About a Boy

Cincinnati native Rakesh Satyal discusses his debut novel, 'Blue Boy'

Aug 5, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Rakesh Satyal’s Blue Boy tells the story of Kiran, a second-generation Indian-American boy who lives in a quaint Cincinnati suburb. Smart and creative, the 12-year-old does everything he can to meet his parents’ expectations and fit into his surroundings. Yet Kiran’s not like other boys: He prefers Strawberry Shortcake dolls, ballet and his mother’s Estée Lauder make-up, proclivities that alienate him from not only the other (mostly WASP-y) kids at school but also his fellow Indians at temple.

Kiran combats his growing isolation by aligning himself with another unique, sexually ambiguous figure — he believes he’s the blue-faced reincarnation of Krisha — along the way learning to celebrate his own singular identity.

Satyal’s debut novel is consistently funny and frequently tender, a lyrical coming-of-age tale informed by the author’s own experience growing up in the Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield. A 2002 graduate of Princeton University, Satyal immediately went to work as an editor for HarperCollins upon graduation — he’s worked with everyone from Gore Vidal to Bill O’Reilly — before tackling his own fictional effort, which was published in April.

The 28-year-old author recently discussed Blue Boy with CityBeat via cell phone from his current home, Brooklyn, N.Y.

CityBeat: While fiction, Blue Boy is clearly informed by your own experiences. How did you go about drawing from your childhood for the book?

Rakesh Satyal: It was a lot of probing of memories to figure out these subtle situations where people were reacting a certain way because, by and large, I was blissfully unaware of those things, so sorting through them was a process. And that’s good in many ways because it means I didn’t feel this kind of conscious oppression growing up from a cultural or ethnic standpoint.

From a sexual standpoint I was always aware of those things because I think that’s an experience that a lot of LGBT teens, having grown up in southern Ohio, can relate to — the process of being “other” in that respect. But in terms of culturally being Indian, the reasons to feel out of place or marginalized were fewer than the reasons for being sexually marginalized.

CB: Do you think being marginalized fosters creativity in a way?

RS: People have to have the innate ability for it, but I do think it helps foster it, yes. You form an artistic dogma and a way of doing things because you have no one else to rely on. It can build a certain confidence in one’s viewpoint. Kiran’s behavior and his actions are just so fundamentally different from the people around him, and I hope that by the end of the book that is one of the good things he learns — the beauty of how you are yourself and how you can’t always judge yourself based on the predilections of others. You kind of have to build your own self-contained reality.

CB: I was somewhat surprised by how funny and irreverent the book is. You were able to keep the tone consistently playful even in the more serious, affecting sequences.

RS: It was very important to me for it to be funny because I feel like that’s something that gets people to let their guard down. And so much of adolescence is completely comical, completely insane and off-kilter. I also wanted the general tone of it to be lyrical and poetic because Kiran’s very creative.

CB: Were you worried about tackling the religious aspects of the book in a playful way?

RS: Yeah, I was aware of that, definitely. I wouldn’t be surprised if people took umbrage with it. What I had to keep in mind was that he’s not irreverent of Hinduism. He really doesn’t doubt its potency or its effectiveness in his life. He actually sees it as a grounding force. It is, by and large, his only true friend over the course of the story. I actually see that as very reverent.

I have to say that the fortunate thing of this experience has been that the Indian community has been so supportive. Most of the Indian people to whom I have spoken have been very heartened by reading the book and have had their eyes opened somewhat.

CB: Your pop-cultural references seem very organic, which is not always the case in contemporary novels. You didn’t throw in some reference just to be cute or knowing.

RS: That was a very conscious thing on my part. I wanted it to be situated temporally. I wanted it to be 1992, and I wanted people to be recognizable to that time period. He’s a child of the ’80s, too, in a lot of ways. He clings to a lot of things that were popular in the ’80s like Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite and all the things that were popular a the time.

One of the better compliments that people have given me is that they were not burdened by those references, that they helped to situate his story more, because there is a fear there that people will not get the references and be alienated from it, and then they won’t understand his alienation. I also wanted the story to be universal. I didn’t want it trapped there and only be relevant to people who grew up in those circumstances or during that time.

CB: How did your experience as an editor impact the writing of the book?

RS: I would try to look at it dispassionately as I would an editor and not as just a writer. It factored in very importantly because I could set the book aside for a while and then come back to it with a structural eye. From a publishing standpoint, I could have excised some of the franker parts about the sexuality and maybe made it a little more palatable to the general reader. But that was a situation where I personally feel a responsibility to put these things in there, so I’m going to make that transaction myself (while still being) aware of the publishing circumstances.

CB: I actually thought the passages where you dealt with the sexuality were some of the most intimate and universal in the book.

RS: Yeah, I think there’s a shared sentiment of awkwardness about that period of adolescence that people can relate to because the circumstances of being adolescent are very frank and their behavior is not morally conditioned.

I would write a passage that was very candid and brutally honest, especially in this kind of sexual manner, and then I would go back and look at it and think, "Wow, I really went for it here. I really told a lot that I might not have initially intended." But that’s when I knew that I was on the right path, frankly, because to have shied away from those things and to have kind of lessened their impact by censoring myself would have been untrue to Kiran’s behavior, which was to be blissfully unaware of why he was different and why he would be judged until he actually is judged.

RAKESH SATYAL discusses and signs Blue Boy at 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Get event and venue details here.