May 01, 2017

Rakesh Satyal

Extraordinary lives in ordinary America
Interview by
Timeless and true, No One Can Pronounce My Name provides a new voice and a 21st-century face to great American fiction.

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Rakesh Satyal’s second novel is the ambitious and universally relatable tale of three Indian Americans—Harit, Ranjana and Prashant—who set out on individual journeys to carve a space in their lives where they feel they truly belong. Timeless and true, No One Can Pronounce My Name provides a new voice and a 21st-century face to great American fiction.

Unsurprisingly, given the title of the book, your characters are constantly encountering people who butcher and mispronounce their names. What’s the worst/oddest way your own name has been pronounced (outside of a Starbucks)?
This is a tie: I was once called “Raquel”—I wish the person had at least had the presence of mind to append “Welch” to it—and another time, I was called “Rafiki,” as in the monkey from The Lion King. Can you feel the “oof” tonight?

It seems like most American novels featuring immigrants are either set in New York or California, as though foreigners only ever land in one of two places when they settle in America. No One Can Pronounce My Name largely takes place in a rather generic Midwestern city in Ohio, the state where you grew up. Why did you feel it was important to set your novel here? Did you feel that this particular setting allowed you to explore certain themes or ideas that—perhaps somewhat ironically—a larger, more cosmopolitan city would have stifled or restricted?
There is a certain decorum, one might even call it politesse, to living in the Midwest, a kind of geniality tempered by manners, and I find that it often makes it harder to parse out the subtleties of human interaction. There is not necessarily the straightforwardness of being on one of the coasts or the kind of performed grandeur of being in the South, for example. This, to me, makes an ideal setting for challenging what we think of as “ethnic” literature because it almost forces a writer to mine the base-level reactions of people in ordinary social situations, from dining out to driving to attending a religious gathering. Since I was dealing with a collection of characters that has had a hard time navigating tricky social structures, it felt all the more fitting to set the book in the Midwest and have them trying to solve their particular problems as well as the obstacles posed by such an environment.

Another thing that sets No One Can Pronounce My Name apart from many other novels featuring immigrant protagonists is its nuanced and multifaceted exploration of sexuality and gender identity. These are topics that you also explored in your Lambda Literary Award-winning debut novel, Blue Boy. How do you believe your newest novel advances the discussion of these issues?
A key theme of this book is the idea of what society prescribes for people’s understanding of their sexuality versus what they themselves believe to be true. In the case of Harit—one of the main characters—he’s had assumptions made about his sexual identity by other people but has largely avoided such self-introspection, even though he has the benefit of middle age. What I wanted to show in this novel was his journey to exploring that identity—but not defining it in any conventional way that would play directly into the established gender binary. And I wanted to be certain not to recklessly conflate issues of gender with issues of sexuality—a common problem in fiction. What I think/hope that I’ve accomplished here is a nuanced approach to explicating those topics but in a compassionate and humorous way.

Your new book features three main protagonists, each at a different stage in his or her own life. Of the three, which character did you relate to the most and why? Which character did you find the most challenging to write?
Ranjana is quite possibly the closest to me, mainly because she loves writing but isn’t sure to what extent her writing is exceptional or necessary. But Harit was a real challenge. He is based loosely on a man that I met several years ago who was the “uncle” of a high school friend—“uncle” used here, as it often is, to describe a tenuous social connection that may or may not have been familial. This man was in his mid-40s and unmarried and lived with his mother, and there was this unspoken assumption by the community that he must have been gay because of these circumstances. I was fascinated and somewhat disheartened by this assumption because it didn’t allow for how he himself felt about his life and how he saw the world. So, trying to examine the innermost thoughts of a person like that became both my mission and my greatest challenge.

What’s one of the biggest stereotypes that you believe exists about Indian Americans and their families that you hope your book addresses and may help readers to think differently about?
One of my main goals with this book was to take the common tone of an “ethnic” or “Indian” book—which is often tragic or grief-stricken—and instead, to show a lot of humor and joy and farcical misunderstandings. There are a lot of struggles inherent in the process of immigration—and we are certainly seeing that in our current political mome—but I didn’t want to overlook the genuine moments of levity and jollity because there are so many of them, and they more accurately define people’s day-to-day lives, I think.

And indeed, although No One Can Pronounce My Name tackles some very serious and sad topics, there are many moments of levity and throughout the book. Can you talk a bit about your approach to including comedy in your writing?
One thing that I came to learn about myself as a writer in working on this book is that my writing is often about who is happening moreso than what is happening. That is, I love creating characters who feel very true-to-life but who are almost so specific as to be mysteries to themselves as they are to other people. In this book, people from disparate backgrounds who hold very different worldviews bump up against each other, and that, to me, leads to an ideal comedic state, even if some of the things that the characters have experienced are harrowing. It is only through meaningful interaction that people sort out their differences, and I believe that this thinking forms the core of the humor in this book.

In addition to writing fiction, you have also worked in publishing for many years and currently work as a senior editor for a major publishing house. Given the number of manuscripts you’ve worked on, what’s one literary trope or trend you feel has been done to death and hope to never see again?
I know that this may seem like a cop-out, but I really don’t think that anything is off-limits as long as you try to bring a fresh perspective to it. For example, including a narrative about a writer was a very intentional choice I made in this book, and although that is a trope that has occurred many, many times in literature, I saw it as a particular challenge that I wanted to take on and try to tackle in a unique way. I think that I’ve succeeded, but that’s not really for me to say. What I do think I did, however, was bring to that challenge all of the warmth and willingness to understand that I could.

Readers may be surprised to hear that you have quite the set of pipes on you and that you occasionally perform cabaret and even went so far as to sing your acceptance speech at the Lambda Literary Awards. If you’re heading out for an evening of karaoke, what’s your signature song?
The number of times that I have sung George Michael’s “Father Figure” in public likely exceeds the number of pages in this book.

What are you working on next?
I’m already halfway through a new novel, and I’m very happy with it. Just kidding. I have a very murky premise for a new book and am terrified at even trying to get it down on the page until I’ve stopped hyperventilating from seeing this current book into our turbulent world. . . .

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of No One Can Pronounce My Name.

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