Interview: Maulik Pancholy, author, Nikhil Out Loud - Hindustan Times
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Interview: Maulik Pancholy, author, Nikhil Out Loud

May 17, 2023 02:41 PM IST

On the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, the actor-activist talks about his experience as an openly gay Indian-American boy

What gave you the courage to write Nikhil Out Loud at a time when books with LGBTQIA+ characters are facing a backlash from parents in several parts of the US?

Author Maulik Pancholy(Courtesy: The Author) PREMIUM
Author Maulik Pancholy(Courtesy: The Author)

I actually started writing Nikhil Out Loud in the summer of 2020, before the coordinated attacks and bans we’re now seeing on diverse books. When I was on book tour for my debut novel, The Best at It, I visited a middle school in Ohio with 700 kids in the audience. I shared with them some of the struggles that I faced in middle school, and some of the things that Rahul — the lead character in The Best at It — is going through. The kids were incredibly responsive. In fact, many of them raised their hands wanting to talk about ways in which they felt different. The energy was truly incredible. But a few days later, a group of parents got angry that an openly gay author had come to speak with their children. They shut down the existing policies on school assemblies and a lot of ugly, false things were said about me and my visit on the internet. The kids at that school started reaching out to me on social media, asking what they could do to make things better. That’s why I wrote Nikhil Out Loud. To show kids that they have a voice and there are so many ways to stand up for what you believe in.

Nikhil is quite comfortable with his identity as a gay person, and that becomes a source of inspiration for Mateo who struggles to come out to his parents. Were you like Nikhil as a child, or did you acquire confidence only after you became a public figure?

It took me much longer to be comfortable in my own identity, and it was an ongoing process. I think that’s true for so many LGBTQIA+ folks. First, there was the process of coming out to family and friends; then, in my work life, and then in the public eye. This meant that there were so many years — especially as a teenager — of anxiety, fear, trying to be someone I was not. It’s why, in my writing, I try to give my characters the language I wish I’d had at that age, and to let kids know that they are perfect just the way they are. It was so much fun to write the arc of this really sweet relationship between Nikhil and Mateo, and I hope it offers representation to other kids.

Nikhil Out Loud; 320pp, ₹1220 (HarperCollins)
Nikhil Out Loud; 320pp, ₹1220 (HarperCollins)

Apart from being gay, 13-year-old Nikhil Shah is an American of Indian heritage. He is raised by a single mother, and has Gujarati-speaking grandparents. How often do American children encounter such characters in the books they read? What kind of feedback have you received from them during your book tours and school visits?

Diversity in books is certainly growing in the US but there’s still so much work to be done. And it’s interesting that as diverse books grow, the backlash against them grows, too. There’s a faction of people in this country who want to continue to erase the existence of our stories. But here’s what I’ve found: the kids I interact with are hungry for books with characters of all backgrounds. And they don’t have nearly enough of them. I hear from kids of colour all the time about how much it means to see a character who looks like them in a book. Or from queer kids about how much they need a book like mine. I hear it from librarians who talk about kids asking them for specific books. I hear from teachers about the amazing discussions they have in their classrooms — including, in the case of this book, about Gujarati culture! You know, I also wanted to specify Nikhil’s heritage, because I think it’s important that his story is his story. It’s not every Indian or Indian-American story. We’re not a monolith. Nikhil is a kid. Who is also gay. And Indian-American. And a voice actor. And the kid of a single mom. He’s many things.

What made you create a fresh character instead of a sequel to your novel The Best at It, which revolves around Rahul Kapoor, another gay Indian- American protagonist? What do you tell readers who are curious about what happens to Rahul after the book ends?

Kids always ask about what happens to Rahul after The Best at It ends! I’ve been developing that book for television, so I’m always curious to hear what they’d like to see. And believe me, they have great ideas. I’ve also been gifted some awesome fan art depicting the characters in high school, which I love. The television development process takes a while, but I’m hoping that kids will get to one day watch Rahul and his friends on screen. For me, I think I just wanted to tackle new characters in my second book and tell a different story. In The Best at It, so much of Rahul’s struggle is internal. But I know a lot of kids face challenges in their own families and at school, and I wanted to write about that, too. I was also really interested in a multi-generational story of what makes change possible. In Nikhil Out Loud, both Nikhil and his mom are finding their way in challenging the generations before them.

While Nikhil is not embarrassed about being gay, he wants to hide the fact that his voice is cracking. As a voice actor for an animated series, he is quite anxious because of this. What sort of personal experiences did you draw on while trying to get into his shoes?

As you know I’ve done a lot of voice acting on shows like Phineas and Ferb, Sanjay and Craig, Mira Royal Detective, and others. I recorded the audiobook for Nikhil Out Loud, and there is a section where Nikhil describes what he loves about being in the sound booth. So, there I was in a sound booth, speaking in Nikhil’s voice about what it’s like to be in a sound booth. It was totally meta! So, I definitely drew on a lot of my own experience there. I started doing voice overs as an adult, so I never had to worry about my voice changing in the middle of a job. But it’s a pretty common occurrence with child voice actors. And, dramatically, for the book, it puts an added pressure on Nikhil to no longer be able to hide behind his character. He has to learn to use his own voice to speak up.

Apart from Nikhil and Mateo, there are others who do not embody a macho and patriarchal masculinity. This has nothing to do with being gay or straight. I am thinking about Kyle who works for the school paper, Principal Dawson, Mr Cooper, Josh, Anton and De Sean. Did you want to show that masculinity can be non-threatening and kind?

First of all, I am so happy you mentioned Kyle from the newspaper! He’s a pretty minor character — who serves an unintentionally big purpose — and I wanted to make him very specific. I am glad he made an impression. This is such an interesting question because Nikhil’s father is absent and his relationship with his Nana is challenging at first. In consulting with speech pathologists, I repeatedly heard that when a boy’s voice changes, it is inextricably tied to the emotional transition from childhood to early adulthood. For a lot of boys, that’s a time when they question what “masculinity” means. And so, yes, I think I wanted to offer up something that challenges antiquated ideas around that.

Nikhil’s maternal grandfather, Nana, starts off as a homophobic character but has a change of heart later. What makes him re-examine his views unlike Constance Shaffer, the parent who wants Nikhil removed from the school musical for being gay?

I think Nikhil’s nana is fearful of what others will think if he lets go of a traditional value system. He grew up a certain way, and he doesn’t want to be challenged around that. But, despite not always knowing how to show up for his family, he also loves them in his own way. When he sees Nikhil being attacked by others, he’s forced to reexamine his own views. So, you have this older man who has already lost a good amount of time with his own daughter realizing that if he doesn’t change, the pattern will keep repeating and he may not get to know his grandson, either.

The book has several charming scenes with Nikhil and Anton talking excitedly about space, aliens and UFOs. Tell us about the research that went into writing these.

Well, I was born in Ohio, and I would go back and visit family there a lot as a kid. And one of the things we would do is tour the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. All the rumors about bodies of aliens and parts of UFOs being stored there were part of the lore of my childhood, and Ohio really does have the highest number of crop circle formations in the country. To be honest, I’d sort of forgotten about that, but when I told a friend that Nikhil is in Ohio and plays a cartoon character who solves crimes in outer space, he was like, “are you going to write about the aliens at Wright Patterson?” And it led me on an internet search, making phone calls to the Air Force Base, and digging into some of my own childhood memories. It was a lot of fun. The fact that it so perfectly fits in with Nikhil’s journey was honestly a very, very happy coincidence!

DeSean, who is raised by two lesbian mothers – one Black, and the other white – is a talented singer, dependable friend and memorable character. Why does he get such little space in the book?

This is always so hard about supporting characters. I wish I could have given all of Nikhil’s friends, and certainly DeSean, more in the book. From draft to draft, they each grew more interesting and complex to me. In the end, Nikhil is dealing with a lot in this book. To keep the story focused, I just had to make choices. But I love that DeSean has such a strong finish in the book – it’s emotional for me when I read it, and I hope it is for other readers, too.

Tell us about the thought process that went into writing the amazing women characters who are strong pillars of support for Nikhil – his mother, grandmother, and Mrs Reed. Were you celebrating some of the women who have nurtured you and stood by you?

I have had such incredible female role models in my life. My mom, my sister, my grandmothers, my aunts and cousins, and even — like Mrs Reed — my middle school drama teacher. This was 100% an opportunity to celebrate them. I dedicated Nikhil Out Loud to my mother because she is truly a trailblazer. She has taught me so many things, but specifically courage. I have seen her carve her own path and pave the way for others. She has inspired me to do the same.

The release of the Indian edition of Nikhil Out Loud coincides with the marriage equality hearings in India’s Supreme Court. How do you feel about the timing? What kind of conversations are you hearing among Americans of Indian heritage, especially as two of the gay petitioners – Vaibhav Mehta and Parag Jain – live in the US?

Parag and Vaibhav are good friends, a beautiful couple, and now amazing fathers. I’m so grateful for their tireless advocacy. Like all of us, I’m waiting with bated breath for the decision and hoping that this Court will land on the right side of history. When gay marriage passed federally in the United States, it was a profound moment for me. I’m in a 19-year relationship and nine-year marriage. Our love deserves to be recognized, and we deserve the same benefits as any other married couple. I wish the same for everyone in India who simply wants equality. I believe in the power of art to bridge divides. And I hope my books inspire the next generation to embrace each other as equals. I hope that they’ll look at the debates we’re having now and wonder why on earth equal rights were ever in question.

What are some of the other projects that you are working on right now?

I have some ideas for the next novel percolating, and as an actor I have some film projects in the works. I’m also continuing to advocate for young people through my anti-bullying nonprofit, ActToChange.org. And I’m currently creating, producing and co-writing a scripted, fiction podcast. It’s a 10-episode murder mystery set at a Patel Motel. I’m incredibly excited for people to get to listen to it very, very soon!

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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