The Buddha once said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” This nugget of wisdom, which came to mind while reading comedian Aparna Nancherla’s collection of memoir-type essays, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome, may help to provide a reflective frame for readers as they peruse its pages.
The American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, Nancherla has spent years toiling as a writer of comedy and a stand-up comic. But she has always felt fraudulent about being “a so-called comedian” and, at age 40, about having achieved a notable measure of success. Nancherla had tried to cope with her lifelong struggle with low self-worth through remedies such as medications, therapy, meditation and more, but she finally turned to writing to see if that would ease her impostor syndrome and the constant feeling that she is merely “a shadow” self (even though a therapist tells her “ ‘So what if you’re a fraud? Is that the worst thing? At least you’re getting away with it.’ ”).
Nancherla presents honest, intimate, strikingly astute and well-researched essays about her mental state and overall psychological health, but be prepared for intermittent jolts of sarcastic, dark humor that line the author’s trail of self-exploration through her impostor syndrome, or, as she says, “an identity I’ve embraced without question my entire life.” These humorous insertions sometimes have the effect of distracting the reader from the main thrust of Nancherla’s refreshingly insightful commentaries, which put her mental health in broader context through discussions of the internet and social media; the struggles of people of color and immigrants, especially, to assimilate into and be accepted within American culture and society; and the difficulties, hazards and hard-won successes of a life in stand-up comedy.
Overall, the subject of imposter syndrome, beyond a brief treatment in her first chapter (“Now That I’ve Got You Here”), ends up not being the main focus of Nancherla’s journey: It is her deep dive into her interior life that instead takes center stage. However, in her epilogue (“I Tried”), Nancherla reveals what she has learned, through the process of writing, about the nature of epiphanies and how they intersect with an acceptance of being human. Nancherla’s epilogue realization alone makes this first-time memoir a worthy read. It’s an encouragement to those of us (and our numbers are legion) who are beset or traumatized by mental health woes to never give up trying to be “a lamp unto yourself.”