How did your debut novel happen?
I had been writing short stories and then they kind of evolved into a collection and turned into a book, and then a novel. Tell Me How to Be is somewhat inspired by the short stories because it’s about being brown in America. It’s about being an immigrant. It’s also about sexuality, and all of those themes were present in the short story collection.
What were the things that you kept in mind when you started out writing Tell Me How to Be?
Whenever I start writing something, I don’t want it to be boring. That’s my first fear. So I’m always thinking that in the layering of the story and going back and forth between perspectives and time periods.
I don’t want the reader to feel that it’s too heavy or too taxing, so plot is very important to me. I like to keep the plot moving constantly.
Queer literature is often emotionally heavy and replete with stories of struggle. How did you manage to keep the narrative light?
It’s all about balance. I think in order for there to be empathy, in addition to sympathy, you have to see the character for all that he is, including his flaws. And you see how Aakash (queer protagonist), even though he’s endured so much, is also doing things to other people—to his family, to his partner that aren’t necessarily the right things to do. But you understand why he’s doing it. I also wanted for humour to be there as a balance to 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 that balance.
Is Tell Me How to Be autobiographical?
It’s definitely fiction, but it’s inspired by things that I have felt as a queer brown person in America. The character of Aakash was inspired by me, and Renu (the other protagonist), to a certain degree, was inspired by my mother. She grew up in Tanzania, moved to the United Kingdom and eventually married my dad and came to America.
What is your story of coming out? Did you ever face homophobia?
I came out first to my friends at the age of 29. That was 10 years ago when people (in the US) were pushing for marriage equality. I had only experienced homophobia for most of my life until then. A lot of gay slurs used to be thrown around in gym class at school. There were boys who would harass me. This was in the 80s and 90s, when homophobia was rampant, but we were also dealing with the AIDS epidemic. And AIDS was being classified as a gay disease. But then I started to realise that there are people who care about my rights, who accept me. It took me a few (more) years to get the strength to come out to my parents. But, they were totally fine with it.
What are some of your future projects?
I’m currently adapting Tell Me How to Be for television. I’m working with some producers in Los Angeles. It’s in very early stages. And, then I have another book––a novel––that I’m working on.
Just Queer Enough
You start Neel Patel’s Tell Me How To Be with complete awareness of the fact that it is a queer novel. Except that half way into the book that knowledge is of little significance to the reading experience. It is the universality of Patel’s narrative––how he tells the story of his second-generation immigrant and gay protagonist, how he comes to terms with his sexuality, or how he navigates the delicate web of relationships in an emotionally restrictive family––-that makes it a free-flowing read.
Queer or not, the reader is able to sympathise and empathise with the character, an impact rarely induced by queer literature for the heterosexual readers’ sheer inability to even imagine the challenges––social and psychological––of not fitting into the accepted notions of “normal”.
The novel also stands out in its lightness. It does not drag the reader into an emotional abyss, the kind which takes a day or two to wane off. There are low points, of course...troughs that might even make you well up a tad bit, but Patel’s storytelling tends to have a trampoline effect––just when it starts to get sombre, the plot bounces right back with a silly yet relatable quip, often quintessential to nuclear Indian families with parents hoping to live their dreams vicariously through their children.
Having the struggle stories, especially firsthand accounts, of the LGBTQ community in mainstream literature is undeniably imperative, but perhaps it is stories like Tell Me How To Be that allows every reader to put themselves in a queer character’s shoes that will go a long way in helping us evolve into a more inclusive society.