From the Indian subcontinent to the American suburbs, Rakesh Satyal’s rollicking sophomore novel vigorously subverts the conventions of “ethnic literature.”
“People have this idea when it comes to ‘ethnic literature’—if you want to use that term—that it has to be weighty, wistful, grief-laden, and there has to be a pall of worry over everything,” says Satyal, author of No One Can Pronounce My Name. “What I tried to do was take a grief narrative and subvert it through levity and humor.
“There are so many things that are inherently funny about being part of a subculture of any kind,” he continues, “and that should be the main thrust of the book. I wanted each of the main characters to discover the comedy of their own situations.”
Satyal is the author of Blue Boy, 2010 winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut fiction, and a senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. He lives in Brooklyn.
No One Can Pronounce My Name is the story of an unlikely friendship between two Indian emigrants in a community outside Cleveland, Ohio. Awkward, unmarried, and still living at home in his mid-forties, Harit grieves the unfathomable loss of his beloved sister, Swati, by dressing in her sari and acting her role for their bereaved mother’s benefit.
“He had never thought of putting on women’s clothing before,” Satyal writes, “and had certainly never thought of putting on makeup, but in the midst of his suffering, or the catatonic nothing that turned out to be suffering, he had done both of those things so easily that he wondered if perhaps he had once dreamed about doing them, if they had been occupying the same part of his mind that a childhood phobia of snakes or an affinity for lassi had occupied.”
Though she harbors a passion for writing paranormal romance, Ranjana puts her duties as a wife and mother first. However, her son’s departure for Princeton, coupled with a scandalous discovery in her husband’s browser history, sets her on a path toward self-actualization.
“A conceit I was playing with is the idea of prescribed steps that you’re supposed to take, culturally—certain duties—especially in Ranjana’s case,” Satyal says. “She finds herself at this crossroads where she has license...to make choices that veer from the path. That doesn’t mean leaving behind a sense of morality, or sense of duty to people, just that there’s a way to rethink what’s possible.”
Ranjana awakens to new relationships that uncover her attributes, including a keen sense of humor. The excavation prepares her for the project of a friendship with Harit.
“She saw now that friends were not simply presences that came into your life; you had to inject personality into the relationship so that you could both become more than yourselves,” Satyal writes. “In short, she wanted to give Harit the gift of her own recent realization: she wanted him to discover his own personality, his own sense of humor, a way forward through his grief to a place of resilience and acceptance.”
Through Ranjana and Harit, No One Can Pronounce My Name ably navigates intersectionality, highlighting the importance of empathy and helping others build resilience.
“Even though [racism and homophobia] are horrible things to experience,” says Satyal, who grew up a “double minority” in the Midwest, “the most you can do is draw whatever strength you can from moving past them and pass it along to other people in similar or even starker circumstances.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.