The Indian immigrant experience is often presented in the form of an inexorable conflict between two cultures. Recent books and films centered on IndianAmericans are frequently based on one fundamental question: how can one maintain the traditions and values of a native country when building a life and pursuing goals in a new one? But in Rakesh Satyal’s new novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name, his protagonists are faced with a different dilemma. Firmly entrenched in a middle-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, the three IndianAmericans whose lives intersect in Satyal’s story seem to have fully embraced life in the United States. However, they soon realize that self-doubt and isolation are problems that can’t be eluded with assimilation.
No One Can Pronounce My Name centers on Ranjana, an IndianAmerican housewife, who channels her martial dissatisfaction into devouring vampire novels, although she must tear the covers off her books lest her husband Mohan judge her proclivity. When she takes a stab at penning her own vampire stories, she joins a writers group hoping for constructive criticism, and instead finds herself on the receiving end of vicious feedback. When Ranjana accepts a job as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, she eventually meets Harit, a middle-aged closeted gay man who dresses up in his deceased sister’s saris on a nightly basis to comfort his elderly mother. Harit eventually lands a coveted job at a men’s clothing store with the intentions of befriending his coworkers and escaping his strange ritual with his mother. Instead, he becomes the target of uncomfortable stares and intrusive questions about his ethnicity. [See ‘No One Can Pronounce My Name’ Is A Charming Take on Loneliness and Connection, by Maureen Corrigan, NPR, 10.May.2017.]
The other major character in the novel is Ranjana’s son, Prashant, a college freshman who desperately wants to assert his independence from his mother and escape the stereotype of the “South Asian kid who’s good at math.” His optimism in the American dream is shaken, however, during a dinner where a family friend begins to espouse bigotry towards immigrants and Muslims. Prashant looks around the table at the “condescending grins” of his fellow guests and realizes that “they were not looking for a sense of communion with other people.” [An Immigrant Story of Going Against Type – and Its Costs, by Jade Sharma, The New York Times, 12.May.2017.]
In a recent interview with BookPage, Satyal explained that his goal with No One Can Pronounce My Name was to “take the common tone of an ‘ethnic’ or ‘Indian’ book – which is often tragic or grief stricken – and, instead, to show a lot of humor and joy and farcical misunderstandings. There are a lot of struggles inherent in the process of immigration … but I didn’t want to overlook the genuine moments of levity and jollity because there are so many of them, and they more accurately define people’s day-to-day lives, I think … in this book, people from disparate backgrounds, who hold very different worldviews, bump up against each other, and that, to me, leads to an ideal comedic state, even if some of the things that the characters have experienced are harrowing.” [See Rakesh Satyal: Extraordinary Lives in America, by Stephenie Harrison, Bookpage, 01.May.2017.]