueror, fully exploring his South Asian conquest.”
Perhaps I’m missing something, but that is highly offensive considering it was said in an un-ironic, this-is-supposed-to-be-romantic kinda way. What the fuck?
And wait up! There’s more! For a novel that’s supposed to uplift women suffering from trauma, abuse, misogyny and the shackles of ‘oppressive cultures,’ this book does one hell of a good job driving women into the ground- without consequence, I may add. There are no healthy female relationships. Rani’s relationship with her mother stems from the oppressive-culture-makes-mother-silent trope, so there’s very little of decent, human interaction between the two. Rani has no female friends- none, whatsoever. The few female interactions that she does have are rooted in jealousy, resentment and anger. She judges women superficially, and constantly refers to one woman as “boob girl” even though she’s never even fucking spoken to this girl, and has made a judgement about her seemingly-fake breasts by looking at her for literally three seconds. Then, she writes a rap that’s supposed to be empowering her by putting down women who have plastic surgeries. Also, are you seriously calling women bimbos and then trying to pass this novel off as feminist? I’m fuming. I’m disgusted.
This novel managed to offend me on several different levels, all at the same time. It offended me as someone who’s very passionate about the stigmas surrounding victims of abuse and trauma, as someone who’s culture is almost identical to the one supposedly portrayed in the novel, and as someone who is a woman. The fact that it’s an #ownvoices novel is a cherry-on-top, because what if girls younger than me pick this up because it promises representation, and they then think that this is how they’re supposed to feel? I’m sorry. I wish I could be objective, and I wish I could point out some things this novel did do right, but it’s offensive on such a personal level that it is not within my capabilities to do that.
Stay away. Stay far, far, far away.