‘Nikhil Out Loud’ Is A Much-Needed Queer-Affirmative Book For Young Readers

From discussions on safe space to conversations regarding internalised heteropatriarchy, there isn’t anything the book doesn’t address. It was a delight to read it, and younger readers will be in awe of Nikhil Shah.

Winner of the 2023 Lambda Literary Award under the ‘LGBTQ+ Middle Grade’ category, Nikhil Out Loud (2023, HarperCollins Children’s Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) is American actor and author Maulik Pancholy’s second book.

It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old, Los Angeles-based gay teenager Nikhil Shah. Shah is famous for lending his voice to the “intergalactic kid detective Raj Reddy” for the animated series Raj Reddy in Outer Space. The catchphrase “Are you ready, Reddy?” from the series is widely popular among his fanbase. The book opens with this Indian-American teenager getting recognised by the Kids’ Cartoon Awards as the Best Voice Actor (Animated Series).

Raised by a single mother, Shah’s story appears too good to be true for a generation of queer people like me, even though it’s fiction. Not only did most of us grow up in an extremely queerphobic environment in India—both at home and outside, especially in schools—but many of us still feel reluctant to come out to our families owing to the multiple risks involved. However, there’s a shift that people of my age have witnessed over the years—there is a variety of resources accessible more than before. And most importantly, there’s an increasing representation of LGBTQIA+ characters in cinema and literature. Credit goes to authors like Pancholy who choose to write about such experiences, and for navigating multiple difficult conversations throughout the narrative. While it most definitely deserved to win the much-coveted Lammy, a few reasons why this book must be celebrated are listed below.

First, Shah’s character is built in a way that it’ll speak to today’s digital-native population. He doesn’t have a coming-out dilemma. Nor does the story in any way leverage queer trauma to propel it forward.

Second, in crafting Shah’s mother’s character, Pancholy breaks away from most of the books that centralise South Asian experiences but follow typical, predictable character arcs when it comes to its women. They’re at the periphery always. In Nikhil Out Loud, the mother, who’s a graphic designer, is unapologetically herself, which is why she’s able to instil the same confidence in her child. After a failed arranged marriage and Shah’s birth, she decides to raise the child single-handedly, much to the disapproval of her parents, who thought there was a possibility to reconcile and “save” the marriage.

While she had been living separately for a long time, her father’s illness makes the mother and son move back to Ohio. This movement introduces multiple conflicts and makes the narrative interesting. Though many students knew Shah in his new school, making it easier for him to get along with them and not miss his best friend Anton from LA, Shah slowly learns that Sycamore, where they’ve moved, is comparatively homophobic.

It’s, however, a comforting change to hear one of his classmates, DeSean, say that he was raised by “moms”, but this friendship is at risk when their drama teacher Mrs. Reed, who had already cast DeSean as the main lead, discovers Shah—the “star of a television series”.

Then, Shah learns that something is odd between his grandfather and mother. Both make it too obvious that they don’t get along well. Nani, his grandmother, however, is a warm personality who opens up to him and tells him stories that a young person so desperately wants to hear about their family. Interactions between them are the most heart-warming to read.

But what drives this story are two fears—first, that the protagonist’s voice is changing, and his job may be at risk; second, some guardian sends an email with the subject line “We must protect our children” to the school principal, objecting to the presence of a “homosexual TV star” in the school. As the story progresses, reading the principal’s response and how Shah’s mother consoles him, one knows how cleverly this queer-affirming book was crafted. Here’s what the mother says to Shah, “But you need to know that, even though you should always be proud of who you are … sometimes, there will be people who try to make you feel bad about the very things that make you special. And I can’t always hide that from you, as much as I wish I could.”

From discussions on safe space to conversations regarding internalised heteropatriarchy, there isn’t anything the book doesn’t address. It was a delight to read it, and younger readers will be in awe of Nikhil Shah.

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Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
Saurabh Sharma

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