As the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s virtual sessions kicked off, Canadian actor-comedian Lilly Singh interviewed American author Neel Patel. Neel’s book debut novel Tell Me How to Be was the first choice of Lilly’s book club. “I loved it so much,” Singh said before starting the interview, adding, “I got into the story and the characters. The book was very emotional. Who did you write this book for?”
Patel said the book came from the experience of a boy of Indian descent living in America. “I wrote it for everyone who felt what I felt, ‘that I didn’t belong here and who I was was wrong’. Frankly, I wrote it for myself. It weighed so much on me that I didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t until I started writing through the voice of the Akash character that it brought back all these memories,” he explained.
Patel said the response to the book was inspiring. “That is the enormous power of literature. It was so unexpected how many people were really connected to the story,” he revealed.
Singh described the book as a story of a mother and son, both of whom have secrets. Akash, the main character, struggles with his sexuality and tries to get out. Renu, his mother, struggles with the secret of her first love. Singh rudely asked if he was afraid of any particular group reading this book? “Because my mother follows my book club and she has read the book. There’s some steamy stuff in there,” she laughed.
Patel said it wasn’t until release that something like this dawned on the author. “So when you write something, you don’t think about anything else. You’re just in the story. It’s only when the book is about to come out that you think, ‘Oh my God! People are going to read this!” he joked.
Patel added that while growing up, South Asian representation in America was minimal. “There was Bollywood, which was a nice break, but it still felt different from my experiences. So I watched the television. I started to enjoy seeing people in color on TV. But it wasn’t until university that I read Jhumpa Lahiri. She was the kind of pioneer when it came to writing about Native Americans in America. Not only did I connect with the book, but it made writing possible,” he explained.
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