Naheed Phiroze Patel’s debut book, A Mirror Made of Rain, explores with great ingenuity, the wounds that are passed on from one generation to another in a family. As we see the protagonist of the book, Noomi, come of age, we see in her mother Asha the traces of self-destruction that eventually find themselves become a part of Noomi’s life as well. These traces primarily include mental illness and addiction. Both these issues are sensitively employed by the author to remarkably recognise the damage our filial past levies on our present lives, and how necessary it is to recognise the trauma and move forward with hope.
Below, the author lends us some insight into the making of her debut novel.
I think that every writer starts out as a reader, and I was no different. My parents had books all over the house — I pretty much read everything and anything I found on their shelves. I had periods in my childhood that were unhappy; the world that stories offered felt a lot safer than the real world, full of unpredictable adults. I still go back to certain books; I find the world and characters inside them familiar and comforting. It was only a matter of time before I began wanting to build such worlds myself.
I began writing A Mirror Made of Rain as a way to come to terms with the untimely death of my father. I hoped, by writing a character based on him, to keep him a part of my life for a bit longer. As I got further into the story, I was taken over by an all-consuming need to explore the sense of unbelonging felt by my protagonist, Noomi, and to capture the maelstrom of loss, joy, grief, and tender moments that make up a life. The novel's epicenter is the dysfunctional relationship between Noomi and her mother, Asha, and I wanted to portray the unraveling of their lives with honesty and empathy, reaching into the hearts of these two women to reveal the darkness that addiction and mental illness cast over a family.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things means everything to my writing. I think of that book as my book’s foremother. A Mirror Made of Rain would not exist, if not for TGOST. While writing, I read a lot about motherhood and grief. A mix of fiction and non-fiction. Some books that I returned to were Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life, Jaqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, and an amazing treatise on craft, and oddly, computer programming, called Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, who has developed a brilliant software that helps you write, called Granthika.
I based Noomi partly on me and my friends, and partly on my cat, Oona! She’s a Norwegian Forest Cat that we adopted two years ago. I love cats. I love how independent they are (or at least think they are!), and how emotionally honest. They are the opposite of people-pleasers. I wanted Noomi to have that wildness to her, to not cower before social niceties, and to be unafraid to call out folks’ sexism and double standards. At the same time, I wanted her deeply flawed and insecure, because that was interesting to me, to see how a character like that navigates our world.
The Creative Process
Everything for me starts out as vignettes — little stories, little scenes that talk to me and won’t be quiet until they are on the page. But it took my editor at HarperCollins India, Rahul Soni, and his vision for what eventually became A Mirror Made of Rain. I was lucky that he acquired the novel and spent so much time with me going over the text. It really takes a village to create something. I’m grateful for the input of all the brilliant writers who spent time reading and commenting on these pages. Toni Morrison, in an interview for Paris Review, said something about writing towards the untenable that has always stuck with me. I wrote not because I had answers, but because I had so many questions, about what it means to exist as a messy, fragmented, mentally vulnerable person in a society full of rigid class and gender hierarchies.
I definitely suffer from imposter syndrome, which to some extent I try to abate by working hard and reading as much as I can. I think there are certain challenges inherent in a novel that attempts to transgress conventional tropes of womanhood and motherhood, but my question is, do I want to engage with those challenges? If some readers come away feeling the story is too dark or disturbing, or that the characters don’t meet their expectations for likeability or relatability, well, I didn’t set out to write with those goals in mind. I don’t know how much emotional energy to expend on that sort of discourse. Probably very, very little. Fortunately, this has been balanced out with so many readers reaching out to tell me that what comes through is deep empathy without sentimentality, and a sense of underlying hope and love.
I hope that A Mirror Made of Rain becomes part of the conversation surrounding mental health and intergenerational trauma. I would like to help push away the huge boulder of stigma that sits atop and stifles mental health advocacy in our communities. I am a fan of therapy, and it’s very heartening to see a real movement emerge online, and in person, where more young adults are seeing the benefits that therapy brings into their lives. I would love for my novel to be part of that zeitgeist.
I don’t think there’s any way to cope with a tragedy of this scale, only with its aftermath. And unfortunately, I think we will be dealing with the aftermath for a very long time. Again, I am glad that conversations around mental health are entering the mainstream because those platforms and resources are going to play a very vital role in the new normal. Personally, I have taken every opportunity to connect with friends and family, over Zoom if necessary. Being a bit of an introvert, this doesn’t come to me very naturally, but I’d rather be awkward than lose a chance to see a loved one.
Oooh, it is very early days, but I’d love to write something in the speculative fiction genre. At Columbia, I was in a year-long novel writing workshop with Prof. Victor LaValle, and he was finishing up his most recent novel, The Changeling. Victor’s workshop gave me permission to be more exploratory and playful in my own stories. I’ve always loved speculative fiction but didn’t know how to get started. Now I do.
Text Nidhi Verma