Gayatri Sethi and Annika Sarin on Defying Categorization & Unbelonging

By Suma Subramaniam

I’m pleased to welcome Gayatri Sethi, author of Unbelonging (Mango and Marigold Press, 2021) and co-founder of desi kidlit community to Cynsations! Welcome, Gayatri!

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

Collaboration. I love working with creatives, artists and writers in the spirit of collective upliftment. Saadia Faruqi and I co-founded the desi kidlit community a couple of years ago. We had sensed that spaces for creatives from the sub-continent might need each other as we navigate numerous obstacles in publishing. So, we created a space to share ideas and inspirations with each other.

So far, we have co-hosted three virtual gatherings, known as summits, in which we celebrate debut writers, offer mentorship opportunities and discuss themes like decolonization and solidarity within South Asian diaspora creators.

I must say that this aspect of being a published author is most satisfying for me. We function in a publishing world where we are often pitted against each other to compete for a small percentage of the annual publishing deals. In the desi kidlit community spaces, we offer the possibility for collaboration and mutual support to ensure that we are collectively successful.

Could you tell us about your latest book?

This book is part memoir, part creative nonfiction and part feminist workbook. I would not describe it as a poetry collection because I do not see myself as much of a poet in the conventional sense. I was inspired by the spoken word traditions of South Asia and the diaspora. I was drawn to experimental writing that is more emotive and dwells less on being informative. I was working within gaps because I had been seeking this kind of writing to teach from throughout my time as an educator.

I paid a great deal of attention to the design of the book. I envisioned a book that almost felt like a multi-layered piece of art. I was fortunate to be published by a small press that was open to my suggestions when it came to the cover illustrations and typesetting. One of the most fulfilling aspects of the revising and designing process was the extensive collaborations I developed with Annika Sarin, the book designer. I shared my manuscript with her, and included footnotes/ typesetting notes throughout to convey some of my vision. We then conversed at length about how the words would be laid on the pages, the style, and even the fonts that would bring the words to life. These conversations were illuminating and resulted in a book designed with immense thoughtfulness, care and love. I was overjoyed recently when a reader contacted me to praise the design and noted these layered touches that Annika and I co-created.






Annika’s Design Statement For Unbelonging:

 When I first received Gayatri’s manuscript, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to layout a book that is verse, memoir, workbook, and call to action. I started by printing out the manuscript and reading it with scissors and highlighters by my side. The process was extremely personal as Gayatri’s words resonate deeply with me. I did prompts in the book while I designed them. I called my mom when I needed help with words that were to be typeset in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi. Gayatri and I worked closely together and as a result the design of this book is welcoming, intimate and interactive. We used white space, margins, the weight and flow of lines and movement of text as design elements. We looked closely at each spread and were thoughtful about where a reader might need space to reflect on or process their emotions. I felt connected to author and reader throughout the process and this book was designed with love.

Another reader commented, “the heft in my hand, the illustrations and the layout—all extraordinary!” This praise warmed my heart because it was such an emotional and intuitively driven collaboration to bring all these elements of the book together cohesively.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

I started out as an academic, deeply invested certain kinds of scholarship and writing. My own dissertation was not formally published for a variety of reasons.

Over time, as my own applied scholarship and teaching evolved, I began to unlearn many norms in academic writing. I gravitated to works of memoir, poetry and even creative nonfictions by Global Majority writers. The more I read across these genres, the more I realized that my own writing needed to embrace new possibilities. I gave myself permission to be creatively genre bending in my approach to writing about the themes I would teach college level courses about. In this ongoing process of curating and creating, I started to play with words and ideas in free verses or letters. I collected, revised, and compiled them into the recently published volume, Unbelonging.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be? How has your writing evolved over time?

I tell myself consistently to invest time and resources into developing my distinct writing voice.

As a recently published author at almost fifty years old, I understand now that writing and publishing books requires a great deal of perseverance. If I had stopped at the academics’ feedback that my writing was not scholarly enough or had been dissuaded by agents who said that my work is niche and has no readership, I would not have written this text. I transmuted all the so-called advice and feedback from conventional publishing into a clearer sense of who I am as a writer. I was told to translate words or concepts for western audiences. I was asked to be less brutally honest about the oppressions I encounter in order not to alienate the readers. I was advised to “tone down” my antiracism.

Despite ongoing deflations and discouragement because my work does not fit easily into genres or classifications, I invested time and effort into developing my own voice. I started to take more ownership of what readers or editors saw as quirkiness or bizarre or “different.” I see them as my unique strengths and contributions. As I honed in on my writing style over the years, I became more confident in taking risks or pushing back against criticism in order to retain my sense of self in the face of inevitable critique.

This process takes a great deal of time and is rarely easy. It is so worthwhile and ongoing. I am a writer in progress.

Cynsational Notes

Annika Sarin (she/her) is a graphic designer, artist and mama of two. Annika got her start as a graphic designer in New York city where she lived for close to two decades before returning home to Boston, where she is now based. At the center of Annika’s work is a desire to make visible everyday moments of human connection. She works with artists, activists, and small business owners as a graphic designer and as an artist often finds herself digging through old snapshots to create her digital portraits and collages. She is interested in where her design and artwork can intersect with decolonization and healing. Currently, Annika is working on a series of self-portraits inspired by concepts in Unbelonging by Gayatri Sethi. These digital collages incorporate self-portraits photographed in Annika’s twenties, re-imaged now in her forties using patterns and archetypes found in South Asian Indigenous art and Mughal miniature painting. Annika’s design work is also available in her Etsy shop.

Gayatri Sethi is an educator, writer, and independent consultant based in Atlanta. She teaches and writes about social justice, global studies, and comparative education. Born in Tanzania and raised in Botswana, Gayatri is of South Asian Punjabi descent, multilingual, and polycultural. She reflects on these lifelong experiences of identity, immigration, and belonging in her debut book titled Unbelonging (Mango and Marigold Press, 2021). When she is not homeschooling or recommending readings as Desi Book Aunty, she travels the globe with her students and family.

Suma Subramaniam is the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, 2019). She is also the author of Centaurs (Capstone, 2021), Fairies (Capstone, 2021), She Sang For India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022), and Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022). She volunteers at We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI Western Washington. She hires tech professionals for a leading software company during the day and is a writer by night. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees in computer science and management. Visit her website at