HarperCollins editor and author Rakesh Satyal's debut novel Blue Boy is the story of Kiran Sharma, a first-generation born Indian American who must navigate the many cultural, religious and sexual challenges he faces as an outcast among outcasts in Cincinnati during the early 1990s. Satyal recently emailed with us to discuss the book, its origins, and its standout protagonist, Kiran.
The L: I'd like to start by asking you about the process of beginning and finishing this book. If I'm not mistaken, you began writing it in college and wrapped it up later, once you were living and working in New York. Is that right? All in all, how long did the book take for you to finish writing?
RS: I had written a different book for my college thesis at Princeton; it was a historical fiction set in Naples in the eighteenth century, during the time of the castrati. (Lighthearted, no?) When I came to New York, I set that aside and was moved to write Kiran's story, mainly because I was, for the first time, a gay man living my life freely and felt a sense of responsibility to explore the makings of that experience. It took me about two and a half years to write Blue Boy. I wrote the bulk of the first draft while I was working my first publishing job at Random House and then finished the revision about a year after I started my current job at HarperCollins. I wrote mostly on the weekends; I would take my then-enormous Dell laptop to the now sadly defunct DT/UT on the UES, set up shop, and write for a few hours. On Sundays, I would edit and revise. Then, one summer, a very generous friend offered me her studio in San Francisco for a two-week period, and I went and finished the first draft during that stay. It was a much-needed trip and gave me some amazing space and time to finish Kiran's story.
The L: There have been countless books about alienation, loneliness and self-discovery, but yours is particularly interesting because Kiran's story isn't just about being an Indian-American in Cincinnati, nor is it merely a story of discovering and understanding one's religion or sexuality. It's all of those things, of course, but it seems to me that you've written a coming-of-age story that's broadly relatable. What do you hope a reader takes away from the story, and do you think an Indian American reader from the Midwest might read the book differently than, say, a Mexican American reader from Arizona?
RS: One of the most wonderful experiences of publishing this book has been getting these incredible e-mails from a very, very diverse group of people of different ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. The book really seems to have spoken to a wide demographic because everyone has felt like an outcast at some point, and so people have really underscored that aspect of Kiran's story in relating their comments to me. That was definitely my biggest goal — to relate the very specific circumstances of Kiran's milieu but, in so doing, making his experience as authentic as possible. I do think that there is a specificity to an Indian person reading this book just because the cultural particulars are so spelled out, and I do have this great swell of accomplishment when an LGBT Indian reader enjoys the book. But I do think that, since I was so intent on describing things thoroughly — using a lot of proper nouns and 90s-era brand names — a lot of people could situate the story temporally and live in it a little more fully. More than anything, I want readers to take away a sense of respect for what culturally and/or sexually marginalized youths in this country must deal with. But, of course, I want a few laughs to cushion that occurrence!
The L: Have any of the reactions to the book surprised you?
RS: As mentioned, I have gotten a really positive response to the book — which is truly wonderful. But I have to say I am surprised how enthusiastic the Indian community has been. I did wonder if I would feel some opposition on that front due to the frank sexual tone of some of the parts of the book, but if anything, the Indians who have approached me or written to me about the book have voiced their gratitude that I didn't flinch from the truth. There was a very lovely piece on Blue Boy in a recent issue of India Abroad, and I was so impressed and flattered that a paper like that could discuss openly and encouragingly a book that is very off the beaten path and that deals with LGBT matters so candidly. The Indian community has certainly bowled me over with its open-mindedness and support, and it has made this experience so much more fulfilling that I could have even imagined. What I think we — that is, first-generation Americans — can forget is that our parents and other immigrant relatives are used to evolution and exploration of this sort because they underwent a similar evolution just by immigrating in the first place. They have already dealt with a slew of hardships that we can scarcely fathom, so their capacity for understanding the new and bizarre is actually much bigger than we might think at first. It has been beautiful and strange and exciting for me to learn that.
The L: When I first began the book, I was prepared for an ultimately sadder story than the one you've written. Kiran doesn't have it easy: the parental and cultural pressure and his sexual confusion set him apart from nearly everyone around him. And while Kiran does, indeed, suffer some major blows, I found his resilience and his hopefulness (however naive) uplifting. Do you see the book as either a comedy or a tragedy? Is it something else altogether?
RS: I see the book as a comedy with a lot of tragic components to it. I did not want to shy away from the hardship of Kiran's life; he had to be up against some really daunting and damaging circumstances for the story to ring true. And, really, he is very lucky because he has a certain extroversion and extravagance that help him out; his creativity is his greatest help. I definitely wanted readers to laugh out loud; I felt that the genre of Indian American literature was missing a book this comedically forward, so that was a conscious effort on my part. But since the LGBT/coming-out process is intrinsically difficult and fraught with a lot of problems regarding self-perception and self-acceptance, the book had to be very upfront about the inherent sadness of Kiran's journey. But by the end, I think that there is definitely a sense of hope.
The L: Perhaps the most major development in the book is a religious revelation that convinces Kiran that he's not mere outcast because of his difference, but that the nature of his difference is divine. Once he's had this revelation (from none other than the Hindu god Krishna), Kiran hatches a plan to reveal his divine origins to his taunting, ignorant classmates. Kiran's subsequent transformation is allegorical, but it's treated naturalistically in the book; that is, he really turns blue. It's a powerful image, but I'm curious to know whether you think Kiran's metamorphosis should be read purely as allegory, or is there something fabulistic at work here? Is that ambiguity necessary to the story you set out to tell?
RS: Well, without ruining the surprise, we find out exactly what is happening to Kiran's skin by the end of the book. What I wanted to play with was the discrepancy among what we wish to be true, what we want to be true, and what must remain pure fantasy to keep us on our toes. Kiran sees the world in much more than primary colors, and that often gets him into trouble as much as it gets him into fun, as it were. When his skin turns, he crafts that fact into something that bolsters him and allows him to finish his creative work. By the end, he understands that the confidence it gives him is one he should have had all along, and so the fantastical is made very real in terms of his self-acceptance. Not all ostentation is external, he learns; there are grand gestures that we can make to better ourselves spiritually.
The L: There's the nagging and awful impulse for readers and critics to read too much of an author into his or her text, but I'm curious to know how much of yourself you see in Kiran. How much of the story is invented? Was there research, even familial research, involved in the writing of the book?
RS: People will assume that the book is much more modeled on my life than it actually is. C'est la vie! I changed two very big things about Kiran that really solidified his separation from me: first, he is an only child, which drastically changes the experience I had, which was conditioned by having two amazing brothers with whom I have always been close; and I made his parents much more traditionally Indian and affluent than my parents were. I wanted to make sure that I underscored Kiran's solitude and that the dissonance between his outlook on life and the conservative Indian culture was easily understood and clear. So, when I envisioned the parents in the book, for example, I wondered what it would have been like to have grown up with some of the more conservative, and exacting, Indian parents that I knew when I was a kid. I knew that once I could envision the Sharmas (Kiran's family) and none of them resembled me or my family, I had the right picture down of what I wanted this story to encompass and how the familial politics would play out.
The L: Do you see this in any way as a political book? It deals with some incredibly weighty issues, including racial and sexual alienation, discrimination, self-doubt and rejection. In an age when full civil rights have not yet been granted to the LGBT community, it seems that your book carries with it an implicit message about equitability and empathy. Is this something that you'd hoped to examine, or is your timing just good?
RS: I set out quite consciously to tell an untold story — namely, that of the gay Indian American kid. It had gone largely untold, so you are very right in surmising that I had larger goals in mind. And that is why I have been particularly moved by some of the messages that I have gotten from young LGBT teens who have sought out this book — because it shows that younger readers are being more proactive in their lives and taking up the mantle of this issue assiduously. It is incredibly heartening and rewarding.
The L: Are you working on any other projects right now? More fiction perhaps?
RS: I am at the very early stages of another novel. It is supposed to be funny, as well, but I can already tell that the cultural scope of it will be very wide, perhaps even wider than Blue Boy. That's all I'll say for now!