Alka Joshi

Historical Fiction

Re-imagining her mother’s life in India as a henna artist that fights for autonomy amid controlling family members.

Born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, Alka Joshi has lived in the U.S. since the age of nine. She graduated from Stanford University and worked in the fields of advertising and PR before starting her own marketing consultancy in 1995. In 2011, she obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from the California College of Arts in San Francisco, California. The Henna Artist, a re-imagining of her mother’s life, is her first novel.

Alka’s mother had an arranged marriage at 18 in India, had been subservient to her father and then her husband, and had no power to make her own decisions. Alka started wondering what her mother might have done had she been able to escape her marriage. What would she have done to survive and thrive? From those musings, years of research and interviews, and frequent trips to Jaipur, the character of the henna artist Lakshmi was born.

Alka shares her writing and publishing process on her YouTube channel. She is represented by Emma Sweeney Literary Agency in New York. She lives on the Monterey Peninsula with her husband and two misbehaving pups.

Find out more at her website.

BOOKS:

The Henna Artist (2020)

Biggest literary influencers:

Ruth Prawar Jhabwala, Anita Amirrezvani, Rohintin Mistry, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Khaled Hosseini, Kiran Desai, Jane Austen, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamande Ngozi Adichie, Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Jamaica Kincaid

Last book read:

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The book that changed your life:

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. After reading this novel, I couldn’t get the story or the main character out of my head. The historical setting of 17th century Iran, the remarkable female narrator, and the art of carpet weaving were so described so vividly, I felt as if my senses were on fire. I read it twice and then looked for an MFA program so I could learn to write as well as Amirrezvani. In a stroke of amazing serendipity, Amrirezvani had just started teaching at California College of the Arts (CCA), just minutes from where I was living (there are no accidents!). I enrolled at CCA and signed up to work with her one-on-one. I thrilled to discover that she was not only an engaging professor but a prescient mentor for the novel that became The Henna Artist.

Your favorite literary character:

Jane Eyre. She may be an orphan with no money, charm or looks, but Jane manifests something far more important: integrity, intelligence and self-worth. She speaks out against injustices within her family and the hellish boarding school she’s sent to. Her unflinching honesty means she is as critical of herself as she is of others. And for all her prickly, unsentimental nature, Jane does not withhold compassion when she feels it’s warranted. She is that strongest of fictional characters: unyielding when she has to be, tender when she needs to be. Lakshmi, the heroine of The Henna Artist, who is both plucky and sensitive, is my way of paying tribute to Jane Eyre.

Currently working on:

The sequel to The Henna Artist, set 10 years later. The working title is A Spring in Shimla. I am also working on a series of short videos about the immigrant experience using my own illustrations.

Words to live by:

If you think you’re too old to start writing now, imagine yourself at 90, wondering the same thing. There’s still time to pick up that pen!

Advice for aspiring authors:

Your manuscript does not work on your timetable. Give yourself space to write, revise and repeat—as many times as necessary. Listen to your mentors, editors and agents. They’ve been at this a while and can give you helpful insights if you’re willing to pay attention. And finally, so much of the publishing process is out of your hands, so start working on something new once the manuscript is out the door. It’ll keep you from waiting for the phone to ring.

Testimonials:

“The Henna Artist is like a brilliant, magical kaleidoscope bursting with color. Through her vivid, compelling portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, debut novelist Alka Joshi opens a door into a world that is at once lush, fascinating, stark and cruel. The Henna Artist kept me riveted from start to finish, consumed by the question posed by all great fiction: what happens next?”

–Lauren Belfer, New York Times Bestselling author of And After the Fire and City of Light

 

Alka Joshi is a remarkable new writer with the novelistic gifts of a seasoned veteran. The Henna Artist is a bold, ambitious, beautifully written novel, about India in the decade after independence, and about class, identity, love and deceit. The broad cast of characters will etch themselves in your psyche, most of all Lakshmi and Radha—both cursed and gifted by fate.”

–Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me and Dakota Winters

 

“The henna artist at the core of Alka Joshi’s superb first novel is unforgettable. Through her work painting henna onto women’s bodies in the boudoirs of the upper class as well as in the hovels of the poor, Lakshmi brings us face to face with the complexity of life in post-independence India. Her plans for self-sufficiency, which are as artful as her designs, have us cheering for her even as she encounters obstacles that threaten to destroy her. Read The Henna Artist slowly and savor it: Every page is rich with intricate pleasures for both the mind and the heart.”

–Anita Amirrezvani, author of The Blood of Flowers and Equal of the Sun