Indulgence editor Angelina Eimannsberger had the great fortune to get an email interview with Rakesh Satyal, author of the Lambda Award winning novel “Blue Boy.” She asked him a few questions, about his wonderful new novel “No One Can Pronounce My Name” and about advice he has for fellow writers.
Angelina: If you don’t mind set the scene for us– Where are you as you’re giving these answers? How is your day going? What book are you currently reading? You mentioned to me that you’re in New York this week and then going to Toronto–what are some highlights of your current travels?
Rakesh: I just returned to New York after being in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors (IFOA); I was actually participating in an offshoot of IFOA called the International Visitors (IV) Programme, which is a fellowship for publishing professionals to learn the ins and outs of the Canadian market and its publishing industry. It was incredibly illuminating and informative. As for what I am currently reading, I am almost finished with Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach.
Angelina: To start talking about your novel “No One Can Pronounce My Name,” the friendship bonds between Ranjana and Harit and Teddy and their slow strengthening and developing was the most compelling part of my reading experience. They are three unlikely friends who have to work past some (a lot of) initial awkwardness before they can become each other’s support system and source of strength. The novel expands on the bonds of family in a nuclear family, between romantic lovers, or among girl and guy friends on many occasions, from Harit’s crossdressing for his grieving mother to Ranjana’s increasing rejection of her nosey and judging girlfriends– Is re-thinking and strengthening types of friendships and relationships something you thought about when writing “No One Can Pronounce My Name”? Can you tell us more about your thoughts on the bonds between your characters? Why do they open themselves up to what might appear relatively risky social encounters, such as when Harit starts drinking with Teddy or when Rajana drives to the mysterious construction site with Achyut?
Rakesh: You’ve certainly hit upon the central theme of the book — how people take stock of themselves and their relationships and how they either refashion, abandon, or further strengthen those relationships depending on what they value and what changes they think are necessary to be happier. In most cases, as you note, this involves being able to engage with a certain level of discomfort instead of comfort. You have to be daring enough to travel outside your lived experience of the world and explore that which may be new or even off-putting. Only by this level of exploration and curiosity are people able to empathize and connect with others who may be different from them. When Harit goes drinking with Teddy, when Ranjana befriends Achyut, when Prashant tries his hardest to flirt in some at least minimally effective way — these are all moments in which the characters make conscious choices to venture out into territories as-yet-unknown to them.
Angelina: In “No One Can Pronounce My Name,” a wife’s empowerment, an immigrant man’s coming out, and other complex identities aren’t discussed as abstract questions of social justice but simply as what people are like, what lives they live without much labeling– to what extend did an everyday inspection of intersectionality motivate you to tell these intersecting stories of Ranjana, Harit and the people around them? Your first novel, “Blue Boy,” won a Lambda Award for Gay Debut Fiction– do you write stories to discuss questions of identity, or do they just happen to come up?
Rakesh: I most definitely want to write about identity and self-actualization in my work. You are correct that I made a conscious choice to include characters of many different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities, and identities, but I also had a responsibility to do so in a way that didn’t feel overly gimmicky or shortsighted. I tried my hardest to create characters who, despite their eccentricities, felt real and credible. (Whether I have a succeeded is not for me to say, but I sincerely hope that I did!)
Angelina: “No One Can Pronounce My Name” is set in Cleveland’s suburbia. Rajana’s son leaves Ohio for prestigious Princeton University, on the East Coast and just outside of New York City. Clearly, coming to centers of power mirrors integration of (children of) immigrants. Many novels, therefore, discuss immigration experience in such centers: ivy league universities, urban spaces such as NYC or LA and SF. Moreover, you choose two main characters that are closer to middle age than young. I loved this emphasis on lives rather than adding to a narrative we already know very well: the fresh-faced, highly educated immigrant in the city– how did Rajana and Harit make themselves into your main characters? Were they inspired by a deliberate choice to tell stories from the margins of age and education?
Rakesh: Absolutely. I think that people assume that there’s Point A and Point B to the immigrant experience — that is, someone goes from the Point A of India to the Point B of America and then — BOOM! — they are just in a different place but retain the essential parts of themselves. But one of the aims of the book is to show that people are not defined solely by misperceptions of their age or education; on the contrary, by being curious about the world and their places in it, they can continue evolving and learning, and by doing so, they can enrich their lives and the lives of others at once. Any social group or ethnic subculture is going to have people of various ages and levels of education, and if we focus on the same ones over and over, we are doing a disservice to the very variety of life itself.
Angelina: Many Indulgence readers, often still in the privacy of small writing groups and their own homes like Rajana, are also writers, artists, and scholars. Do you have any advice for our community: are there writing workshops, residencies, writing programs at universities that have been formative for you, and why? Do you have a writing practice that helps you be in the zone when you work on a novel, like specific places you go to write or rituals to get into that mindspace? Do you have favorite novels or writing advice books that you turn to?
Rakesh: I was very lucky to be in the creative writing program at Princeton (yes, like Prashant, I also went there), and I had many incredible teachers and mentors while I was there. But it’s very true that your fellow writers are often your best source of education and inspiration. So, yes, the more that you can find a writing group or even one or two close friends whose creative outlooks you trust, the stronger you will likely find your writing to be. I do often recommend Stephen King’s now-classic book On Writing to people because I think that it can be very instructive. And I always recommend The Age of Innocence to people because it’s one of my very favorite books and is a master class in characterization.
Angelina: If you could give a piece of advice to your teenage or college self, what would it be?
Rakesh: Kiss more boys!
Angelina: My last questions might be too broad to answer but I would love to hear some of your thoughts. What do you think is the power of storytelling? What can stories do to make us better, happier people? What is our responsibility as readers and writers?
Rakesh: I have to go back to that idea of empathy. Stories allow us to experience the world in, hopefully, a different way from the way in which we experience it by ourselves. The best fiction makes every effort to be as accurate and enlightening about a specific worldview as it can, and when it does this, it takes the reader’s mind to somewhere completely new. This newness, this recognition of the newly-explored, is the very essence of knowledge.
Rakesh Satyal: No One Can Pronounce My Name. Picador, 2017.