Nikita Chinamanthur SC ’22 set out to write about Hindi cinema and the movie industry, what she felt to be her true passion — but in just two months, she found herself immersed in an entirely different culture.
Instead of commentary on film, she had “Ants”: a story about a girl named Natasha navigating online relationships, self-image and her desi background — all to a soundtrack of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and “La La Land.” Chinamanthur had a different story to tell, one that she hoped would deeply resonate with her own generation, and maybe even older ones.
“I’m going to be very honest, I borrowed heavily from my own biography,” Chinamanthur said. “On paper, Nat and I are very similar: We’re both South Asian teens that grew up in Washington state and went to college in California.”
“Ants” never names Scripps College or Claremont explicitly, but 5C readers may pick up on some similarities to the campuses.
“One of the scenes in the first section — ‘Displacement’ — may seem familiar. There’s a spot between Scripps and Mudd where you can look at Mudd and there’s a little turn-in to Dorsey and GJW Hall,” Chinamanthur said. “That was the spot I was imagining sitting down on, even though I had never done that.”
While Chinamanthur omitted any direct associations with Claremont, her content and style were partially inspired by a Scripps class: The Futures of Asian/America, taught in 2019 by Scripps English professor Warren Liu, whose review appears on the back cover of “Ants.”
“In the class, I was confronted with the first set of Asian American authors ever,” Chinamanthur said. “That was really, really fundamental in how I crafted this book … You could technically read it in any order and still get the story, and the decision to commit to that style came from reading the books that he would teach in the class.
“They dealt with either a different kind of narrative voice, or something structural that was unique, and so I felt like, ‘Okay, older and wiser people have done this, so maybe I can do this and maybe it’ll be somewhat enjoyable.’”
“I feel that these almost contrasting themes of insecurity and the excitement of love will resonate with all readers.” — Amy Kouch, beta reader
And enjoyable it was, according to beta reader Amy Kouch, an artist and environmentalist. Kouch said every reader can see themselves reflected in Nat’s journey.
“Although this book centers around a young adult, I feel that these almost contrasting themes of insecurity and the excitement of love will resonate with all readers,” Kouch said via email. “Nat is so honest with her feelings — and even if people may not have experienced the same things that she has, I’m sure everyone, at some point, has questioned and doubted themselves.”
“Ants” also explores the softer sides of falling in love — like the stomach butterflies and the daydreams of conveniently bumping into a soulmate in Whole Foods — but it also features explicit sexual conversations between Nat and Ben, her main love interest, in an anonymous forum called The Chatroom.
Chinamanthur says she’s “always been an oversharer,” which translates into an honest and frank presentation of hook-up culture.
“I remember being shocked by the content, because it’s completely different from the [young adult] novels I read in high school — it touches on very ‘taboo’ topics and private thoughts, and I was impressed by how real Nat felt to me,” Kouch said via email.
Beta reader and Chinamanthur’s aunt Anita Shekar had some initial reservations about the contents of her niece’s manuscript.
“When I read the first few chapters, I was a little uncomfortable with the subject matter — especially because of the background and culture that I grew up in,” Shekar said via email. “I had to consciously put that aside and read the book for what it was — an honest and personal look at sexuality and dating in today’s world.”
For the author herself, including explicit scenes was nerve-wracking because the rest of her family was undoubtedly going to read them.
“Writing this and then being okay with uncles and aunties reading it, I wonder, ‘What will they do?’” Chinamanthur said. “I didn’t even show it to my mom until this week … I really wanted to talk about masturbation. I literally touched on it, and then I didn’t. I would have totally wanted to add a lot more of the interactions between Ben and Nat that were a lot more explicit than they already are.”
Chinamanthur was careful to explore not only the physical nature of hook-up culture, but also its emotional impact. She writes of the shame that surrounds sex, particularly its prominence in Indian culture. In the section titled “Modesty,” Natasha — who is pointedly a virgin — grapples with the fact that her dignity is not her own.
“The section starts with the idea that an Indian woman’s modesty is her family’s dignity and what it means to link those two nebulous concepts together in an attempt to save face or be honorable in South Asian society,” Chinamanthur said. “With a lot of women, their virginity or their purity is linked to their family’s status in some way. If they have too many sexual encounters, they’re labeled as ‘impure’ or ‘sluts’ or what have you.”
Shekar shares a similar understanding as an Indian woman, and asserts that this kind of shame is inflicted across other cultures as well.
“I know that the sense of modesty described in the book is true for a lot of women in India,” Shekar said. “It is something we automatically learn as we grow up female. I would also argue that this idea of hiding away a woman’s sexuality is true pretty much all over the world to varying degrees. ‘She dressed like a w****’ is a comment that has been made in all major languages of the world.”
In addition to these universal feelings about womanhood, Chinamanthur describes another topic not often highlighted in young adult literature: the immigrant and non-white experience.
“The sections describing the sense of not knowing which culture one fits in, as a first-generation immigrant, struck a chord,” Shekar said. “That when we raised our families here, we unknowingly bequeathed to them this sense of being forever torn between the two cultures, is very poignantly portrayed.”
“I always wonder how my life would be different if I grew up in India and hadn’t come here. And part of that definitely would have contributed to my own relationships with other people.” — Nikita Chinamanthur
“I always wonder how my life would be different if I grew up in India and hadn’t come here,” Chinamanthur said. “And part of that definitely would have contributed to my own relationships with other people, romantic relationships and not. Reflecting on that, I’m very glad to be the person I am today. I think that, in the end, once you crest that hill, you’ll see a better day.”
“At some moments, this journey definitely felt a little too rushed or formulaic,” Chinamanthur said of the publishing experience via email.
“While writing groups are really, really useful, this felt more like a how to sell [or] market your book … Most authors in my cohort felt as though they were doing a vanity project or trying to embellish their resume.”
However, working with this kind of publisher allowed her total ownership of “Ants.”
“I own all rights to my book — something most authors really don’t have even when they have big names or big-name publishers,” Chinamanthur said via email. “In retrospect, I have put a lot into this book: careful decisions about structure and organization, hidden meanings, consistencies throughout, etc. … So, it really feels like my own in so many ways that I think publishing with an agent and contract [as opposed to New Degree Press] would not have been the right decision.”
As for the book’s abstract title, Chinamanthur’s vision was that “Nat is this central, three-dimensional and full-bodied character, and everyone else was sort of like flies or ants.”
Appropriately, she dedicates the book to the background characters in her own story that have stood by her: “To all the ants in my life who still support me while doing a conga line around the coffee table, even if I have swiped at them several times: I write because I know you will read.”