“I didn’t want the novel to be taxing” – The New Indian Express

Express press service

How was your first novel born?
I was writing short stories, and then they sort of evolved into a collection and turned into a book, and then a novel. Tell Me How to Be is somewhat inspired by short stories because it’s all about being a brunette in America. It’s about being an immigrant. It’s also about sexuality, and all of these themes were present in the short story collection.

What were the things you kept in mind when you started writing Tell Me How to Be?
Every time I start writing something, I don’t want it to be boring. This is my first fear. So I always think about that in the layering of history and back and forth between perspectives and time periods.
I don’t want the reader to feel like it’s too heavy or overwhelming, so the plot is very important to me. I like that the plot is constantly moving.

Queer literature is often emotionally heavy and filled with stories of struggle. How did you manage to keep the narrative light?
It’s all about balance. I think for there to be empathy, in addition to sympathy, you have to see the character for all they are, including their flaws. And you see how Aakash (queer protagonist), even though he’s been through so much, also does things to other people – to his family, to his partner that aren’t necessarily the right things to do. But you understand why he does that. I also wanted the humor to be there to balance out all the melancholy and sadness. I wanted there to be moments of hilarity and absurdity, because we all need that in life, right? We need this balance.

Is Tell Me How to Be autobiographical?
It’s definitely fiction, but it’s inspired by things I felt as a queer brown person in America. The character of Aakash was inspired by me, and Renu (the other protagonist), to some extent, was inspired by my mother. She grew up in Tanzania, moved to the UK and eventually married my dad and came to America.

What is your coming out story? Have you ever been confronted with homophobia?

I came out to my friends when I was 29. That was 10 years ago, when people (in the United States) were pushing for marriage equality. Until then, I had only known homophobia for most of my life. Lots of gay slurs were thrown around in school gym class. There were boys who harassed me. This was in the 80s and 90s, when homophobia was rampant, but we were also dealing with the AIDS epidemic. And AIDS was classified as a homosexual disease. But then I started to realize that there are people who care about my rights, who accept me. It took me a few (more) years to find the strength to come out to my parents. But, they were totally okay with it.

What are some of your future projects?
I am currently adapting Tell Me How to Be for television. I work with producers in Los Angeles. It is only in its infancy. And then I have another book––a novel––that I’m working on.


just weird enough

You start Neel Patel’s Tell Me How To Be fully aware that it is a queer novel. Except that halfway through the book, that knowledge is of little importance to the reading experience. It’s the universality of Patel’s narrative – how he tells the story of his gay, second-generation immigrant protagonist, how he comes to terms with his sexuality, or how he navigates the delicate web of relationships in an emotionally restrictive family – that reads fluently.

Queer or not, the reader is able to sympathize and empathize with the character, an impact seldom induced by queer literature for heterosexual readers’ inability to even imagine the challenges – social and psychological – of not adjusting to the accepted notions of “Ordinary”.

The novel is also distinguished by its lightness. It doesn’t drag the reader down an emotional abyss, the kind that takes a day or two to fade away. There are low points, sure… dips that might even lift your spirits a bit, but Patel’s storytelling tends to have a trampoline effect – just when it starts to get dark, the plot bounces right back with a silly yet relatable joke, often the epitome of nuclear Indian families whose parents hope to live out their dreams vicariously through their children.

Having the stories of struggle, especially the first-hand accounts, of the LGBTQ community in mainstream literature is undeniably imperative, but perhaps it’s stories like Tell Me How To Be that put every reader on their toes. instead of a queer persona who will go a long way in helping us move towards a more inclusive society.

Irene B. Bowles