September 2023

They Called Us Exceptional

By Prachi Gupta
Review by
Prachi Gupta explores the complicated development of her immediate family members, who all struggle to meet societal expectations at the expense of their own wellbeing and wholeness.
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From the outside, Prachi Gupta’s life looks self-directed and accomplished. After winning awards for her writing as a political reporter for Cosmopolitan and Jezebel, she now makes a living as a freelance writer in New York City. Gupta is successful, like her father and her late brother, Yush, but behind these public victories is Gupta’s mother, whose role was to support her husband. The family believed in a powerful myth of Indian American exceptionalism: They were destined for greatness. It came at a high personal cost.

In They Called Us Exceptional, a complicated and emotional memoir written as a letter to her mother, Gupta unearths the impact of this foundational myth on the lives of her family. She explores the ways she was taught to accomplish things—learning complicated words, winning prizes—at a very young age, an orientation toward success that had also driven her father and her aunt (both medical doctors) and her grandfather before them (who immigrated from India to Canada looking for economic opportunity). A brutal racial hierarchy underlies this emphasis on accomplishment: It is through force of will and education that members of Prachi’s family have broken through economic barriers in America. Gupta grew up mostly in Pennsylvania and shows how being a minority in a culture of whiteness is deeply disorienting. Simultaneously, the gender hierarchy within their home—an intensely manifested patriarchy in which her father held the economic, social and intellectual power—caused Gupta to initially identify with and worship her father. As she began to question the roles laid out for women and to experience her father’s unpredictable wrath, her attitudes toward home, culture and identity began to shift and her brother, Yush, Gupta’s closest confidante in childhood, began to feel like a stranger.

Now estranged from her parents and grieving the sudden death of her brother, Gupta has written a memoir that is part olive branch and part reckoning. It recounts her journey toward herself, which entailed shedding familial half-truths and cultural baggage, and recognizing her story as both an Indian American and a woman within a larger historical and cultural context. As she details her growth, Gupta also explores the complicated development of each member of her immediate family, who all struggle to fulfill their roles at the expense of their own wellbeing and wholeness. For readers interested in complicated, thoughtful and beautifully written family stories that explore the cost of the model-minority myth, this book is as good as it gets.

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