When I entered Middle School, my mother would take me to the neighbourhood lending library. This tiny basement space had all sorts of books for young readers in English and Bengali. While I enjoyed fantasy fiction and adventure for the most part, I would also look for books that I could relate to – books about going to school, dealing with the onset of this mysterious case of adolescence that everybody kept talking about, feeling non-platonic interest in others, that sense of being unseen by those around you, adults and peers alike. The closest that I found among the English titles was the Sweet Valley series. But so much of it was vastly unrelatable – whether it was the lip gloss they regularly dabbed on, or the weekend visits to the mall, or their biggest discomfort being one stray zit that popped up, or their ‘strawberry’ blonde hair… you get my drift?
So, when I read Maulik Pancholy’s The Best At It (full disclosure: sent to me by the Indian team at Harper Collins), it transported me back to a time when I was about the same age as the protagonist, Rahul. A lot of Rahul’s experiences seem to indicate quintessential ‘brown’ diaspora and queer culture (and the intersection of the two). For instance, spending time with one’s grandparents during summer holidays, or being expected to be good at Math (since most of ‘our people’ are), or having nerds with high-flying careers for parents. The story beautifully reveals the double burden that Rahul feels as a brown child who is also queer – he is actively trying to avoid embracing both these identities at school, but his doting grandfather, Bhai, nudges him to carve his own niche.
While reading the book, it also made me realize how inherent racism might be in a school in the American setting, even though there is diversity all around. For instance, in the early pages of the book, Pancholy takes care to introduce characters with evidently non-white last names such as Nguyen (which I now associate with Vietnamese heritage, thanks to the character of Diane in Bojack Horseman), and physical traits that signal the cultures of people of colour – for instance, Principal Jacobson brushes back her tight black braids and Jenny Ikeda (which autocorrect just changed to ‘idea’) had her straight black hair pulled back in a ponytail. These visual cues really made me imagine a diverse school setting that goes beyond the one that I conjured up in my head while reading Sweet Valley.
It also made me think about how Rahul’s inclination to actively disconnect from ‘his people’ as well as the discomfort of queerness may keep him (and other children like him who may not be living under the loving shadow of Bhai) from learning and unlearning about the narratives of brown-ness and queerness. Considering that Pancholy likely drew from his own experiences to write this book and grew up in a time where The Simpson’s Apu was the most prevalent stereotype, the tender empathy of the author for Rahul as well as all the other characters really shines through!
Don’t forget to tune into @gaysifamily’s IGTV on Wednesday, 9th June, 2021 for our Live interaction with Maulik Pancholy about his book, The Best At It!