Neel Patel on Writing Past the Stereotypes of Indian Americans
Mira Jacob in Conversation with the Author of If You See Me, Don't Say Hi
Sometimes a book cover can feel like a promise. This is what I think the first time I hold Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, its many swatches of brown a nod to Indian Americans, who are not used to seeing themselves at the center of any story, much less an entire collection. Smart, surprising and tightly drawn, Patel’s narratives are remarkable not only for their artistry, but for offering nuanced, assured view into lives that are rarely imagined as anything beyond a doctor, a mystic, a virgin, a punch line. Or as author Rumaan Alam (That Kind of Mother) puts is, “Patel upends what we think the experience of Indians in America looks like. It’s about time.” I sat down with Neel to discuss representation, aunties, coming out and his new collection.
Mira Jacob: One of the things I loved about your stories was finally seeing Indian Americans I recognize, particularly when it comes to our romantic relationships and sex lives. On some level, it reminded me of seeing the opening of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None—not the tone, per se, but the relief I felt seeing us represented in a way that isn’t caricature (see: every movie featuring some bumbling, emasculated scientist) or fantasy (the Kama Sutra lite fare reserved for women). Were you actively writing into that blind spot?
Neel Patel: I completely agree about the way Indians are represented in media, and I was definitely aware of that when I wrote the collection. I think as people of color we only get to be one or two things—very little is known about our interior lives. This book is heavily inspired by my own experience as a first-generation Indian American, as well as the experiences of those around me. Growing up, I was not the ideal Indian child. I didn’t excel in math or science. I wasn’t in the gifted program. When my parents went out of town on weekends, I threw loud parties with cigarettes and booze. I often felt inadequate when compared to the studious Indians around me—people who won math competitions and earned near-perfect SAT scores. Though it’s true that Indians are high-achieving—almost all my friends are doctors—that isn’t all we are, and I wanted people to know that.
Sex is a big part of the collection, too. We never see Indians having sex on TV or in movies, which is odd, considering there are about a billion of us on the planet and we did invent the Kama Sutra. I wanted to be honest about sex and sexuality in a way I hadn’t seen before, a way many of the Indians I grew up around felt inhibited to be.
MJ: Yes! Amen to that. I felt the same way, and was often met after readings by younger Indian American writers asking, “But what does everyone think of you now?” We are still in many ways, even in this country, an auntie/uncle culture, right? There’s a constant pressure to be respectful of elders to the point of stifling your reality. So I’m going to ask you—but what about the Aunties, Neel? How did you get them out of your head to write what felt true?
NP: I’ve constantly heard the question, “But what will people think?” I couldn’t have written this collection in my twenties—I was still very much inhibited. The first story I wrote, “These Things Happen” (which I think is the most provocative) was at the age of 31. There’s something about turning 30 that feels very empowering; you start to know and accept yourself. You care less and less what people think of you. For me, the most pivotal moment was accepting and loving myself as a gay man. For years I was both ashamed and terrified of it. I lived in a constant state of anxiety. When I accepted that part of myself, I began to accept everything else in my life, and I realized that what people think of me doesn’t matter.
As far as the Aunties are concerned, I didn’t completely get them out of my head. I turned and pointed the finger at them instead. The last two stories were my way of chastising them. The Indian community can be cruel at times—the way we pick people apart, take joy in their failures—and I wanted to show people how devastating the consequences can be.
MJ: Super interesting about turning 30 and the connection between accepting with your own sexuality and your ability to write more freely. I’m curious—did you write gay characters before you were out?
NP: I didn’t write gay characters before I was out. I was pretty committed to staying in the closet, and I guess even to write about it would have made it seem too real. I wasn’t prepared for that. I actually didn’t start writing gay characters until about a third of the way into the collection. I think with each story I was getting closer and closer to the truth, to the core of who I am and what I have to say.
MJ: One of the things I most enjoy about the queerness in your book was how it isn’t framed by straightness. That’s the kind of writing I feel often gets lost in our work because so many of us are still struggling with a culture so steeped in shame about homosexuality that we’re still stuck in conversations that others got through years ago. I think about this all the time—what it looks like to move beyond the known traps and into the more complicated ones. I’m thinking specifically of the story “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.” It could have been a coming out story, but it wasn’t. What were you gunning for when you started?
NP: Yes—that story is one of my favorites, actually. I didn’t want the story to be a coming out story—so few adolescents of that generation came out at that age. When I was a teenager, there were no positive gay role models to turn to. This is a conversation I’ve had with many gay men my age—how when we were young, the only gay characters we saw on TV or in films were caricatures to be laughed at. I’m slightly envious of the younger generation, many of whom are out and proud at the age of 15! What I’ve learned in my conversations with other gay men was that, while many people were still in the closet, they were having relationships, flirtations, even sex, with other boys their age—all behind closed doors. I never had that for myself. I denied that part of myself completely. I wish I could have experienced the world the way heterosexual teens did, with first kisses and crushes and intimate moments. I guess I wrote this story to live vicariously through its characters.“We never see Indians having sex on TV or in movies, which is odd, considering there are about a billion of us on the planet and we did invent the Kama Sutra.”
I also wanted to tell a love story. I think the problem with the way gay men are depicted in the media today is that there’s very little love involved. It’s all steeped in sex. People can’t seem to separate the two and realize that gay love is just as pure and tender as straight love. If they did, maybe there would be less hate in the world.
MJ: It’s so interesting, what you say about the potential transformative power of fiction, and stunning, really, when you think about the possibility of who this book is going to reach. Do you ever think about that? Reaching all the young yous that are still out there, still unable to imagine what their lives might even look like until they pick up this book and see whole, resonant characters?
NP: That’s such a powerful thought, to imagine who might read this book and how it might affect them. I’m definitely starting to think about it now. I didn’t think about it when I wrote the book; I was so focused on telling the stories I wanted to tell. Now that the book is out, I’m eagerly anticipating the moment it will be in people’s hands. I remember one particular review by a young Indian American woman in college who received an early copy of the book. She said she was so pleased to see Indians dating and falling in love, something she had never seen before in western media. She also liked that the stories were so different from the ones she had known surrounding Indian characters. That really touched me, knowing that someone from a younger generation could read this book and find something to connect to, and to know that they’re not alone. That’s the true power of literature. I hope this book makes someone feel a little less alone in the world.
MJ: Can we back up a second and talk about favorite short stories? I write so few, and I somehow imagined authors felt about them they way they do about their children, each one is special for its own reason, blah, blah snore. You can have favorites? What makes a favorite a favorite? Is it the way it turned out or your process writing it or some combination of both?
NP: Each one feels special in its own way. “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna” was a unique process for me in that it was originally two separate stories. I wanted to write a coming-of-age love story, set against the backdrop of a local dance class—dance was a big part of my childhood. I also wanted to tell a story about an adolescent witnessing the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. The former centered around a young man, the latter, a woman. A quarter of the way into writing both of them I realized that they were actually one story. I fused the two stories and came up with Samir, a lonely gay teenager who falls in love with a boy at his school. The story feels personal to me for obvious reasons, but I also like that it reads like two stories in one.
MJ: Do you feel you start a book as one writer and come out the other end as another? What did you learn about telling stories that you didn’t know before?
NP: You do start as one writer and come out another! This was my first book, and I think it’s what made me become a “writer.” From the first story I wrote “These Things Happen,” to the last, “Radha, Krishna,” I can see so much growth. I think what I learned most was about structure. Through trial and error, I learned how to plot a story. I learned when to keep going with something and when to stop, and when to take something in a completely different direction. I learned that the end of a story is what gives it its purpose. I think I rewrote the ending of every story in this collection more than once! One interesting outcome of writing short stories was that I learned how to tell a story on a more universal level.
MJ: Last question: Was there anything you had to unlearn to write this book? (I feel like we all have to unlearn something big in the course of becoming a writer. For me, it was learning not to care about what “serious” authors say about adverbs. I feel about adverbs the way I feel about my ass: Yes, it’s extra. That’s the whole fucking point.)
NP: The most important thing I’ve learned is that there are no rules to becoming a writer. I had all these preconceived notions: that I had to publish in The New Yorker, that I had to have an MFA, that I had to be well-connected or live in New York. I had none of the above. Then of course there are the numerous articles that tell you NOT to bother writing a short story collection. But this book, in many ways, is the little engine that could. I now know that if you believe you can do something against all odds, you can, and you will.