Facebook Phantom, a new YA book published by Duckbill Books, has surprises to offer in the first few pages itself — there’s none of that grating teenage lingo some YA authors love to pass off as an exercise of getting into the skin of their characters. Seventeen-year-old Suzanne Sangi’s writing is lucid, crisp and plunges into what she does best - defining believable characters and setting the stage for darkness and doom to take over their lives.
In the book, Sonali Machado, Neel Sarathy and Joanne Leslie are an inseparable trio who have an uncanny understanding of almost everything about each other. They spend their post-board examination vacations doing what most people would do — text incessantly and meet up at every chance they get. But Li’s (Sonali) life is soon taken over by a stranger she meets on Facebook. Omi Daan, her mysterious online friend, asks her one simple question: Are you happy? And all things change course. Her online interactions soon isolate her from her best friends, family and all things normal. Omi Daan, she finds out, isn’t what he claims to be, and the seeking the truth comes at its own cost.
Over a telephone interview, Bangalore-resident Sangi says she was into writing since the age of eight. She began writing Facebook Phantom two years ago, just after her board exams, and finished writing it last year while in her first year at Mount Carmel College.
For Sangi, who is studying Communications, English and Psychology, writing a paranormal story was a natural choice because she grew up reading Greek mythology and fantasy books. “I couldn’t stop wondering about how the gods and characters in Greek mythology are powerful and vulnerable at the same time. I think when I decided to actually sit down and write, I was effortlessly pulled towards the idea of writing about people who experience such contradicting emotions.”
Sangi says she had also noticed that most of her friends were really addicted to Facebook back then. “I was one of them, too,” she smiles. “I used to spend an hour on it in spite of having a lot to study.” The appearance of Omi Daan and his takeover over Li’s life, however, isn’t autobiographical. “It didn’t happen to me, but we often heard of common friends being stalked on Facebook. My sister, too, was harassed because someone created fake accounts in her name twice.”
Li, says Sangi, is more or less modelled on her and Joanne is like her real-life namesake, Sangi’s sister — always bubbly with never a dull moment. Neel is the friend Sangi says she would love to have someday. “He is the ideal friend — patient, mature and accepting of all sides to a person.” In Sangi’s book, it is clear that she has a penchant for all things dark and mysterious, and loves to pull that extra string to see how it would affect her characters and their lives. However, what stands out in her writing is the way she brings out the character of Neel, her homosexual friend, with refreshing maturity. There is none of the slapstick humour, clichéd representation and exaggerated attention on his sexuality. If anything, Sangi throws a neat surprise at her readers with regards to Neel’s sexuality and feelings.
“We can be as prudish about homosexuality as we want, but the fact remains that many people my age are still coming to terms with a lot of things. What stops us from writing about them?” asks Sangi with characteristic earnestness. “I wanted to be sincere while writing about a gay character in my book and did not want to do it for the heck of it. It came quite easily to me.”
What didn’t, however, was the character of Omi Daan. “I didn’t know how far I could take him, and writing about someone like that was the difficult part. In some ways, Omi Daan seemed a lot like my ex, so I guess that helped,” admits Sangi and laughs. Sangi, an avid reader (she loves JK Rowling and Peter Brett), is already working on her next book, which is a fantasy novel, too. The novel, called the The Shadow Of The Valley of Death, is about the son of the angel of death. “It will need a lot more work than Facebook Phantom because there’s a lot more research involved.” We trust death and darkness is safe in Sangi’s hands, as usual.