Vibhuti Jain’s debut novel, Our Best Intentions, is a page-turning drama about a working-class Indian American family caught in the middle of a racially charged criminal investigation.
The novel captures the criminal investigation through the eyes of many: an immigrant father, a high school principal, and three high school students—one from an affluent family, one from a blue-collar family, and the last without a stable home. Grounded in a sincere and loving father-daughter relationship, the book offers a gripping storyline that grapples with charged gray areas around race, public education, protest, and who has access to the American dream.
Vibhuti—’Vib’ for short—is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. She is the daughter of proud first-generation American parents and the mother of a one-year-old girl. Vib and her husband are raising their daughter in South Africa where Vib works in international development. Although she is living overseas, Vib very much believes in the American dream and wants her daughter to know she can pursue any aspiration, unconstrained by the paths that Vib and her husband chose. Writer Jessica Kunkler chatted with Vibhuti Jain about getting inspiration in an Uber, going inside other people’s heads, and racism in public schools, among other things. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jessica Kunkler: Our Best Intentions is your first novel. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Vibhuti Jain: I remember having two dreams when I was in middle school. The first was to become a writer, and the second was to work in international development. I let both go at different points in my life, only to come back to both later on. When my husband and I moved to South Africa in 2015, I left a white-shoe law firm, and it felt like the perfect opportunity to say, “I want to do something different. I want to try something different.” I started working in energy access for the US Agency for International Development across Africa. Now I’m working for the US International Development Finance Corporation, which invests in businesses that deliver development impact all over Africa. If I could talk to my 12-year-old self, she would say this was my dream.
JK: What inspired you to write this story specifically?
VJ: When I put my mind to wanting to write a novel, I searched for inspiration all around me. The idea for the plot of Our Best Intentions first came to me when I was visiting my parents in the northeast, taking an Uber from JFK to Stamford, Connecticut. During the Uber ride, my driver started telling me about a series of violent incidents that had happened in a town in Westchester where his kids went to school. The driver was of South Asian American descent, like me, and told me about how other parents were viewing this as the decline of the town, attributing the incidents to an influx of “less desirable” residents in the town. The description of these residents’ reactions struck me as being coded language for minorities. I was intrigued because all of this was being relayed to me by a person of the same skin color as me, who didn’t seem to be viewing us as part of the group of minorities that were “the problem.” Growing up, I remembered being conflicted about that, about how South Asians or Indian Americans fit into dialogues on race that are often Black and White. For the book, I started thinking: what if this incident had happened and there was an Indian American family at the center? I had so many questions and ideas in my mind—who are the kids that committed these so-called violent acts? How unfair is it that we talk about public school districts in a way where not everyone is actually welcome? The story took its genesis from that conversation. It’s ironic that it all started in an Uber, since Bobby, a main character in the novel, is a driver.
JK: The entire book takes place over a compressed time period of less than two months. When you started writing the novel, was it your intention to keep the storyline tied to such a short time period?
VJ: This choice allowed me to best dissect the characters’ actions, feelings, and reactions in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
JK: So often we are in our own story and we don’t stop to pause and think about the conversation that’s happening in other people’s heads. I think that Our Best Intentions makes you think outside of yourself. It begs you to ask, “what is that other person thinking?” and “how are they processing this?” You realize “oh, that’s not the same way that I’m processing it.”
VJ: It’s funny you say that because sometimes my husband and I talk about this, and he says, “You’re so empathetic when you write.” However, when we’re having a disagreement, he might say, “You need to see things from my side. Do what you do when you write.” Writing forces you to really think about what it’s like in other people’s heads, and that’s a helpful exercise.
JK: In real life, we can’t read people’s thoughts, but in this book, we can. What do you want readers to take away from that sort of openness on the topics of race, violence, and protest?
VJ: The incident of the stabbing highlights a lot of topics that I hope people will think about or discuss with their friends or fellow readers. The idea of social justice and equality has always been interesting to me. I grew up in a fairly homogenous town, both racially and socioeconomically. I remember learning about what de facto segregation meant when I was younger and having my mind blown by the idea that things could be unfair even if they weren’t purposely designed that way. One of the things I hope people will think about when they’re reading this book is how power is perpetuated. Who gets their story told and heard? In the novel, the fact that the character of Chiara was made to feel like such an outsider in a public school is problematic, for me at least. It’s something that we should think about as a society.
I also wanted to identify common ground among the characters, even though we might not ultimately agree with everyone’s actions. The characters in the book have intentions or motivations that are very relatable. The McCleary family wants to protect their son at all costs. Chris is a difficult, less-likable character, but he’s also this wounded, insecure kid who sometimes doesn’t know when he’s being taken advantage of. When he feels like someone’s bullying him, he perpetuates a learned behavior.
I hope that readers notice the ways that the characters were made to feel uncomfortable, like Babur or Angie, in different situations. It wasn’t explicit, it wasn’t in-your-face, but people would mispronounce their names, or people would assume they weren’t American. I hope that reading the book makes us think twice about the narratives we assume about other people.
JK: What did your name mean to you when you were growing up? How do you think it influenced you?
VJ: My full name is Vibhuti. I remember the first day of school (or whenever we had a substitute teacher) having this pit in my stomach, thinking I don’t know how the teacher’s going to pronounce my name. And I remember being teased—even sometimes good-naturedly—and feeling so embarrassed. I felt like my name would not let me blend in, and sometimes when you’re younger, that’s all you want to do. You just want to fit in. I think as an adult, I’ve gotten to the point where it’s my name, and I embrace it. It’s who I am. However, I do go by the nickname Vib often because I don’t want people to stumble over the pronunciation, and it just makes things easier. In this way, the character Babur’s decision to go by “Bobby” is one that I can definitely relate to.
JK: Can you talk about the American dream and what it means to you as a mom, a law school graduate, an Indian American living in South Africa, and now an author?
VJ: Growing up, I remember seeing what America meant to my parents. They’re patriotic in a way that I think many first-generation Americans are. They felt like they did not have the economic opportunity living in India that they did in the US. They saw the US as a place where you can go, work hard, and build a better life for yourself and for your kids. I was a beneficiary of their efforts. I could study at elite institutions and work at white-shoe law firms and places that were “prestigious” without having generational roots or blue blood. And it’s funny because I hold similar aspirations for my daughter, even though we live in South Africa. When she grows up, I hope she’s not bound by the constraints my husband and I face. I hope that we’re able to make additional inroads for her to live the life she wants. I’d like the world to be open to her to pursue her dreams. In that sense, the American dream even transcends borders. I should also add that I, of course, recognize not everyone is as lucky as I am to have had the opportunities my parents gave me.
JK: You mentioned being unable to see yourself in books growing up. Today there is so much diversity in early childhood books, and I think that’s so exciting. Do you think that’s true, and what is it like for you to know that your daughter will be able to see herself?
VJ: Absolutely. I absolutely love it. It’s on TV, it’s in books, it’s everywhere. My daughter is too young to go to school, but one of the good things about living overseas and tapping into this international community is that your kids are exposed to so many different cultures, different names, different languages, different types of cuisine . . . I don’t know that we as a family identify with a single culture in our home environment, and I’m excited for her to just feel like our family is its own culture and that she can adapt wherever she is.
JK: When you were thinking about writing this book in the back of your head, it sounds like there were some pieces of the story that you wanted to write, and then you had that Uber experience. If there were three pieces of the book that you thought you would write, what were they?
VJ: One was the plot, which I think came together after the Uber conversation. I was so intrigued by what happened in that town, and it inspired me. I think the second was that I wanted to write a story centered in the Indian American experience. I remember growing up, there were so few Indian American writers. Now, there are so many, and it’s so exciting. But growing up, I didn’t feel like I could find myself when I read books. I couldn’t find characters like me, which bothered me so much. The third was nostalgia for the northeast where I grew up. While there are aspects of my book that are perhaps critical of certain parts of our culture, I have many fond memories of where I grew up in the northeast, and I wanted to capture that on the page.
JK: The novel includes very specific 2018 time stamps. Why did you choose to date the storyline in 2018?
VJ: I deliberately chose to set the novel as close to the present-day as possible. I wrote the first draft in 2019 with the story set in 2018. I wanted the story to be set in the present day so that I could capture the social conversation on different topics, including race, the challenges of the middle class, protest culture, and the influence of social media, in a way that was authentic to that point in time.
JK: Are you working on your next book?
VJ: Yes, I’m working on my second book right now, which is about a protagonist who feels stuck in her life and idealizes what others have. It involves a main character who reconnects with a childhood friend whose life she places on a pedestal. The protagonist becomes increasingly intertwined in the friend’s life. She starts doing creepy things like going on a date with her friend’s ex-husband and even having an affair with her friend’s father. As she makes incrementally more and more morally questionable decisions all in the name of chasing an elusive idea of happiness, she starts losing her own ethical compass and herself.
JK: How is writing your second book different from writing your first?
Writing my second book is such a different process than writing the first. With your first book, everything is so exciting. Finding an agent is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Getting a call from your agent that you’re going to sell your book is the next best thing that’s ever happened to you. Seeing your advance reader copy . . . everything is the first time you’ve done anything, and it’s just so special. It’s been a really fun ride, and I hope the beginning of a long career.