JLF2022: Lilly Singh’s Book Club Favourite Neel Patel Talks About Identity

As the third day of Jaipur Literature Festival’s virtual sessions got under way, Canadian actor-comedian Lilly Singh interviewed American author Neel Patel. Neel’s book debut novel Tell Me How to Be was the first pick of Lilly’s book club. “I loved it that much,” Singh said before beginning the interview, adding, “I dived into the story and the characters. The book was extremely emotional. Who did you write this book for?”

Patel said the book came from the experience of an Indian-origin boy living in America. “I wrote it for anyone who felt what I felt, ‘that I did not belong here and who I was, was wrong’. Honestly, I wrote it for myself. There was so much weighing me down that I did not even realize. It was not until I started writing through the character Akash’s voice that it brought up all these memories,” he explained.

Neel Patel and Lilly Singh in conversation.

Patel said the response to the book was inspiring. “That is the enormous power of literature. It was so unexpected how many people really connected to the story,” he revealed.

Singh described the book as a story of a mother and son, who both have secrets. Akash, the protagonist, is struggling with his sexuality and is trying to come out. Renu, his mother, is struggling with the secrecy of her first love. Singh cheekily asked whether he was scared of any group, in particular, reading this book? “Because my mom follows my book club and she read the book. There is some steamy stuff in there,” she laughed.

Patel said it was only during the release that something like this dawns on the author. “So, when you’re writing something you are not thinking about anything else. You’re just in the story. It is only when the book is about to come out that you’re like, ‘Oh god! People are going to read this!’,” he quipped.

Patel added that while growing up, the South-Asian representation in America was minimal. “There was Bollywood which was a nice escape, but it still felt different from my experiences. So, I looked towards television. I started loving seeing people on colour on TV. But it wasn’t until college that I read Jhumpa Lahiri. She was the kind of trailblazer when it came to writing about Indians in America. Not only did I connect to the book, but it made writing seem possible,” he explained.

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