Novelist Rakesh Satyal said he and his longtime partner John Maas knew they were ready to get married after watching the results of the 2016 election.
“We had been together for five years and it was really was what a lot of people were feeling [last November] about being scared and nervous,” Satyal told NBC News. “We just wanted to pay homage to the administration that made marriage possible.”
The couple headed to City Hall to wed that December during the last weeks of the Obama presidency with only Satyal’s fraternal twin brother Vikas as a witness. As the author of the 2009 novel “Blue Boy,” which won the Lambda Literary Award and follows the life of a 12-year-old boy who loves makeup and dance, Satyal said he’s used to getting questions about what his family and the Indian-American community in general thinks of LGBTQ issues.
“There is an assumption sometimes that talking about sexual identity is taboo. But the truth is that immigration is quite literally the biggest change that you can make in your life. Often the threshold is different from what you’d expect,” he said. “The Indian community has been unfailingly supportive of me. Seeing someone they know struggle and then succeed, it’s like they can say ‘I knew him when…’”
In his new novel “No One Can Pronounce My Name,” which is scheduled to be released on May 2, Satyal again explores the lives of Indian Americans in suburban Ohio. Harit, an immigrant in his mid 40s, watches his mother’s life fall apart as she grieves the sudden death of his sister. As an admittedly unconventional coping mechanism, he then begins to dress in a sari every night so that his mother can continue to pretend his sister is still alive.
“Midwestern culture is not like Southern culture or like other parts of the country,” Satyal noted. “People are a bit more reserved. Then when you add a different culture on top of that, there is another level of subtext added to everything.”
The Midwestern experience is a factor throughout the book, but Satyal noted that his latest novel is not at all autobiographical. His parents met as students at Miami University of Ohio and looking back, Satyal said his family seemed much more liberal than most. Part of the reason for that, he believes, is because his parents had what South Asians refer to as a “love marriage” at a time when most marriages were arranged.
“A lot of immigrant parents say things like ‘do what we want and do it well.’ But my parents would say ‘do what you want and do it well,’” he recalled. The Satyal children tended to gravitate towards the arts, with Rakesh going into fiction and music and his younger brother Rajiv gravitating toward comedy.
“My mom always sang when I was growing up and both my parents still have great voices,” Satyal said. “Music was one of the earliest ways I would express myself.”
He would go on to both play violin and sing as a child. “My greatest regret is that I didn’t learn how to play the piano,” he added. That love of performing, he believes comes in part from the Hindu traditions his family grew up with. “There’s a great deal of performative singing and intonation,” he observed.
That love of performance has stayed with Satyal into adulthood, and he regularly performs in cabaret shows in New York. A huge fan of Broadway standards and musical theater, Satyal said classics by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein as well as hits from modern artists like Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright are staples of his set.
When it came time for him to begin to think about how to start promoting “No One Can Pronounce My Name,” he knew exactly what he wanted to do for the book’s trailer. He decided to rewrite the lyrics to the song “You’ll Be Back” from the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” to create a new song called “Buy My Book.” Satyal added that he’s glad that he can use his interest in music and theater to stand out from the crowd in an increasingly crowded literary market.
“We’ve seen how author events have changed over the years,” he said. “I feel like in this day and age more people can be pulled in.”