Sonya Singh is making history as the Hallmark Channel’s first female South Asian screenwriter. If Singh’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the Canadian author behind the instant bestseller Sari, Not Sari, which debuted in April 2022.
Singh signed a deal with Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark’s parent company, in early spring to pen their first Indian holiday film – and it’s all thanks to a pitch she made to the network.
“I’m a huge fan of Hallmark and all their Christmas movies. I saw that there was space for them to tell a South Asian Christmas story, so I reached out to them,” Singh told The RepresentASIAN Project. “I put together this brief and they loved the idea of being able to tell this particular story from the point of view of a South Asian woman and having South Asian characters that were embedded in Christmas, so we took it from there.”
Tentatively called “Christmas Spice,” the new Hallmark film will center around three strong South Asian characters, but will be told from the perspective of a South Asian woman who tries to balance western holiday customs with traditions from her heritage.
“A lot of the story is about tradition and how to be able to carry the tradition of being a South Asian [while] living in the U.S.,” Singh said. “It’s definitely based on my personal experiences. I think that’s what I do as an author as well. I stray away from writing anything that’s stereotypical. I will only write about something that has happened to me in terms of experiences in my culture.”
Adding Singh to their screenwriting roster is a groundbreaking move for Hallmark. For years, the network was known for telling a very particular holiday narrative (read: whitewashed) and received backlash for its lack of diversity and representation. However, in 2020, Crown Media recommitted to showcasing more diverse and inclusive stories, and has slowly made big strides ever since. Although “Christmas Spice” won’t be their first holiday film with a South Asian lead – that honour goes to 2020’s “The Christmas Ring” – it will be the first Hallmark Christmas movie to explore Indian culture and traditions.
“Christmas Spice”’ is expected to premiere this December and will be Singh’s first screenwriting credit. Here, the PR expert-turned-bestselling author talks to The RepresentASIAN Project about how it feels to make history at Hallmark, the importance of visibility as a South Asian writer, and rediscovering her Indian roots later in life.
On how it feels to be part of a groundbreaking Hallmark moment
Wow. Well, when you say it like that, I actually just got goosebumps. It feels amazing, [but] as excited as I am, I was a little bit saddened to know that it has taken this long. Hallmark is notoriously known for doing one thing really well, which is Christmas. To be able to take part in that and share a South Asian story and my point of view for my culture is amazing. Although [Hallmark has] leaned towards diversity in the last couple of years, it’s been important to me that Christmas is depicted in a way [that] really comes down to my point of view as a South Asian woman who has been able to embrace Christmas in her household.
Turning 40, being a woman and just feeling like this was the right time [is what drove me to pitch Hallmark]. I don’t think I could have had this conversation in my thirties. I think I needed to turn 40 and be able to really feel comfortable being South Asian and embracing my culture to be able to go to Hallmark and say, “Look, I have a story I want to share with the Hallmark Channel for Christmas.” So I think it’s part of just growing up and growing into who you are as a South Asian woman.
On how she’s incorporating her Indian heritage in the Hallmark film
I am a huge fan of Christmas and I’ve always been. I think in my family I was the first one to put up the tree and the decor. It was really important to me that not only were we assimilating into this space of being in a new country as my parents learned how to celebrate Christmas and other holidays, but also keeping in mind that I still wanted to have elements of our tradition. So our Christmas tree often had ornaments that were reflective of Indian culture. There [were] lots of oranges and yellows in our ornaments because they reminded me of marigolds, and that was a big flower growing up for me in our household.
“Although [Hallmark has] leaned towards diversity in the last couple of years, it’s been important to me that Christmas is depicted in a way [that] really comes down to my point of view as a South Asian woman who has been able to embrace Christmas in her household.”
I think that’s what I was trying to depict in the screenplay as well. I wanted it to be authentic in the way that I wasn’t pushing a heavy lesson because at the end of the day, it’s still Christmas. I wanted it to be fluffy in the sense of [a snow globe]. You pick [it] up and you shake it around and we get that sort of comfort feeling in Christmas. I kind of pictured the script as a snow globe. You know, what could I put as elements that would stand out when the snow globe settled? The marigolds, the food, the fashion is what I wanted people to see in this little box that I was presenting in the movie.
On why visibility is so important to her as a South Asian writer
When I started off writing my book, Sari, Not Sari was about visibility and visibility as a South Asian author. I wanted to tell a story that anybody could read, and I had a very difficult time putting together this cover that looked so Indian and thinking that I was the subject of only an Indian audience. So I think to me, when I thought about visibility, it wasn’t necessarily that you went to a bookstore or that you turned on the TV and you specifically knew that it was a South Asian story I was telling. I think what I was trying to do was just have visibility for a South Asian writer. For me, that was part of the nut I was trying to crack and it wasn’t easy to do. I remember putting my book out there and I kept hearing that my story was too South Asian, not South Asian enough, or another South Asian author was going to debut the same year and I got pushed back. So the visibility wasn’t necessarily about the story that I was telling. It was more about [getting] people who look like me to tell stories.
On how being told there wasn’t enough room for another South Asian author impacted her
It’s interesting because I have just really understood the impact of that statement this week. In the beginning, I actually heard that from two different agents. It was in an email and they specifically said that there was another South Asian author debuting in rom-com the same year, so there wasn’t enough room for me. There could only be room for one. Once I did get an agent and eventually a publisher, I already had that cemented in my head that because [the other author was] South Asian, [they were] now my competitor. So that’s how I went into the space as an author, which is the worst thing to do instead of looking at South Asian authors as my mentors or as my friends.
So I think I really just understood the impact of those statements in the emails this past week and took a huge step back. [I] realized that I’ve been really flying solo on this journey and looking at Caucasian authors as women to reach out to because I was so desperate to be on the shelves with them. I didn’t understand that it’s just as important to be on the shelves with other South Asian authors. I’m just getting that clarity now. The buildup for me with this book was [that] another South Asian author is an automatic competitor to me, and that is not the right way to think about this industry or any creative space.
“There are so many spaces available for Asian creatives, BIPOC creatives in general, and I think that sometimes we forget that there is more than one space available. I think it’s because we automatically start to have that competitive sense, and that can be on any platform. But I think we should all band together to create friendships versus competition.”
Just to add on, there are so many spaces available for Asian creatives, BIPOC creatives in general, and I think that sometimes we forget that there is more than one space available. I think it’s because we automatically start to have that competitive sense, and that can be on any platform. But I think we should all band together to create friendships versus competition.
On developing relationships with her fellow South Asian authors
It’s interesting because I have actually become really good friends with Sonya Lalli and Amita Parikh, who wrote The Circus Train. Sonya Lalli’s been around for a long time. I always call her the OG because she really paved the path for South Asian rom-com authors, at least in my eyes. And Amita and I debuted in the same year. I’d say [her] genre is more fantasy, magical. Really being able to connect with my Didis makes me feel good about where I am as an author.
On how her initial intimidation to write stemmed from her parents’ cultural views
[Being a writer] is not a very traditional role as a South Asian woman. Oftentimes we are asked or gently told to go down other career paths. Really anything to do with the arts isn’t necessarily [stable] in terms of being able to have a steady paycheck, [which] is often what my parents thought of the arts community. They really wanted to push me to be a doctor or a lawyer, an engineer, you know, very stereotypical roles that, at least in their mind, would have a steady income. I think that my intimidation came from there. So if I wrote a book, now what?
“There is room for Asian writers. There is room for award-winning Asian writers to make a list like that.”
Also, I felt really old. I felt like who at 45 writes a book and expects it to be bought by anybody? I don’t have a platform. I have less than 4,000 followers. Who am I to write a book and expect it to be bought by Canadians or be sold in the U.S? So I think that was bigger picture intimidation.
I think for me, when I saw that my book was an instant bestseller and I made [Toronto Star’s top 10 Canadian fiction] list two weeks in a row, I was floored that first of all, I’m a debut author, but [also] there was a South Asian woman who wrote a rom-com in the top 10. I never saw that growing up and it just was such a powerful moment for me that I wanted to embrace and also be able to share with other people that we can do this. There is room for Asian writers. There is room for award-winning Asian writers to make a list like that.
On her relationship with her Indian culture and rediscovering her roots later in life
I grew up outside of Toronto in a small town called Guelph. There were a handful of Indian families. Behind closed doors, in our home, we were very much Indian. My parents made Indian food, we celebrated Indian traditions, we spoke Punjabi, but I didn’t want friends to know that. I don’t think any friends ever came over to my house and I was quite embarrassed to have my mom pick me up because I didn’t want her to speak Punjabi in the car if she needed directions. Now I can look back and I have a lot of compassion for that little girl who had to grow up in that space, but that was part of small town growing up.
I felt quite embarrassed about my culture because I didn’t understand it. I grew up watching 90210, Saved by the Bell, Who’s the Boss … all these characters who were very Caucasian and anyone who was not Caucasian was not cool. You certainly needed to have a look to you, which was blond hair, blue eyes, and that really affected me. I know this because I tried to have blue eyes with contacts. I dyed my hair blond, and I really wanted to not look South Asian.
Also, at that time, the culture was depicted in a [very awful] way. We were looked at as convenience store owners, taxi cab drivers. [We were stuck in] these cookie-cutter jobs that we can only have as South Asian men and women. The food smelled. You know, it’s not like how we talk about our culture now. So I tried to stay away from all of that because it was very embarrassing for me. And it wasn’t until my thirties [where] I really showed an appreciation for my culture because I started to date someone who was Indian. He really opened my eyes to the beauty of the stories, the roots, and the tradition, and just the enlightening experiences that I had pushed away from hearing from my mom and dad about their stories as immigrants.
It’s a different growth period when you’re able to appreciate your culture. When you take a step back and understand that there’s more to it than just the food, the fashion. There are stories that are embedded in there that have led to tradition, and the way that you carry yourself today is based on that. So I think [rediscovering my roots] really just came down to finding someone who trusted that I could break down that wall that I had created to push back the South Asian culture.
On what’s next for her
I’m writing my second book. Also, [Sari, Not Sari] launched in April and I am finding spaces and places for Asian authors to be able to come and connect together. That’s actually part of my big picture plan for Asian Heritage Month next year. I’d like to be able to have South Asian authors be celebrated for the entire month. I do want to make it something that is a lot bigger than at least what I’ve come to know.
I would love to do physical events. I’d love to have that platform or an outlet for other Asian authors to be able to come and have an audience, and also for people who are questioning how to get into the industry. I’d love to be able to have these workshops in place where you can physically come and meet other authors and understand the world because oftentimes we don’t talk about the heartache and the heartbreak that goes into being an author. Even though my story took a couple of months [to be published], I want people to know that there are women in the industry who have sat on books for 10 years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.