If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi: Neel Patel on short stories and hyphenated identities
The idea for the book, the LA-based writer tells us, came from a lack of visibility. “I didn’t see myself or my world reflected in American television, film, or literature, so I decided to write it myself,” says Patel.
Here, the screenwriter and author chats with Indulge on using the short story format, steering clear of stereotypes and authors he could read over and over again.
There has been a noticeable surge in the short story format being made use of and also being remade in a sense by South Asian authors. Why do you think that is and how did you attempt to remake or experiment with this particular format?
Short stories are just easier to encompass. You can read and re-read them in a single sitting. A novel would take hours, if not days. Also, the short story collection is a great way to experiment with different voices and perspectives and styles, all in one book. It was this diversity that drew me to the form.
While writing from the perspectives of or giving shape to characters with hyphenated identities, what were the main things you steered clear of? And what were some of the difficulties of writing from immigrant perspectives?
The thing I was most conscious of was dismantling stereotypes. So much of what we know about Indians and Asians is based on stereotypes: that we’re the perfect immigrant, sexless, high-achieving. It’s not that some of these things aren’t true, it’s that they paint an incomplete portrait.
I wanted to write about characters who flunk out of college and abuse drugs and have sex, in addition to the ones who become dutiful wives and doctors. Writing from the immigrant perspective was the only thing that made sense to me at the time.
Which story in the collection was the most difficult to pen down and why?
The Other Language was perhaps the story I struggled with the most — particularly the ending. I must have changed the ending four or five different times. Nothing was good enough. Nothing felt right.
I think this was because I was juggling so many different things: sexuality, identity, social class, family, and the experience of being in a foreign country. I needed to arrive at a certain lesson or moral teaching, one that felt meaningful and deep.
Are there any diasporic authors you looked to for inspiration, or who perhaps inspired your own narrative style?
There are many writers who have shaped me, but three writers whose work I always turn to are Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Junot Diaz. I could read them over and over again.
While the stories and events are specific to the characters in the stories, there is a certain universality to their emotions and actions. How did you achieve the simultaneous plurality and singularity of the human condition?
I don’t know that I did anything in particular other than write from an honest place. I told the stories that felt real to me. The human condition is universal; it’s inescapable. No matter who you write about, where they come from, we all have the same wants and needs in the end.
There is also a constant interplay with tradition on one hand and modern notions and beliefs on the other. How much of this came from your own experiences?
I think to be born in America to immigrant parents is to be caught in a constant battle between tradition and modernity. You’re not only navigating unfamiliar spaces at school, you’re teaching your parents what it means to be an American at home.
You’re explaining to them what homecoming is, and why it’s important. You’re asking them for an extra hour at curfew. You’re teaching them that social acceptance is equally as important as academic excellence. You learn to live in this space, this in-between. It’s who you are.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel, a television series, and a screenplay. I have quite a bit of work to do!
Penguin Random House, INR 399.
— Simar Bhasin