Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, March 7, 2022

Monday, March 7, 2022: YA Maximum Shelf: Debating Darcy

Scholastic Inc.: Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta

Scholastic Inc.: Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta

Scholastic Inc.: Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta

Debating Darcy

by Sayantani DasGupta

Debating Darcy, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from bestselling author Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent's Secret), is set in the highly competitive world of high school speech and debate tournaments--an ideal vehicle for this refreshing interpretation of the beloved comedy of manners. DasGupta puts her own twist on the classic's themes--gender, class, family--while also paying homage to the original text.

The first time 16-year-old Leela Bose sees Firoze Darcy, she's standing atop a high school cafeteria table singing show tunes with her teammates at a speech and debate competition. To Leela's chagrin, the "suited and booted" (as her cousins in India would say) Desi boy from the prestigious Netherfield Academy is not impressed, and tells his friend Bingley that Leela is "certainly not beautiful enough to tempt me." This insult instantly transports Bengali American Leela back to a time when schoolyard bullies mocked her with "pseudo Native American 'woo-woo-woos' " and complained she "smelled like curry." Her shame quickly turns to anger, and she decides she quite detests that "pile of prideful pomposity."

Unfortunately, Leela will be seeing a lot more of Darcy now that his private school has joined the state speech and debate league and he'll be competing against her public school teammates in debate. Not to mention that her best friend, Jay, is drooling over Darcy's friend Bingley, and her teammate Tomi would do anything to get into the university where Darcy's mom is president. As Leela and Darcy continue to cross paths, Leela finds Darcy to be "cold, and proud. Like a robot, hard to figure out," but their interactions are passionate and heated, whether they're discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of Hamilton or the inauthenticity of speech categories. Then there's Bengali American Jishnu Waddedar, "uncomplicated, charming and easy"--everything Darcy isn't--who has his own bad history with Darcy and aims to humiliate him in competition. Loaded with Jishnu's vengeance and Darcy's constant criticisms of speech events, Leela decides to quit speech and try debate, both to prove to Darcy she can do it and to put him in his place while she's at it.

When Leela dips her toe into the "old-fashioned boys' club" of debate, she quickly finds that the odds are stacked against her--sexist comments from judges and male competitors and racial microaggressions are the norm. Add to that Darcy's confusing behavior as of late (watching a movie she mentioned so he could quote it to her, buying her secret expensive desserts) and Leela wonders if she made a mistake. About debate, definitely, but maybe about Darcy, too. Leela will have to come to terms with her hurt pride and chronic misjudgment of people's character if she wants to have any success in debate or love.

DasGupta uses the ultra-competitive world of high school speech and debate to help drive Leela and Darcy's story. This setting allows space for fervent arguments between the enemies-to-lovers and lively discussions among characters about "liberatory education," institutionalized sexism and the "sexist clothing industrial complex." But it is also a stage for personal transformations, such as Leela's from someone who hides behind other people's words in "humorous interpretation" speeches to a debater who abandons her "well-worn competition suit" and lets her locks do their "natural, ringlet-y thing" as she uses her own voice to argue against elitism and privilege.

Just as class, gender and family are key themes in Pride and Prejudice, DasGupta successfully incorporates them into her novel while also introducing racism and colorism. She uses the male-dominated activity of high school debate to show that, even 200 years later, women are still expected to act a certain way, with Leela and her teammate Mary berated by judges for their clothing choices, their "shrillness" and their "aggressive" natures. (Even Leela accidentally plays into the sexist double standard and polices her younger female teammates' behavior around their male competitors.) Through Leela and Darcy's arguments and debate topics, DasGupta explores class issues, such as whether standardized testing for college admissions is an elitist practice, and the experiences of public school kids versus privately educated ones ("Never mind we actually had to fundraise... unlike some people who have everything handed to them on a silver platter"). She effectively explores the theme of family through Leela's "ramshackle, completely embarrassing public high school forensics team," which includes "a crafter, an actor, a rule-abider, a goth, and two incorrigible dingbat flirts" as well as two "slightly flaky coaches." Together, this group functions as a found family for Leela, who has never felt like she fit in, whether in her own Bengali American community, where people say she has a "pretty face... for a dark girl," or in ballet class, where all the other little girls' "nude tights and shoes actually matched their skin."

As modern as Debating Darcy is, DasGupta deftly weaves in nods to the original, through quotes ("How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book") and in the "invisible pattern of movement" between Darcy and Leela that compares their arguing to "turns around a ballroom." Debating Darcy is a provocative, humorous and relevant modernization of the classic that inspired it. --Lana Barnes

Scholastic, $18.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9781338797695, April 5, 2022

Scholastic Inc.: Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta

Sayantani DasGupta: The Power of Language and Laughter

(photo: Stephanie Berger)

Sayantani DasGupta is the author of the acclaimed Bengali folktale and string theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series and Force of Fire, a fantasy set in the Kingdom Beyond multiverse. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books. When she's not writing or reading, DasGupta spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. Here, DasGupta discusses her upcoming YA novel, Debating Darcy (Scholastic, April 5, 2022).

What about Jane Austen is appealing to you?

I am a huge Jane Austen-head. I've read all her books repeatedly, seen every film, TV and stage adaptation. Her stories are like old friends to me.

What I love about Austen is her humor, her ability to use a simple turn of phrase to poke fun at everything from restrictive social conventions to gender norms to inheritance laws to the way that wealth dictates social hierarchies. I, like Elizabeth Bennet, dearly love to laugh. I also think humor is a potent mechanism for social critique--especially for those who are less powerful or marginalized by society. Austen is a prime example of how powerful both language and laughter can be.

Why did you choose debate and competitive speech as the vehicle for this story?

It is universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice's Lizzy and Darcy are among the most iconic examples of enemies-to-lovers couples. In Jane Austen's original 1813 novel, the pair bicker, fight and debate their way into falling in love. Wit is their love language, words their path to each other's hearts. So, it made perfect sense to me to set my modern reimagining in the ultra-competitive world of high school speech and debate tournaments!

Did you have to do research about the debate world or were you a "forensicator"?

My high school years were definitely informed by being a forensicator, and my sometimes-chaotic forensics team was my high school family. However, like Leela in the beginning of Debating Darcy, I competed in speech categories. I did prose and poetry reading, dramatic and humorous interpretation, but never debate. So while I had to research the particularities of L-D debate, I didn't have to go too far from my own memories to re-create the energy and joy of those weekend forensics competitions. I was so serious about getting the debate details right, however, I sought the help of debate beta readers, particularly the wonderful Sahana Thirumazhusai.

Who was your favorite character to adapt and why?

Of course, I adore Lizzy and Darcy. But beyond the two main characters, I must say I loved reimagining Lydia Bennet/Lidia Rivera as a modern-day, feminist teenager. Like most Austen readers, I find the original Lydia Bennet impulsive, vain, selfish, foolish and extremely irritating. And this is the reaction that Leela has to Lidia initially in Debating Darcy--she finds her loud, annoying and boy crazy.

But what was interesting to me was to reinterpret Lydia's/Lidia's actions through a feminist lens. Is she actually a terrible person, or simply a young woman who speaks, behaves and dresses in ways that patriarchal standards tell us are improper? In the original novel, 15-year-old Lydia is preyed upon by a much older man--George Wickham--who has a history of targeting teenage girls. And yet, it's Lydia that readers tend to hate more. Wickham is a scoundrel, but Lydia is an incorrigible flirt who, through her actions, puts the reputations of her sisters at risk.

It was empowering for me as a writer to reimagine the Wickham-Lydia dynamic in Debating Darcy in light of the #metoo movement. I also wanted to honor those brave young high school women who are calling out sexism, as well as sexual harassment and assault, in their lives--including in the world of speech and debate competitions. I wanted to reimagine a world where Lydia/Lidia wasn't villainized but believed and supported by the women around her, where women can come together in community, using their voices and stories to call out injustice and abuse.

Besides being a reinterpretation of a beloved classic, what is at the heart of Debating Darcy?

While Debating Darcy is a giddy and funny romantic comedy, at the heart of this book is ultimately the power of words, stories and using your voice. This is a novel that celebrates the power of finding your community and speaking your truth. It's a novel about knowing we are all worthy of taking up space in the world. In between the wit and banter, the complex debate topics and funny musical theater references, it is ultimately a story about justice and honor, friendship and love.

The way Leela describes her debate with Darcy, as if she's dancing with him at a ball like one of those girls in the novels she likes to read, was so memorable. How did you conceptualize this moment?

In Regency England, dancing was one of the few socially acceptable ways for young unmarried men and women to interact, speak together and touch. It was an unusual space for flirtation and freedom.

But dancing, for Leela, is also a frightening thing. It's an unashamed way of moving her brown-skinned, immigrant daughter body through the world that she's still struggling with. Just like Lizzy and Darcy on the dance floor, Leela and Firoze dance and flirt through their exchanges of words and ideas in a debate round. So, I wanted to represent that parallel in Debating Darcy.

What can we look forward to next from you?

Crown of Flames, the follow-up to my middle-grade novel Force of Fire, about the fire demoness Pinki, will be coming out in fall 2022. And right after that, in February 2023, will be my next Austen-inspired YA, a yet untitled novel about a Regency camp! Think High School Musical meets Austenland meets Shakespeare meets Sense and Sensibility!

Anything else you'd like to add?

There's been an interesting Twitter debate (Eek! Twitter debates! A topic for another day!) lately about whether authors of color or LGBTQ+ should be reimagining ourselves into "classics" or concentrating on writing our own unique stories. My response is, as the social media meme goes, why not both?

In Debating Darcy, I actually have Leela and Firoze argue about whether writing people of color into predominantly white stories (like Pride and Prejudice) is empowering and refreshing or a cop-out, a way to let problematic racist stories and characters "off the hook" as it were. I think the answer is complicated. After all, Leela both dreams of dressing in a Regency ball gown, a dance card hanging from her gloved wrist, and also realizes that she has her own cultural symbols of finery and romance, that she doesn't need someone else's.

In the end, the dedication to Debating Darcy is: "For all the brown girls who dreamt of gossamer gowns, only to realize we were already wearing crowns." --Lana Barnes

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