We chat with Rita Hemnani, a Hong Kong-born writer with a passion for connecting children with family through historical fiction books. We talk to her about her first children’s book about the Partition of India and how Indian history has inspired her writing. Plus reading recommendations and a sneak peak at her next novel!
Where are you from?
I consider myself extremely lucky to have been born and brought up in Hong Kong. I had an idyllic childhood growing up in this melting pot of cultures and can’t imagine a more exciting place to live.
How long have you lived in Hong Kong, and where else have you lived?
Practically my whole life! I am a true ESF kid, having attended Bradbury Junior School and Island School before moving to the UK to study at Exeter University. I stayed on to do my postgraduate training in education and worked at Belfairs School and Community College before returning to Hong Kong in 1997 when I started teaching at KGV School. When I met and married my husband here in 2000, I knew this would be my forever home.
How did you find your way to becoming an author?
One day in 2014, my then eight-year-old daughter asked me a homework question: why do people migrate? I told her our family was involved in the Partition of India and largest mass migration in world history. To help her better understand that dark and tumultuous time in India’s history, we went to the library to find a book about the Partition of India. Though we found books on the Holocaust and World Wars, we couldn’t find a single children’s book on the Partition. My daughter accused me of making the whole thing up. It broke my heart. For many days after that, I thought about the fourteen million people who lost their homes and the one million who died and decided to write the historical fiction book that we couldn’t find.
Tell us about your first historical fiction book, and what you hope readers take away from it.
Gope and Meera – A Migration Story was launched in 2017. It’s a story of loss, courage and resilience, which truly reflects what my Sindhi community went through when they were forced to leave their only home during the Partition of India. It’s been humbling to watch my book help build connections between grandchildren and their grandparents, many of whom have gone on to share their personal migration stories for the first time. My historical fiction book has also helped bridge worlds between school children and even teachers and students who have exchanged stories of struggle and courage. I hope that readers will better understand and empathise with the plight of migrants worldwide, as there is a need for this now more than ever.
What doors have the writing world opened for you?
I’ve met incredible kids on my 44 school visits so far, including visits to schools in Singapore! In 2018, I started writing for the Lifestyle and Health sections of the South China Morning Post, which has given me the opportunity to feature human interest stories with heart. In 2019, I presented my TEDx Talk on An Inheritance Worth Sharing about my journey of digging deep into my family’s narrative and the treasures I discovered. Each door has helped open the next and the most exciting one to date is my book deal for my first novel!
Got any new writing projects on the boil for 2023 and beyond?
Yes! Lion of the Sky, my middle-grade novel-in-verse, is being published by HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray in 2024! It’s set in India in 1947 and is the story of Raj, who is forced to leave his only home and is thrust into a world where he must find the sister he lost and save his family from depression before the bully at his new school pushes him past breaking point. It has been extremely exciting to work with my agent based in Boston and my editor and team in New York to write a story set in this important period in the history of India. I cannot wait for this fictional book of my heart to be out in the world!
What’s the most enjoyable thing about the writing experience for you? What about the biggest challenge?
I thoroughly enjoy school visits and challenging young people with new ideas. I also love the process of writing itself. When you get to know your characters well, they start telling you what needs to happen and it’s like magic pouring out of your fingers! The biggest challenge is that you’re on your own, writing for long hours and it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re waiting to hear back from editors. The publishing world is slow and it’s important to focus on new projects and stay inspired even when you have setbacks.
Do you have a set writing routine?
I try to write first thing in the morning when my ideas are fresh, but if I have a school visit, I’ll fit my writing time into an afternoon. When I’m not physically writing, I can still be forming plot threads or characters in my mind as I hike up Hong Kong hills – and that’s the beauty of it!
What KidLit books have you most enjoyed?
The Giver by Lois Lowry, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, Restart by Gordon Korman, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and American Street by Ibi Zoboi.
What is your favourite book of all time?
I have so many, including Home Going by Yaa Gyasi, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. Each is written with beautiful language and has tugged at my heartstrings.
What do you like to do in Hong Kong when you’re not writing or working?
I love to kayak, visit the theatre, go for Bollyfit classes, have long days out in nature, beach days and karaoke nights, whilst indulging in Hong Kong’s diverse and dynamic food scene with family and friends.
Interested in learning more about the history of India and reading stories from the Partition of India? Gope and Meera – A Migration Story is available at Bookazine and Ritu’s website. Lion of the Sky will be available next year where all good children’s books are sold.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.