Sixteen-year-old Maya, daughter of the kingdom’s Raja, has been burdened with a fate foretold in her horoscope, which promises a doomed marriage in her future. Since birth she has faced the terror and contempt of others, but now, due to her father's political tactics, Maya faces a dreaded wedding. She finds herself married to Amar, making her the queen of Akaran—a kingdom full of otherworldly mystery, magic and, when her curiosities consume her, danger.
Roshani Chokshi introduces a world that is culturally diverse and richly dynamic in her debut novel, The Star-Touched Queen. She expertly combines Indian folklore with the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone with stunning ease. Her vivid prose brings to life a high fantasy world that, until now, one could only dream of. We contacted Chokshi to learn more about her debut.
Was it daunting to create such a culturally diverse and complex world? How did you go about piecing it together?
Writing anything is daunting, but constructing TSTQ’s world was actually very fun! Indian mythology hints at multiple worlds, almost as if they’re stacked one atop the other. Like tiers of cake! (Mmm . . . cake.) To piece them together, I drew inspiration from some Western fairy tales about how someone would access the Otherworld (places like Tír na nÓg, Tartarus, etc.) and tried to construct magical rules that would fit with the mythology.
How has your Filipino and Indian heritage influenced your writing?
My heritage showed me how we’re all telling the same tale. Many Filipino and Indian myths overlap, as do myths and folklore across wide cultural spectrums. My heritage changed how I wrote because I saw, for the first time, that it was natural to explore a familiar tale in a new cultural context. Essentially, I wasn’t doing anything new. It made me feel like I had permission to play around with the fairytales I liked and the heritage I knew.
I was particularly intrigued by the fear of Maya’s shadow in the book. Did that stem from a particular piece of folklore?
Yes! When I was younger I read a story about how the wife of the Sun god (Surya) abandoned him and left her shadow (Chhaya) in her place. I always loved that idea—that somehow your shadow could gain a personality, tear itself from your side and wander off. Or perhaps that trait only belongs to goddesses. Alas.
What is your favorite piece of folklore or myth that went into creating this book?
The tale of Narasimha was my favorite piece of folklore, and also one of my favorite scenes to write in the whole book. I think it’s thematically important because it shows how fate intersects with ambition.
Maya grapples with her foretold fate and destiny. Do these things play a role in your own life? How much control do we think have over our own lives, and can we learn to be the boss of our own fate?
Maya’s name means “illusion,” and I think that’s fitting. How we see things—as beastly or beautiful, painful or painless—pivots on a myriad of intangibles. I couldn’t tell you whether we ever master destiny, or whether we just choose to mold our perspective in a way that sits well with us. There’s something comfortable about the idea of destiny. I grew up with the firm reminder that I couldn’t control the actions of the world, only my reactions. Destiny didn’t factor into that. It was always just what I did with what I had and how I chose to see it. I think Maya is the same way.
Mother Dhina and others treat Maya as a scapegoat for all their misfortunes due to their blind belief in her horoscope. What is the danger of people’s inclination to believe in something unquestionably?
Oh, so many dangers. You may sacrifice love without realizing it. Or worse, go blind and never see the world for all that it wants to be.
Maya refers to marriage as a cage and the other women speak of abuses by their husbands, but it is a tradition they uphold. Particularly in regards to the treatment of women and other minority groups, what is the importance of tradition, and what is the value in breaking it? In upholding it?
Tradition links us to our heritage. I’ve always loved watching my grandparents and family members explain certain rites and ceremonies to me. There’s something very powerful in knowing that a gesture, phrase or prayer has been passed down for years. However, sometimes tradition and dreams clash. You have to make compromises in order to stay true to yourself first and an idea later. In my family, I think we still uphold many of our traditions, but we’ve refitted them to fit who we are today. Much like retelling a favorite fairy tale. We update it to reflect ourselves, not the other way around.
Speaking of, what is the importance of representing diversity in books for young adults? How did you approach this issue in writing The Star-Touched Queen?
The world is diverse. Books should be, too. I wasn’t consciously thinking about diversity when I wrote TSTQ. I wanted to include the tales I knew growing up. I wanted to portray a heroine who looked like the people I love. And I wanted to show how a journey of self-affirmation and first love is a universal tale. No single culture possesses those stories.
Your writing evokes a sense of magic realism due to its poetic and dreamlike qualities. It made me wonder if any of the inspiration for Maya and her world stemmed from your own dreams. Was this a quality you were aiming for in your style and tone?
Thank you! Unfortunately, my dreams are exceedingly boring. In my last memorable one, I missed my flight and was forced to wander an airport lobby that resembled purgatory. However, I think my natural writing style strays toward the purple-ish and atmospheric, since that’s the kind of prose I enjoy reading the most.
Stories were important to us as we’re growing up, and in The Star-Touched Queen, Maya tells stories to her younger sister. How did the stories you heard as a child inspire this book?
I love this question. To me, it was really important that Maya and Gauri love stories. Stories continue to be hugely instructive and inspirational to me, not just in my writing but in my life. The stories I heard when I was younger taught me the different ways we show strength, how we celebrate our differences, how far we will go for love. The stories I heard inspired me because they gave a framework for situations I hadn’t encountered yet. To quote Neil Gaiman (who I believe is paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton): “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
What’s next for you?
I just finished my second draft of The Star-Touched Queen companion, and I’m working on a YA fantasy heist tale and a MG horror!
Author photo credit Aman Sharma.