In 2019, Neel Patel’s parents put the house where he and his older sister grew up, in Champaign, Ill., on the market. “Within a week, they got an offer,” says Patel, 38, via Zoom from his parents’ new house in Irvine, Calif., where he was visiting from Los Angeles.
Though that initial offer fell through, with Patel’s parents staying an additional two years in Illinois, the impending move from a family home became one of the inspirations for his second book and debut novel, Tell Me How to Be, out in December from Flatiron.
In the novel, 28-year-old Akash Amin is struggling in Los Angeles. He’s got a lot of secrets he’s barely keeping, leading to troubled relationships with his family, his boyfriend, and alcohol. No one in his family knows that he’s gay. His dreams of becoming a songwriter aren’t panning out; in fact, he’s broke and just hanging on, traumatized by the past and grasping for something, anything, to change his story. One night, nearly a year after his father’s unexpected death, he gets a call from his mother, Renu. She wants to make sure he’s booked his ticket home for his father’s puja (a ceremony to honor the memory of his father), but also, “There’s something else,” she tells him. “It’s the house... It’s sold.”
It’s a cinematic setup, a last visit home to confront the past—“All our memories are here,” Renu adds—as well as the present. (Also complicated: Akash and his brother, Bijal, aren’t exactly on speaking terms after an incident at Bijal’s wedding.) But betrayals cut deep, and there’s a lot to unpack as the Amins pack up the house and try to find a space where memories can survive alongside the truth.
Throughout 2020, writing Tell Me How to Be, Patel was in Illinois, waiting out the pandemic in the home where he grew up, “which I think probably helped,” he says. Able to revisit key spots that figure into the book and his own life—like his school, the farmland of the surrounding area, and places where he used to hang out as a kid—he found himself going down a nostalgic, frequently painful memory lane. “I was just either laughing or crying,” he says. “Yeah. I cried a lot writing it.”
And when Patel’s parents actually did move—after Tell Me How to Be was finished—Patel went home for a final goodbye. “It felt so much like the book,” he says. “I didn’t realize I was going to be so emotional about it, saying goodbye to uncles and aunties that I’d grown up with and realizing that it’s just not going to be the same.... I have a very complicated relationship with it, because it’ll always be home, and yet it wasn’t always a hospitable place. But I also became who I am there, and I overcame things there.”
Patel moved to Los Angeles seven years ago. He’d been in Chicago—“I actually didn’t even finish college, which is, really... that’s like committing a federal crime in the Indian community. It’s really taboo. I can’t do school”—and he knew he wanted to be a writer, but he didn’t have an agent or any publications to his name.
“I was kind of lost in life,” Patel says. “I had all this ambition, especially growing up in the type of family that I was in, and being in this community of South Asians, where like, literally, everyone is a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer. And I knew that I had to do something.”
The move to L.A. was pivotal and allowed him to see the Midwest “through a different lens, and examine my own experience there.” He began writing and publishing short stories, often featuring first-generation Indian Americans. “I had certain things to say about the Indian community and about my experience,” he says.
“When I had, I think at the time, 10 stories, I was like, ‘Okay, I think I have a book,’ ” he says. “And I actually picked the best time to go out to agents—it was two days after Trump won the election. I was like, ‘I think we probably need these stories.’ ” He was right; within a month he had an agent. His 2018 short story collection, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, was longlisted for the Story Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and was a best of the summer pick from Book Riot, the Guardian, Vanity Fair, and the Wall Street Journal.
Patel dug even deeper into his own life for Tell Me How to Be, which he describes as “literally like a piece of me” in that “the essence of it is so me that I think this is the closest to me that I will ever put out in a book form.” Though the first draft didn’t include Renu—“It was just Akash, and it was a totally different story, and it was terrible”—once he found her, he knew something had clicked. “I just had that mother’s voice in me, and was literally three lines in when she talks about Susan Lucci. Then she talks about slapping people and throwing wine, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m onto something here.’ ”
Renu, like Patel’s own mother, is Indian by way of East Africa. “I was very inspired by my mom,” he says. “Because my mom and a lot of immigrant women—and specifically South Asian immigrant women—essentially are leading lives that they didn’t really choose for themselves. I don’t think my mom thought, ‘Oh, I want to leave everyone I know behind and go to a country I’ve never even seen’—she had never been to America, which I can’t imagine. And then to be with a man that I think she’d only met a couple of times. What does that look like years later?”
Patel has some similarities to Akash, as well. “In my school there might have been like two other Indian kids,” he says. “So it was that kind of intersection of being queer, but also being brown and from another place. Now, I look at people and think, ‘Wow, people go to prom with their same-sex partner or friend.’ We just never would have been able to do that.”
It’s also no accident that Akash is a songwriter. Music is a universal language, a bridge to the outside world, Patel says. “I had my very different private life at home, where another language was spoken, we ate different food. And then you go to school, and you’re in a totally foreign space. But I remember people talking about certain music videos or songs that came out that I also loved, and being able to participate in those conversations. For that period in time, we’re all kind of the same. We’re all connected by that.”
Patel is now at work on a third book, alternating between novel and TV writing. His Audible short story, “Townie,” came out earlier this year, and he has a film, titled Doing It—about a 25-year-old South Asian woman who’s a virgin and, through a mix-up, gets a job teaching sex ed—in development with YouTuber Lilly Singh attached. He’s excited about all of it, and so are his parents.
“At first it was hard, because they don’t know anyone who does this,” he says. “But once they started to see all the potential, and other South Asians—people like Hasan Minhaj and Lilly Singh—do this, it’s not such a mystery anymore to them. It feels possible.” ■
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novels That’s Debatable and Unclaimed Baggage (both from FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).