Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story by Sonia Patel
This retelling of Romeo and Juliet is about two teens living in Hawaii. Rasa is of mixed race, the daughter of a neglectful prostitute and forced to delve into prostitution herself after she was raped at a very young age just to keep her and her younger siblings alive, and when she and her siblings are put into foster care, she ends up under the control of a manipulative, violent pimp. Jaya is an Indian, transgender boy from a wealthy family that, despite looking like the perfect family from the outside, is being destroyed by his father’s cheating and his mother’s eating disorder. The characters meet and feel an instant attraction, are kept apart by their families/pimps, you get the idea.
Jaya and Rasa is one of those books that’s just chock-full of diversity: while many authors (and especially filmmakers) seem to believe that “diverse traits” can only appear one at a time and are mutually exclusive, this book does NOT have that problem. Now, I’m about to start talking about what I didn’t like: if you already are planning on reading this book, please do and skip along to the last paragraph. I’m almost afraid to jinx it by typing this but… I think Patel went just a little TOO above and beyond with her diversity quota. The story feels rushed and the characters underdeveloped: they are supposed to be 16 or 17 but unfortunately Patel’s immature writing ends up portraying them in an unsophisticated and immature light. In my opinion, she would have done her characters more justice by focusing less on making her book a poster child for diversity through tons of cliched, textbook situations of abuse, mental illness, and general bad situations. Instead, I wish she’d taken the time to develop her characters as people, as teenagers, with more original, nuanced, and deep representations of the effects of horrible life situations.
But the truth is, I don’t want to bash this book and I still think you should read it. Unfortunately, we still struggle to see tabooed real-life issues in media, and it’s incredibly important to have book and movie characters that help reflect issues that teens all over might face, and start the conversation about these topics that will hopefully lead to support and understanding for victims of abuse, sex trafficking, neglect, racism, homo- and transphobia, eating disorders, and the many other problems people still fight against daily but are rarely discussed in the media. So yes, Jaya and Rasa was far from perfect as a novel, but I still support it because of the topics it deals with and the ever-present need for more books that aren’t afraid to deal with hard topics.
WARNINGS: This book is very dark and deals heavily with sexual and physical abuse, rape, homo- and transphobia, eating disorders, attempted suicide, and neglect. If you are particularly sensitive about these things this book might not be for you.