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Why Reema Patel’s Such Big Dreams is not “a boring law story”

U of T alum discusses the publishing industry and the universality of her work
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

In early 2012, Reema Patel enrolled in a creative writing certificate program at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. At the time, Patel, a 2011 graduate from the University of Windsor’s Juris Doctor program, was articling at a law firm. She was awaiting to be called into the Bar of Ontario, where she would receive a Court Certificate of Qualification, be sworn in, and enroll as a lawyer.

“I was sort of at the point where I was like, ‘This can’t be it. I don’t feel stimulated,’ ” Patel explained in an interview with The Varsity. “ ‘I don’t feel like I’ve made the right career choice. I need to do something that makes me feel whole again.’ ”

Ten years after she enrolled in that creative writing program, Patel’s debut novel, Such Big Dreams, will be released on May 10 with McClelland & Stewart. The lawyer and author discussed her novel’s inspiration, navigating the publishing industry, and her novel’s themes in an interview with The Varsity.

U of T and Penguin Random House contest

Patel didn’t enroll at U of T with the objective of writing a novel — instead, her only goal was to “do something creative.” On a whim, Patel enrolled in an introductory novel course, where she constructed the character of Rakhi, the protagonist of Such Big Dreams. That class also inspired Patel to enroll in additional creative writing courses — “Because I was doing work that I finally really enjoyed,” she said.

Though Patel didn’t complete her certificate — she took around five courses — she attributes the “drive” that pushed her to complete her novel to her time at U of T. She also praised the “strong element” of peer review and workshop in creative writing courses, which she said helped her to understand her work better.

“[It] is such a valuable tool for a writer, having not just experts but regular people reading and giving feedback on your work, so that you know how it’s being received and consumed by people,” Patel explained.

During her time at U of T, Patel also entered her novel’s second chapter into an annual school-wide creative writing award sponsored by Penguin Random House. The first time that Patel entered, she was shortlisted. The second time that she entered, she won.

“I thought, could [Such Big Dreams] actually be a full length novel?” Patel said.

The publishing industry

Once Patel finished writing the first draft of Such Big Dreams, she created a spreadsheet of different agencies in the Canadian literary scene. “I looked through their agents, and I made notes of who was looking for what kind of books and [then I] tailored my query to the ones that… were most relevant,” Patel explained, noting that she submitted to about 20 agents.

Patel ended up hiring editor Anita Chong, whom the author described as her “favorite editor hands down,” because of her vision and enthusiasm for Such Big Dreams. Ultimately, it took Patel and Chong four years to edit the novel — “Because [we] wanted the book to be the best version of itself, and sometimes you have to give art time,” Patel said.

“I was so fortunate to have signed with a literary agent who really saw the value in the story,” she added. “And who recognized it as not just a story about India, but a very human story that anyone could relate to.”

Patel also described herself as “lucky,” because her publisher also recognized those themes when her agent submitted it to them. “They were like, ‘This is a book that we want to publish, a book that… a lot of people can relate to,’ ” Patel said.

“Not a boring law story”

Such Big Dreams explores the story of its protagonist, Rakhi, who lives in Mumbai and works for the human rights organization Justice For All. Rakhi is affected by the sudden presence of Rubina, a former Bollywood starlet looking to become a celebrity ambassador for Rakhi’s workplace. Rubina demands an internship for her family friend Alex, who soon persuades Rakhi to show him “the real India” in exchange for him furthering Rakhi’s dreams. A lot of its plot was “loosely based” off of Patel’s experiences living abroad during her undergraduate studies.

“They don’t do them anymore — the International Development Agency sponsored internships for Canadians to go abroad and work at organizations that did international development in different ‘developing countries,’ ” Patel explained. “I applied for one and got one in Mumbai.”

Patel, who lived abroad for about a year, said that during the program she “basically did funding and programming for children and youth living on the street.” After graduating from her undergraduate studies, Patel returned to Mumbai, where she had received a fellowship.

“[I] got exposure to how human rights law works in India, which is very different from in Canada,” Patel explained. “Just as they were in my book, the organization relied on foreign funding, for example, in order to survive. So that also helped contribute to my general knowledge of a subject that I ended up wanting to write about.”

Though a large part of her book’s plot revolves around the legal world, Patel explains that she “didn’t want it to be like a boring law story.” 

“That’s not fun for a lot of people,” she said. Instead, Patel wanted her readers to form an understanding of human rights law and public interest litigation procedure “that wasn’t [rammed] down people’s throats.”

“I think the experiences of the main character are universal in terms of… we want things, but people tell us [that] we can’t have them because of who we are or where we come from,” Patel said. “I know, especially for young women, the whole imposter syndrome thing is really real.”

“I think [Such Big Dreams] is super relevant today,” Patel concluded. “But it’s also kind of evergreen, I think. I mean, who knows where we’ll be 10 years down the road.”

Such Big Dreams will be released on May 10 by McClelland & Stewart.